We all have days that we don’t realize the importance of at the time. For me, it was June 29, 1992, when I first took my place in Dictionary Corner as Countdown’s regular lexicographer – pretending I knew what I was doing.
Beside me stood immaculate Rula Lenska, behind whose luscious hair I tried desperately to hide.
The evidence from that first day – saved forever on YouTube – shows all too clearly that as much as I wanted to look poised and knowledgeable, this newbie was a bag of nerves.
‘If someone had told me then that I would be sitting in the same chair 30 years later, I would have thought they were completely insane’
If someone had told me then that I would be sitting in the same chair 30 years later, I would have thought them completely insane. But here I am, still loving what is arguably the very best performance on British television – and still feel the adrenaline every time the clock starts ticking.
The hosts of that nervous 1992 day were, of course, Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman, who, along with Cathy Hytner, had introduced the game of words and numbers ten years earlier, when Countdown was the very first show to air on Channel 4.
“When the countdown to a new channel ends, a new countdown begins,” were Richard’s opening words.
However, the story of the show had, in fact, begun long before that, with the French game show Des Chiffres Et Des Lettres (Numbers and Letters), now the longest-running TV quiz show in the world. Its calm yet compelling format was noticed by a Belgian lyricist named Marcel Stellman, who had written songs for stars such as Cilla Black, The Shadows and Petula Clark.
‘When I first took my place in Dictionary Corner as Countdown’s lexicographer – pretending I knew what I was doing’
Marcel and his wife Jean clearly also had a good eye for entertainment as they saw the potential for the same show in the UK and suggested the idea to Yorkshire Television. It was initially put into operation for only six weeks.
Forty years later, and nearly 8,000 shows later, we still owe our patriarch Marcel, who died last year at age 96, to his foresight. It would take you 12 hours a day for 13 months to watch every Countdown episode.
The combination of Richard and Carol, who soon took over the show as a duo, was inspired. They were the perfect friends for each other, bouncing off each other’s jokes and exchanging gentle teasing about everything from Richard’s showy gorgeous coats (what a collection!) to Carol’s latest haircut.
They loved each other dearly, on screen and off, and that genuine warmth radiated into our homes every tea time. Vorders and Whiters became one of the biggest double acts on British television.
Richard was most proud to be the first face on Channel 4. “I want to be remembered for that,” he always said. But it was as the “host with the most” that he introduced himself with a smile, while also gratefully accepting the nickname “King Dick.”
Before the start of each show, he stood in front of the studio audience, treating them to raucous dog stories and bad puns. They loved him.
When Rick Wakeman spoke emotionally about Richard a few months after his death at age 61, Rick joked, “He’s probably still talking at the pearly gates.”
I will never forget the night Carol called me to say Richard was gone.
He had suffered from asthma for a long time and had developed complications from pneumonia, but we were all confident that he would make it.
He had the support and strength of his partner Kathy behind him, and life seemed unimaginable without Richard’s shrugging laugh.
His death shocked the entire Countdown family, and on the day the news broke, we all spontaneously decided to go to Leeds, Countdown’s house, so we could be together.
Those dark days were brightened only by watching reruns of our favorite episodes, those where Richard couldn’t get through a joke because he laughed so hard, or when he set his foot in it by completely divulging a contestant’s name or job. maim.
Once he introduced a participant as a ‘toilet’ instead of a ‘laboratory’ assistant, while also turning a professional musician into a ‘professional museum’.
But best of all were the moments when he fell back in his chair, arms up, to celebrate one of his favorite words.
Whenever ‘leotard’ appears on the letter board, I hear Richard’s cheerful chuckle and his explanation – for the thousandth time – that the garment is named after Monsieur Jules Léotard, a French trapeze artist.
Susie Dent on Countdown in the 90s with Rula Lenska
Even today we are never far from Richard – every series champion has their name engraved on the Richard Whiteley Memorial Cup.
Countdown has had six presenters since Richard and they have all brought their own magic to the show. Des Lynam gave us panache and a playful wink, while Des O’Connor was a true gentleman and entertainer. Always pitching perfectly, Jeff Stelling brought so much laughter to the studio, and Nick Hewer injected the driest humor and ability to recite poetry in a jiffy.
