I see Who Wants to be a Millionaire is back on the TV. Leaving aside the obvious appeal of winning a million, the most interesting aspect of this show, making it subtly different from a straight general knowledge quiz, is the ability to play lifelines - 50:50 (dropping two wrong answers), ask the audience and phone a friend. That third option particularly causes some interest. What's going on at the other end of the line? Is that person locked in a room away from the internet to avoid cheating?
I can reveal all - I have been a phone-a-friend.
I have to admit it's a stressful thing to do, in some ways more stressful than appearing on the show itself. You receive a call from the studios telling you that your friend is going into the chair. You are asked not to use anything to look things up - but that's as far as the security goes. In practice, I was seated in front of a computer because I was using the phone in my office, but I had no intention of using it. And you are asked to sound surprised when Chris Tarrant calls. A bit hokey, that bit, but hey.
You are then asked to wait for a call. If the phone rings, to leave it for a set number of rings before answering. And the waiting begins. It really was one of the most tense 20 minutes of my life. Eventually, the phone rang. I left it the requisite number of rings. 'Here we go,' I thought. But instead of Chris Tarrant's voice, it was the producer. 'It's okay, they've finished,' he said. 'You can stand down.'
It was, perhaps, strangest of all to watch Celebrity Who Wants to be a Millionaire about six weeks later and see the period of time I was hanging on the phone. They did phone a friend - but not me. It wasn't a science question, which I suspect I was being held for. The sad thing is, the person they rang didn't know the right answer (it was about the meaning of palindrome) and I did. But such is life.