Chris Wills first appeared on Countdown on January 14th 2002, when he knocked out three-times winner Jeremy Slaney by 107 points to 66. Like series runner-up Tom Hargreaves, he then went on to score another six centuries (including a score of 129 against April Carlin) before scoring 'just' 92 points in his final preliminary game against Agnes Budis. With a record 875 points on the leaderboard, Chris then returned in June for the quarter-finals as number one seed, where he beat Brenda Jolley and Rupert Stokoe to set up the grand final we'd all been hoping for against Tom. On the day, Chris was in unstoppable form, and he beat Tom 110-67 to walk away with the dictionaries. Sit back and let Chris entertain you with his version of events...
I have a letter dated 24 November 1986 from one Sandra Morgan (Researcher), congratulating me on having won the Countdown game in the Countdown Puzzle Magazine competition. I was only eight at the time, but already a regular viewer of the show. Iíve rarely missed an episode since that time, the notable exception being the year or so I spent in New Zealand. It was in New Zealand that I fell in love with the Chills (one of many bands on the Flying Nun label who were briefly popular worldwide in the 1980s) and befriended the lead man Martin Phillipps. So now you know.
I returned from NZ in time to see Graham Nash win Series 43, at which point I had applied - for 15-1. Although I passed the auditions with flying colours, the actual show was a bit of a washout, as I went out in the second round, partly due to being picked on by a retired paperboy. So, the very next day, I rang YTV, got through to Countdown and requested an application form. I promptly filled it out and returned it, and then managed to get an audition in Canterbury just a month later, in early October. There, I met Sandraís 21st-Century equivalent, the utterly lovely Marie Wale. I thought my performance was okay; they thought it was good enough, and at the beginning of December, I was on the train up to Leeds. Having checked into the Holiday Inn Express, I settled down for the night in the expansive double bed and wondered what lay ahead...
The next morning I washed and had breakfast, and thereby discovered that the fresh towels in the en suite smell the same as the Danish pastries taste - or is that the other way round? The morning passed slowly, but eventually it was time to go to YTV reception - that was once Iíd not only tried to find the right entrance, but also tried to go the wrong way through the revolving door. The also-lovely Paula escorted me to the dressing room, where my tops were checked out (one was vetoed as being too pale and was replaced by the baggy number I wore against David) and then to make-up, before I settled down in the green room to have a cup of tea. Problem was, I couldnít work out how to open the sachet. Fortunately, Jeremy Slaney could. Jeremy, a backwoodsman from near Ashford, was the three-times champion and my first opponent. Jeremy told me we had both narrowly missed meeting Tom Hargreaves, a 16 year-old whizzkid (of whom more later).
At 1.30pm, it was time to go on set. My first reaction - as I suspect is the case with many people - is that itís a lot smaller than you imagine, that opening sweep in each edition being very deceptive. I settled into the challengerís chair and listened to Dudley the warm-up man. Humour-wise, Dudley wasnít really my sachet of freeze-dried tea granules; however, I admire him for managing to keep the audiences awake, let alone amused. In Dictionary Corner it was Susie Dent and Kathryn Apanowicz. Kathy was very nice (as were all the celebs on my shows), but she did have a somewhat startling line in jackets. Richard and Carol then arrived and it was time to begin. I was feeling nervous, but those nerves were calmed when I spotted a nine - STEROIDAL - in my very first round! After that flying start, things continued well, although I had CORGIES disallowed and missed the last numbers; but I finished with a one-second flourish on the conundrum - SEASONING - to win 107-66. If nothing else, I had the teapot, not to mention being called "Christ" by Richard!!!
My next game was against Floraidh Campbell, a bell-ringer. I really liked Floraidh, which made me feel guilty for beating her by over 70 points; again I got a nine in the first round. My third game against Jeff Baines from Heysham, was memorable for three reasons. Firstly, it was the only game in which I didnít get the conundrum (NAVIGATOR, although I thought of NAVIGATION). Secondly, I made my infamous remark about being inhuman if I came from Dover; although I didnít receive any bricks or death threats, I took it back in my quarter-final. Thirdly, I proclaimed that I had the word I always wanted to say on television - FRIGATES! In a somewhat illogical piece of editing, the remark was cut from the programme, but Richardís reference to it stayed in the following show. That show was the one where I made history.
