I have long been a fan of the Channel Four programme Countdown, and as I work permanent nights I rise at 15.00 hrs, do my ablutions, make tea and settle into the armchair to play along at half past three. I used to do all the working out in my head, and it's very easy to convince yourself that you're a natural and that you could wipe the floor with the majority of contestants.
Whilst I hate to be in the spotlight, I have, for a long time, nurtured a secret desire to go on the show and test myself 'in real time', as it were. Finally, towards the end of 2005 I plucked up the courage and sent off for the application form. It duly arrived, I filled it in, relating all my previous jobs and various likes and dislikes and sent it back.
It wasn't very long before I was invited to attend an audition at a hotel in Euston. There were only six of us at this time and we all played the game, with pencil and paper, with Charlotte Hudson, a Countdown researcher, adjudicating. Well, I thought I'd done really well, certainly beating the other hopefuls, and gave them all a cheery wave as I left the hotel, saying "see you all in Leeds." Imagine my disappointment, a couple of weeks later when I got a nice letter from Charlotte telling me I had just failed to reach the necessary level to take part in the show. However I had been so close that I was invited to reapply, which I did, straight away. Once again it wasn't long before I was invited along to the same hotel to have another go. Unfortunately I couldn't get the night off before the show and had only a couple of hours' sleep before travelling into Euston to have a disastrous audition. I was knackered and couldn't concentrate at all. Needless to say I failed miserably and the inevitable rejection letter came shortly after.
I was crushed: but not so crushed that I couldn't email Charlotte and ask for one more go based on my near miss the first time; I explained about the lack of sleep and got a very nice letter saying 'yes', but that this would be the last time as nobody was allowed to have more than three bites of the cherry.
Soon I received a letter inviting me, at short notice, to attend an audition in Cambridge. I was off work the night before, so I set off bright and early to drive up the M11 to Cambridge, arriving with time to do a bit of sightseeing and have a leisurely lunch. In the first round I found a nine-letter word (INSURANCE) and sailed on from there. I had a good feeling about things this time and this was justified when, a few weeks later, I was told I had been successful and would be called up to Leeds to record my effort in a few months.
The fateful day arrived sooner than expected and I found myself driving up to Leeds, with my wife, on the 8th of February. Yorkshire T.V. paid for a room, overnight, in a local hotel, and breakfast, for me and my wife, so, on a dull Thursday morning we took the short walk along the road to the studios. We were early so we sat in reception for a while and got chatting to another contestant, Andy Watson, who was also waiting. Soon Sharon ("call me Shazza, everyone does") introduced herself, she was (I think) the production assistant and a lovely, bubbly girl for whom nothing was too much trouble. Shortly after, we were taken in to the Green Room, where the existing contestants and the reigning champion Kate May were resting between games. (Up to five games are filmed in one day!) Everyone was congratulating Kate on her third win; she was expressing surprise at having got so far and saying how tiring it all was. Kate's next game was against Andy, who we'd met in reception; Andy saw a couple of 'phantom letters' and Kate won her fourth game 96-50.
The next game was Kate against... me! I recall that the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach was the same feeling I
used to have when waiting outside the headmaster's study having been caught yet again! I took my place on the set and was
wired for sound; Des, Carol and Susie arrived and chatted to all and sundry while all the technical stuff was being sorted
out. They were all really nice and went out of their way to put us at ease; even Susie (my favourite), whose daughter was
sick at home, still took the time to be nice to us. Very professional, but on a personal level. We had a good game: not
very high scoring, but enjoyable nevertheless. It wasn't until I heard Des say "and so we have a new champion, Tony Foran"
that I realised I had won and would have to come back and do it all over again. Along with the great majority of
contestants, I had only hoped to make a good show of it and not embarrass myself. Of course, in our heart of hearts we
would all like to be the dark horse that comes from nowhere, beats all-comers and goes on to take the Champion of
Champions prize; and of course in our brains we all realise that we are but ordinary people with the not uncommon ability
to spell correctly. So back to the Green Room for a final, calming cup of tea, then to the hotel and home the next
morning, to return in ten days to record the next show. (And possibly more than one, I thought, as my head visibly
The 20th of February soon rolled around and we drove back up to Leeds to stay at the same hotel. I didn't sleep much that night, trepidatious (is that a real word?) at the thought of the ordeal to come, but spent most of the night brewing tea and playing incessant matches on my electronic Countdown game, which my kids had so kindly given me for Christmas.
The next morning, in the Green Room with the other contestants, experiencing the weirdest feeling of being the champion that the others had come along expressly to beat - quite daunting. The first game was between me (of course) and Paul Johnston, a hospital radio DJ from Scotland. This was a strange game; we were fairly evenly matched until Paul declared a safe eight against my seven and offered CUTENESS. Des asked him if he had been considering a nine and Paul said that he had thought of putting an 'a' in front to make ACUTENESS. Susie confirmed that this would have been acceptable and to my mind that was the turning point of the game. I received a fillip and Paul's confidence was dented. I went on to win 95-59, getting the conundrum LOLLOPING at the end.
The next game was against Yvette Campbell, a schoolteacher from Sussex, who appeared to be a serial game show contestant.
My heart sank: this would be my undoing, an oik like me couldn't compete against a teacher and a game show aficionado.
But I did better than I thought I would, getting a nine-letter word SAUNTERED and seeing the conundrum CORRODING as well,
Now we come to my final game, although I wasn't aware of it at the time; it was against Brian Hart and I was flying high. I was really confident, unusual for me, and indeed led for the first ten rounds. Then we had a short break and I overheard someone say that Countdown still had an audience of around about two million viewers. Two million people! Two million people! Those words just wouldn't leave my head and I started to crash badly. At the last numbers game Brian was ahead on 66 points to my 55. Rather smugly I thought, Brian decided to choose tactically, asking Carol for four large numbers, secure in the knowledge that unless I scored all ten points and he scored nil, the game would be his. Carol asked him if his was a tactical choice and he replied in the affirmative; Carol put up the numbers: 100, 75, 50, 25, 7, 8; CECIL then produced the target of 812 and I got it!!! (Brian didn't.) For the arithmetically inclined, it was (100 x 8) + 7 + ((75 + 50) / 25). This made the score 65-66 in Brian's favour and the lights were dimmed for a 'Crucial Countdown Conundrum'. Unfortunately, for me, Brian buzzed in on 14 seconds, correctly deciphering BOILSHEAD as ABOLISHED. Indeed I was abolished, having lost 65-76. Brian lost in the next round to Ian Graham, a retired schoolmaster.
And that was it for me. A really wonderful experience, and one which I can heartily recommend to one and all. If you
enjoy playing along at home whilst watching the show, get on the phone or t'Internet and apply. You won't regret it. As
for me, I've got the bug now and I've just sent off my application for "The Weakest Link". Watch this space!