Countdown is the longest-running programme on Channel 4 in the UK, as it has been going ever since the station started - indeed, it was the first programme broadcast on Channel 4 on 2 November, 1982. It is a numbers and letters game between two contestants, and has always been presented by Richard Whiteley1, Carol Vorderman, together with a guest and an expert in Dictionary Corner. Following Richard's sad death the programme took a break before reappearing in January 2006 with Desmond Lynam, former presenter of Grandstand and Match of the Day, as host, with Carol continuing to present. The experts are mainly people from the Oxford Dictionary department, with two notable exceptions - Mark Nyman and Damian Eadie, who were successful contestants on the show and are now members of the production team. The format of the game is based on the French TV quiz show Des Chiffres et Des Lettres (Digits and Letters) devised by Armand Jammot, which began in 1965 and continues to run today, still attracting a large audience.
There are three different kinds of round:
The Letters Game
A contestant chooses between having a vowel or consonant added to a board, one at a time till nine letters are chosen. The players then have 30 seconds, timed by the Countdown Clock and accompanied by the show's legendary theme tune jingle, to make the longest word possible from these letters. General politeness requires the selector to choose at least four consonants and at least three vowels, otherwise a contestant in the lead could choose too many of either in order to keep their advantage. Once the time is up, each contestant must declare first the length of their word in turn, and then the actual word. The contestant with the longest word scores one point for each letter unless they manage to use all nine letters, which gets them a nine point bonus, making 18 points in total. If the contestants both have legitimate words of the same length then they both score the corresponding points. Words are deemed to be legitimate if they are contained in the Oxford English Dictionary, providing they are not names, or capitalised, or abbreviations and so on - much like in a game of Scrabble.
The Numbers Game
One player chooses six cards from four rows of cards which have numbers on and which are face down. The cards on the top row have 25, 50, 75 and 100 on them - known as 'big numbers', the other three rows of seven, seven and six cards (20 in all) are numbered from one to ten - known as 'small numbers', each number twice. Once six numbers are chosen, in any combination of big and small numbers, Carol presses a button and the studio computer, CECIL2, then picks a random three-figure number. The contestants then have 30 seconds to work out a way of reaching CECIL's target number by using the numbers shown on the chosen cards. A number shown can't be used more than once but they don't have to use all of the numbers. Only addition, subtraction, multiplication and division can be used, although numbers can be put into brackets. Contestants get ten points for getting the number exactly, seven points for getting five or less away from the number and five points for getting between five and ten away from the number. If both players are within the same amount of the number, or both players have the exact number, and both have a legitimate way of getting there, then they both get the corresponding points. If neither contestant reaches the target number, then Carol will usually be able to show them how to do it using her renowned abilities at mental arithmetic.
The Countdown Conundrum
A nine-letter word is shown jumbled up, and the first contestant to buzz in with the correct answer before 30 seconds are up gets ten points. If no-one gets it before 30 seconds are up, no-one gets any points.
Format Of The Game
This has changed over time. In the old days of the half-an-hour show, there were two halves, separated by one commercial break, and nine rounds in total. The first half was made up of three letters games and a numbers game, and the second half was made up of three letters games, a numbers game and finally a conundrum. Nowadays the show runs for 45 minutes, and has three 'halves'3, and hence two commercial breaks. There are 15 rounds in total, five in each section - in the first two, there are four letters game and a numbers game, and in the final section there are three letters games, a numbers game and a conundrum. In each type of show, if the scores were level after the conundrum, then the contestants would play until one of them got a conundrum inside 30 seconds. In the days of the half-hour show, the grand final of the series had a different 45-minute format, with two numbers games, four letters games and one conundrum in each half of the show. Nowadays, the final takes the same format as a regular show.
Champion and Challenger
Each series of Countdown currently runs for approximately six months, from January to June and July to December at present, although there have been as many as four or even five series in a year in the past. A show has two contestants - in most cases a 'champion' and a 'challenger', the 'champion' being the winner of the previous show and the 'challenger' being a new contestant. The only time this is not the case is if a contestant gets to eight wins - once a contestant reaches eight wins they retire undefeated, and two new contestants start the next show. At the end of a series (in June and December at present), the eight contestants with the highest overall scores in the series return to play a knockout series from a quarter-final stage to a series winner. These contestants are seeded depending on their overall scores so that the two best overall players, if they get through, do not meet until the final. This works as follows - in the quarter-finals, seed one plays seed eight, two plays seven, three plays six and four plays five, and then in the semi-finals one or eight plays four or five, and two or seven plays three or six.
There are no massive cash sums, no cars and no holidays. Just a Countdown goody bag, though this varies in size depending upon how well you do. Challengers who fail to defeat the current champion still get a reasonable amount of stuff, such as a Countdown T-shirt, the boardgame based on the show, a Countdown mug and so on. Champions get slightly more than this in their goody bag - a Countdown teapot among the extras. Contestants who reach the quarter- and semi-finals win slightly more again - usually a fancy Countdown pen. The overall series champion wins an entire volume set of leather-bound Oxford English Dictionaries - although on one occasion the overall series champion was a vegan and could not accept this form of the prize, so he got a CD-ROM with the dictionaries on instead.
