In between my sailing adventures over the years, I became a Countdown addict. I have been tuning into the popular letters and numbers game on Channel 4 several winter afternoons a week since the mid 1990’s. The original presenters, Richard Whitely (deceased 2005) and Carol Vorderman, set the standard appealing mostly to a retired audience due to the time slot. Carol was replaced by the lovely Rachel Riley in 2009 and Nick Hewer took the chair a few years later. It would be remiss of me not to say that the attractive mathematical geniuses, Carol and Rachel, were also a reason for tuning in over the years. Of course, the show wouldn’t be the same without Dictionary Corner, which has the long serving and very popular Susie Dent in situ. Each programme also has a celebrity guest to add a touch of sparkle to proceedings. It is the longest running show of its kind in the world, with over 7000 episodes and a Guinness World Record award.
Carol Vorderman and the late Richard Whitely in their heyday
Susie Dent, Nick Hewer and Rachel Riley with the Guinness World Record
The real appeal of the programme is the challenge of finding the longest word from a mix of 9 contestant “chosen” vowels and consonants, interspersed with a numbers game to calculate a computer generated target from 6 numbers, chosen blind from a combination of 14 numbers -1 to 10 & 25, 50, 75 and 100. The programme ends with a 9 letter conundrum – for which only one solution exists – this is often a deciding factor to find the winner. Two players go head to head each day, with the winner qualifying for the next show, for a maximum of 8 games (octochamp). He/she also gets a Countdown teapot to take home as a trophy – a much coveted item for devotees of the game.
Beautiful Tayvallich in Argyle
In September 2018, having returned from an 8 week sailing expedition to Western Scotland, I finally bit the bullet and emailed the Countdown production company to express an interest in taking part, while watching my umpteenth episode. After filling in a long information gathering form, I was told that someone would be in touch to conduct a phone audition. Approximately one month after applying, James from Countdown set up an appointment to test me. The test consisted of several units of letters and numbers games identical to the show format, in which I had to achieve a standard unknown to me to qualify for an appearance. The 30 second dead zone on the phone for each letter or number puzzle was a bit unnerving but I managed to complete all the tests set for me. Thankfully, my answers were sufficiently good to get me through and James told me that they would be in touch in a few weeks with dates.
Celtic Spirit of Fastnet in Marigold Bay, St Lucia.
The call came at a time when my good friend Ansis was also enquiring about my availability to help do another Transatlantic on “Celtic Spirit of Fastnet”. The Countdown dates were set for filming on 4th and 5th of December 2018, clashing with his proposed departure dates. I rarely have any sort of a conflict in my less than busy winter schedule but to have 2 very desirable options competing with each other was nerve-wracking. Thankfully, Ansis rang to say the trip was off due to the owner looking at purchasing a new boat, so I was free to give James the thumbs up. I booked my flights to Manchester for the appointed filming dates and set about putting in some serious practice on my less than perfect maths.
Once the dates were set, I contacted my Manchester resident friends, Shay and Sam Ryan, to offer them audience tickets and also to meet up. The production company were putting me up in a hotel close to the studios, so accommodation was not a factor. As there was always potential to compete in more than one show, wardrobe was an issue. I had to go through my shirts and jumpers, ruling out – per instructions – stripes, dots and flowery designs. Luckily, I had enough good quality options for 4 or 5 shows, so I only splurged on a few items. I was ready to go, so it was off to Dublin Airport to get my flight. First problem – when I presented my preprinted boarding pass, I was horrified to find I had booked for the previous day! Luckily for me, it was an Aer Lingus flight and not the dreaded Ryanair, but it still cost me €75 to amend to todays date. Later, I made my way via tram and taxi to the Holiday Inn Express in Salford, arriving about 10pm.
As my appointment to arrive in the studio was not until 4pm, I took the opportunity to explore the Salford area and get my bearings for Media City, where the show is filmed. The folk artist, L S Lowry, came from here and has a museum and shopping centre dedicated to his name. All the major TV and production companies, BBC, ITV, Granada, Channel 4, Channel 5 and others have a large footprint here, built beside the old Manchester/Liverpool shipping canal and docks. Across the canal, the enormous Coronation Street film complex is next door to the Manchester War Museum.
