My name isn't Lemony Snicket, but "A Series of Unfortunate Events" may well describe my Countdown saga! I attended my first audition on the day after England had unluckily lost on penalties to Portugal in Euro 2004. Despite getting lost in Nottingham and only making it to the hotel in the nick of time, I did well in the actual audition and was quite hopeful, but it wasn't to be and I received the disappointing letter just after finding out that I hadn't got a job that I'd interviewed for that morning!
Unperturbed I asked to go back on the list for another try and in March 2005 attended my second audition. This time it was at a different hotel in Nottingham and despite leaving plenty of time to walk there, unbelievably I got lost a second time and only just made it again! I did pretty well, but felt that I was about the same standard as last time so I was amazed when the letter to say that I'd been accepted for the show arrived and I soon received my recording date of 18th May. I was really looking forward to meeting Richard and Carol after watching them on TV for many years and I was glad that I was going to film my episode quite soon after the audition, while still on a high! A month later I was just choosing what clothes I would like to wear on next week's show when the phone rang. It was Charlotte Hudson telling me that Richard wasn't very well and so my original date had to be cancelled. I was disappointed having got myself into good form and psyched up for the show, but of course Richard's health came first and I waited eagerly for more news from Countdown.
Five weeks later I received a further letter saying that my new recording date was 29th June. Presuming that Richard had made a swift and very welcome recovery, I got myself into form again over the next month and was all ready to travel up to Leeds on the Wednesday. Then on Sunday night the completely unexpected and tragic news came through that Richard had died. It seemed totally unbelievable and on Monday stunned friends and family paid their respects on various news programmes throughout the day. Richard Whiteley was undoubtedly one of the nation's best loved and warmest celebrities and his passing touched millions of fans across the world.
While no eulogy could be too great for Richard, life had to go on and now the whole future of Countdown was uncertain. To be honest I couldn't really see the show continuing. The partnership between Richard and Carol had been so perfect that it had formed the fulcrum of the programme. For many, myself included, meeting the twosome was one of the main incentives for wanting to appear on the show in the first place and now it was impossible. More to the point would any other presenter dare take the risk of trying to follow such an endearing legend?
For the next three months I heard nothing and with the show off our screens virtually forgot about Countdown altogether. However throughout September Des Lynam's name was bandied around the media as the new presenter and it soon became clear that filming was due to resume in the Autumn. Sure enough I received a new recording date, but now there was a further complication - I had just started a month's temping job and couldn't really spare the time! I e-mailed Charlotte and we settled on 7th November - almost eight months after my successful audition! With all the upheaval that had gone before surely nothing could get in the way this time, but it almost did. I came down with mild flu for much of the preceding week, but thankfully recovered in time to finally make my way up to Yorkshire Television Studios.
I met my opponent-to-be Daniel Peake in reception. I soon found out that he was a four times champion, but he immediately put me at ease by saying that his last game had gone to a crucial conundrum and so I shouldn't be worried! It was then that it really hit me that I was actually going to appear on Countdown. Up until then it had all seemed great, but slightly unreal. Now I had physically entered the studios, met my opponent and it was less than three hours until the cameras rolled! With this in mind, the next few hours were surprisingly relaxed. We all chatted easily in the Green Room (me, my Dad, Daniel and his Mum and Grandma), had a bit of lunch, changed into our "show clothes" and had our make-up done. As I was climbing out of the make-up chair, Susie Dent drifted into the room. This brought the reality of the contest even closer and for the final fifteen minutes before filming I was an absolute wreck. My heart was racing, I kept going to the loo and I was seriously thinking that I might not be able to go through with it after all. Daniel looked pretty nervous too, despite having four wins already under his belt! Mercifully three o'clock soon rolled around and we both made our way towards the studio. Although the audience were already in their seats, strangely they didn't bother me at all. I was so focussed on the game ahead that I hardly noticed the cameras either. Des and Carol came in next and after a couple of minutes getting settled, the floor manager asked the audience for complete quiet. This is one moment I'll never forget as there was suddenly complete silence for about ten seconds and then the familiar Countdown theme music began. It's strange that this is the moment I should remember best, but now every time I hear the music I'm reminded of sitting there about to appear on TV for the first and probably only time in my life!
Once you've got that far all you want to do is get on with the game, but Des' opening spiel about toothpaste in a tin and old westerns seemed to drag on forever! To make matters worse after the initial introductions were over, Philip Franks' microphone developed a rattle and the show was delayed for further minutes while that was sorted out! Once we finally got going I made a healthy start and despite some tough letters managed to lead 20-14 after the first four rounds. I was obviously hoping that the first numbers game would be easy, so I could take a lead into the break but the number I always struggle with (25) appeared and thus I was nowhere near the target! The next third of the show didn't go quite so well for me as Daniel started to get into his stride, although if the last letter of one of the selections had been a W, I would have seen "WOMANISER" for the treasured 9. As it was we both settled for sevens in that round. At that point I only trailed by 16, but once the dreaded 25 came up again and I failed the second numbers game, it was always a long way back! Actually I only managed to score in one of the last six rounds, but Susie was impressed when I concocted "GRIEVE" from an awkward combination of MEVRTIEGK.
Ultimately I lost 78-38 and while my score seemed quite low, I was boosted afterwards when everyone commented on what hideous selections we'd had in many of the rounds! Sure I'd missed a couple of fairly obvious things, but overall I was pretty pleased with my performance especially playing against an excellent player who is surely destined for the quarter-finals. It's surprising how hard it is to score when your opponent can always seem to pip you by one! Two or three times I thought I was certain to get some points on the board, but Daniel always managed to squeeze out a slightly longer word. He was also much better at the numbers than me, though it would have helped if I hadn't had the demon 25 in all three numbers games! I'd expected to be really nervous with an audience and cameras to contend with, but curiously I felt completely detached from them. It didn't even seem like Des and Carol were actually there - it was more like sitting behind glass in a small room with the pressure on to come up with decent words! Ironically I scored most of my points towards the beginning of the show when I was the most tense. Once I fully relaxed at the midway point I hardly scored again!
After filming I felt pretty drained and was almost pleased that I hadn't won or else I would have had to record another episode almost immediately afterwards! Instead I had a cup of tea in the Green Room and watched Daniel win again on TV. This time of course I could solve two of the numbers games very quickly, but I didn't see much in the letters - perhaps I was just too frazzled to concentrate! After the game we all went to have our photos taken with Des, Carol, Susie and Philip and then began the long trip home.
It seemed a shame that it was all over really. I'd first considered applying for the show two years previously and the process had certainly seen some ups and downs. If anything my story reflects the unique and potent allure of Countdown. If any other show had given me such highs and lows before I'd even appeared on it, I'd have completely abandoned the idea months earlier. However Countdown has such a rich reputation that even a failed audition, two cancelled dates and the death of the show's major icon couldn't deter me. So even though I was well beaten on a day that spanned an exhausting thirteen and a half hours of travel, tension and brain power, I was still very proud of my achievements and have even gained a little bit of local celebrity after my TV appearance! It's surprising how much determination and bottle it takes just to qualify and record one episode, but at the end of the day the knowledge that your name will always remain on Countdown's enormous roll-call of contestants is hugely satisfying.Matthew Goulding, 29, Lincoln