Nita Marr started her Countdown career back in 1987 by beating Mike Whiteoak 45-39 (after he had scored 80 in his previous game!) in the 27th preliminary round of Series 13. She then won six more games before losing out to Mark Preston, who retired undefeated at the end of the series. She returned for the quarter-finals as number one seed and beat off the challenge of Cath Powell before losing out to eventual series winner Hilary Hopper in the semis. Nita then returned for the fourth Championship of Champions, beating wunderkind Allan Saldanha before losing to Series 14 champion Nic Brown in a very close game. She also appeared in the Supreme Championships, where she was knocked out by Tim Morrissey, and both series of Countdown Masters. This is her story in her own words...
Having already appeared on Blankety-Blank in 1985, I decided to apply for something more "serious", so I wrote to Countdown early in 1987 and received a letter from the then researcher, Sandra Morgan, in which she told me that it was important to send a "decent" photograph of myself (I think she meant "recent"!) She also said that there were 3,000 people waiting for interviews so I had to be patient. In fact I didn't have to wait very long because I was invited for an interview in Edinburgh in May of that year. I passed the test in the North British Hotel (now the Balmoral) and once again I was warned to be patient, but within weeks I was given a recording date - 2 July. I was to be in Series 13, which certainly was lucky for me.
Recordings started in the forenoon and first on was Mike Whiteoak who had already won three games the previous day. I watched from the audience as he demolished another two contestants, then after a delicious buffet lunch in the Green Room, it was my turn. I felt quite nervous, but relaxed a little bit when I got some points. It's always a relief to know you're not going to end up with a big fat zero! Mike was leading 39-35 as we went into the conundrum, but somehow I managed to spot the word RENDITION and I was off on a long run. I didn't quite make it to "octochamp" (there were no "octochamps" in Series 13) but I won seven games and lost the eighth 52-34 to Mark Preston. No matter how many games you play it never seems to get any easier and I felt even more nervous on that last game than I did on the first. Having said that, my sixth game against fellow Scot Walker Roberts was pretty relaxed. With Freda Thornton, another Scot, in Dictionary Dell alongside Gyles Brandreth, who kept doing Dr Finlay impersonations, it was half an hour of pure comedy. Walker and I both offered the word GRUMPED but it wasn't allowed. Apparently in Oxford you can be a grump but you can't actually grump as you can in Scotland.
My seven wins were enough to make me No 1 seed and I was invited back to Leeds for the finals which were being recorded on Tuesday, 14 July. This gave me a slight problem because I was cruising with family and friends on the Caledonian Canal from 11-18 July. Naturally I didn't want to miss the finals, so on the Sunday evening my husband left the boat, caught a bus from Fort William to Fort Augustus to collect our car from the boatyard, so that he could drive me to Fort Augustus on Monday morning in time for the first bus to Inverness, where I caught a train to Doncaster, spent the night with relatives and took the train to Leeds on Tuesday morning. Phew! After all that bobbing about on boats and buses and trains I was feeling decidedly dizzy and my brain wouldn't function on the numbers. After just managing to beat Cath Powell in the quarter-final with the help of a FLEDGLING conundrum, I found myself up against number whizz Hilary Hopper who beat me 54-34. 34 was fast becoming my unlucky number!
So I didn't have a win that day, but I did discover I had a twin. Chatting to Richard Whiteley before the programme, I discovered that he and I had been born on the same day in the same year.
As the taxi took me away from the YTV studios that day I thought that would be the last time I would ever be there, but little did I know that my Countdown "career" had barely begun! Series 17, recorded in July 1988, began with the Champion of Champions in which I was No 6 seed. When Sandra phoned me about it I asked her who my opponent would be in the quarter-final and her answer was a non-committal "No 6 plays No 3." But who was No 3? I didn't find out until I got to the studio (this time on my way to our family holiday in Cornwall) that No 3 was none other than the famous Allan Saldanha! There's nothing worse than being up against an 11-year-old. You feel bad if the child beats you, you feel bad if you beat the child. I did in fact beat him 53-45, because I risked the word ASPERSING and amazingly it was allowed. We went to a crucial conundrum which neither of us got. It turned out to be NAVIGATOR, a word which also stumped champion Chris Wills and his opponent in a recent game. (I got it! I got it!)
In my next game, the semi-final against Nic Brown, again neither of us got the crucial conundrum so Nic won 58-51. The word was CUCKOLDED, and although I had seen CUCKOLD among the letters it didn't occur to me to add the ED.
As I left the studio that day I thought this must be the last time - but no, because the following year Channel 4 started a breakfast programme with a 5-minute game of Countdown, shown around 6.15 and repeated around 8.15. It was called Countdown Masters and John Wallace and I were invited to be the very first "masters". One letters game, one numbers game and a conundrum - a daily dose of Countdown to accompany the All-Bran and your day was off to a great start!
So was this my last visit? Nope, because in 1990 I had another invitation to the Masters. By this time, with the help of Jenny Haldane, a fellow-contestant from Edinburgh, I had set up the Edinburgh Countdown Club (see Chapter 16 of "Countdown - Spreading the Word") and Jenny and I were asked to play each other. We travelled down together on the train and spent the whole journey playing Countdown, each having our share of wins, but on the programme it was Jenny who won 99-81.
Surely there couldn't be anything else? Well, in August 1996 I had a letter from Mark Nyman inviting me to be in the audience for the Supreme Championships which were being recorded in October. A few weeks later the invitation changed - would I take part in the championships? Would I! Try and stop me! My opponent this time was another very popular young man - Tim Morrissey. He seemed so calm and laid-back and I was shaking with nerves. When we both got the 9-letter word PETRIFIED that's exactly how I felt! I risked an 8 (HARPIEST) so he too risked an 8 (BAPTISER) but both were rejected. It was an even game which came down to a crucial conundrum with me leading by one point. I hardly had time to see the letters on the screen when Tim spotted BOOKSHELF and took the game 60-51.
That was my last televised game but I have been back at the studios on club visits and will try to go again some time. Once you're part of the Countdown "family" you're in it for keeps. And it's amazing how many people want to hear about it all. I've been invited to various local clubs to tell them what it's like being on Countdown. Great fun! And it has brought me lots of new friends.
A few years ago I proved I was in the running for the award of "Biggest Countdown Anorak" by writing the following words to the Countdown theme tune. The title is "Second Thoughts" and sums up the feelings of a contestant as the opening music plays:
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick tick,
Countdown's beginning, Will I end up winning?
My heart's wildly beating, At last I'm competing,
Knees feel like jelly, That's me on the telly,
At home it was easy, But now I feel queasy,
Throat's getting drier, My brain is on fire.
The time, I fear, has disappeared - Oh dear, end is near
Almost at thirty...and
Countdown's over - time is up now - boom!
Regards to Countdowners everywhere,