I can't remember a time before Countdown being on air, which is quite odd as I can distinctly remember watching television before Channel 4 was even on the air, but that's a digression at best. So with 15-odd years of watching the show under my belt I was getting pretty good at the game. In the summer of 1997 I'd made a promise to a friend that if I could get over 60 points against the computer in a game I'd apply for the show. The very next game, I scored 62. A phone call to YTV ensued, and within a few days the application was filled out and returned the same day.
Come the winter I was lounging about watching Countdown, when the phone rang. Who dare interrupt my viewing? As my father handed the telephone over, he said it was Mark Nyman. I guess if anyone could interrupt the show, he could. No time to rely on the post, the audition would be that coming Friday, at a hotel just off the Forest of Arden golf course. Stylish.
So the 12th of December came, we made the trip to, at the time, easily the poshest place I'd been in, and waited for the audition to start. As we were the last of the day, there were just 3 of us taking the audition - a kid who looked about 10, a woman approaching middle-age, and me. Despite missing a good few words, I was reasonably happy with my performance, pretty much sure I'd passed, and was looking forward to receiving the notification. The following week a Leeds-postmarked letter arrived. Eagerly, I tore it open to be told I'd failed, but was welcome to apply again.
So that's it. I'd failed. End of experience.
Until 2003. I'd found an Internet group talking about having an online league - the league itself was never completed but I managed to blag my way in. Something weird happened - I was playing mostly for fun and experience against people who had done exceptionally well in the past, and excepting the mauling that Chris Wills handed to me, I was holding my own in all the games, even winning half of them. One night after several pints I carefully constructed an email to YTV asking for another application form, which again was duly returned the day it arrived. A few months later a letter arrived with instructions to be at a hotel in Nottingham for the audition. At the time, that hotel was easily the second poshest place I'd ever been in. This time, the delectable Marie Wale held the audition watching over 7 or 8 of us. With letters offerings of 7-7-7-7-7-8-8, all 3 numbers games spot on, and 2 of 3 conundrums solved, I didn't think I'd succeeded. Again, lots of words missed (although at least this time there were no void words offered) but the numbers games made up for that.
So I'd resigned myself to failure, even though the Internet group was largely saying it was one of the better audition scores between the whole group (or at least those who have the bottle to apply and not make up pathetic excuses), though there were rumblings later that Andy Page, 2003 Mastermind champion, had been outstanding in the audition. The letter came, and bingo, I'd succeeded, the boyhood dream had come true, I'd be sitting behind the desk, I'd have my very own conundrum buzzer, and most importantly I'd have a load of puns read by the legendary Richard Whiteley in my introduction to the nation!
A couple of months later at the start of 2004 I received my recording date, and arranged with a friend to be my "coach" (read, drinking buddy in the free bar) for the days in Leeds. Sadly for him his appendix exploded a few weeks before the recording date, ruling him out of the predicted Saturnalia in the bar.
So it was off to Leeds on a cold Thursday morning towards the end of February, armed with little more than an egg and cress sandwich and half a dozen hastily-bought tops that didn't contravene the clothing rules. Stopping off at Doncaster I was tempted into (if I can steal one of Carol's warm-up lines on-set), a cup of hot liquid. Mistake. It felt like I suffered third-degree burns to my tongue. I had very real thoughts that I'd be lisping my way though my rounds.
I needed to rid myself of the nervous energy I had stored up, an invigorating walk to the studios seemed like just the tonic at the time. Indeed, it didn't take too long to drag my suitcase along the mile or so (I walk a longer distance getting to "home" darts matches in my "local", so it's nothing to me) and was perfect for settling me down, albeit resulting in my arrival about 45 minutes too early.
Settling down in the plush reception it wasn't too long before someone else arrived carrying an armful of shirts. He said he was the current champion, and had a tough game to get there. With my show being second in the running order for the day there was a good chance I'd end up facing him. But being second meant something else - I'd get to take part in the hot seat as the next day's contestant!
In the green room parts of conversations were dropping clues into place as to who the champion was - perhaps "what was it like winning Mastermind?" being the biggest clue of all. So that was it, I'd travelled to Leeds to face someone who was awesome in his audition. I couldn't let that faze me though - instead I looked at the tea machine for a couple of minutes before deciding a bottle of water was easier to work out.
