So back to Leeds in May, which was just 3 weeks after coming back from Gibraltar for a job interview, and due to end just 2 days before going back there to live! Nice timing.
This time my mother was intent on watching from the audience, so instead of the train, it was a drive up on the morning of the recording of day 1. Which had the most incredible traffic jam I have ever had the misfortune to be a part of. I spent the time playing on the electronic Countdown game. I got quite annoyed quite quickly, with how hard the game was. Not a good omen.
Somehow, we arrived at YTV at exactly 12:30pm as requested, only to find the whole audience for that afternoon's recording waiting in reception and no other contestants in sight. I kept as low a profile as I could, hearing whispers that they knew who I was. We got took through to the green room quite quickly, only to see the assembled throng of contestants, family, and other assorted cheerleaders. With just 4 or 5 contestants present with just a couple of cheerleaders between us, the green room is a spacious environment with ample seating. At the quarter-final stage there must have been 20+ people in there at times, with seating for about 10.
I was the number 3 seed, which from the recording schedule meant I wouldn't be needed until the 4th recording of the day for hot seat duties. All that worrying about making it on time for nothing! My opponent would be the number 6 seed who just happened to be John Jeffrey. Oh joy, oh rapture.
Pre-tournament favourite Stewart Holden had both played outstandingly and survived a real scare to triumph over Nicole Hutchings by just 5 points out of an aggregate of 215!
With Steve Graston triumphing over Sweyn Kirkness (Sweyn committing a blunder offering the nonsense CHASIER where CASHIER should be leaping out, and failing to shine in the numbers after being built up as a numbers demon) it was time for me and John to do battle.
I was quite happy to match John on the letters, to "get my eye in", especially seeing as in the hot seat area he was kicking my a**e all through the game. Getting closer on the numbers was a relief, giving me a 7 point lead as we went to a terminally boring story or poem read out by Martin Jarvis. It's all very well and good sitting at home watching on video, DVD or Sky Plus with the ability to fast forward, but to have to sit through that in real time, being forced to look interested in case the director cuts to you? Pure hell.
In the 2nd half, one of my infamous slumps happened again, seeing my solid lead evaporate, to be replaced by a 15 point deficit by the end of round 8. Although to be fair, his DAIRYMEN was a completely different class. But then I get lucky - what should have been a routine 6 each turned into a win for me as John uses a letter twice. And then I get closer on the numbers again, leaving me just 2 points behind. Honours remained even each round up to round 13. In a previous game, I'd spotted MINDER and was incapable of thinking of any other word thanks to getting "I could be so good for you" looping around in my head. That cost me the round. This time I spotted WATERMAN, once again the strains of Kenny and Waterman's finest went streaming through my ears. But was it even a word? Who cares, it was either offer a pathetic 5 or go for it. As it happened John went for WATERMAN too, and it's good. I scramble to the final numbers target (I'd been practising 2 large quite a lot, and had decided to go for that if I needed points in the penultimate round. This was in contrast to my 3 from the top in my 1st pick of the game) whereas John misses out - this put me 8 points ahead whereas if John had matched me on the numbers he'd have had the game wrapped up, 16 points clear. So a crucial conundrum again, and I get the feeling GOOGLIEST might just be a word. It isn't. With 22 seconds left on the clock for John what else is there to do? Try to work out the real answer? Pointless (in more ways than one). Turn around and will that clock hand down? Why not? After what felt like several ice ages had been and gone, the hand reached the bottom - I'd won another crucial conundrum without getting the answer right (it's GEOLOGIST, by the way).
According to my mother (an ever-reliable source of information) John hadn't bothered booking a hotel room for the night, such was his level of confidence in his chance of beating me.
I wanted to get off the stage, I'd just been through an emotional roller coaster again, and just wanted a drink of something. But there was a squeak during Martin Jarvis's half-time snorefest meaning the whole lot had to be read out again. Never before have I heard 120 people groan so loudly. Eventually we get the all-clear - unlike every other Dictionary Corner guest, Jarvis couldn't make the time to congratulate the winner in any of the games.
