As Countdown fans will already know, I have the very dubious distinction of being the last Countdown champion with Richard at the helm. I will take the opportunity here to say that I think Des was an inspired choice as a replacement: nobody could really fill those shoes perfectly and it would not be appropriate to try to do so. It was apparent that Des was very self-conscious in his new role. Cheesy puns are not his forte and yet he took the trouble to try to get to grips with the expectations of the old audience very quickly. I think it was wise not to choose one of the old regulars. I hope and believe that the old pun-meister would have agreed.
Countdown has been going since November 1982 and I was there watching when the very first programme was aired, though I can't honestly say that I tuned in just to see a new game show. It was the first time in my life that a new TV channel had emerged (BBC2 appeared in 1965, the year before I was born) and C4 had been "hyped" as edgy and challenging. Although at 15 I didn't expect to come home from school to be exposed to anything too radical, I switched on anyway just to see the birth of something new. I would be lying if I said that I was instantly hooked. Frankly speaking, the presenter looked amateur, the sets looked tacky and the game itself was, well, just a word-and-number game. The fact that I was already a word nerd did not in itself persuade me that Countdown was a great idea. But then I was 15. It took me some time to realise that the main charm of Countdown lies in precisely those qualities I initially scorned. And more to the point, I enjoyed playing the words right from the start.
I was good at words from an early age. One of those things I suppose. Although there was never any discernible practical value, I loved anagrams. So in my later teens I was already being told by friends and family that I should go on Countdown. Unfortunately, I was a total scaredy-cat. Yes, I knew that I could beat the vast majority of TV contestants in the comfort of my own room. But I lacked the confidence to actually apply: the thought of all those hundreds (as I imagined then) in the studio audience, plus all those millions watching at home gave me the screaming ab-dabs. In fact, the total number in the studio audience is a less daunting 150 or so, scarcely visible with the studio down-lights turned on the player and in the event I hardly noticed them. Oh, I knew rationally that if the worst came to the worst and (say) I collapsed on the floor that there would be suitable editing, at the very worst a no-show. However. My typical response to those who badgered me to go on was "Yes, I'll do it. In my own time!"
I took the scenic if cowardly route. If I may mention this on a website dedicated to Countdown, I chose to try my hand as a Scrabble player. British Scrabble was in those days (l990's) based entirely on what I shall call, in keeping with Macbeth, the Scottish Dictionary. Here is a standard problem for the many Scrabble players who have appeared on Countdown over the years: when to risk one of those words. I have seen one of the best ever Countdown players fall foul of the temptation to try the other dictionary. This will always be a danger if a player becomes too acquainted with one particular word-source. I fell into the same trap on a few occasions. Anyway, having assured myself that I really was quite a good player I decided to apply...
...about five years later...
... just to be on the safe side.
I won't go into any details about my audition other than to say that I didn't do as well as I might have but did well enough to go through. My first game, recorded in January 2005, screened on 17th February, was against new champion Gary Buxton. After all my nightmares it has to be said that sitting in the old "hot-seat", waiting in the audience for Richard to call me out, was not nearly as terrifying as I thought it might be. I'd already met Gary in the green room and he was an extremely calming influence and a genuinely nice guy. But that first day was not without its problems. The whole recording day was running late because a certain five-time champion hadn't turned up. In these circumstances, a local stand-in has to be called up at short notice. I am not at liberty to say more but be assured that the missing champion turned out to be AOK. Gary eventually got to record the third game (of five recorded that day) and became the new champ. What with the usual out-takes, pick-ups and so forth it was getting rather late when I finally made my debut on the other side of the old carpeted top, alongside Richard W. and Gary (with Lesley Garrett as guest). Things were going fairly well until about halfway through, when an elderly gentleman at the back of the audience had a fit. I didn't know what the problem was at the time but having asked the floor manager I was told later that the gentleman in question made a perfect recovery. It took about 20 minutes for St. John's to come in, sort out and stretcher him away, so that by the time I finished my second and final game that day it was well after 9 pm. I was told the next day, by an apologetic Damian Eadie, that this sort of thing never happens usually and I'm quite sure that's true! Certainly the rest of my first go in the big chair was easy by comparison. Please, any possible future contestants reading this, don't be put off. Far from confirming my own silly fears, that I might make an idiot of myself, it reassured me that the audience and others were human too.