Against April Carlin from Norwich, I once again got a nine in the first round. So did April, and indeed she stayed with me for some time. Eventually I pulled away, and by the conundrum I was 119-77 ahead. That meant that if I got the conundrum, I would beat Simon Cartwrightís record score of 121. After what seemed like an eternity (in fact it was 8 seconds), I spotted APPETISER and went into the history books. Finally that day came the laconic David Shaw from Birmingham. Despite messing up on a numbers game (well, it served me right for declaring 666), I won fairly easily. In the bar afterwards, David called me a "b*****d", albeit in the nicest way possible! Floraidh, meanwhile, suggested she and the others should form Victims Anonymous! The nice thing about Countdown is that the production team foster a really friendly atmosphere between the contestants, and there are rarely any genuine hard feelings afterwards.
A change in scheduling meant that, just under a fortnight later, I was on my way back up to Leeds to play my next lot of games. Once again I brought Tiny Clanger with me. The first time, I had asked Lee the floor manager if I could have her out on the desk. Unfortunately, Lee said that there might be copyright problems, so she stayed in the bag in my dressing room, from where I think she might have emanated good luck vibes. I certainly needed them against Terry Rattle. He proved to be my toughest, most dogged opponent so far, but by the end of Round 12, I had built up a 21-point lead. In the last letters game, I instantly saw REACHING, but could see no way of using the 'D'. Terry could, and offered CHAGRINED (basically meaning 'hacked off'). The word was accepted, my lead was cut to 3 points, I was chagrined - and Terry had definitely Rattled me. An easy numbers game meant a crucial conundrum. In a literal microsecond, I saw FOLLOWING, buzzed and survived. If Terry had got in first, then he would have gone far. To lose with 107 was a real shame.
The win left me elated, but also exhausted, and while my last two wins against Len Barker and Agnes Budis were easy enough, they were rather scrappy. A snuffly Agnes held me to my lowest score of 92, beating me with PENCILED and PATRONISE. I did at least finish strongly, spotting the conundrum, CRICKETER. Appropriate as I was sitting next to Sir Tim Rice, who I told the old headstone joke ("'E, she was thin", etc). So, like Tom, Iíd won eight games, but just failed to get eight centuries. Like Tom, I was now the Number One Seed; and as an unnerving procession of octochamps followed, I wondered if, like Tom, my reign at the top would be similarly short.
For now, though, it was time to go home, enjoy Christmas, watch Ben Wilson become Series 46 champion and then watch Tom do his thing (one of his opponents, Lindy Moffat, was at my audition, as was Margaret Taylor, who lost to David Franks in his first game). Come 14 January and the transmission of my debut, everyone in the office got very excited. My office manager insisted on getting in Pimms and canapťs. I was a bit embarrassed and hid in the toilet. Eventually they coaxed me out and, after getting used to seeing myself on the TV, I quite enjoyed watching the shows. Just as well, as I saw each one twice: once in the office, and then again in the evening with my mum. Soon, I started getting stopped in the streets and the supermarket. I got a letter via Countdown from a lady in Doncaster. My most unexpected fan turned out to be the Mayor of Folkestone, The Worshipful David Dickinson, host of Bargain Hunt (no, not really), who sent me a congratulatory letter.
I had been told that the finals would be recorded some time around the end of March/start of April, but by mid-March I still had no idea when. So I took the bull by the horns. Damian soon relented and told me it would be 16-17 April and I would be the Number One Seed - but also one of eight octochamps! The time soon came and, armed with two Clangers (Tiny having now been joined by Small), I headed up north. On the morning of 16 April, I met Tom and his mum (most of the Hargreaves clan turned up eventually) and had a nice long chat with them. On arriving at YTV, I was soon reacquainted with the team (with Addie replacing Lee as floor manager) and Dudleyís jokes. I also met my other fellow quarter-finalists (with the exception of Lee Hartley, who didnít arrive until much later). David Franks also came as a reserve. In the canteen I met up once again with Damian, who asked me if I was okay and if I was looking forward to my match. As he was simultaneously cramming biscuits into his mouth, he succeeded in pebble-dashing the walls with Jammy Dodgers.