Champion Of Champions
Every two years, series champions and other players who did very well are invited back to play off against each other for the title 'Champion of Champions' - this is usually 16 or so people, eventually whittled down to just one winner. There was even a series back in 1996 to find the 'Supreme Champion', which featured the best contestants from all of Countdown's past series in a straight knockout competition to find the best. This was eventually won by Harvey Freeman in the final against Alan Saldhana, who first appeared on Countdown at the age of 12 in the late 1980s.
Countdown has a reputation for being watched by grannies and students. It sits in a comfortable teatime slot, currently at 3.15pm each weekday4, and is also repeated at 5am the following morning. Richard Whiteley's puns and ties are as bad as you may have heard - see below. Countdown is never going to be the most exciting programme on TV for most people, but that isn't its point.
Dictionary Corner Guests
When Countdown first started, there were not many guests in Dictionary Corner. Guests at that time were people such as Gyles Brandreth (who leads the number of appearances with 269), Richard Stilgoe (215 appearances), Philip Franks (145), Bill Tidy (117), Geoffrey Durham (135), and occasionally other people. The guest's role is generally to attempt to find the best word possible from the selection, which is why they have the help of two dictionaries and a lexicographical expert such as Susie Dent or Richard Samson. Over more recent years, guests in Dictionary Corner have been more varied, with celebrities ranging from Suzi Quatro, Andi Peters and Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen to Clare Balding, Hayley Mills, Christine Hamilton and Eric Knowles. Generally a celebrity guest will only be available for the day, which is why five recordings take place on one day at Yorkshire Television Studios in Leeds, usually a couple of months before going out on air5. The guest's role, with the help of the dictionary expert, is to come up with better words than the contestants - usually easy enough during a regular series, but more difficult during the finals at the end of a series. The guest also gets to tell a story or joke, do some anagrams of the contestant's names (Richard Stilgoe's speciality) or even draw a cartoon as Bill Tidy used to do.
An entry on Countdown would not be complete without some comment on its former evergreen host and his interesting taste in ties, jackets, shirts and puns. He was as extravagant in real life as he appeared on TV and wrote his own puns, which is probably why they were so deliberately bad! His dress sense also left something to be desired, with him having probably worn a shirt-jacket-tie combination of almost every colour. Indeed, some Countdown viewers even went as far as to send him revolting ties!
Richard sadly passed away on 26 June, 2005 at the age of 61 only a few days after undergoing heart surgery and treatment for pneumonia.
Although Carol Vorderman has always been a part of the show, originally she just came on during the numbers rounds to check the contestants' sums at the end of the numbers game. The letters/numbers were placed on the board by Beverley Isherwood (numbers) and Kathy Hytner (letters). Karen Loughlin did the hostessing in series 14 - 16 and Lucy Summers did the hostessing for series 17. Since then - the late 1980 - Carol has handled all the hostessing duties, even whilst being heavily pregnant with her second child.
The Theme Tune
Almost everyone, even those who hardly ever watch Countdown, appear to know its 30-second long theme tune - especially the last few seconds of 'bada bada badabada BOOO!' (or something like that). The music was composed by Alan Hawkshaw for the original show, and has remained more or less the same throughout the 21 years of the show - indeed, when the music was added to at one point, the show was inundated with complaints and had no option but to return to the original version.
In the late 1990s there were games between celebrities - the first of which was between none other than Richard and Carol! It was shown on Christmas Day 1997, and Carol won by 43 points to 30. Later, in 1998, there were weekly shows between other celebrities, most of whom didn't do particularly well - only Jo Brand, Ron Atkinson, Alan Coren, Alastair Stewart and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall managed to score over 35 points out of the 16 celebrities who took part.
When Things Go Wrong...
A studio being the way a studio is, and the game being the way the game is - things are bound to go wrong, or unsavoury words are likely to appear. The words 'W**KERS' and 'B**TARD' have appeared on more than one occasion before now, and have sometimes even been allowed through, probably due to tight recording schedules more than anything. Other things that have gone wrong have included the mechanism that displays the conundrum failing to work immediately or at all, CECIL's button not working - or indeed, once or twice, a hand has appeared in the consonant/vowel store just as a hostess is about to pick one out.
Okay, it was a highlight for this Researcher, at least, who happened to be sitting in the studio audience when this took place in December 1996 (on air Friday March 14th 1997). We had reached the first numbers game between the current champion, who was on his way to becoming the number one seed for that series, and a challenger.
The champion chose his favourite selection of the four big numbers and any two small numbers6, and the six numbers were 100, 75, 50, 25, 3 and 6. CECIL set the target number as 952. 30 seconds later, the challenger (and this Researcher) had got 953 - 1 away - pretty easily, by doing (100+75-25)*6 = 900, then add the 50 and the 3. However, the champion declared 952, and proceeded to amaze first the audience and then Carol with the following sequence - (100+6)*3=318, 318*75 = 23850, 23850-50 = 23800 and then 23800 / 25 = 952, the correct answer. Numbers above 1000 are rarely seen in the intermediate stages of a numbers game, so to see such a large number and then the correct answer was a surprise to say the least!See Series 34 Prelim 55 14th March 1997 for more on this highlight and others.