AFTER four decades in a job that’s already earned you a few million Euros and from which you’re about to make an estimated E50 million fortune, you’d be forgiven for never wanting to see the inside of an office again.
Not so Paul Smith, the Irish-born 59-year-old former Euro 6-an-hour projectionist whose hit show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was put up for sale this week and whose phenomenally successful TV company Celador Productions will also be sold.
Just six years shy of retirement and bristling with understandable urges to swan off to a well-earned stay in the sun-soaked south of France, the man whose string of hit TV programmes have been watched in one form or another by an estimated one billion viewers worldwide now wants to add two more plaudits to his name – successful film producer and theatre impresario.
As well as planning to invest his indefatigable energies into a string of big budget movies to follow on from Celador Films’ Oscar-nominated Dirty Pretty Things and new radio ventures in the UK, his eyes are set on producing one of “the lost treasures of Broadway” – the singularly-doomed Jerry Herman musical Mack and Mabel.
Based around the relationship between silent era film director Mack Sennett and his favourite star Mabel Normand, it has somehow proved – as if jinxed – to be one of the all-time flops in stage history regardless of who attempts to produce it.
But if Smith has his way, it’ll open in a few years time to rave previews at the same venue where he started as a projectionist.
This is, after all, the man who put up with two years of constant rejection from UK TV companies who refused to have anything whatsoever to do with what is now one of the most successful TV shows ever – Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
This is also the man who endured the giggles and sniggers from schoolmates when he told them he wanted “a career in TV”.
Speaking from his plush central London offices in a tall, thin Covent Garden town house, he said: “There’s a lot more to what I’ve done over the past forty years in TV than Millionaire.
“But there is still more that I want to do with my life. I would absolutely love to put on a production of Mack and Mabel in Belfast.
“It has never really been produced properly before and as a result, has never done any great things in the box office.
“But I am determined that with the right kind of production behind it, it can achieve the success it should have.”
Smith, who is a trustee of the charity Co-operation Ireland, will no doubt learn from his experience of bidding unsuccessfully for a radio licence in his native Belfast in 2004.
He said: “Sadly, I think I was far too passionate for my own good. It was a two-horse race but I wanted to get it for probably too many personal reasons for my own business good.
“I really, really wanted to bring something back to Belfast.”
Such an admission is as much of a tell-tale mark of his character than anything else. A few years ago, he had the chance to turn into film the whole Coughing Major episode of Millionaire. Major Charles Ingram, wife Diana and college lecturer Tecwen Whittock were convicted in April 2003 for defrauding the show by using a coughing code to prompt Ingram towards the right answers.
Although the incident featured in a 2003 Celador documentary Millionaire: A Major Fraud – which was another ratings success for ITV1 with 15 million viewers – award-winning TV writer Russell T Davies was due to write the script.
But Smith scrapped the project after he found out how upset the children had become about what their father had done.
He said: “It would have made a good film but it just wasn’t worth dragging them through this all over again.”
Although he has a long list of hit TV credits to his name, his best known TV production has been Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? But for all its impact on his own fortunes, getting it onto TV was no mean feat. It took him more than two years to get anybody to agree to back it.
He said: “At first and for a very long time, nobody would touch it. I was prepared to enter into any association whatsoever to get this programme made but everybody – and I mean everybody – just turned me down.
“I offered it to Channel 4, Channel 5, ITV – they all rejected me. Even when I’d managed to finally convince ITV to take it, various people there still got cold feet about it.”
Rejection letters from his time hawking the show around London’s notoriously fickle TV land will soon be added to the great collection of memorabilia he keeps in the attic of the sprawling eight-bedroom E2 million Georgian manor house he has lived in for the past 20 years with wife Sarah.
In among the boxes is his collection of signed photographs from the early stars of UTV who he wrote to as a child. For as long as he can remember, he says he has always been fascinated about light entertainment.
And while his childhood peers were busy building tree forts, he built TV studios in his bedroom using his toy soldiers as cast and crew to all manner of imaginary production scenarios rolling around his little head.
He said: “I built three studios out of balsa wood and used my soldiers, although they had their guns removed.
“There was a small news and current affairs studio, another with a huge orchestra in and then there was a continuity studio.
“I was just fascinated by the whole process of TV, even though I knew very little about it.”
But it was a passion that did little to enhance his prospects – at the time – of winning the Pupil Most Likely To Succeed Award at school. Far from it.
He said: “I remember being in maths class one day near the end of sixth form and the teacher went round the class asking us all what we wanted to do.
“All sorts of careers tripped off people’s tongues like lawyer, politician, fireman, soldier and then he came to me.
“‘What about you Smith?’ he barked. When I said I wanted to work in TV, boys just started laughing and I could hear the sniggering around me.
“The teacher himself just shrugged and said there wasn’t anything he could say to me. He was completely dismissive. I think he thought I was a complete no hoper.”
His passion for television convinced him not to bother going to university once he left school.