So after the obligatory wardrobe check and make-up, it was off to the set to sit in the hot seat. Having no supporters with me was a bit daunting, but I didn't want any of my immediate family with me as I felt that would make me too nervous. As it turned out the elderly couple that were placed either side of me "adopted" me so even though I had no one that knew me with me, there were at least two people willing me on in person.
As it happened, I did quite well from the "comfort" of the hot seat, a good few chunky words and numbers, and getting the conundrum before the champion did. I played it down trying to make a pun out of the conundrum answer but stumbled over my words a bit. Oops. After that I wasn't too nervous, although changing into my then favourite rugby shirt (a red number, with an 8 on) some butterflies were building. Back to the studio itself, but this time to the promised land of behind the desk! The carpeting on the desk, the monitors inlaid, the paper, pens, the cabling we were reminded not to kick out of the desk, it was all there. As was the buzzer! Not a raised button as I was hoping for, but an inlaid button with a protective metal rim. For all I knew this could be the only time I got to sit there, so I made sure to soak it all in. After recanting my breakfast to the sound man (and relieved that my tongue was no longer hurting) it was no time at all before we were off. All I could think of was the inevitable puns. Darts-based! Yes! Game on, with Tom O'Connor in Dictionary Corner joking his way through the match, and the first round throws up a relatively dour selection in my eyes. Stuff like CAROTID, APRICOT and PAROTID available, solid traditional Countdown words, but probably no 8s. Any nerves I had soon turned to mild confusion as Andy Page could only declare 6. Okay, it's only 1 round out of 15, but I knew if I just played solidly, I'd win. Indeed, if I may be arrogant for a moment, with the round 8 selection of GETMADPER watching the broadcast at home I got a 7 with a cup of tea and a biscuit in hand, and with prior knowledge of the selections and offerings. On-screen me got TAMPERED for 8. I was playing very well indeed, getting to round 13 with a healthy 15 point lead. Get a winner here, and I'd won. With a selection of YRNOAEGRA, ORANGE leapt out at me (as the word always seems to with me). I toyed with ORANGER (no good, offer GROANER instead) and ORANGEY (good, as is ORANGY) before the logical combination of ORANGERY presented itself. Andy could only muster 7 (albeit a brilliant 7 of GRANARY which I would not have spotted, I'm sure), so I'd won! I had a plan in place, where if the game was beyond doubt I'd ask for something quite silly. So any 6 of Carol's choice, as long as they were from the same row was asked for. With the game beyond doubt I'd switched off a little, declaring 6 away where the answer was fairly trivia. No matter, 28 clear going into the conundrum which I buzz on 2 seconds. As does Andy, who has slightly faster reflexes than me. Ah well, a win is a win, and I'd avoided a crucial conundrum which I was sure would see me eliminated.
Game 2, for which the recap currently on the Internet is a little hard to follow unfortunately (interesting that the recapper has decided to put his name in the biggest writing of all in the entire recap. Ego problem? Never!) so I'm referring to the tape to jog my memory. Still, an "adventurous" offering of MANSIZED was rightly shot down by Susie, and my conundrum technique was shabby - I'd decided it couldn't possibly be DEAFENING as there was an A in the jumble. On 25 seconds or so I realise that it could well be DEAFENING and scoop 10 points for a century. So I'd got the teapot, I'd got a century against an off-form Paul Kennedy who on any other day would have scored a lot more, I'm sure, so all that was left really was to get a 9 and maybe, just maybe ride my luck to win 8 games.
Game 3, and solid 7 scoring throughout the first 4 rounds saw me open up a 28-0 lead over Chris Gentry, but the day was starting to get tiring. With all due respect to Chris (it takes real bottle to take the audition, and real talent to pass it) I wasn't playing very well and someone on form would have crushed me. Missing a 9 in the 2nd round knocked me a bit, but I don't think I'd heard of EXPIATORS so I wasn't that concerned. But, in round 9 VEPOSERD had popped out, and I remember thinking "I need an A for EAVESDROP" I asked for the vowel, and the A duly arrived and I thought "Now what does it anagram into? Ah, OVERSPADE! No, EAVESDROP is the word!" I did not see OVERSPADE first, despite that being how most people spotted it on-group. As it happened, another relatively easy win, failing to score on the conundrum and 2 of the 3 numbers games kept my score below a century.