After lunch, it was back to the hotel for a change to my 1st Countdown outfit before presenting myself at the studio housed in the Dock White Tower building. My earlier phone-a-friend, James, took a few of us through a maze of corridors to the Green Room for the show. It was more like a small apartment kitchen diner, with a small dressing area attached. Toilets were up the corridor through a few security doors. Just outside, through a connecting door, was the studio, where a show was being filmed and relayed on the TV screen on the wall. The current champion, Stephen Turnbull, was playing his 6th game, so if he managed to make it to an eighth win, I would thankfully avoid playing him, as my Countdown debut was scheduled for 3 games hence. James gave us a talk on the do’s and don’t s before bringing us up to make-up to get ready for our respective slots – another long and winding walk through the bowels of the studio building.
We were encouraged to join the audience so we could get a feel for the show. The warm-up comedian was only a few weeks into the job, having replaced his longstanding predecessor who had retired. Rachel made a point of chatting with audience members and was particularly attentive to some special needs fans, who really enjoyed interacting with her. While the shows are essentially filmed from start to finish in little more than an hour, some retakes do occur and the set has to change each time a numbers round occurs. Racks of studio lights dominate the studio overhead space, with cameras placed on wheeled trolleys moving as required. During breaks, make-up girls tended to the presenters and occasionally the contestants. It was all smoothly orchestrated and purred like a well oiled machine. The audience were even given notepads and a pencil to play along with the contestants, whispering their results to each other while Susie or Rachel gave their verdicts. My friend Shay arrived in time to watch the penultimate show of the day with me, before I had to get ready for my big moment.
Stephen managed to win his eighth game and claim his octochamp title, so I would be playing a fellow newbie on the next one. It was the last show of the evening and we were due to start filming at about 8pm. James said our show would be broadcast on the 2nd of April 2019. He also told me there had been a problem as my scheduled opponent was not in a fit state to compete – he had decided to have a few beers in Manchester and wouldn’t be allowed to take part. In his place, they managed to track down the contestant who was due to play in the first morning show and get him into the studio in time for filming. Needless to say, the last minute nature of his call up was not great preparation for him.
Finally, the moment I had dreamt about for years was upon me and I was a bag of nerves as I took my seat in the challengers chair. David Wigley, my opponent, was equally nervous but both Nick and Rachel chatted with us across the studio to help relax us. The celebrity guest today was comedienne, Jenny Eclair, who had starred in Auf Wiedersehen Pet and Grumpy Old Women. On air, Nick asked me about my sailing experiences with 4 transatlantics under my belt and chatted with David about his hometown and playing bridge.
Once we got going, I relaxed somewhat but poor old David beside me, seemed to lose the plot – several times over the game, he drew a complete blank. I had a moment or two also – one set of letters caused for a bit of amusement in the studio – at my expense. From the letters RDNMUEIAD, I declared a 7 letter solution – RANDIER. Susie pointed out there was only one R in the selection and Nick commented “Not quite as randy as you thought” – giving the panel and audience a good laugh. For the most part, I led the way and David ended up only scoring 41 to my 67. He had competed on the show about 12 years previously but the circumstances of his rushed appearance did him no favours. During the filming, the stage manager had called for several retakes – it was the end of a long day and everyone was tired, mostly the stars. For my part, while sorry for David, I was over the moon as I now would be bringing home the coveted teapot.
Another bonus presented itself – as it was the last show of the day, the stars stayed around for a few photos. My other target was to get a photo of myself with Rachel and she was more than happy to oblige, with Shay doing the honours. Several of the audience also got photos with the various stars, a luxury not readily available between shows as costume changes necessitated a long traipse back up to their dressing rooms. Shay and I went across the road for a few pints before parting our ways – if I was unlucky to go out early next day, we would probably hook up again on Tuesday evening. Back in the hotel, with my head still buzzing from the excitement of it all, I decided to have a few G and T’s to calm me down. It didn’t work – I was awake pretty much all night despite doing several Sudokus and crosswords to try and get some sleep.
