How Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Paved the Way for Peaky Blinders

The success of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, co-devised by Steven Knight, kick-started a new stage in the Peaky Blinders creator’s career.

Peaky Blinders Tommy Horse season one Cillian Murphy
Photo: BBC

In the first episode of 90s-set ITV drama Quiz, a group of men are devising a game show. Provisionally titled Cash Mountain, it involves players doubling their money with each correct answer on their way to the summit. Concerned that the concept’s too old-fashioned, a Birmingham accent comically suggests, “We could set it on an actual mountain. Like, a little one? Wales?”

Cash Mountain didn’t go down the Welsh Outward Bound route but stuck to its questions-and-cash simplicity to become global smash hit Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? That Brummie voice belonged to Steve Knight (played in Quiz by Keir Charles). He was one of the three creators credited with devising the quiz show that was later struck by the “Coughing Major” cheating scandal so brilliantly dramatised in James Graham’s play and TV adaptation.

In the nineties, Knight and his writing partner Mike Whitehill worked at TV production company Celador. After starting out copywriting ads for Capital radio and creating daytime TV game show formats, Knight had teamed up with Whitehill to write comedy. The pair wrote for Ken Dodd, Jasper Carrott, Frankie Howerd and TV bloopers shows, as well as co-creating police spoof The Detectives starring Carrott and Robert Powell.

In 1997, Knight and Whitehill worked with producer David Briggs and Celador’s Paul Smith on Briggs’ concept for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Speaking to Jim Waterson on BBC Sounds’ The Media Show in 2019, Knight explains, “The original idea was you could win an unlimited amount of money, you could just go on forever, but the questions would become increasingly impossible so you’d reach a point where… But no-one would insure that just in case so we had to think of a limit, so we thought, well, a million, why not?”

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That format became an enormous hit for ITV and around the world. “It just went mad,” Knight recalls, remembering a headline in the American press calling the quiz “The Show that Saved the Mouse” on account of its Stateside success for Disney’s then-beleaguered ABC.  

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s huge popularity led to it airing in 120 countries and being translated to 80 languages. That obviously made it profitable for its creators. Asked on The Media Show about his earnings, Knight said he has no complaints about his financial compensation. “It liberated me to be able to write stuff that I wanted to write.” That included Knight’s second feature screenplay Dirty Pretty Things, about two irregular immigrants in London who become entangled in a murder. The film was directed by Stephen Frears, starred Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou, and earned Knight an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

The film and its Oscar nomination “kick-started a completely different part of my career,” Knight (now credited as Steven, not Steve) tells The Media Show. He became a Hollywood screenwriter, writing a series of feature films including the David Cronenberg-directed Eastern Promises, the award-winning Locke starring Tom Hardy (which Knight also directed), and many more.

One of the projects Knight now felt liberated to write was a period drama drawn from childhood memories of the stories he’d heard from his family in Small Heath, Birmingham. Knight was sick of the English working classes being portrayed on screen as pitiful and wan, he wanted to – as he told Den of Geek – “do legends” and mythologise those people in the same way that US Western films mythologised cowboys.

In 2014, Peaky Blinders made its BBC Two weeknight debut to much bafflement over the name, and growing excitement from what would become a worldwide army of devoted fans. It’s soon to air its final series on BBC One in the prestige drama Sunday night slot, and later, on Netflix around the world – a show that might never have existed without the financial freedom provided by Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Peaky Blinders series six starts on BBC One and iPlayer on Sunday the 27th of February at 9pm.

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