My name is Colin Wreford. I am 51 years old, single and I live in Plympton, Devon about five miles frpm the centre of Plymouth. I first applied to Countdown in 2000, did reasonably well at audition in Exeter but was asked to try again. Holidays and work commitments meant that it was 2003 before I auditioned again and once more I was asked to try again. Finally in January 2005 I attended a third audition. Shortly after that I received the magic letter saying I had been accepted as a contestant and would receive a filming date in due course.
A few weeks later Charlotte Hudson, Countdown's researcher, rang me to ask me to be in Leeds to film on Monday 27th June.
With my father Jack as company, I set off on the Sunday for the long car trip to Leeds - a journey of just over 320 miles. Arriving early evening we settled into the hotel and I then lay awake all night worrying about the next day. Finally giving up the unequal struggle to fall asleep about 7 a.m. and getting up, I found Richard Whiteley's face all over breakfast TV. Slowly the awful truth emerged that Richard had died the night before. It was left to Charlotte to tell the stunned contestants in the hotel that filming was cancelled. All that was left to do was to pack and drive the 320 miles back home to complete a totally miserable day.
Incidentally, on the Tuesday of that week when I should have been travelling back home if things had gone as planned, the house opposite mine got hit by lightning and caught fire. My computer telephone socket was destroyed, most of my neighbours suffered damage to paintwork, telephones or televisions and the actual house hit took 3 months to repair. Just not my week.
Fast forward now to October and another phone call from Charlotte. Could I be in Leeds for filming on Tuesday 11th October? I could, so it was back on the motorways for Dad and I for another 8 hour journey to Yorkshire.
On the Tuesday I had to report to the studios at 12 noon. I did actually get some sleep this time and we decided to walk into Leeds City Centre after breakfast (about 25 minutes at a very leisurely pace) to take my mind off the forthcoming filming. Then back to the hotel to select my television clothes and make the five minute walk to the studio. On the way we met Helen Mathieson, the Series 53 defending champion whom I had met in June, and we reported to Yorkshire TV reception together. Shortly afterwards we had a further member of our party - Des Lynam who came straight over to us, introduced himself as the new boy and told us how nervous he was! He was, in fact, incredibly charming and friendly, assuring us we would do brilliantly and his kindness in coming over to greet us got the day off to a marvellous start.
Unit Assistant Lindsay then took over and led us to the Green Room, where the day's other contestant 14-year-old Conor Travers was already waiting with his father. We were then asked to go to lunch in the canteen until 1 p.m.. I couldn't eat very much but did manage a sandwich. By the way contestants have to pay for their own lunch these days - no free vouchers on offer any more.
Back in the Green Room it proved to be a long afternoon of waiting. We were well provided for with tea, coffee, fruit and allegedly some (well hidden) chocolate biscuits. Then followed a brief visit to make-up (to remove the shine, apparently), a quick check of clothing by wardrobe and a short visit by warm-up comedian Dudley Doolittle who quickly gave up on trying to make three nervous contestants laugh and concentrated instead on tracking down and eating our chocolate biscuits.
We were told that the first programme to be filmed (between Conor and Helen) would be shown on Monday 31st October 2005 so we could expect some Halloween themed comments in the studio.
Finally at 3.30 we were told filming would now start and we would be taken through to the studio once the audience were in place. Filming was to take place in Studio 3 which is small and only holds 95 people. Only?
Countdown is normally filmed in the larger Studio 4, but this was being used to produce the children's programme "My Parents Are Aliens".
Helen and Conor were taken to the contestants' seats and Dad and I were placed in the audience in the hot seats, so I could speak to Des Lynam at the end of the first show before going on to play the winner in the second game to be filmed. Dudley Doolittle then introduced Carol Vorderman, Des, Susie Dent and Dictionary Corner guest Martin Jarvis to the audience before everyone prepared for filming.
It was at this point that my day changed in just a few surreal seconds. The Floor Manager, Lisa, came towards me and uttered the immortal words "Conor is not very well so we are putting you in to play this game. Come with me." Two minutes later, I was wired for sound, sitting next to Des Lynam and being told by Clare Pizey, the Executive Producer, that filming was starting immediately.
To be honest the game itself is somewhat of a blur to me. Anyone who wants to know the ins and outs of every round needs to consult one of the excellent websites devoted to recording every triumph and disaster of each contest. What I can clearly remember is Des asking me about my hobby of collecting teapots and my telling him I was only here to win a Countdown teapot, Carol trying to persuade me not to choose 6 small numbers, taking a small lead towards the end of the second half and managing to forge further ahead in Part 3. The conundrum might just as well have been written in hieroglyphics and it was a huge relief when Helen got "Maternity" after what seemed like hours, but was actually about fifteen seconds.