Next morning, I thanked my lucky stars for setting the alarm on both my phone and tablet – the phone alarm didn’t activate and with my severe lack of sleep, I’m sure I would have slept in without the tablet backup. Back in the studio for 9.15am, we were whisked straight up to the make-up girls. This time we had the pleasure of sharing the space with Susie, Rachel and todays celebrity, Raj Bisram, an antiques and property presenter on TV show Four Rooms. Lets just say, it was interesting to see the ladies without their war paint in the morning. My fellow contestants, who were also assembled for our the facial treatments, seemed to be pleasant characters and we chatted amicably while we awaited our turns.
Knowing I was first up, naturally I was interested to find out who would be my opponent. It turned out to be the happy boozer from the previous day – Jeff Markam from Huddersfield, seemingly none the worse for his skite. On air, after Nick grilled me about my Slow Cruise Around Ireland, he pointedly interrogated Jeff about his love of real ale – a topic he was more than happy to converse about! Our game was a real tit-for-tat battle of wits, each of us getting one over on the other throughout. Early on, I bagged my only 8 letter word over the 2 shows – BAGGIEST.
The first numbers game was a real body blow but also, it gave me a great thrill in the losing of the plot. I declared for the correct solution of 272 from the chosen numbers – 100, 75, 5, 10, 1, 6. In relating my computation to Rachel, I used the number 7 – which wasn’t actually there (6+1 was there). In writing down the numbers, I had split the 7 & 5 of 75 and wrongly thought I had a 7. The thrill came from Rachels response to my booboo – a very sexy “Oooh Charlie” – I nearly fell off my seat, the numbers completely forgotten. Luckily, we stopped for a stage reversal to the letters game, allowing me time to cool down again.
That error set the tone for the rest of the contest – we both made more silly mistakes along with good scores, leaving us with a crucial conundrum to decide the winner – 65 for Jeff, 57 for me. When the letters rolled down, DAVEGRRAY, my brain just couldn’t unravel them and Jeff buzzed in to claim the game with GRAVEYARD. I had my teapot and was more than happy with my experience, despite being “buried” at the end. There was one sting in the tail for Jeff – Rachel got in a cheeky remark about celebrating his win with a few pints!
I now had the rest of the day to myself, so I visited the War Museum before heading into Manchester city centre where the Christmas markets were busy with customers sampling their wares. After taking in an afternoon movie, I arrived at Shay and Sams where she had dinner for us. Having enjoyed a few pints the previous night, we just sat in and chatted for the evening before hitting the sack. As my flight home was delayed the next day, I had to cancel my weekly bridge date with my regular partner, Nuala.
It was now a matter of waiting patiently for the 2nd and 3rd of April showings to arrive. Needless to say, I let my family, Enniscorthy, Wicklow, bridge and sailing friends know about the impending programmes. Rather than sit at home, I chose to spread myself about – the Tuesday 2nd show would be viewed in the Antique Tavern, Enniscorthy and the Wednesday 3rd one in Phil Healy’s pub in Wicklow. As the programme goes out at 2.10pm in the afternoon, it’s not exactly a great time to get people into a pub, especially if they are working. Nevertheless, about 10 of my acquaintances and family landed into the Antique and were delighted to be able to get a photo with the teapot. A similar number joined me in Phils the following day and were very complimentary on how well I stuck in despite all the mistakes. The big let down – the cutting room staff had cut Rachel’s exclamation down to “Oooh” – much to my disappointment. C’est la vie – it possibly could have been used for funny clips if left in!
I loved every minute of my Countdown experience and was delighted that I gave a good account of myself as well as winning the treasured teapot. My bridge club members gave me a standing ovation after the Wednesday showing, which was a very nice and welcome gesture. The Wicklow People gave me the singular honour of putting an article about my appearance on the front page of their weekly newspaper. And WexfordToday.com also put up a couple of articles promoting the 2 shows.