So off to the hotel to drop off my case, then to the snooker centre next door for drinks and more drinks with most of the fellow contestants. Amongst other things, chat turned to anagrams and word lists, and the like. Such as Richard Pay recalling that MARDIEST and READMITS are both fine in Countdown, but MISRATED is a complete no-no. So he definitely wouldn't offer MISRATED in his quarter-final in round 4 the next day would he? Oh. It almost cost him the game, but not quite.
Perhaps what cost him the game was the fire alarm going off in the hotel at 4.10 a.m. My thought? To go back to sleep ASAP. Eventually I thought it might be an idea to leave the hotel and get to the fire assembly point, but as I got to the door the alarm stopped. Thinking it was all-clear, I went back to bed. Fortunately, it was all-clear.
The following morning all talk was on the fire alarm incident, including the quite bizarre theory that the Stewart Holden clan was staying in a different hotel, and was totally unaffected by the alarm. Completely ludicrous, but it kept us entertained for a couple of minutes.
With Richard Pay surviving the quarter-final but falling to the Holden juggernaut, my semi-final against Steve Graston was the penultimate recording. This time the cordial Michael Aspel was dictionary-cornering, making a point of shaking our hands, wishing us the best of luck, congratulating us on getting this far.
After round 1, it was looking bleak for me. Steve had thundered in RESILIENT, I only mustered LISTENER, and I was contemplating defeat again. After 7 rounds I was 41 points behind, BONDAGES being the highlight of the disallowed words. It was effectively game over, so from there on I resolved to enjoy myself. So time for another comedy numbers pick: "1 from the top, 1 from the second row, 1 from the third row, and 3 ... more from the top please Carol". UNPAIRED in round 11 was a nice way to cut the deficit, but 33 points behind I needed a 9 in the final letters round to stand a chance. GLCUEAWTS was the completely uninspiring selection, not even giving me the chance to offer a speculative 9 for a chance to win. Still, getting 6 points back wasn't too bad. My 4 large as my first selection hadn't paid off, so kind of mirroring a selection from my very first game I told Carol she could pick anything she wanted. For some reason she thought there was a trick behind it, i had to assure her it was a completely free choice. Had it have been close, I'm pretty sure 2 large would have been employed again, but the game was lost, I'd picked at least one of every type of selection, I didn't care.
Amazingly, I got the conundrum right, which was quite spectacular as I didn't recall ever having heard the word REPUDIATE before. So the losing margin, just 17 points. Quite respectable considering what happened in the first half, but who knows what might have happened had Steve not spotted that 9 letter word, or indeed managed to convince himself that the ending was -ANT and stuck to his 8.
Susie said after the game that I was the best loser they'd had on the show, before slightly taking part of the statement back after realising how dreadful it sounded. She told Steve that I was applauding every winner he got, and was perhaps quite relieved that I didn't try to contest the validity of BONDAGES (offer DOGBANES if you go on the show and get those letters) - I had said I thought it might be in as a verb, and not challenging the mass noun aspect at all.
So that was it, my Countdown career was over, aside from an unlikely invite to the Champion of Champions. But there was the small matter of the final to be contested, an excellent contest in which Stewart name-dropped me, referring to my heats tactic of asking for a "Whitehall" a large chunk of the time. It was pretty close all the way, but a routine numbers game at the end gave Stewart victory without the need of a crucial conundrum.
So there was only one thing left to do - free bar! Which, sadly, I had to leave early due to preparations for leaving on a jet plane. But what an adventure. End of experience.
Until 2005. Jon O'Neill had shocked the world with his numbers prowess, and was a solid number 3 seed for Series 53. Having already booked a hotel room I was appointed official cheerleader. So back to YTV but no pressure on picking the shirts that wouldn't clash with the set! No pressure of having to play! And if I got drunk, who cared? Jono seemed rather more taken by the hotel offering free milk all day, but that didn't interrupt our Scrabble sessions in the dining / television area just off reception. And knowing full well all manner of people would be passing through, some of them might even recognise either of us and come over, I took a small amount of joy in playing TWAT. Childish, maybe, but it was the best word I could find.