Instead he took a E6-a-week – or “three pounds, seven and six” to be precise – job as a projectionist at Belfast’s Grand Opera House. At the time, he was also a drummer with the Belfast band The Corsairs.
A few months into the job, he spotted an advert in the Radio Times for a trainee projectionist with the BBC, applied and got it. He effectively started on the “lowest form of ladder rungs” at the age of 19, leaving Belfast for the famous Elstree Studios in the UK.
His flair and passion soon caught the eye of various directors who let him cut his directorial teeth with overseeing the first ever Saturday morning children’s TV show – the Birmingham-made Zokko. In 1973, he left the BBC and went to work for independent TV companies.
He created It’ll Be Alright on the Night, which has since become ITV’s longest-running entertainment programme and which he brought to America in the form of TV’s Censored Bloopers for NBC.
While at London Weekend Television – where he met his wife Sarah – he was assigned the job of “checking out” a then little-known comedian called Jasper Carrott.
Smith recalls: “I’d heard him one day standing in for Kenny Everett on the radio and decided he was possibly the worst comedian I’d ever heard in my life.
“He was deeply unfunny and I was cursing all the way to Birmingham as I drove up to see him but I ended up practically ill on the floor with laughter for the two hours he spoke.
“I raced back to London and told my boss Michael Grade that he had to sign him up as fast as possible and we have been firm friends ever since.”
The result of their association was the An Audience With Jasper Carrott, which he produced and directed. Other shows include the award-winning Peter Cook and Company.
In the Eighties, he set up Celador Productions under the banner of Complete Communications.
As well as Millionaire, its string of TV hits include ITV1’s Talking Telephone Numbers, Auntie’s Bloomers for BBC1 and The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna for ITV1.
A recent hit for Celador has turned out to be Channel Four’s You Are What You Eat and RTE’s animated classic Roobard & Custard. It’s his singular belief in a whole range of TV projects that has been the hallmark of his career.
And while this has paid off in audience ratings – Millionaire was watched at one time by 19 million people in the UK alone – it is about to pay off in another way too.
According to Sunday Times Rich List compiler Philip Beresford – not a man on Smith’s Christmas Card list, such is his reluctance to talk about money – he stands to earn up to E51 million from the sale of Millionaire and Celador.
Top of his shopping list once the sale goes through – any time in the next three or so months – is a 25 metre cruiser. He won’t be drawn on cost or make, but laughs: “Some of my friends would say it’s just going to be a glorified gin palace.
“But I have always had a love affair with boats. I feel incredibly at home on them and love the sense of intimacy one can feel while on them, especially when you have your friends around you.”
Presumably he will also be able to indulge in his fascination for technology and gadgets.
His home has been described as Jane Austin on the outside and James Bond on in the inside. And with good reason. The settings for lighting, music, security, under-floor heating and television of each room is controlled by a keypad on the wall.
The blinds on the windows can pick up if the sun is too bright and will come down automatically and the state-of-the-art security system round the house can even tell the difference between a human footstep and the paw print of a stray sheep or cow.
And while the lights in the house have a wide range of settings – depending on the time of the year – even the settings have settings. At bedtime for example, there are two settings – ‘Night’, which plunges the entire house into darkness and ‘Night Guest’, which means unfamiliar parts of the house are gently lit up.
Smith said: “I do like my gadgets and I am pretty fascinated by what technology can do.
“The system I’ve had installed in my house is fairly advanced on a lot of levels. But apart from anything else, it does also have the added advantage of helping reduce the cost of running a big house.”
The house and grounds were once home to his parents, Bryce and Gerry – short for Marjory – who he encouraged to come from Belfast and live with him in the Eighties.
Smith – who gave them the run of a cottage on his grounds – said: “It was wonderful for us having them living with us. By having their own place, they had their own independence but it was great that all three generations of the family were effectively able to
He added: “I owed them so much and it was great to be able to give them something back in return. I know my father, who was a shop keeper, had had to struggle to make ends meet at times but he made sure we never did without.”
Gerry died in 1988, followed a year later by Bryce. He, Smith recalls with sadness, died of a “broken heart”. Along with Sarah, and his parents were also daughter Lucy, now 26, and sports wear designer son Sam, now 23.
Lucy works in London with Simon Fuller’s company 19 Management and until recently was part of singer Will Young’s management team. Smith says: “It was gas, a short while ago we had Will Young in the grounds of the house posing in some photo shoot.”
Perhaps he will also have more time now to enjoy another of his passions – a 12-seat version of the Odeon Leicester Square which he has had specially built at his house. Kitted out with the latest sound engineering and fitted by professional engineers more used to working on film sets, it is as much of a showcase of the very best in home entertainment as anything else.
He says: “A lot of people say they have a cinema in their home and it generally turns out to be little more than a room with a screen at one end and some form of projector at the other. Mine is the real deal. The lights dim and the curtains open automatically at the beginning of a screening.”
And as he settles into one of the cinema’s plush seats at his next screening, he can surely reflect on how his is not a bad life for a former E6-a-week projectionist.
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