Des kindly informed everyone that Countdown had a new champion and at that point it dawned on me that I had actually managed to win somehow. The final score was Colin Wreford 90, Helen Mathieson 61.
Even in the first game it was obvious that Des and Carol have an excellent rapport. Des has abandoned the puns from Richard Whiteley's era but has his own quiet, friendly style which I think will go down really well with Countdown's audience.
After that it was back to the dressing room for a quick change of top and an off-screen introduction to my next opponent, Kelvin. He lives locally, had been on standby most of the day and had jumped into a taxi to get to the studio to cover Conor's unexpected absence.
Then back to Studio 3 for a brief conversation with Des about "yesterday's" victory and my successful winning of the teapot. Then it was immediately on with the game. This one went well and I managed to build up a comfortable lead by the end of Part 2. Kelvin then hit an excellent patch of form and I was quite glad to reach the final conundrum holding on to a 72-57 lead. Once again the conundrum came from a language totally unknown to me (and to Kelvin) so we finished up sitting there staring blankly at our monitors until the time finally ran out. Des then informed us that the word was "Bothering". An easy one sitting at home, much harder after going through the emotional wringer of playing two back-to-back games in the studio.
For me the final third of this game was the first indication of how difficult Countdown in front of the cameras can be if your concentration drops a fraction or the brain decides to take an unexpected holiday - a sign of things to come unfortunately.
After my second victory, filming ended for the day and I was asked to return at 9 a.m. the next day to take part in up to 3 more games. A professional photographer took pictures of Des, Carol, Susie, Martin and the contestants. I will receive copies about 6 weeks after filming as a permanent reminder of my time in Countdonia. The audience also wanted photographs and autographs of the stars. One marvellous gentleman insisted on getting my autograph. When I asked him why on earth he would want my signature he replied "Because you are part of TV history, the first Countdown winner under Des Lynam." What a nice thing to say. It certainly made all the travelling and nervousness totally worthwhile.
After a quick cup of tea in the Green Room to unwind it was back to the hotel and a sleepless night. Every time I came close to getting to sleep random letters and words appeared in front of my eyes or snippets of the programme came back to life in my fretful mind.
It was an early start on the Wednesday and after breakfast at the hotel it was back to the studio for 9 a.m.. There were three brand new contestants already there, anxious to know what happened the day before. We spent about half an hour in the Green Room and then it was make-up and wardrobe once again. Carol was in make-up and congratulated me on my two wins the previous day which was very nice of her. My next opponent Arthur Mactier was prevented from wearing his chosen jacket because it bore the badge of The Magic Circle, but my clothes were passed as fit to be on TV.
After a short wait we were taken into Studio 3 where the other contestants were placed either in the hot seats or the audience whilst Arthur and I took our places in front of the cameras. I was wired for sound, given a glass of water and then it was on with the show as Des introduced me for the third time, mentioned my two previous scores and discussed the Banking Industry with my opponent, a retired Bank Manager.
Nothing went right for me this time. Arthur produced a nine letter word I missed which had me "Lamenting" and then became the only opponent to share the points with me on a Numbers Game of 6 small numbers. A silly lapse of concentration by me on Arthur's first Numbers Game effectively ended the contest, but I did manage to claw back 10 points on the final, difficult numbers game. We both then spent the customary 30 seconds staring at a conundrum which resolutely refused to rearrange itself into anything meaningful. For the record it was "Regaining" which caused the havoc this time. My only consolation was that Des asked Dictionary Corner for the answer and Susie and Martin promptly got it wrong!
Arthur won 86-66 but I certainly wasn't disappointed in any way. I had done far, far better than I had expected to do and had a marvellous time as well.
I'm left with my memories and a superb goody bag containing two wonderful (and unbelievably heavy) dictionaries, the long-coveted teapot, a book about Countdown, Susie Dent's latest book, the new Countdown board game, the Countdown electronic game, a clock, a mug and a Countdown Polo Shirt which my father has acquired as thanks for keeping me (relatively) calm and sane through our adventure. I had never given much thought to the Goody Bag until it was handed over, but its contents are excellent and will provide long-lasting reminders of my time in Studio 3. I also managed to get my nameplate as a further souvenir.
To anyone who is thinking about applying to Countdown my message is simple. Go for it. You will have the time of your life, win or lose, and meet some wonderful people as well. Who knows, you may make your own little piece of TV history too.Colin Wreford