Game 4, against the woman who became my new adopted cheering section Anne Course. Round 3 was a particular favourite of mine, getting the chance to stare at Susie as she accepts my SOULMATE offering. Anne had a shocker on the numbers, telling me afterwards she was angry with herself for blobbing on them all - indeed without the points I accrued from the numbers I'd have been just 3 ahead into the conundrum instead of 30 ahead. Round 7 was almost controversial. I'd just spotted a 7, which I declared as not written down. Anne was asked for her 7 first - WARBLED. My word was, perhaps inevitably WARBLED. It's a good job it's a common word, and not something obscure. 7 points each. Round 8 became a favourite of the pub - a surreptitious mention of "Grapes" (the pub whose darts team I was a member of at the time) before "correcting" myself to my actual 7 of GRASPED went down well (I made a point of watching the game in the pub) with round 12's "I'm stuck on PANTIES" getting the desired effect from the students in the audience. Amazingly the simple PETERNELL conundrum went unsolved - I was past caring by that point, I wanted a beer, and a shower.
And that was that. Not only had I achieved my ambition of getting on the show, I'd performed well enough to get to go back the following morning and do it all over again. I was quite literally bouncing with excitement. One woman on the production team (It may have been Charlotte Hudson (not the woman off Brainiac)) shook my hand congratulating me. I was jumping up and down.
Alas, Health and Safety in Granadaland had made a shocking discovery about the bar - alcohol gets drunk in it. So no free bar. Bad times. But a couple of the contestants were in the hotel bar, so I joined them for a drink. Good times. Amongst other things the clock was mentioned - for some reason I found the whirring of the motor behind the clock quite reassuring.
As Jono O'Neillo has mentioned in his experience, nights alone in corporate hotels can be some of the most boring and cleanest of your life. I took 2 showers. Interspersed with this I took the opportunity to unintentionally wind up 0-time champion Kirk Bevins (who I actually have a great deal of respect for) by revealing my teapot-winning 9-letter-word spotting via text messaging. Much hilarity would ensue during the broadcasts of my shows where he'd reveal how he would have beat me, and I'd text back with "congrats. Now email YTV and they'll send you a teapot" or words to that effect. It's all in jest, he knew that and he's a great lad.
So an early start (9:30 am? Inhumane!) for my 5th game against Laurence Scott, and a chance to meet the legendary Philip Franks in Dictionary Corner. Apparently he applied to be a contestant just before he hit the big time snogging Catherine Zeta Jones so he truly understands the contestants make the show, and was very chatty to us before the games. Indeed, solving the puzzles he set in the first break was fun, taking my suggestion of "Molotov Cocktail" for foodstuffs named after people in exactly the right spirit ("It'll blow your mind!").
In the 61st round I'd played, for the first time I'd gone behind! Okay, it's only 7 points after round 1 but that was probably what Andy Page was thinking. Round 3 wasn't much better, giving me a decision. Admission time - I'm not a great speller. Hirsute was on my nightmare list as at any time I can flit between 3 ways of spelling it. HIRSUTE was the version I settled on, and I'm grateful to Susie and Richard for not asking me to spell it as I may well have changed my mind mid-reading. Round 4 was perhaps the pinnacle of my performance. From LIDYEUSTO I found TEDIOUSLY, breaking Laurence's LOUDEST, prompting an email from one of the all-time greats congratulating me on a magnificent spot where he only had SOLITUDE. Yes, this sounds arrogant, but at the time it was pure relief that I'd established an 11 point lead. It didn't last long, as again I failed to nail a fairly routine numbers game. Round 10 was a classic, a target of 732, I declare I was "close, 432". 300 away, which was actually as close as was possible. Laurence was something of a 6 small specialist, I was somewhat of a blind luck on the numbers specialist.
9 ahead going into round 12, I take a reckless gamble on ATROPIES* (getting atrophy and entropy mixed up) whereas my opponent produced one of the all-time great words, PASTORIE. 1 point the difference, and all of a sudden any winning score in the numbers would send him ahead, instead of just spot on. Despite going all around the houses I got to the 660 target so if nothing else I was sure to be ahead going into a crucial conundrum. Laurence didn't get it, to my shock and delight. And boy did I need those points, as he thundered in a 1 second conundrum to reduce the winning margin to just a solitary point.