The first eight games weren't too bad. If anything I was almost as nervous returning in early May for the finals. Bear in mind that I hadn't seen all the contestants then. I hadn't for example seen the number 1 seed, John Brackstone, who at that time had not been shown on TV. And I especially feared Jon O'Neill with his brilliant numerical skills. Well, I didn't make light work of any of my games. With Chris Hunt who first appeared the "day after" my 8 wins (he was seen on screen the 1st March 2005) I got off to a reasonable start and was safely but not vastly ahead by the conundrum. In the semi-final I had to face Jon O'Neill whose deadpan style I had seen off- as well as on-screen. We both got the maximum 7 on Round 1. Then weirdly we both missed some easy 6's on Round 2. With the letters CYFTNEAOS we had both seen 6's. In fact I saw the 7-letter Scrabble-acceptable words COSTEAN and OCTANES, though I wouldn't have risked them. OCEANS, CANOES and OCTANE would have done nicely. I saw OCTANE and OCEANS but was obsessed with finding a longer word and, through sheer nerves, ended up calling a mere 5, FANCY, as did Jon. I don't know quite how but at the conundrum I was leading by a mere point. Neither of us saw the slightly difficult anagram CONCIERGE (from EROGENICC) and by default the game was mine.
If I felt the semi-final was a lucky win, it had nothing on the final itself. John Brackstone didn't start well. I got off to a healthy start with TASTEFUL. In the second round we both missed COMPOTES. In the fourth we both found MARINADE, and neither of us saw MANDARINE (the alternative spelling of the "short squashy fruit", according to Philip Franks, then residing). I blobbed on the next numbers round allowing John B. to catch up somewhat, then promptly made a mess of the next two letters rounds missing the easy BRISKET, then risking the Scrabble word PRIMAGE where the safe anagram EPIGRAM would have done nicely. At this point, with the final numbers round and the conundrum to go, we were level on 76. Eek! We both failed to get near the number target, a sign of nerves again I think. So now we faced the conundrum, equally scored, the ultimate sudden death for the final. ARTGENIUS. Looking at it now it's hard to believe that I didn't get it. It's hard to believe that J.B. didn't get it either. I remember thinking at the time that, whoever won the game, it must have been exciting for the viewers. But mostly I was thinking to myself: "Please, please, get the next conundrum quickly!" Now here's something that isn't generally known. There were three conundrums and I can't for the life of me recall what the second conundrum was. Suffice to say that, again, neither of us got it and it was edited out later to avoid running over time. If anyone remembers hearing my maniacal giggling (should that be cackling?) after the first conundrum, please bear in mind that in reality we were now facing our third crucial conundrum. At this stage I had almost given up caring which of us won as long as the ordeal was over soon. As I said I was lucky, and I still feel undeserving in a way. I got the third conundrum, FALSIFIED, in 3 seconds and thereby won the series. It wasn't the best way to win but, hey, I did it - and actually it's not an unfair result.
It only remains to be said that, very sadly, Richard Whiteley died during the time that the finals were being broadcast. Of all the questions that people have asked me about Countdown the two most often asked are (predictably) "What was Richard like?" and "What was Carol like?" I only wish I could give a genuine answer to either. The fact is, as I have told those who asked, that generally speaking we didn't have much contact with the two main stars. They had their green room; we, the contestants, had ours. All new contestants sat in the seat nearest Richard's before the programme started and he would always exchange a few words to reassure the newcomer. I can remember him asking me, referring to something I had written on my application form, "Do you really like The Simpsons?". He seemed completely baffled by their popularity. I said, yes, I did. "Why?", he asked. Tough call. Had he ever watched them, I asked. No. Well try watching them, I suggested. End of that conversation. Don't know if he did. I saw something of the real Whiteley, I suspect, after the final when, naturally, we all went to the bar. He looked happy and relaxed talking to various TV people and friends from the series. When I approached, looking for my third champagne, he grabbed my hand and gave me hearty congratulations. It didn't matter that I knew that the platitude wasn't totally sincere: for Heaven's sake, the guy had presented his 53rd complete series, quite apart from all the champion-of-champions series and I was far from being a star pupil. I'm not going to pretend that I thought he was brilliant either. He wasn't a star according to any normal understanding of the term. But he was absolutely the right person for the job. When I asked for his autograph I wasn't being insincere. There was something about the old Whiters, something he wasn't entirely in charge of, that made him excellent. If there hadn't been, I maintain, despite word nerds like me, the programme would have crashed and burned.
As for Carol, well more or less the same applies as regards exchanged conversations. So far anyway. I will of course have to go back and face some seriously talented players in the next champion-of-champions dooberry. Uh oh! And I look forward to meeting Des, the new torch-bearer.John Mayhew