Catchphrase host Stephen Mulhern was recently performing at a corporate gig when, to his surprise, he saw what appeared to be a wizard approaching the stage. ‘Whoever it was literally looked like Gandalf,’ he recalls.
‘Gandalf’ was on a mission too: pointing at Stephen, he told him they needed to come to a compromise.
‘At this point I was baffled about what was going on, but then he said, “Let me put it this way: deal or no deal?” He pulled off his mask and it was Noel Edmonds!’
Surreal? Certainly. But also lovely, for this was the 74-year-old veteran presenter’s way of formally handing on the cult quiz’s mantle to Stephen, anointing him as the new host of the then Channel 4 show which he fronted for 11 years until it was brought to a close in 2016.
In Noel’s Deal Or No Deal, one contestant each episode would have to choose one of 22 boxes, each containing an amount of money from 1p to £250,000. They would then have to eliminate the other 21 in turn and hope their own box, which remained unopened, contained the jackpot amount.
The twist was that the ruthless, unseen ‘Banker’ could phone Noel and offer to buy the contestant’s box off him for a named amount, based on the boxes that had already been opened.
This week the series returns on ITV – and fans will be thrilled to hear the new broadcasters haven’t meddled with the format. ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’ says Stephen.
‘It’s one of the best game shows ever,’ he says. ‘There’s a reason it’s sold to 80 different countries and I’m confident people will love it all over again. I’m already getting so many people asking me when exactly it’s coming back.’
Naturally, he’s thrilled that Noel – who was over in the UK for just three days from New Zealand, where he now lives – has gone out of his way to give him his blessing.
‘We hugged and he said some lovely things,’ Stephen recalls. ‘He said I deserved this job, and he hoped I had as much fun as he had.
‘He talked about how he did it for over a decade, and during that time he’d met his wife on the show because she was his make-up artist, and how he was very happy in New Zealand.
‘He runs a café and has a vineyard. He was so humble and gracious. He’s a hero and one of the best presenters we’ve had.’
The big question, of course, is whether the Deal Or No Deal reboot will see the unveiling of the perennially merciless Banker, a Machiavellian character who speaks to the show’s host from the hidden Banker’s Room.
After weeks of feverish speculation early in Noel’s run he was unmasked as the series’s executive producer Glenn Hugill, who’d previously found fame playing Detective Alan McKenna on Coronation Street in the 90s.
‘Everyone’s asking if I know who he is this time, but I really don’t,’ Stephen insists. ‘That’s deliberate because the banker’s ruthless, and if I knew them and we got too friendly it would change the dynamics.
‘We had a really big loss on one of the shows, and the guy was very upset. The Banker phoned – and don’t forget this guy’s just lost a lot of money – and said, “Tell him to grow up, it’s not a pity party.” He’s brutal.
‘The weird thing is I know he’s in the building. I could be walking past him without even knowing.’
Big losses, people being tempted into one last throw of the dice and risking it all – it sounds like there’ll be plenty of tugging on viewers’ heartstrings. ‘It’s a rollercoaster of emotions,’ says Stephen.
‘We had one occasion where there wasn’t a dry eye in the studio and another where the camera shows me welling up because it’s so sad. But also there’s the odd greedy person as well, so that’s another element to the show.’
He may not quite have reached Noel Edmonds’s level of celebrity yet, but over the years Stephen’s cheeky-chappy persona has quietly made him a force to be reckoned with in light entertainment.
He’s hosted everything from Catchphrase – now in its tenth year with Stephen at the helm – to BGT spin-off Britain’s Got More Talent, in which he had the unenviable job of talking to the many hundreds of acts who trotted on and off stage.
Then there’s the perennially popular Saturday Night Takeaway, which sees him teamed up with Ant and Dec – longstanding friends Stephen has known since their early days in children’s TV (he first met them while working as a teenage Redcoat at Butlin’s, where he had to introduce their teen Byker Grove characters PJ and Duncan to the assembled holidaymakers).
‘We have a lot of fun,’ he says. ‘People forget that we’ve known each other for decades. I don’t think any of us could say anything to each other that would offend us. There’s a trust there.’
Their unshakeable bond has been cemented by the fact that Stephen now lives not far from them in south-west London. ‘We can easily just pop round to each other’s places, which is great,’ he says.
MEGHAN THE BRIEFCASE HOTTIE
Deal Or No Deal, based on a Dutch format, became a cult teatime hit when it first aired on Channel 4 in 2005 and revived Noel Edmonds’ career.
It ran for 11 series, with nine contestants scooping the £250,000 jackpot and 52 walking away with just a penny.
The US version, which ran for four years from 2005 before a 2018 reboot, replaced the boxes with briefcases and famously starred a young Meghan Markle as a ‘briefcase girl’ in its second series.
She has since said the role made her feel like a ‘bimbo’.
You can see why they get on – they’re all natural performers who’ve weathered the tricky route from young stardom to adult fame.
Raised alongside his three siblings in east London, he honed his people skills by working on his father Chris’s market stall. His dad also taught him magic tricks, and by 17 Stephen’s conjuring skills won him a Butlin’s talent contest and made him the youngest member of the Magic Circle.
After a stint as a Butlin’s Redcoat, he secured a slot on the Royal Variety Performance after taking part in TV’s Big Big Talent Show, followed by jobs at the Disney Channel and children’s ITV.
What few people know is that he has other strings to his bow: he’s also a talented musician, proficient at violin and piano.
‘I’ve never spoken about this before, but when I was 11 Jean-Michel Jarre played a concert in Docklands, and I accompanied him on the violin while he played the keyboard,’ he says.
He took up the piano aged 11, and his new home now houses a white grand piano. ‘I used to love John Lennon, and on one of his record covers he had a white grand piano,’ he says.
‘I always said to my mum and dad that if I was ever lucky enough to get some money from work, the one thing I was going to do was buy a grand piano. And I have.’
He still enjoys performing live magic too, regularly returning to Butlin’s to perform three shows a day to packed-out crowds.
‘Some people ask why I still do that, but it keeps me fresh, I enjoy it, and I learn more material for other shows because I know when those little nuggets hit home,’ he says.
‘To be honest I prefer live stage performance far more than TV, but they go hand in hand because if you’re not on TV, people don’t necessarily want to see your show. It’s brutal, but that’s life.’
It certainly makes him one of the few remaining all-rounders in showbiz, a TV ‘face’ but also an old-fashioned entertainer who’s as happy without a script as he is with one. ‘Funnily enough I was chatting about this recently with Bradley Walsh,’ he says.
‘He said we were the last two standing who can go out, actually perform an act and hold an audience: I’ve got my own stage show, he does his own stage show too. I consider myself lucky that I get to do both.’
- Deal Or No Deal returns on Monday at 4pm on ITV1.