Most recently, Anne Robinson opened up the contestants to us like never before, making them the real focus of the show. Soon another chapter will begin and we will have the brilliant Colin Murray back at the helm – he came for Nick during the pandemic and his love for the game is extremely infectious. Each of them is Countdown family.
But “family” doesn’t even come close to expressing the importance of those unseen members of the team, many of whom have been on the show as long as I have.
The camera crew, the production team, the directors and the researchers – it’s they who made the show the juggernaut it has become. In fact, our series producer, Damian Eadie, is a former contestant, first appearing in 1994.
And he’s still with us – the least likely Countdown leader you could ever imagine: a potty-mouthed heavy metal aficionado with a brain that can produce an outrageous joke or anagram at will.
He also knows every inch of the set, every camera shot, every riddle ever conceived and every word ever played. Damian is the cornerstone of Countdown.
Counting down, of course, is nothing without counting, and since 2009, Rachel Riley has amazed us with her mathematical brilliance.
For me, Rachel is also the very best of friends – strong, principled, and utterly loyal. I often think that she and I are two sides of the same coin. She is always immaculately groomed, while I often dress inside out or backwards. She lends me bras, tights — basically anything I typically left at home.
Rachel always jokes that even though I’ve swallowed the standard dictionary, she’s well acquainted with the rougher, more urban. All too often I found myself enthusiastically explaining what to me is a completely harmless word, only to see Rachel double with laughter because she knows a different meaning.
Not to mention the unconscious hand gestures I apparently make when I define a word. I somehow made “areola” a specialty by making circular motions across my chest, much to the amusement of the Dictionary Corner guest.
(Even this is nothing compared to the 12 takes it took me to explain the origins of ‘cock a hoop’.)
There’s a lot of giggles on the Countdown set, and not just because of my accidental innuendo. Rough words often appear on the letter board, sometimes necessitating a hasty reshuffle so that we can start over.
Then there was the time when Noel Edmonds played a ‘gotcha’ on Richard, placing two fake contestants in the seats who failed to get a nine letter word from OMETHINGS but managed to get DIARRHEA in another round. to get.
Our studio audience also provided a surprise. Over the course of 40 years, they’ve given us not only warmth and support, but a few stink bombs (really), and even a marriage proposal.
Many of them have become close friends – Norman the Reverend, Craig and his guide dog Bruce, and the late great Donna, who never mustered the courage to become a contestant but would have scored every single point if she had .
Our guests are, of course, as much a staple of Countdown as the mighty clock. More than 200 stars and entertainers have sat in Dictionary Corner over the years, from Kenneth Williams to Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Jerry Springer to Jo Brand, Barry Cryer to Stephen Fry.
It should come as no surprise to regular viewers that my friend Gyles Brandreth has been the most prolific resident, making 333 appearances, all in a sweater as whimsical as one of Richard’s ties.
But the real star of Countdown is, of course, the game. It’s so beautifully simple that everyone immediately knows how to participate.
You just have to watch the audience during 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown, a hybrid of the two shows, to see everyone laughing while still determined to crack the numbers game or find the longest word.
Even Sean Lock, the gleefully funny and much-missed team captain of Catsdown (as Rachel and I like to call it) got so fiercely competitive that he would get cranky if host Jimmy Carr ever bend the rules for a laugh.” Pictured: Susie Dent on 8 out of 10 cats counting down
Even Sean Lock, the gleefully funny and much-missed team captain of Catsdown (as Rachel and I like to call it) became so fiercely competitive that he would get cranky if host Jimmy Carr ever bend the rules for a laugh.
It’s this addictiveness and joy that, I think, explains why Countdown is still loved by millions of people. The prize for each winner is not a pot of money, but a pot of tea, and the knowledge that they have become part of a TV institution.
For the audience, there is the satisfaction that the contestants – so many of them quite brilliant – were chosen not for their appeal to television, but for their love of the game. That feels quite unique to me.
Richard Osman, Pointless star and now bestselling author, once asked me, “Do you ever get bored?”
After 5000+ shows, the honest answer is NEVER.
That day in 1992 was fateful in many ways. I can’t imagine my life without Countdown. I’m so grateful that, at least 30 years, his life includes me.