'I was very close to my dad ... but I had no idea how brave he had been in the war'
Television presenter Chris Tarrant has been on a harrowing personal journey recently, including a mini-stroke and discovering his late father's past as a war hero. Hannah Stephenson delves into the star's fascinating family history
Looking trim and tanned and not at all like he had a mini-stroke two months ago, Chris Tarrant greets me wearing a suit that he confesses he hasn't worn since he first presented Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in 1998.
"I've lost a stone-and-a-half," the 67-year-old former Tiswas star says chirpily, thumbing the waistband of his trousers to show how much room there is in there now.
Only when we sit down to talk and he's on a roll does it become evident that his recovery is still very much in progress.
He's not slurring but the voice is not quite right, the intonation slightly out of kilter, which is being improved all the time with speech therapy, he reveals.
He's also having physiotherapy to improve the movement in his right arm and leg which were affected by the stroke.
We're meeting to discuss his book, Dad's War, being published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
It charts the story of his infantry Major father Basil's part in the Second World War; during his research, Tarrant discovered that he was involved in some of the most significant campaigns, including the Dunkirk evacuation and the D-Day landings.
He received the Military Cross for exemplary bravery and was also proposed for a second Military Cross which was never acknowledged, although Tarrant is hoping that his book will change that.
Stories and anecdotes of his father's great leadership skills, popularity among his regiment and the brutal fighting and seemingly impossible situations he and his men negotiated in treacherous conditions make it a compelling read.
Yet, Basil never talked about the war. Chris tracked down five former soldiers who fought alongside his war hero father to find out more from them, while working on the book.
Basil had later joined a society of ex-soldiers, kindred spirits who all had their own experiences of battle.
That was to be his therapy, Tarrant reflects, rather than relating his tales to his family, who hadn't been on the front line.
"You wouldn't understand what it was like on D-Day, or going on any of those beaches and one of your mates having his head blown off, another sitting there with his guts hanging out," he says.
"You can't go, 'What was that really like, Basil?' The soldiers should have had counsellors, but that generation just shut off."
His father died in 2005 aged 85, and Tarrant now realises how lucky he is to be here to promote the book and his father's heroism at all, following his own recent health scare in March.
The presenter was on a flight home from Thailand, where he had been filming the second series of his Extreme Railways documentaries, when his right arm and leg began to feel numb.
"I'd been working ridiculously long hours. I thought it was cramp. I got on the plane, flew for about an hour and then my arm and leg went rigid. That happened every hour for about 20 minutes all the way home. It was like being paralysed.
"People have said, 'Why didn't you tell someone?' Well they were all Thai, didn't speak English and I'm not sure what they could have done.
What were they going to do? Land in Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan or somewhere? I just wanted to get home.
He tried ringing his long-term girlfriend, Jane Bird, from a satellite phone on the plane to tell her of his distress, but couldn't get through.
When the plane came in to land, the symptoms subsided and he walked off with his hand luggage, thinking he'd get a check-up with his doctor later. "Then getting out of the plane I felt weird, and as I started the long walk through passport control it got harder and harder. I wasn't thinking clearly. Then I keeled over, although I didn't lose consciousness."
He was taken to Charing Cross Hospital in London, where doctors operated, removing a blood clot from his leg. "I remember being quite excited being in an ambulance. It was like Casualty. The ambulance was shooting past everything with the bell going.
"I was lying there with my arm and leg not working, thinking, 'This is quite cool!' It was probably the only moment of light relief."
The former Capital Radio DJ who has six children, including two stepchildren, was in hospital for two weeks before returning home to his mansion in Bucklebury, Berkshire, where his convalescence has continued.
While he's always had a strong work ethic, inherited from his father, Chris has cleared his diary for a few months to allow himself time to recover fully and has changed his lifestyle, he says, cutting out his favourite tipple, whisky, and eating more sensibly.
He's been doing a bit of fishing, he explains. "I can cast – this bit works (pointing to his casting arm), but I can't bat, because you're using different muscles.
"So I can fish but I can't play cricket yet. I can stand up and walk around. Mates of mine who I've known for years say, 'I had a stroke, you know, when I was 51'. And they've recovered completely.
"I think I'll have to have physio for another month and I'm still having speech therapy once a week, where I pull all these funny faces to strengthen the muscles.
"You also get this weird tiredness, quite quickly, even if you haven't done a fat lot. Apparently, that is a regular symptom because the brain has had such a battering. I don't have naps like a little old gentleman but I do sometimes switch off and sit down; 10 minutes later I'm all right again." He was planning to go to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6, but he won't be going now, he says, fearing there will be too many politicians – both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin are reported to be attending – and their security people on the beaches, and that many of the soldiers won't be able to get close to where they once fought.
But on the day he will no doubt be thinking of his beloved father and all that he did for his country.
"Although I was very close to him, there was often a sense of, 'Why didn't you tell me?' Now, I feel it acutely," Tarrant says.
"I want to ask him so many more questions. I didn't have a clue how brave he was."
Dad's War by Chris Tarrant is published by Virgin Books (£16.99)
Ups and downs of Tarrant on TV
- Chris Tarrant started hosting Saturday morning show Tiswas in 1974 and went on briefly to host breakfast TV show TV-AM
- In 1971, Chris met and married first wife, Sheila. They had two daughters and divorced in 1982
- His radio career began in 1984, when he joined Capital Radio as a presenter, moving to their breakfast show in 1987, which he presented until he left the station in 2004, winning a gold Sony Award in the process
- In 1999, he was involved in a scandal when he was featured in revealing photos of Sophie Rhys-Jones shortly before her marriage to Prince Edward
- Tarrant had, by that stage, begun presenting TV quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? He soon became a household name
- The show was viewed by 19 million viewers at its peak and has been aired in more than 100 countries
- In 2006, Tarrant's second wife, Ingrid, filed for divorce after hiring a private detective to uncover an affair between Tarrant and schoolteacher Fiona McKechnie
- In 2013, the last three shows of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? were filmed, featuring celebrity contestants
- Tarrant has presented popular series on fishing and railways, and other shows including It's Not What You Know and The Colour of Money
- Tarrant is currently in a relationship with legal secretary Jane Bird, but has stressed in interviews with the media that he will not get married again