I attended the same audition in Leeds on 24 November 2005 as Michael Bowden, quarter-finalist in Series 54, and remember thinking from the start that it would be tricky coming up against him on the show. The "little old lady" he referred to sat next to me, although in truth she was neither little nor old, and when she came up with the word INSURANCE in the first letters selection, my heart sank a bit. Michael had found NUISANCE and I only got SUNNIER. I enjoyed the audition, hosted by Damian Eadie, and felt I had done well enough to get through, so was bitterly disappointed when I received the letter telling me I had failed. Undeterred, I wrote back to Damian a few weeks later asking if I could have another try, as I was really keen to play the game for real. Out of the blue at the end of February 2006 I received a telephone call from Damian asking if I would be prepared to go on standby for him. We were in the grip of an icy winter and he feared that some contestants might not be able to make their way to Leeds if called. As I only lived over the hill in Lancashire I could get there inside a couple of hours. Of course I agreed, and to show his gratitude he said that if they didn't need me on that occasion, then he would call me up in my own right at a later date.
After six more times on standby I got the letter inviting me to attend YTV studios on Monday 12 June, 2006. My show would be recorded at 8.15pm but I had to be there at 3pm. My wife and I arrived quite early, having already checked into the nearby Holiday Inn and Damian met us in reception and took us straight through to the studio where the second recording of the day was about to start. The champion was three-times winner Rosemary Emanuel and her challenger Berni Shand, and I played along, at the same time taking in the atmosphere and mentally finding my way around the studio set-up. I can't remember any of the stories that Des or Keith Barron, the special guest, told although I do recall them chatting to the small studio audience before each recording along with Dudley Doolittle, the warm-up man. I watched the next recording when Rosemary was beaten by Margaret Hunter and then we broke for tea. By now I had been asked to change into the outfit I wanted to wear and I had chosen a shirt and tie, on the basis that as this could be my one and only ever chance to appear before a nationwide audience, I should make the effort to look reasonably smart.
The day was a scorcher and I was roasting in my show outfit whilst having tea in the staff canteen. So I had to get out to cool off for a bit, and the studio staff were quite worried about this. I'm sure they thought I was going to run away and not appear in time for my slot, but I desperately needed to get some fresh air. Half an hour later I returned to the green room, only to be told by wardrobe that my tie wouldn't be suitable as it might strobe on TV, so in the end I had to change again. I sat in the audience for the 7pm recording and particularly remember a group of students sitting in the row behind me. They had come over from Newtownards, near Belfast, just for the day, and were wearing T-shirts emblazoned with pictures of Des, Carol and Susie. The director had decided to do a shot of them at the start of the show and it occurred to me that I would be in the shot, dressed on 24th August in the same shirt that I would be wearing as a contestant on 25th August. I discreetly and quickly moved out of the way to preserve the illusion. The show was won by Carolyn Kennedy who did a special party-piece of a sexy growl, which was to become a feature of my show. By now all anxiety and nervousness had passed. I had grown accustomed to the studio and the format and all I wanted to do was enjoy myself. It didn't matter if I won or lost, I had waited years for this opportunity and now here it was. I got wired for sound and Des and Carol came to say hello and we quickly rehearsed what we were going to say by way of introductions. In my wildest dreams, I wanted to win a game, get a nine-letter word, get a conundrum and score more than 100 points. Little did I know that all these things would come true in my first game. I got the nine letter word STRAPLINE in round 7 when PRALINES was standing out a mile and oddly, in the next round everybody failed to notice that when I asked for a final consonant, Carol repeated the word consonant and then picked out an E. I only saw this when the show was transmitted on 25th August, but as it happens it didn't affect my chosen word UNEARTH. Even though I don't normally manage to do conundrums, I got DESERTION from IRONSTEED in seven seconds. I had won the game by 117* to 46, the highest score of the series to date.
As we walked back to the hotel I started telephoning everybody I could think of, beginning with the words, "Countdown Champion here". I was on a high and we went to have a couple of drinks in a nearby pub, then off to bed. I didn't sleep much, not only because of the excitement, but because it was such a hot night, even with a borrowed electric fan, and the traffic on the Kirkstall Road outside was roaring.
