Tuesday, November 2, 2004 by Ian Jones
Several months after OTT ruefully predicted Countdown was on its way out, Channel 4 promptly recommissioned the series to run for another five years. “Countdown continues to be the bedrock of the C4 daytime schedule,” beamed the channel’s head of daytime. “The fact that it continues to draw the highest share of viewing in the channel’s daytime schedule is testament to the sheer energy, professionalism and commitment of Richard, Carol and the rest of the Countdown production team. It is a great British institution and we love it.”
An 18.4% share is pretty hard to take issue with. Despite the thousands of letters which reputedly flooded in to C4 in the wake of the show being moved to 3.15pm in September 2003, it seems all of Countdown’s viewers followed the programme to its new slot and have stuck with it ever since. They’ll now have the chance to witness the setting of a broadcasting record that is unlikely ever to be broken, as Richard and Carol cheerfully see through their contracts to 2009 and in the process notch up the most number of episodes of a quiz show in the world.
They’re already at 3809. “It’s astonishing, isn’t it?” wondered Carol rather pointlessly, as the duo set out their stall at the start of this birthday edition. Every year Countdown makes a point of acknowledging its anniversary, and of painstakingly pointing out it is also the anniversary of the birth of Channel 4 itself. As has been the case for a while now, however, it is the only place on the entire channel to indulge in, never mind offer a passing mention of, salutation towards C4’s heritage. And so it was again this time round, with a single solitary candle being offered in the shape of Richard’s well-honed reminiscence. “It was all very emotional,” he chuckled in as emotionless a way imaginable. “We were on at a quarter to five in those days!” “Don’t start the war,” Carol interrupted, a little too hastily.
Countdown’s recent odyssey around the schedules appears to have now become just as much a feature of the programme’s much-celebrated idle banter as Richard’s inability to introduce things correctly (“Let’s go straight into the conundrum – the countdown, rather”) and fondness for the atrocious pun (“‘Probate’ you say? We WILL say that’s OK!”). “In a few years time I think we’re going to be on breakfast TV,” drawled Richard, interpreting Carol’s warning as a cue to do the precise opposite. “After that it’ll go on before the 5am repeat!” Not even this was enough. “You’d all like us to be on at 4.30 – well, Channel 4 will say OK, be on at 4.30 … in the morning!”
For people who grew up with Countdown running a strict 30 minutes and airing at either 4.45pm or 4.30pm, the present 45-minute version will never feel right. It will remain, simply, too long – too cumbersome and rambling and forever taunting you with the promise of resolution or closure, only to launch into yet another words or numbers round. It’s something that, no matter how many times you sample and experience it, will be just that little bit too difficult to get used to.
Others, you can be certain, have adapted to it without a qualm, and it seems to be more or less proven that the show’s bedrock audience will stick with it regardless of either transmission time or duration. Yet the fact it’s a matter still ripe for lampooning by the programme’s hosts themselves, a whole 14 months after the deed took place, is testament to how impervious the entire Countdown empire continues to be towards the casual fan or the occasional viewer. There must only be a tiny fraction of that 18.4% who don’t tune in every day. Indeed, all the show’s signature ingredients are couched in tones and terms geared towards a regular audience. Heaven knows what the foreign visitor or the Channel 4 novice would make of a brief burst of Richard burbling on about how nice it is to see a particular word again or holding up a photo of a signpost in France that boasts the word LARGEASSE.
Still, it’s likely another five years or so wouldn’t see too large a portion of that percentage disappear through infirmity and old age. Contrary to the tangible mood of 12 months ago, Countdown’s future has been ensured. Within each cavernous 45-minute stretch, Richard, Carol and the residents of Dictionary Corner will continue to go through the motions like a troupe of ageing country dancers, tracing and retracing the steps they’ve trod thousands of times before. The programme’s status as institution is perpetually emphasised by the fact its main presenters ditched all pretence of proper introductions long ago, nowadays not even bothering to use each other’s first names. The lexicographers are treated just the same; we’re simply expected to know who they are and why they’re there, with only the visiting celebrity afforded space to bask in their own reputation.
Here, at least, continues to be found some variety and the promise of surprise. Nowadays there’s every chance of catching an erstwhile alternative comedian or tabloid columnist in amongst the familiar (and, let’s be frank, reassuring) stints from Gyles Brandreth or Richard Stilgoe. The person on call for this birthday week, ITN’s Nicholas Owen, was certainly a change from the usual fare but also served as a reminder of how being on TV a lot doesn’t equate with being good on Countdown a lot. Although he showed demonstrably more enthusiasm than previous anniversary guests (Rick Wakeman, Barry Norman), his stock of anecdotage ran sadly short of anything but tales of nit-picking correspondence from viewers. At least Nick found time to point out it was also the birthday of Channel Four News, and how “when they started, they were only on Monday to Thursday, with a shorter bulletin on Friday – do you remember?” Richard could, and made a point – “Cheers Alan!” – of thanking the bloke responsible for penning both theme tunes. “He’s made a few quid.”
So the in-jokes and by-words and self-referential wittering underscored this birthday edition as they have for as long as you choose to remember. The 4000th contest next year will be an excuse for more overt and lingering festivities, more looking back and no doubt more sly digs at the show’s place in the schedule.
To be honest, you can’t get angry with Countdown for very long. It’s seen off the threat of, as mooted last year, a sorrowful decline, and although it inspires more respect than affection nowadays, why should it presume anything else? It will go on doing its job whenever Channel 4 decide to screen it, and it will assuredly continue to toast the anniversary of its parent regardless of if and when Channel 4 realize its own birthday is there to be relished, not reviled.