The following day it was a start in the snooker hall next door to meet up with Ross Allatt who, it must be said, looks much younger than his actual age. In the studio hot seat area it was very interesting watching Jono go bright red as Susie entered the studio to take her seat. Judith Young thought something was wrong with Jono, before I started fanning him down, explaining his crush. Their game was fairly unspectacular (Jono didn't think he played well), but his going up to 5,075 for a numbers solution was just showboating - the solution (which Carol missed) could be made using just addition and subtraction. The board from that numbers game solution is now in storage at my house, having forgotten to claim one from one of my own games I reckoned that would make an effective surrogate board. Still, the IRONCASTS conundrum was fun. None of the players spotted it, and several universes were born and died before the audience gave up. CASTIRONS was an inspired guess from the audience, but seeing as CASTRATIONS wasn't right the first 2 times it was tried, gambling it for a 3rd time was ambitious at best. It's CROISSANT, for the record.
I don't remember much else from that day of recording, other than Dudley Doolittle on warm-up still getting milage out of the same warm-up routine that served him well the previous year. To be fair, it's a different audience every time so there's no need for radically new material. But the number of times I've heard that he's sold his council house... Oh, and John Mayhew taking a slightly unnatural liking to my at the time short haircut.
As there were no heats being recorded, all 4 quarter-finals and 1 semi-final were recorded on the Monday, leaving Jono v John Mayhew as the remaining semi-final, the winner to meet John Brackstone in the final. Jono, Mr and Mrs Brackstone and myself all went to a horribly overpriced restaurant (in my opinion) but the food was nice. And it was quite exciting dining in the presence of what could have been the two finalists.
Back at the hotel, I devised a cunning plan to drink as much as I could. That John Mayhew stayed up drinking as well was purely coincidental. I don't remember much about the next morning, we may have gone for a game of pool but that's just a guess. What I do remember is the semi-final that day. A very tough battle with Jono at one point 14 ahead, offering "HORNIES" was optimistic at best, but there's no shame in missing THEOREMS. So with 2 rounds left, and Jono 1 point behind, we were sitting there expecting more numbers magic from Jono to claim the lead going into the evil conundrums. In a bizarre echo of my own semi-final, Carol had to ask if Jono really wanted 1 large and 5 small. It turned out to be relatively trivial, the diabolical conundrum went unsolved, and Jono was out by a single point.
I left the studio for the green room as soon as I could, a few seconds later Damian Eadie came in from the gallery, we looked at each other and virtually said in unison "What the hell was that?"
The final was a remarkable, tense encounter. A few months ago I was going through my Countdown bag, and saw the notes that I made of the final. All the rounds are present, including both ARTGENIUS and LIFEFAIDS conundrums. I find it very hard to believe I would have taken time to make such a log of everything to do with that game, including the scrambles of 2 conundrums, only to miss one out. So I think John Mayhew is suffering from a slightly false memory there, with his claim there were 3 conundrums used. Also, at some stage of the day Damian apologised a little for not having a final-standard conundrum spare. While not proof in itself, it does lend itself to suggest there were indeed just the 2 conundrums that were broadcast.
I had to get Susie's autograph in my copy of Larpers and Shroomers - I was thrilled that she recognised me, and stunned that she had actually spotted me in the audience and could identify me. We had a little chat, much to the annoyance of the old people who were also trying to get her autograph. As I walked off set an old person came up and asked which of the people playing that day had beaten me. I explained that I wasn't a contestant in that series, but had been on a year prior, he just looked confused, said "oh", and shuffled off.
I had a little unfinished business to attend to, namely the end of series free bar! Yes, this time I didn't have to be anywhere later that day, so full advantage could be taken. The Champion of Champions contestants had been announced on the C4Countdown group, 8 players in total and I wasn't one of them, so this would be my last time in the Countdown studios. I'd long held the belief that only grand finalists should take part in the Champion of Champions so I wasn't surprised that I wasn't included. But Sweyn Kirkness being included was totally baffling to me. I felt bad for Steve Graston when he was announced.
Little did anyone know at the time that that would be the last time Richard Whiteley would step foot in the studios. Watching him interact with Tanmay Dixit and his sister in the bar area after the recordings was a joy. Did I cry when I heard the news he'd died? No. Did I cry the day after? Yes.
