Cast your mind back to the summer of 1983. Margaret Thatcher had only been Prime Minister for four years, the likes of Rod Stewart and Paul Young were topping the charts, and Channel Four had only been on the air for eight months. Following the first series of Countdown, which only ran for seven weeks and had a nine-round final, Series 2 turned out to be a full-blown thirteen-week series complete with a 16-contestant knockout phase, followed by the now customary quarter-finals, semi-finals and 14-round Grand Final.
The first few series of Countdown were dominated by competitive Scrabble players, and Series 2 was certainly no exception, and Great Britain's Scrabble champion Russell Byers turned out to be the number one seed for the series, having achieved the highest average winning score (51.75) from his four wins in the preliminary games. Russell, an audit clerk from Selby in Yorkshire, reached the final having disposed of David Myerscough (who has the distinction of being the only ever Countdown seed to never have won a game!), Gary Roussak and Norma Nicholson (who at the time held the record for the highest ever score on Countdown - 69). The other finalist was number seven seed Ash Haji, a computer programmer from Wanstead. Ash won two preliminary games (the first against Norma Nicholson), and then went on to knock out Bobbie Bennett, number two seed Philip Nelkon and Maurice Packman. Interestingly, Russell knocked out Ash in the preliminaries (59-30) to become the reigning champion, so this final became the first ever "grudge match" in the history of the programme. This programme also marked the first time that Countdown was ever broadcast on a Saturday, and also the latest time the show had ever been televised (7 p.m.), a record that still stands today - unless you include Celebrity Countdown, which was broadcast at 8 p.m.
Dictionary Corner was graced with the presence of both Gyles Brandreth and the late Kenneth Williams, who between them had been Guardian of the Dictionaries for every previous show, apart from the first seven which featured former "Brain of Britain" Ted Moult. The lexicographer was the petite Leslie Bernett from the OUP, Cathy Hytner dished out the letters, former Miss UK Beverley Isherwood selected the numbers (and pressed the CECIL button) - for the last time, as it turned out, and Carol Vorderman provided the usual mathematical expertise.
And so, to the game - the first round was to prove quite significant, as while Ash played safe with the six-letter GIVING, Russell went for the rather more risky plural GIVINGS, which Leslie duly rejected. It is listed in Chambers Dictionary, so Russell had fallen foul of the usual Scrabble player syndrome, the Concise Oxford Dictionary (7th Edition) in use on Countdown at the time listing far less words than the Scrabble word bible of the day. Round 2 saw both players getting seven points, and we were on to the first of four numbers rounds. The target of 896 was relatively easy to achieve, but Russell blobbed while Ash was spot-on, and the number seven seed now had a lead of 16 points. Round 4 saw them both get 6 points, while the next letters game saw them both bagging 7 points apiece with the interesting WATTLES. The next numbers game proved rather tricky, featuring two numbers from the top row. Neither contestant managed to get within 10 - in fact, they both got within 12, which meant no points for either of them (until the end of the preliminary rounds of the series, it would have got them 5 points each). The first of two conundrums saw Russell move within six points of Ash when he unravelled ZIILQCZUA in just one second.
The first two letters games of Part Two saw them both picking up twelve points (for two six-letter words), but the next numbers round proved more interesting, when no numbers were chosen from the top row! Ash struggled to within 10 of the target figure, but Russell managed to get within 6, which meant he was now only one point behind Ash with the score at 48-47. Round 11 saw a combination of letters that could have meant they spotted ENJOIN for six, but they both plumped for the more amusing NOGGIN, and the final letters game saw them both getting what looks like the only seven available from the selection - SKEWING. Two rounds to go, twenty points available, and just one point in it, then... The numbers game looked relatively harmless, but again Ash triumphed while Russell failed (not much call for the numbers game in Scrabble, I guess), and it was all over for the man from Selby. By way of consolation, Russell spotted the final conundrum in just two seconds, and the score ended 71-70. Ash duly collected his leather-bound Oxford dictionaries, while Russell had to make do with a £100 book token.
Ash returned in the first ever Championship of Champions, beating Series 4 champion Brian Hudson in the quarter-finals,
but losing out to Countdown's second ever octochamp Mark Nyman in the semis. He also appeared in Countdown Masters in
1989, losing conclusively to Series 5 winner Peter Evans, and again in the Supreme Championship in 1996, where he lost
out to Series 7 runner-up Julian Hough. Russell also appeared in the Championship of Champions, beating Series 3 champion
Andrew Guy, but losing out to Series 1 champion Joyce Cansfield. He appeared in the second Countdown Masters series,
scoring a narrow victory over Series 8 runner-up Anthony Butcher. He was defeated in the Supreme Championship by Series 9
champion David Trace.
This review was originally published as Game of the Week - 13 May 2001.