We returned to the studio for 9.15 and saw Paul Zenon signing in. I was thrilled to see him as he is one of my favourite Dictionary Corner celebrities. I went straight into make-up where Carol and Susie were being pampered and they said hello. As I was leaving make-up, Des came in and we rehearsed our opening banter for the first show of the day. I told him I had talked enough about my banking career that ended eight years previously, and wanted to talk about marriage registrations.
I had met three new contestants that morning, the first being Marcus Toulmin-Rothe from London. He said he was an actor and retired English teacher and my immediate reaction was Help! - I could be in for a tough time. As it happened I won quite comfortably, as Marcus got off to a dreadful start. The letters hadn't fallen very kindly for either of us, and although he beat me with the eight-letter word PASTRIES in round 9 and got the conundrum HILARIOUS from IRISHOULA, I had won 90 – 70.
The next challenger was David Andrew Wood, a pleasant young lad from Dunfermline who in 1996 had run the London marathon in a magnificent 3 hours, 26 minutes. This was a very tight match and we were neck and neck up to Round 12, but he didn't score again after that and I had achieved my second century, winning by 107 – 74. In Round 3 I had the word DONATEES disallowed by Susie. I had worked on the theory that if you could have a donor and a donee, then logically, as donator is permissible, so should be donatee. This was not in Susie's dictionary, though curiously it is in the Shorter OED which was part of my winner's goody-bag. It was a special thrill to see on the Soo Reams website after transmission on 29th August that I had now gained the accolade of best performance, scoring 89% of the possible maximum score available.
After the lunch break came Joy Williams. Now she worried me more than the others because when she arrived at the studio, I heard her asking if she could be away by 5pm to catch her last train back to Devon. She said she was planning to play golf the next day. I thought to myself, "now does she want to win this or not, because if she does win, she'll have to stay overnight". Was this a devious ploy to put her opponents off? I had built an early lead, but she came back in the second part and we were only one point apart by Round 10. Fortunately I had increased my lead to 12 points by the last numbers round, so couldn't lose the game. Neither of us got the conundrum and I had won 86 – 74, and Joy caught her train home.
My final game was with Sheri Evans. She had not arrived at the studio until lunchtime so was comparatively new to everything, and I hadn't really had time to get to know her. I had built up a lead of 11 points by the first break, but she came back at me with two 7's to my 6's in Rounds 6 & 7 and led by 3 points up to Round 14. I could feel myself getting mentally weary, this being my fourth recording of the day, and I really should have seen those seven–letter words. In Round 9, my letters selection, I immediately wrote down the word RETIRED, then started looking for an eight-letter word but couldn't find one. As the clock counted down, panic set in and I declared seven, not written down, ERUDITE, completely forgetting I had already written RETIRED. Sheri chose the numbers in Round 14 and asked for three large, which I thought was a tactic to put me off. Fortunately it backfired on her and I scored seven points, putting me back into the lead by four, going into the crucial conundrum. As I said before I don't normally do conundrums, and as long as Sheri didn't get it I would be fine. She did, and that was the end of Countdown for me.
I then had the agonising wait of nearly eleven weeks to transmission of my first show wondering all the while if I had said something stupid, or scratched my nose whilst in the full glare of camera 2 and knowing there isn't a thing I can do about editing out the bits I'd rather not be seen on screen. Still, I had four wins and 481 points, which isn't a bad record, and as I write I am number seven seed, so in with a very slim chance of going back for the quarter-finals, which would be wonderful.
Countdown is addictive. I desperately want to go back for more, just for the excitement and unpredictability of it all. Why we British put ourselves through this sort of "torture" for so very small reward is beyond me. As the Americans would say, "What, you don't win money????????". No, we do it because it is fun and we want the buzz of the experience. If you are still reading this, then do apply and have a go – or you will wonder what it would have been like for the rest of your life.Ian Hilton
* 117 is the highest score by a challenger since Nick Smith in August 2003 and the great Julian Fell in October 2002.