Heading back to London on the 14-hour flight after three weeks filming in South America and Asia, the TV star realised what he had initially thought was cramp was turning into a fully flung stroke.
“I really did think, am I going to die on a plane?” revealed Chris.
“It sounds daft and a very British thing, but I didn’t want to ask for help. It was the middle of the night, everyone around me was asleep, the stewardesses on the plane didn’t speak much English at all.
“And I thought even if I asked for help, and they went to the extreme measure of putting the plane down, just think from Bangkok to London where would you want to be put down? Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran?”
As Chris tried to leave the plane once it had landed in London, he collapsed. He’d lost complete use of his right leg and arm, and was rushed to Charing Cross Hospital where he stayed for the next three weeks.
Chris has told the tale many times since the incident in 2014, but during a quiet chat at the Rotary conference in Torquay, it has clearly made its mark.
It sounds daft and a very British thing, but I didn’t want to ask for help. It was the middle of the night, everyone around me was asleep, the stewardesses on the plane didn’t speak much English at all.”
“I remember lying in hospital on the first night,” he recalled. “I was exhausted and pretty scared that if I went to sleep I wouldn’t wake up.”
Fortunately, there was no lasting damage. “I am one of the incredibly lucky ones,” added Chris, who was put through six months of gruelling physio.
“My speech was impaired, with one side of my face badly down.
“Obviously my speech is a relevant part of how I earn my living and pay for my kids, so I went through all sorts of facial, muscle work and speech therapy.
“This strange woman used to arrive at the house and beat me up. She carried one of these bags with ‘pain equals pleasure’. She was amazing, really stretching my muscles and she gave me savage physio.”
It’s as a result of that harrowing experience that Chris now does a lot of work with the Stroke Association, which in April worked with scores of Rotary clubs in Great Britain and Ireland as part of ‘Know Your Blood Pressure Day’.
Members of the public were able to have their blood pressure checked free of charge in a bid to raise awareness of the link between high blood pressure and strokes.
It is estimated in the UK that 5.5 million people are undiagnosed with high blood pressure, something which Rotary clubs and the Stroke Association are trying to reduce.
For 71-year-old Chris, he acknowledges the cause of his stroke was excess living. For years he had lived hard, drinking too much and working too many hours.
I am one of the lucky ones, which is how I got involved with the Stroke Association.”
He added: “It was a wake-up call and I have changed my life a bit.
“My missus is very tough on food. I don’t drink whisky, I do a bit of exercise and although I work, I don’t work anywhere near as hard as I used to.
“I am one of the lucky ones, which is how I got involved with the Stroke Association. Of anybody, I can say take it easy, these are the things to look out for, don’t put yourself through the excessive lifestyle I did.”
Chris, who has also become a polio ambassador for Rotary, has just completed filming another series of “Extreme Railways of the World” for Channel 5, which included visiting Auschwitz and Dachau for a feature on the trains which took Jews to their deaths in the Nazi concentration camps.
Ironically, the programme which made Chris a household name, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” returned in May on its 20th anniversary, with Jeremy Clarkson in the chair he once occupied.
“I did Millionaire for 15 years and 650 shows, what do you want, blood?” joked Chris, when asked why he was not reprising the role.
“Clarkson is going to do it for a week and good luck him. But I no more want to do Millionaire again, than I want to go back and do Tiswas!”