'Jane and I are incredibly happy together... we have no intention of spoiling it by getting married'
TV presenter Chris Tarrant found joy exploring railways across the world, but despairs when travelling by train here. He tells Gabrielle Fagan about life following his stroke, and what he really thinks about television today
Chris Tarrant's circled the globe exploring railways for his TV documentary series, Extreme Railways, but his verdict on our own rail system is damning. "It's really depressing coming home after having travelled six times around the world in three and a half years filming rail systems, to find that of all the railways I've been to, it's ours which doesn't work," the 70-year-old presenter says sadly.
"It's such a shame after all our achievements in building them in almost every country across the world, that here it's sort of ground to a halt."
He's particularly exasperated because his new Channel Five series, The Railways That Built Britain With Chris Tarrant celebrates a "proud history of rail inventions and developments which transformed our country... yet nowadays my mates affected by Southern Rail problems rant all the time about the chaos, and don't get me started about the annual disruption caused by leaves on the line.
"By contrast, we filmed in Austria and Canada, where they deal with snow, fallen trees and boulders on tracks, and everything still runs smoothly 365 days of the year."
Tarrant, who first found fame in the Seventies hosting ITV children's show, Tiswas and presented game show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? from 1998 to 2014, suffered rail disruption first hand last year after returning from filming a third series of Extreme Railways.
"I'd come from Japan, where every single train, from a bullet train to one on an insignificant country line, runs on time to the minute, and the first train I take to Manchester is delayed by 90 minutes," he sighs.
"Probably the British don't kick up enough about it, we're pretty tolerant generally, because the only reaction I heard from fellow passengers was, 'Only an hour and a half late - that's not too bad'. Truly, you couldn't make it up."
The Berkshire-born presenter, whose passion for railways began at age six, took a break in September from his globe-trotting to delve into our railway history.
"I realised I knew lots about railways in the Congo, Japan and Namibia, but nothing about railways in this country. It's a hell of a story which gripped me," he enthuses.
"A saying, 'Railways look into the soul of the country you visit', sums up why I'm passionate about them. They're literally a window onto the way people live, which you can experience by being nosy, gazing into people's windows on a journey to somewhere like Cornwall, or pulling into London or farther afield, glimpsing the harsh, challenging living conditions in villages lining tracks in places like Russia or Burma."
Three years ago, he faced his own personal challenge after he suffered a stroke while travelling from Bangkok to London following filming. After collapsing at Heathrow, he was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery to remove a blood clot and spent months regaining total control of his speech and movement.
"I'm very pleased to be here because I had a big old scare. Even now I panic if I get a headache [a sudden severe headache with no known cause can be a warning sign of a stroke]. I think, 'Aargh, what's happening to my brain?'" he admits.
"The whole traumatic, shattering experience changed my outlook completely. Nowadays I believe in living for the day and am conscious of not wasting time. I no longer drink whisky, I exercise, take my medication and deliberately don't work as hard as before. I regularly make time to go away with my kids or to go fishing. Thankfully, doctors have told me as long as I don't backslide and start doing stupid things, then I should never have another stroke."
Tarrant, who supports the Stroke Association, and hosted it's awards ceremony last year, says: "I know how lucky I was not just to come through it, but to completely recover. I was so terrified when I first got to hospital that although I hadn't slept for 36 hours, I refused to shut my eyes because I thought I wouldn't wake up again. If you've had a stroke you quite often have a second much worse one and I was determined to be able to alert the nurses if I did."
Tarrant lives in the Duchess of Cambridge's home village of Bucklebury, with his partner of 10 years, Jane Bird, (53), and has six children from his two marriages.
"Jane's been wonderful - constantly reassuring me throughout those first months by saying, 'You'll be fine, you're a tough old bugger.' I definitely wasn't an easy patient," he says with a smile.
"Luckily, I'm mentally very tough. In the past, I used that and work to help me get through hard times. When I was going through a very public divorce [from his second wife Ingrid] with press attention every minute of the day for months, I found going to work to host Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was a wonderful distraction. I could think, 'No one can touch me here, this is my world', and it allowed me to forget about everything outside, just for a while."
Nowadays, he's as disappointed with television as he is with UK railways. "I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man, but TV's declined hugely over the last 10 years," he declares.
"When the winner of I'm A Celebrity... isn't even a celebrity, but someone who just watches TV for a living [Scarlett Moffatt from Gogglebox won in 2016] and Britain's Got Talent's won by dogs twice, frankly you think the world's gone mad. I mean, God bless Ant and Dec because there aren't many other people of their stature around."
He has no such grumbles about his own life. "There were periods in my life when I couldn't imagine this happiness, but now I'm in a very good place. I don't need to work for the money, but want to do enough just to keep me mentally ticking over. I have my lady - we're incredibly happy together and have no plans to spoil that by marrying - and my army of wonderful kids. I can't ask for more."
- The Railways That Built Britain With Chris Tarrant airs on Channel 5 on Mondays at 9pm. Visit www.channel5.com