I was inspired to write by Colin Wreford's diary, which I really enjoyed.
We've been watching Countdown almost since it started in 1982 and I eventually responded to one of the contestant appeals early in 2005.
My completed application form was submitted just as Richard was falling ill, and my own thoughts when Richard died were that it could well be an appropriate time for Countdown to end. Nevertheless, after a suitable period filming started again, and the appearance of Conor certainly showed that the program still had its appeal.
My own audition took place just as Conor's shows were being broadcast, and all the auditionees (don't think that's in Susie's dictionary) were suitably in awe of his talents. Damian was running the audition, and cheered us up by saying they had held four days of auditions in Scotland the previous week without choosing any contestants! Things got worse when a little old lady in the corner got a nine-letter word INSURANCE in the first audition round, whereas I had been rather proud of NUISANCE for eight. Things then improved, I did well in the numbers, got all three conundrums, and received a call from Damian a couple of days later to say I had passed. As I lived locally, he asked if I was O.K. to be a standby contestant if they were ever short of a contestant (i.e. in the event of octochamps), and that was fine for me.
I was sure I recognised Damian from somewhere, but it wasn't till filming that we found out/remembered he had spent time in DC and was a series champion!
I had a 'false-alarm' stand-by call in the week before Christmas to say that Christine was heading for eight in a row, but then had the 'all-clear' call when Christine fell at the final hurdle.
And then the big day came - a call on the morning of 11th January asking me to come along to the studio for 3 p.m. as they were potentially a contestant short. I called at home, collected a couple of shirts, my wife Mandy, and also my eldest son Matthew, who was still in bed on his last day before going back to Bristol University.
We were escorted into the Green Room half-way through Keith Maynard's seventh show, and the score was 45-45. Oh no, I thought, surely not another false alarm. But Keith came through with the help of DECIMATES (slightly worried that Mandy and Matthew spotted this, and I didn't), and then won his eighth game quite comfortably.
And this was it - Gary Watton and myself had tossed a coin for the choice of champion's chair, and I had incorrectly chosen the champion's chair thinking I would get two choices of numbers. I was definitely a little nervous, but mostly glad I wasn't playing a seven-times winner. I remember chatting to Des about being stage-hypnotised, and remember Carol's little look when I chose six small numbers. I also remember Jo Brand being very funny, with a string of nine-letter words from her "special dictionary".
It was a very close game, with Gary and I matching each other on 11 of the first 14 rounds. Gary won an early round, and I won two later on, and so we reached the crucial Countdown conundrum. I'm usually O.K. with words ending -ING or -ED or -ER, etc., but TECHNICAL passed me by completely. Fortunately, Gary missed it as well and I was through in a high-scoring and very close game.
And so we were asked to return at lunchtime the following day (Thursday) for afternoon and evening filming, and it was then I realised I had been a bit hasty in saying I was available!
Mandy works in the local library from 1 p.m. - 7 p.m. on Thursdays, and spent the Wednesday evening ringing round for cover. We found someone to cover 1 p.m. - 5 p.m., and thought that would probably be enough. We then had to pack Matthew up for his return to Bristol.
6.30 alarm call the next morning, and worked till 11.30 doing accounts stuff that couldn't wait till my return. Mandy and children all had a dentist appointment, we dropped Matthew at the station, and rushed back to the studios. No time for nerves, but already a bit tired.
Games 2 and 3 were OK - I was behind early in game 2, but had a strong run in the second section, and Brian in game 3 kept seeing letters that weren't there. Failed on both conundrums (DANDELION and POTASSIUM were not my kind of words!), but was through to game 4.
Mandy had to go to work for game 4, and I took the opportunity to please everyone at work by wearing a rather loud dice tie, which had featured heavily as a scarf and as a headband at a recent works 'conference'. Game 4 turned out to be a bit of a struggle!
Christine won three of the first four rounds and I won the other, and I was 21-7 behind. I then went for the six small numbers, and neither of us got anywhere close. A short break, and I then tried to catch up with speculative words in Rounds 6 and 7. Both failed, and I had seven points after seven rounds and was 27 behind - surely no way back. There was a very easy second numbers game that we both got, and I was still 19 points down with three rounds to go.
I then got eight points for ROOMIEST, ten points for getting 416 (26 x 16), and saw ANCHORING straight away to get the crucial countdown conundrum - the crowd went wild (it was a Saturday crowd!!) and I was in a state of shock.
No rest for the wicked, and it was straight into game 5 against David, a Watford supporter. Mandy was back in the crowd, and it was the last game of the day.
So far the numbers hadn't helped me much, even though they are usually my strong point. There had been a selection of very easy targets, some impossible, and I'd missed a couple of quite easy ones. Fortunately (again) things changed for game 5 onwards. David was a very strong player, and beat me in quite a few of the letters games. I did, however, take 30 points from him with three tricky numbers games, and saw PROTESTED for 18 points near the end.
Back home by 8.30 after a 14-hour day, still slightly shocked, and required for morning and afternoon filming the next day. I left a garbled message on my boss's voicemail, saying I'd probably be in on Friday afternoon (if I lost in the morning).
The three Friday shows were reasonably straightforward, given that I had been behind in four of the first five games. I had a good numbers day, and even spotted my second conundrum. I felt particularly sorry for Ben in game 8 - it is bad enough playing a seven-times winner, but I was also completely relaxed and seeing almost everything.
And then it was all over, until the quarter-finals of course and a possible meeting with the mighty Conor (and since then the mighty Paul).
I thoroughly enjoyed the whole Countdown experience, have since discovered the C4 Countdown Forum which is good fun, and would encourage anyone who is thinking about it to ring for that application form.
My best memories are the fightback in game 4, seeing a nine-letter word, the inscription "To Michael, the numbers king..." from Carol in one of the books in the goody-bag, and of course, the Countdown teapot.Michael Bowden