I have watched Countdown since the first broadcast and always made a point of tuning in on the occasions that I was home from work early enough. Since retiring and getting married, Countdown became a feature of married life as both my wife and I are disabled. To put an end to incessant nagging I finally got round to applying for an audition a couple of years ago.
I arrived at a hotel in Bristol exhausted and with a migraine (I had dropped my wife off at Bart's Hospital in Central London the day before) and had no idea what to expect. About halfway through I twigged that the letters being offered were far from random but by that time had already missed two nines and an eight. Needless to say, I was unsuccessful so I went back to being an aficionado and thought that at least I would no longer be nagged.
Two years of nagging later I sent off another application in December 2005. I got called to audition in February 2006 and this time was ready. I knew that it was important to arrive in good time and be prepared. I managed to avoid doing any preparation and the satnav got confused so that I got to the relevant conference room on the dot of eleven o'clock for an eleven o'clock audition. There was a stern notice on the door "Do not enter until called" so I didn't. At five past eleven Sarah Foulkes stuck her head out of the door and called out my name. There were eight other auditionees in the room and Sarah launched straight into it. This time round I thought I did okay, but still managed to miss two nine-letter words, so I returned home optimistic of my chances, but by no means certain. It was with a degree of trepidation that I opened the letter that came two days later and to my relief read the words "successful" and "up to six months", the latter referring to the possible wait before being called to record. Early the next week I received a phone call from Sarah asking if I wanted to go to record in a week's time. I couldn't arrange a carer for my wife so I had to decline and we agreed that the third week of March would be better. By this simple twist of fate I avoided the bulk of the ultra-competitive Series 54 and the likes of Corby, Shore, Travers et al.
Careful examination of the train timetables led me to the conclusion that it isn't possible to set off from my home town and get to Leeds much before three o'clock so I decided to drive up the previous evening. This turned out to be another lucky break as arriving at the Holiday Inn Express at 10 p.m. in the evening and wandering into the bar I was recognised by Carol Parker, who had auditioned with me at Bristol, who leapt up and dragged me over to the group that had just got back from the studios. She introduced me to Jon Corby and his five victims of the day, of which she was one. There followed an interesting if somewhat boozy discussion about the day's events including vital tips (write the letters down, especially in the game after the teatime teaser breaks as it sometimes takes the cameraman a while to get the camera pointed at the letters board so the monitor in the desk is not a lot of help!). The most important calculation involved which show I was scheduled to record and the feeling of relief that even if Jon went on to win eight shows (which everybody in the group expected him to do) I would not have to play him!
The following morning at breakfast I ran into Jon and his dad. Jon had not managed to sleep. Apparently, winning on Countdown had given him such an adrenaline rush that the overnight break in recording might as well not have happened. "At least that won't happen to me," I thought. "Firstly, I am unlikely to be an overnight winner as I have always thought myself better than some contestants, not as good as others, and secondly, I'm kind of laid back so getting to sleep won't be an issue." Jon set off on the 400-yard walk to the studios and I read the complementary Independent and drank the free coffee in the hotel bar.
I wandered down to the studios to arrive at twelve and sat in reception with the other noon reportees waiting to be collected. We chatted amiably about Countdown and worked out who would be playing who and when. I was scheduled to play the last game of the day and would have the opportunity to watch a couple of shows being recorded and get the lie of the land.
About fifteen minutes later we were taken through and given our familiarization talk. Canteen there, toilets there, green room here by the blue pillar, changing rooms here and make-up down there. Then into the changing rooms where our shirts were checked (everyone is encouraged, optimistically, to bring five tops in case any are unsuitable or you have to record more than one show) then back to the green room where the details on the questionnaire were checked and vital information as to running order were given out. If Jon won his last game he would retire as the final octochamp of Series 54 and I would be on the next show. Suddenly I began to feel anxious. Especially as his eighth show was being recorded and the feed relayed into the green room so one could watch the game as it unfurled. I couldn't have found CAT if CAT had been the first three letters picked. The free coffee machine in the green room is not bad and the bowl of fresh fruit on the table is both aesthetically pleasing and appetizing. There were two distinct groups in the room. Those who had already been on and lost who were relaxed, friendly and chatty and the three of us scheduled to record. We were each climbing the walls in our own way. We watched Jon win his eighth show and then I joined Damian Eadie in the studio smoking room. (It hasn't got one, but there is a canopy over the entrance and an appropriately positioned ashtray.) Then the assistant floor manager, the inimitable Shaz, looked across to Jenny Turner and I and said "follow me".
