Thursday, November 2, 2000 by Ian Jones
“Words and numbers game”. That’s how this programme is famously often described by the Radio Times – just four simple words. A laughably concise billing, but what more needs to be said? Or rather, what else could be said that does justice to every painful pun, accidental gaffe or memorably pointless incident that makes up your average edition of Countdown? “Words and numbers game”, in its ridiculously brief way, suitably and wryly downplays the extraordinary quiz show which this staple of Channel 4 afternoons has become.
Not that its prestige and reputation, built on an uncanny combination of eccentricity and crapness, is a new thing – no way; it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Countdown became such a – and this word is sadly unavoidable here – cult, but it was a long time ago, way back in the 1980s and a time when the show, unlike today, wasn’t on all year round.
Back then Countdown was one of the least watched, most po-faced of TV quizzes, a prop to support one end of Channel 4’s daily transmissions in-between the re-runs of black and white US comedies and discussion programmes on religion and trade unions. You wouldn’t have predicted it could have survived through to today to find itself, with this edition, shamelessly celebrating its 18th birthday in classic style.
Of course it wasn’t just Countdown’s birthday, it was Channel 4’s anniversary as well. Back on 2 November 1982 Britain’s 4th channel made its debut and, following a stirring welcome from Paul Coia, offered up as its very first programme to the nation: a words and numbers game. Richard Whiteley, the very first man to appear on Channel 4, reminded us again here in the year 2000 of his original opening remarks – that as one “countdown” ends, so “another begins.” With hindsight it’s clear the Whiteley fondness for naff slogans and appalling wordplay was there from the start; we had been warned.
This special anniversary show had been given 15 minutes extra on top of the usual half-hour to fill up with good-natured anecdotes and reminiscences. Richard recalled how he’d eagerly watched the playback of the very first show in a Yorkshire Television control room, only for the screen to go blank five minutes beforehand – due to engineering problems, not thankfully because the programme had been wiped. The studio audience and us at home laughed along at this, because like everything Richard says it’s not meant to be taken seriously, nor really was this whole special edition which had assembled two special “teams” to replace the normal strangely coiffured cross-word addict and bookish school boy.
On one team sat Gyles Brandreth, veteran of Dictionary Corner, sporting a typically tasteless jumper with a big birthday cake on the front which he apparently first wore back on 2 November 1983, Countdown’s 1st birthday. Alongside him was former programme champion and now Countdown producer Mark Nyman. Over on the other team we had the unlikely pairing of another former champion Damian Eadie and, of all people, Jo Brand who it turns out is a big fan of the show.
“We’re not going to go mad,” Richard reassured us, “I know that often you at home don’t like it when we fool around a bit.” But that’s exactly what followed. Carol showed us the photo of herself she sent in with her original job application back in 1982 – only, in a typical Countdown twist, she revealed that the signature on the letter wasn’t hers, but her Mum’s who’d forged it on her behalf. Another round of polite laughter. Richard then made various jibes about the amount Carol’s paid – these asides are a regular feature of Countdown nowadays, and it’s true that Carol’s role in the show has totally changed from the old days when she said very little, dressed soberly and simply displayed the letters and added the numbers on cue. She’s a celebrity now, of course, and she doesn’t want us to forget it.
“Nine in a line, 30 seconds is the time!” declared Richard, and the game proper began. As usual the contestants came up with words the casual viewer could never dream of spotting. And even though you could almost always make a swearword out of the nine letters – when can you not? – the teams, who preferred a restrained giggle when someone found the word “toilet”, naturally overlooked that. Richard got a bit carried away with the occasion, ruling a word disallowed – “airwave” – to the mockery of the panellists, only for him to be vindicated by Dictionary Corner. “I’m not as daft as I look,” he chuckled, “I just dumb down to make Carol look good.” He then made them repeat one of the number rounds because it was “too easy”.
A few weeks back Richard had invited viewers to write in with suggestions as to what Countdown could be called were it starting from scratch today. He shared some of the responses half way through this show – which included “Dick Dock”, “Gnumble”, “The Carol Vorderman Show” (there were lots of those, it seems) and, best of all, “Gigglydick” – as in the music, “dee dum, dee dum, gigglydick, boo!” Later still Carol pretended to walk out, at which point Richard eagerly anticipated hiring Daisy Donovan, late of the 11 O’clock Show, as her replacement. He even told quite a good joke, about Thora Hird, a regular Countdown viewer, and her Stannah Stairlifts.
“I must keep this moving – there are people out there saying this is so silly,” joked Richard, but we didn’t mind. It’s what happens between the individual quiz rounds that’s so important here, more so than the rounds themselves. This “bit of homely fun” was a suitably fitting tribute to a TV institution, one that surely cannot inspire hatred amongst anyone (only boredom or indifference at the most). There should be no shame in admitting how great a show Countdown is, and to look forward to evermore editions (including, next year, the 3000th episode!) of this reassuringly inoffensive, endlessly amusing, words and numbers game.