Kevin Thurlow (aka the "Redhill Rocket") first appeared on Countdown on 28th January 2002, knocking out Deanne Meeres with a score of 123-72. He then went on to register another seven wins, including four more centuries. He returned for the quarter-finals as number six seed, with 769 points under his belt. He then proceeded to knock out number three seed Lee Hartley with a score of 106-93 after a crucial conundrum went in his favour, before finally losing to Tom Hargreaves in the second semi-final by just sixteen points.
My route to Countdown was not entirely smooth. I failed my first audition, when I had a bit of an off-day. About a year later, my father was due for an audition, but not very mobile, so I drove him there. Mark Nyman recognised me from the previous meeting and invited me to sit in on the audition. At the end, he said he would reactivate my file. The next real audition went well. However, I had moved house in the meantime and my new address got mislaid. If it had not done so, I would have been scheduled to be on a year earlier! Eventually they caught up with me when I emailed the office to ask if they had forgotten me. An instant response from Damian explained all.
Shortly afterwards, I got the invitation to record just before Christmas. A cheery voice on the phone said “If you win all five that day, you will have to return on January 14th. Is that a problem?” “Winning five will be.” So I started serious training. Hitherto, I had always watched the video, with my feet up, and never bothered to write anything down. Luckily, I spoke to Matthew Turner (former finalist) at a chess event and he told me about the studio layout and the monitor buried in the desk. This foreknowledge helped. Knowing that you would see the letters in a line, just as on TV, it seemed logical to write the letters in a different way as Carol called them out. My parents were avid crossword solvers, and used to write the letters in a circle to solve anagrams, so I adopted that. Subsequently, a friend suggested writing the letters in a 3 x 3 matrix. Letters in a line can help, if words spring out at you, but sometimes you need to break that up. An early heat had the letters BTNUAESRY. Now, BUTANE almost jumps out at you (no plural of course), but if you write the letters differently, you might spot SAUNTER. I spent the intervening couple of weeks before recording playing seriously against the contestants, and practising not fidgeting. Playing chess is a definite advantage, because you are trained to focus when you have to, and then relax when you do not need to think. Also, you are used to single combat at a mindsport. I decided it was important to relax as much as was possible. It struck me that there is no great need to think about selection of letters. I was amazed when people asked for “Consonant…. er um, vowel, er um….”. Three vowels is the minimum, so I settled on sticking to three consonants, three vowels, two consonants, and only then quickly deciding on the last letter. For the numbers, it seems that one large number and five small offers the best chance of getting most targets. (A mathematical proof would be time-consuming.) But I genuinely did not mind what numbers I got, hence I saved energy by asking Carol to choose, and she always chooses the preferred selection. The excellent “Countdown - Spreading the Word” (available from good bookshops) advises not making it obvious that you’ve been clever. Clearly, you would not want to advertise an 8 or 9 letter word by sitting back, as it gives away the fact there’s something good. However, the numbers game is normally possible so I thought it a reasonable tactic to relax when I had done it, in the hope it would intimidate the opponent. The numbers game has always been a favourite of mine and there are a few tricks allowing you to multiply quickly, or to determine if numbers are divisible by nine.
You are allowed a guest in the audience, and I recalled that a friend from Civil Service Sports Council was interested when she heard I was going to be on the programme. Did she want to attend? Carolyn eagerly said yes, and she was wonderful. We met at Leeds station and she took one look at the gibbering wreck in front of her and prescribed coffee. She did a fantastic job keeping me calm until recording started. It has to be said that everyone associated with the programme made a real effort to keep everyone happy and as relaxed as possible. Luckily, I was first on, and as we waited for the start, I was thinking the important thing was not to lose too badly, but it would be nice to win one, and even get a nine-letter word. Deanne made a bad start and “RELATIONS” turned up quite early. Suddenly, Richard was hailing me as champion, but I was so focused, I had no idea what the scores were. My immediate feelings of elation and relief faded when I realised that meant I had to do it all again. Shelagh Addis seemed as nervous as I had been, with the added disadvantage she had just had to sit watching me get 123. After that, it was a bit of a blur, except the fourth game was not as good. Carol asked if I had had a few drinks beforehand. “No.” “Ah, just tired then.” The fifth one was a struggle, but luckily I hung on to win. This was the last recording day before Christmas, so there was a month’s gap before the next session. The sixth one against Peter Lee was really tough. But luckily I spotted the crucial “RUMMAGING” a fraction of a second quicker. My late father used to work for Customs, so I could imagine him smiling at that. Two more wins and I was the latest octochamp and seeded three. All the opponents were really sporting, and Peter even gave me his notebook to assist in training for the finals.
It was strange watching myself on TV, but the aftermath was stranger, as people came up to me in restaurants and supermarkets, and old friends contacted me. It became clear that everyone’s mother watches the programme. One lady telephoned to say that her late husband had been killed in an air raid over Kiel in 1943, his navigator’s name was Thurlow, and was he a relation? It seemed not, but we had a friendly chat anyway.
Over the months I slipped down the seedings, but I was quite happy with the ultimate position of six. It took the pressure off, and I was aware I had subconsciously relaxed when victory was assured a couple of times, thus reducing the points total. I do not recommend this, as you might end up seeded ninth! I knew from watching the others that on a good day I could win, but a slight lapse would be enough to lose. The seeding system used, number of wins, then total number of points is really the best way, but of course it is rather artificial. Chris Wills spotted about five nine-letter words in his heats, but missed several others. I got two of the possible three. Obviously Chris produced an outstanding performance, but there is an element of luck in what letters turn up, so the seedings are only a guide to expected results.
It was interesting to observe tactics of the others. Wendy did not even write the letters down! Most of the quarter-finalists were enthusiastically practising in the audience. It was encouraging to meet everyone (except Lee) at the hotel and find they were all friendly. There was a great spirit throughout. Lee cunningly arrived later in the day, to avoid spending hours in the studio. We had a great battle, although we both missed fairly obvious words, especially "RANDOMISE". Another nine arrived, “SLAUGHTER”, and just as I cast a furtive glance to see if he had spotted it, he did the same, which is why we both started laughing. Then the same happened with the last numbers. Another crucial conundrum, “BORINGHUE”, and luckily I realised immediately the “ING” was a red herring, and got “NEIGHBOUR”. Well, there are two programmes which are worth recording every day….. Tom had only just got past Mike, but he was on fire in the semi-final and never missed anything. One exchange never made the broadcast after I was introduced as the “Redhill Rocket”. Richard Digance: “You don’t look like a rocket. Are we supposed to stick you in a bottle and set fire to you?” Me: “I’ve had worse!”. First rule of television, don’t get the better of the professionals. He got his revenge later of course. Unfortunately for Tom, he had a bit of a nightmare in the final. But Chris got some great words, (e.g. "OBTRUDES") and he was a worthy winner.
Since then, the local paper has carried a prominent report, a friend from Radio Guernsey did an interview, and shopping takes longer than usual. More messages arrived, including one from Ingrid Pitt, the renowned Hammer actress, who watched every day when she was recently in hospital. Most of the women ask what Richard is really like, and most of the men ask how you concentrate when Carol is wearing leather! At least one fellow chess player has sent in his application.
It is clear there is a great love for the programme. And why not? It reflects the good-natured way the programme is played and produced. It was immense fun and it was really quite sad saying goodbye to everybody when we finished. And I am still embarrassed at missing all those nice chemical words.