Of all the games in the series, game 5 is definitely in my own personal top 3. Sensational words, some light relief in the numbers, and not needing to face the dreaded conundrum. Laurence could have been a contender in the quarters - instead he found himself unlucky to find me getting a 9 early on.
Game 6, Nick Allies and as far as I was concerned it was a solid performance without being anything special. By this time the makings of a nasty head cold were in full flow, from this game onwards I was fighting a losing battle against my nose running on-screen. Nick never really got going, which was a shame, although this game did feature the rather odd spectacle of all the male panellists attempting a barbershop quartet-style link. Of all the things I thought I'd ever do, barbershop quartet "singing" on television with Richard Whiteley and Philip Franks is not one of them. Still, round 12 almost offered me an outstanding word. In one of the old dictionaries for the show, FIGURA is at the bottom of one of the pages. No plural is specified so I knew FIGURAS was good, at least under those rules. Susie disallowed it on the grounds the ODE specifies FIGURAE as the plural. Checking in the Shorter Oxford back in the hotel after the recordings, I saw both FIGURAS and FIGURAE listed as valid plurals. Interesting that both a bigger and smaller dictionary from the same family of books shows my word as valid, but not the medium-sized one that is the official dictionary of the show. After this show, my conundrum record stood at a pathetic 1 out of 6.
Game 7, against Lorna Griffiths and I felt bad here. She must have got hit by nerves or something, as after 3 rounds the score stood at 22-14 in my favour. Lorna didn't score again until round 10. This included me getting COSTLIER to win the round outright, twice! But again, she had the bottle to apply, and the talent to pass the audition - another day, who knows what might have happened?
Game 8, against Greg Bryce, and 2 things were for sure. This was my last game of the day, and I'd be back for the quarter-finals. Greg was tough, he clearly meant business, so when I got CLOISTERS in round 3 I pretended to carry on looking for words. I glanced over and saw his pen was down so I gave up my charade. 36-36 after 4 rounds was no surprise but me getting a tough numbers game helped the cause. And boy did I need it, over the next 3 rounds my game collapsed, seeing my 10 point lead turn into an 11 point deficit. Nil desperandum, from round 11 a truly gruesome VMOHUCRAI selection saw me spot MOHAIR to arrest the slide, not the first time that a MOHAIR spot has got a champion out of potential trouble. Round 12 we both had SIDEBAND written down - we both adjudged it too risky to play. It's good. Into round 14 with a 5 point deficit and I knew I was about to enter uncharted territory - either losing the game on the numbers, or going into a crucial conundrum. For me the numbers was easy. Greg somehow got 1 away and even looking now I can't quite see how.
So a crucial conundrum of PUSSIEGON where I was amazingly ahead, despite being 11 points down after 8 rounds. What seemed like instantly at the time, Greg buzzed in. I thought it was SUPPOSING. Greg said SUPPOSING. I'd lost. So close to being an Octochamp (or as was the fashion at the time, an Octavian), yet so far away. Although wait a second, doesn't SUPPOSING need another P instead of the E? It does, it took a couple of seconds to register but I'd won! I remember looking around the studio in utter disbelief, completely forgetting that the clock was still running for the rest of the 30 seconds. It took a while, but eventually that registered as well as I made another attempt at solving the conundrum. On 25 seconds I started to wonder if ESPOUSING was a word. In 28 seconds I decided it probably was. On 29 seconds I make an attempt to hit the button but end up pressing the metal surround instead. It was ESPOUSING, I could have had a 3rd century, I could have solved a 3rd conundrum, but who cares?
I watched the final show of the day from the back row of the audience, totally shattered and elated that I had far exceeded my aims, and could now relax. John Jeffrey played his first game, showing himself to be totally at ease, getting a 9 that I missed with no pressure on me. I was very relieved that I didn't have to play him. However it was announced that Emma Forbes would be in Dictionary Corner the following recording. I'm fairly sure I could have got her phone number (ahem).
Apart from looking up a couple of words in the dictionaries I can't remember a thing about that night. For all I know I could have ran naked down the Kirkstall Road (but I'm pretty sure I didn't).