So that ends my experience with Countdown.
Until early 2006, where it was announced that Champion of Champions XII would take place, which was postponed following Richard's illness, then death. Jono had been guaranteed a place in a future Champion of Champions, and I'd heard that invites were being issued. Jono confirmed this was the case, so I started asking if I could be his cheerleader again. When he said no, I launched into some anti-Jono abuse. Then Damian came onto the Messenger, asking if I'd like to take part in the Champion of Champions series. Of course I would, then shortly I spoke to Jono apologising for the earlier abuse. He knew I'd been invited, so set the joke himself.
With 16 players in total, Steve Graston had also been invited, but due to reasons outside the scope of my experience there was to be no Stewart Holden. And no Sweyn. The draw hadn't been kind to me, what with me drawing former champion John Davies, but looking over the list there weren't any easy games. Again my mother wanted to be in the audience, so again she drove us both up. This time we had satnav on our side, which worked perfectly until on the very last turning she decided to turn off too soon, adding a good 10 minutes to our journey. Ah well.
Now the green room was chock-full in the series finals with 8 contestants. This would have 16 of us, plus supporters. Utter chaos was the order of the day, but good to see some familiar faces, some I'd met before, others for the first time. Even though my game was second, it felt like it arrived immediately. I'd got my maximum-stripes jumper on, ready for a hot seat airing, only to be told they no longer do that. So stripey jumper on show it was. My only real hope of victory was that John hadn't been practising much. Fat chance - his amazing SEALPOINT in round 2 effectively ended it as a contest. Nothing I did seemed to work, as I found myself in a similar position to my semi-final going into round 13. But this time the letters looked a bit friendly. I knew STURGEON was there, but why settle for the definite loss when you can go for the long shot win? Knowing RETONGUES is no good, I went for GREENOUTS. No good, and game over. But at least I got the conundrum to make the score look almost respectable, and cap off a great time being on screen in the famous YTV studios. John was a different class, I deserved to get a pasting against someone of his calibre, and that's exactly what happened.
So from there on, it was time to enjoy myself, and revel in a feast of stunning words, interspersed with nightly games of pool against Jono and his, erm, "entourage". Before Jono's game, referring to the new dictionary, I said "There's only one word in the new dictionary that's worth learning, and that's EUROLAND". What does he get to offer in his game? EUROLAND. I said that, but it's not really worth learning as it anagrams to UNLOADER, and was in the old dictionary anyway...
On the final day I was sitting in the audience during a break, pondering if a numbers game was possible. Then I thought I heard someone call my name. I sort of dismissed it - in the studio atmosphere it's easy to hear things that weren't said. But then it came again, louder. I look up, it's only Carol shouting from the other side of the studio wanting to know if I'd got it. It's only a small thing, but it's little touches like that that made me feel like I was part of the Countdown family, and not just a contestant.
So we got to the final, a rematch between Paul Gallen and Mark Tournoff - on the first day it had already been commented by celebrity racist "Big" Ron Atkinson that he looked like a certain Chelsea manager, but unlike that certain manager couldn't quite win the title. Just read this C4C posting, then imagine what it was like to witness in the studio. Absolutely amazing stuff.
Des Lynam was great, but could never compare to Richard Whiteley. If you've got this far, well done. I'm surprised I got this far. If I was invited to take part in a special show, I'd be on in a heartbeat, but after so many false finishes this probably is the end of my Countdown career, save the unofficial tournament gatherings that take place annually in Lincoln, Bristol and perhaps other places around the country. Maybe one day I'll get back into the studio, cheering my brother on. He's camera shy, but the scary part is, he's the talented one out of the two of us. After all, looking at a selection, casually announcing you've got BANDOLIER for 9, then dismissing it as an easy spot - THAT takes talent.
If you're thinking about applying, do so right now. What's the worst that can happen? You fail the audition. So what? I can think of at least 2 people who failed the audition, and still went on to have a nice, long, enjoyable stint on the show. Go for it, you won't regret it.Gary Male