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Jeremy Clarkson on Hosting New ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ and Knowing When to ‘Shut Up’

As “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” returns to British screens for an anniversary run, Sony has struck new deals for the quiz classic, and new host Jeremy Clarkson says he could sign up for a longer stint as quiz master should ITV want more of the show – but joked that would only happen if the producers move the shoot to London from Manchester, in northern England.

Clarkson, of “Top Gear” and “The Grand Tour” fame, spoke to Variety from the revamped “Millionaire” set in Manchester. The outspoken presenter said that hosting the classic game show was “staggeringly technical” and that a key part of the job is learning when not to talk.

“It really is extraordinarily difficult to get your head around the endless visual stings and sound effects, which people are completely used to, but what I didn’t realize is how much I can’t talk over them,” he said. “Normally I rabbit away, but here you have to shut up for large periods of time. That’s the sticky bit.”

Clarkson, who is shooting “Millionaire” between his production obligations on the latest season of Amazon’s “The Grand Tour,” said his other commitments would make becoming a long-term host of the show a challenge, but it could be done. “You can’t really speculate on whether I’d even be asked, but if it didn’t take up too much time, you could probably squeeze in and do quite a few [episodes] while I was also doing my six other jobs,” he said.

Sony Pictures Television’s Stellify is making the show for ITV, which originally broadcast it for 15 years, starting in September 1998. The new special episodes begin airing Saturday and will then be shown at 9 p.m. through the week.

SPT sells the format internationally. Wayne Garvie, president of international production, said he was thinking of ways to get “Millionaire” back on British TV and went to Clarkson’s house to ask him to front it and got an immediate yes (“I wasn’t really listening, I never thought it would actually happen,” Clarkson recalled).

“Millionaire” is in syndication in the U.S. and remains on air in many territories. RTL’s Germany version is the longest-running, at 18 years straight. It has recently returned in Finland, Belgium, Poland, and Hong Kong. SPT has just cut fresh deals including with TV3 in Ireland, which will simulcast the ITV version, and Kanal D in Romania, which will bring back the show after running it for three seasons starting in 2011.

Garvie said the new British iteration would give “Millionaire” a new lease of life. “I’m hoping people will see someone like Clarkson do it and say, ‘That’s interesting casting. Can we think about casting it in a different way?’”

Tweaks to the tried-and-tested format include a new “ask the host” lifeline, and moving one of the “safety nets,” the threshold at which winnings are secure, to encourage risk-taking.

With new breakout formats in short supply, what does resurrecting an old format say about the state of the business? “We want to get more people to watch more free-to-air television,” Garvie said. “To do that, you want a mix of things people know well, be that [British soap opera] ‘Coronation Street’ or a revamped ‘Millionaire.’ If you have a schedule with those strong building blocks, you can then take the risks on new things.”

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