Jason Witcher appeared on Series 42 of Countdown, back in February 2000. His first (and sadly, only) opponent was a certain David Ballheimer, who, at the time, had already won three games and, as Countdown aficionados will know, went on to become the series' number one seed (although he ended up being defeated in the semi-finals by John Hastings). Jason put up quite a fight against David, in fact the game was one of those legendary encounters where the scores remained tied throughout the entire game and the result had to be decided by a crucial conundrum. Even then, Jason was just about to press his button when David buzzed in to correctly unravel MENTALTOL and dash Jason's chances of taking home a teapot. This, then, is Jason's very own recollection of how he came oh-so-close to changing the course of Countdown history...
This article was originally featured on Jason's own website. My thanks to him for passing it on for publication here.
On November the 2nd 1982, Channel 4 broadcast for the first time. Like many people in the UK, I watched it launch, and after the introduction, settled down to watch the first programme, a words and numbers quiz called 'Countdown'. After ten or fifteen minutes, I decided it was boring and didn't watch it again for years after. It was only when my parents discovered it some time in the mid eighties that I started to watch and gradually got drawn in. After that, I was hooked and would watch it every day whenever I could.
Some time in 1997, the presenter, Richard Whiteley, gave the details of how to become a contestant at the end of one programme. I had often thought I would do reasonably well, but never got round to finding out how to actually get on. I had auditioned for 'Fifteen-to-One' a few years previously, but had not been accepted, so I guessed that going on 'Countdown' would involve a similar process. I wrote off, received the application form shortly afterwards, sent it off at the end of August 1997 and waited for my audition date. And waited... And waited...
I didn't get to audition for another year. The auditions were to be held at the Games Olympiad in Hammersmith, so I took a day off work and went up there. Mine was one of a number of sessions with about fifty people auditioning at each. We played the same games as actually appeared on the show: letters, numbers and conundrum, then handed our papers in and went away with fingers crossed. A few weeks later, I got a letter calling me for another audition, and in October attended a smaller gathering of about eight or ten at a hotel near Oxford Street and went through the same process. Unfortunately, the next I heard was that I hadn't got through, so I wrote back saying I would like to be reconsidered. I had got so close, I had to try again.
Another year passed, and another Olympiad rolled round, this time in Kensington. My third audition, and it was third time lucky. I got a letter shortly after returning from America in late September to say I'd been accepted as a contestant, then later another one giving the recording date - December the 7th. My first show would be the second to last of the day, as they shoot six at a time, and if I won that and the next one I would have to return on the 10th, so I took the whole week off work just in case.
On the morning of the 7th, I set off - I was so nervous I forgot my lunch and didn't realise until I got to Wimbledon. I changed there for the Thameslink to King's Cross, took the Inter City to Leeds, then walked from the station to the studio. I arrived about an hour early, at 2pm, and had to wait in the lobby for a while as they were shooting the first programme of the day. I was shown to the dressing room, and met another contestant in there who complained that a young lad had just won with 65 points and he was playing him next! I commiserated, then went to watch the second show. The guy from the dressing room, whose name turned out to be David Ballheimer, won that game, and the next two, so I ended up against him. I watched the show prior to mine from the front row, where they put the contestants for the next day, and was miked up so that I could trade witticisms with Richard Whiteley at the end of the programme. The rounds ended, and I found a camera pointing straight at me, and Richard asking me how I had done; I had got a nine-letter word, but not the conundrum. Strangely enough, I was more nervous then than I was actually making the programme.
Before my programme was shot however, it was dinner time, so I went off for a Yorkshire Television lasagne and tried to prepare myself for what was to come. Finally, it was show time, so I changed shirts (to give the impression that everyone really is sitting there at 4.30 every day waiting for people to tune in - in fact the shows are recorded approximately two months in advance; the first I had seen shot would go out on Valentine's Day, so I worked out that mine would air on February the 17th 2000) and took my position behind the desk. Again, I was miked up and looked out at the audience much as the Christians must have looked at the Romans before being fed to the lions... It wasn't quite that bad, but near enough. The champion also took his place to my right.