After watching Julia Wilkinson win the last couple of heats (and then wishing her luck for becoming an octochamp in the next series), it was my turn to go on in the first quarter-final against Brenda Jolley, the chiropodist. It was a tight, tense game, and I only relaxed when watching Geoffrey Durham do his trick (I couldnít work out how he did it, even though I had a back view). Eventually, I got through 110-86 - I was in the last four. I was glad I wasnít in the next quarter-final, between Tom and Mike Pullin, the grinning leaflet distributor, as I would have lost to either of them. Tom won 106-89. The last quarter-final of the day was a classic encounter, as Kevin Thurlow, the scientist who ended the Kentish monopoly in the early part of the series, took on Lee Hartley the actuary. Kevin took it 106-93 on a crucial conundrum and thus created the biggest upset of the finals. Lee was bitterly disappointed. A competitive Scrabble player, I think heíd come back expecting to win. Iíd only ever come expecting to have fun. In the bar afterwards, it was time to relax and engage in surreal chat about aberrant deep-sea cucumbers and baby oil.
After a fitful nightís sleep, I spent the following morning chatting with the other contestants and then wandering around the city centre. Soon 12.30pm came round and it was back to YTV and the green room. This was rather less crowded than the day before, when finalists had jostled for position with contestants playing the last couple of heats. Damian was in Dictionary Corner, also blessed with the lateral humour of Richard Digance. First up was the last quarter-final, in which student Rupert Stokoe beat interior designer Wendy Roe 99-80 - and then I played Rupert. After a close start, I eased ahead in the middle, and eventually ran out the winner 118-78. I was a bit cross for missing EMPHATIC when I got HEPATIC and PECTORALS when I got SPECTRAL - but what mattered was that, totally against my expectations, I was in the final. Not long afterwards, it was Kent 2, Surrey 0 as Tom beat Kevin 109-93. Once again, I would have struggled.
It was time for dinner, which sat very heavily indeed in my stomach as I waited with Tom in the green room for the call-up; Iíd felt less nervous before most job interviews. We went on, everyone else took their places and it was time to start. We got off to a nervous start, both getting 6 in the first round, but missing DEACONS. In the third round I spotted HOMAGE to move ahead, then got ADMIRALS, then the numbers game. Having expected it to be neck-and-neck, I was in fact 37-13 ahead. It was a lead I was to more or less maintain throughout, although Tom beat me in one round with GLACIER. Iíd imagined that the conundrum would be a do-or-die affair, but as it was I was 100-67 up and felt a slight sense of anticlimax. I spotted CONTRIVED in one second and thus officially became Series 47 Champion. I felt bad for Tom, as I think his nerves ultimately got the better of him, and he didnít do himself justice.
The presentation of the dictionaries was increasingly hysterical, as we had to retake (not 'retape' - disallowed in the NODE) it about three times; and I lost count of the number of times Richard Digance shook my hand. Then there was an interminable photo-shoot, when I had to be a contortionist on my newly-acquired leather-bound dictionaries. All this time, I could not believe they were mine. I had won, and it seemed like a dream.
The best bit of the dream was being in the bar afterwards, drinking champagne, having a great laugh and finally being able to relax properly. However, there was also sadness, as it was all coming to an end, bar the next Championship of Champions (whenever that is).
Since the final went out on 28 June, Iíve done a couple of interviews for the local papers and had quite a few people come up and congratulate me in the street.†† Now Iím keen to see what happens in Series 48, if weíll have loads more octochamps or if my series was a unique one.
Finally, I do still have the board game circa 1986, with the box showing Clive Freedman and Sandie Simonis battling it out and Gyles Brandreth in Dictionary Corner. Itís old and a bit tatty, but still has all its components in more or less working order. A bit like me, really.