As we got to the door, Shaz spoke to the director over the wireless intercom: "Contestants walking," she said, leading us down the corridor towards the studio and its waiting audience. The echoing footsteps brought to mind the Susan Sarandon movie "Dead Man Walking". Then it was through the door and into the studio. You notice the audience being entertained by Dudley Doolittle the resident comedian and warm-up man, the cables on the floor and so many cameras that the set is largely obscured. Trying to look cool, calm and collected we walked up to the desks and were seated. I had won the toss and got the champion's chair. Lisa, the floor manager, comes across and points out the water, the monitor in the desk, the cushion that goes in the chair should you want it and then you wait for the sound man to come and install the radio mic. At this point Richard Stilgoe came in and sat down having first shaken hands with us. Then Susie also introduced herself. Then Carol and finally Des. Des does his best to put you at your ease. He is a very calming influence. He went over the information he had about us, first with me and then with Jenny. I couldn't quite get the surreal feeling out of my head. We had both volunteered for this. Were we insane? Des and Carol went over last-minute details to fix their banter and then, with no warning, order descended upon the seeming chaos and the theme music began. A final wish not to make a complete idiot of myself and a word to St. Jude (the patron saint of lost causes) to help and we're away. I missed almost all the banter. I must have, because it only seemed like a split second between the end of the music and Des asking me questions about folk music and my Internet bride. An apparent split second later and Des says "Tony, your choice of letters please" and we were away.
In what seemed like five minutes, but was actually an hour and ten minutes, we had got to the conundrum. I had not been looking forward to this because at home I am okay at the letters, good with the numbers and only get half the conundrums and on most of those my wife beats me to them, but with great relief I saw it and pressed the button. I had won. I would be able to go home afterwards armed with a teapot. For me this was all I had hoped for. As Shaz led us past the audience and back to the green room it began to sink in. A short break and then I'd have to do the same thing all over again. A quick change and then back to the green room where Sheila Goodwin was anxiously waiting. Whereas most of us had had a few weeks to nerve ourselves up to it, Sheila had only just auditioned and had been rung the night before as a standby contestant in case Jon won his eight shows.
Shaz led us back to the studio. "Contestants walking" still sounded like "Dead Man Walking". This time I was in the champion's chair as of right, but it didn't feel any different. The same time contraction effect. One minute it hasn't started and the next minute it's conundrum time. Then it was time for the group photographs. I thought "Even if I lose tomorrow's game then it's still been worth it. After all it's not every contestant that gets to take home a group shot with an octochamp in it!" Then it was time to walk back to the hotel. Jon and his father were struggling with the goody bags. After all, the Shorter Oxford two-volume dictionary that champions get upgraded to is no lightweight thing and not ideally suited to being carried in a plastic bag. Arriving back at the hotel I suddenly realised that I was both exhausted, having recorded two shows, but also exhilarated. I had the horrible thought that, like Jon, I would be unable to sleep especially as there were more shows to do tomorrow. One takeaway curry and a few pints later I went to an early bed, if 1 a.m. is considered early, and slept like a log. That is that special kind of log that spends its time watching TV and pacing around all night.
Eventually seven o'clock came and breakfast was served. At nine I wandered back to the studios. A first insight into the nice touches that come with being even an incredibly minor celebrity. Instead of reception checking your name against the Countdown studio list, it was, "Hello Tony, you did well yesterday. Take a seat over there and someone will come for you when all the contestants have arrived." I found myself sitting in a group of Countdowners repeating the advice I had received two nights before. We were taken into the studios and the same talk followed. The only concern I had was that I had acquired a slight cough.
I felt very sorry for Sophi, who was first up, because she was extremely nervous and despite everybody's best efforts it took her a while to settle down. It is an advantage to be able to watch what goes on in a recording and at least you get a chance to try a few rounds in the green room before going on. I won't bore everyone with the details of the games that day. Enough to say that I highly recommend the sausage and mash served in the canteen and that four or five double espressos will overcome even pneumonia!
As I said earlier, if asked I would say that I was better than some contestants, not as good as others. To this I must now add "And luckier than most". I was very relieved to have made it to the end of the day and was finding it hard to believe that I had won six in a row and would come back in a couple of months to record show seven which would be the first show of Series 55.
I have a theory as to why there are comparatively few octochamps (a hundred or so in 54 series). In order to win eight shows you have to record at least four in a row, with many having to do five. I found two shows exhausting and by the time I had recorded my fourth show of the day I knew that even if I hadn't been falling ill I would have struggled to play another game. So "hats off" to all those past champions. In conclusion it is easier to play the game sitting at home, but it is enormous fun to try your hand at the real thing. Shopping in Sainsbury's will never be the same. I popped in for five minutes and spent the next hour-and-a-half answering questions about Carol, Des, Susie et al. Then there is the eight-year-old football fanatic who kicks a ball up against my garage wall. "Saw you on telly," he says, "You got a hundred last week, but yesterday you were rubbish." Ah, the fragility of fame!
So if you haven't auditioned then you should give it a go. Even the audition is fun, after all how often do you get to sit in a room with eight or nine other Countdown fans?
Finally, some Countdown facts about Series 54:
* 2,000 people auditioned of which 163 appeared in shows. (I've a feeling this should be 153, but I may be wrong! - Ed.)
* There were six octochamps.
* Conor Travers won the Grand Final.
* The last champion in the series would probably have gone on to qualify for the Series 54 quarter-finals had there been but one more game recorded, but fortunately under the current rules dodged the bullet (thermonuclear device?) that was Conor Travers and will fight on in Series 55 to be broadcast from June 19th 2006. To quote from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", "You lucky, lucky bastard!"Tony Warren