After an introduction from the warm-up man, Greg Scott, Richard, Carol and the two occupants of Dictionary Corner took their places and we were off! The familiar title music played and Richard kicked off with 'musings on the English language', then reintroduced David Ballheimer, who was and for all I know still is, a sports journalist, with a chat about his favourite sporting icon (Muhammad Ali, since you ask), before turning to me. He seemed very taken with my name ("I could have gone far with a name like Jason Witcher"), read out that I came from Hackbridge (I had asked him to change it as I was in the process of moving there - in fact we moved in the day before the show went out!), listed one of my hobbies as 'keep fit' (true at the time of the application, but I had since lapsed...) then with one of his trademark puns said I was hoping for 'a long run' (ouch!). After a brief chat with Martin Jarvis, the guest in Dictionary Corner, he realised with glee that our names were David and Jason... David Jason, geddit? You had to be there.
For the first round, David chose the letters. Out of PVANSIRTU, we both made six-letter words. I got TRAINS, he got STRAIN. Dictionary Corner got PURITANS - when it went out I spotted that one too (having completely forgotten the words that had come up on the day). Only two months late...
The second round was my choice, and out of SCEKROGED, I made DOCKERS, David made CODGERS.
Third round - MSANBEGIF. David declared seven, I said I'd 'stick with a seven' (the ploy of contestants with longer words they don't want to risk, but still want everyone to hear...). We both declared BEAMING, I was pressed for my longer word and wondered if you could pluralise it to make BEAMINGS. Apparently not. Phew.
Fourth round, numbers. My choice. In retrospect, I wish I'd gone for six small ones or four large ones, but I stuck with the tried and tested one large, five small, and out of 50, 5, 5, 2, 3, 4 was given the target 168. I did (50+2+4) x 3, David did it the same way, and it was so easy even Richard had a go.
Half-time, and I was feeling good. We were both on 30, a very respectable score at half-time and one some people don't even get in the whole match. One of David's previous victims had lost 55-15, and she was an Oxford University student! One rambling Irish joke from Martin Jarvis and a brief break where the commercials would go, and we were back. Richard made another crack about David Jason, telling the studio audience and four million viewers that he had found out in the break that there was a pop singer called Ballheimer Witcher. Er, not in my edition of the Guinness Book of Hit singles there isn't...
For the next three rounds, not only did we get the same scores, but we got the same words. Out of NGSORELAM came MANGLERS, RPEBGONRI begat REBORING (I wasn't going to chance it, but he declared eight first, so what the hell), then THDAAELNY produced HANDLE (although Dictionary Corner topped it with DEATHLY).
Round eight, numbers. David left the choice to Carol, who picked 25, 6, 10, 2, 8 and 1. The target of 173 was so easy we were both sitting back twiddling our thumbs and taking sips of our water after a matter of seconds. The only difference was how we made the 7 to multiply the 25 - David did 8-1, I did 6+1.
Finally the conundrum. I rarely get these at home, but they weren't David's strong point either so I was hopeful. We were level on 62 each, having tied in every single round. Whoever got this would win. The monitor in front of me displayed 'MENTALTOL' and after what seemed like 12 or 13 seconds (but which I later discovered with a shock was actually four and a half seconds) the bell to my right rang. At that moment I realised it was 'ALLOTMENT' - unfortunately so did he.
I was consoled by Richard with the fact that I had the series' highest losing score at that point, and possibly one of the highest ever. Then he turned to the next challenger, a lady called Maureen Graham - apparently she had got it too. We waited while they checked for anything that had to be redone - we had to reshoot the handshake three or four times before they were happy with it. I watched the next match - the score was 60-22, so I felt slightly better about my performance, and got a name check when the word 'TWITCHERS' came up and Richard Whiteley's strange obsession with my name came up with it.
I stayed overnight at a hotel along the road from the studio, and came back with two carrier bags full of prizes - a dictionary, thesaurus, mug, T- shirt, jotter pad and Countdown game - and waited for transmission. I watched it at work, having made the possibly dubious decision of telling my colleagues. Even now, some smart Alec comes out with a joke about allotments every so often... The Saturday after transmission, I was recognised in the car park of B & Q in Sutton - the price of fame, I suppose... David Ballheimer ended his run of eight programmes unbeaten, one of only three 'octochamps' in the whole series, and went into the finals as the number one seed, although he was knocked out in the semi-final.
Oh well, as they said on 'Big Brother', "it's only a game show"...Jason Witcher