Monday, September 24, 2001 by

“No, the world hasn’t gone mad – it’s quarter past four!” And so, with twinkling eyes and a voice brimming with scarcely-concealed merriment, Richard Whiteley – the Mr Bumble of Channel 4 – opened another series of Countdown. Normally the tiniest trace of upheaval is extremely rare on this most triumphant of panel games. Evolution rather than revolution is its sacred watchword. “We don’t like too much change on Countdown,” Richard carefully reminded viewers – before explaining how the show had now been moved to a new, earlier start time, and expanded from half an hour to a whopping forty-five minutes. Not too much change? These were developments on a seismic scale.

There have been “thousands” of letters, apparently, petitioning for Countdown to run for longer than 30 minutes a time. Richard has been receiving them, he attested, since the mid-1980s. So here it was: what the public wanted, at the slightly awkward, unmemorable hour of 4.15pm, and with not one but two chances to pop out and re-fill the kettle or visit the toilet. “Good fellowship and good humour,” were the order of the day, Richard promised – plus, naturally, “quality waffle”. And unsurprisingly, this new model show did not feature any major innovations or, gasp, original rounds: simply the normal format extended by a half again, together with an increase in the proportion of word games, giving a total of 14 rounds in all.

The exciting new start sequence – featuring photos of Richard and Carol laughing and holding hands – suggested changes were afoot of a decidedly unnerving, even creepy nature. It was something a relief, then, to find that the two contestants were committed, feverish types: textbook Countdown. Simon was from Orpington, owned some bars and a nightclub, and expressed a wish to take to his desert island, “an endless pack of cigarettes, an endless bottle of whisky and a female companion.” This unlikely inventory was suitably mocked with the first of many Whiteley-isms: “Not exactly Robinson Crusoe!”

The other contender, Ian, was unemployed, and keen on keep fit. Importantly, both looked like going the distance, the full 45 minutes. But this led to other thoughts, more serious perhaps, and sobering. How, for example, will the increased airtime affect the extremely old and infirm? Or those annoyingly young upstarts who’re just out of primary school? Has proper provision been made for the audience, which has always been of a mature disposition, and whose circulation might be seriously impaired?

As if to counter all these images it was great to find that seated in Dictionary Corner, entirely appropriately, was Gyles Brandreth. A veteran of Countdown, and whose short sojourn in the Houses of Parliament impeded his commitment to this words and numbers game, Gyles is now unemployed and needs to practice his raconteur skills. So he enthusiastically threw himself into the role, paired with Suzie Dent, today’s Guardian of the Dictionary: smart, witty, and an expert in handling Gyles’ come-ons and fumbled gags.

The 45 minutes passed rapidly. The pace of each round was quick, and contestants and experts came up with impressive words. Both Simon and Ian were extremely talented players, meaning that almost immediately they were neck-and-neck and, remarkably, remained so right through to the Conundrum. But that was mostly by the by. What was important, as ever, was what happened in-between rounds and before and after the not one but two commercial breaks.

For no reason at all Gyles looked up his own name in the dictionary. “A sub-structure of piles” was the definition, which set Richard off. Later Gyles found an eight-letter word, but decided to reveal it via a long rambling monologue. “Me and Richard have our Morecambe and Wise evenings in bed together,” he intoned, prompting Richard to cry, “What’s the word? What’s the word?” (It was “earplugs”.) Going into the first break, Gyles shared some of the “backlog of correspondence” he had received from Countdown viewers, beginning with one person who wrote in March 1984. “What is the secret of your success?” the correspondent asked of Gyles. His advice – nothing less than the motto of General McArthur: “Have a plan, execute it violently, do it today.”

This commercial break was witness to another radical change. Richard explained how, from now on, there will be a teaser caption just before the ads containing a seven-letter anagram. The answer would be revealed when the show returned. This was a big deal. “Well done if you got that,” shouted Richard afterwards, “and welcome to the good ship Countdown.” It’s fortunate the two contestants remained consistent in achieving high scores, thereby turning what was already a special occasion into almost a spectacular one. But still the real stars remained on top form. A particularly gruesome collection of letters elicited a quick chuckle from Richard – “What’s wrong with that?” he cracked, as the contestants faced two Os, one X, one V and two Us.

The relationship between Richard and Carol was noticeably muted compared to reputation and past experience. While Gyles occupied himself with distasteful approaches onto Suzie (“I’d like to roust you later …”) the interplay between Whiteley and Vorderman was much more subtle and entertaining. Carol didn’t have much luck with the number rounds, something that Richard always finds hilarious. “There’s still one more game to redeem yourself,” winced Richard, at which Carol glared imperviously. Following the second commercial break – which controversially, and wrongly, was not preceded by a bon mot from Gyles – Carol managed to solve the second of the numbers games. She received a well-deserved if brief clap. “No applause – just save it for me at the end,” announced Richard.

The last 15 minutes – the “new” segment – succeeded in ratcheting up the tension still further, thanks to Ian and Simon remaining on level pegging. There was no sign of flagging from the others either. When the word “treason” was found, the gags flowed. “One treason at a time – that’s the way we used to do it at Westminster,” quipped Gyles. “Well, ’tis the treason to be merry soon – Christmas is coming, of course,” Richard stated – “but not before we go to Round 12,” he added, correctly. One major logistical flaw, however, was uncovered: the fact that Carol almost ran out of consonant cards by the time of the final words game.

If one of the contenders had already amassed a huge lead before the first break, it’s likely the show would have really began to drag. An onslaught of puns and gaffes from the host would have been needed to salvage some excitement from a runaway winner’s inevitable path to glory. As it was the first 45-minute Countdown sailed to a fine climax thanks to the “crucial Conundrum” … which neither Ian nor Simon solved, rather annoyingly. A lone voice rang out with the solution. “Well done lady in the audience,” Richard chimed back.

Ian won, and had to return to face another 45-minute marathon tomorrow. “Thanks for taking part – it’s a historic day today,” reflected Richard rightly. But there was time for one last innovation – an e-mail address, no less, appearing on screen in an appropriately Countdown style font. Feedback will undoubtedly be good – people only write in to this programme to sing its praises, never to complain, at least never seriously.

If this limited “re-launch” of the almost-19 year old format supplies enough freshness and energy to push Countdown into its third decade then so much the better. More Countdown, after all, can only ever be a good thing, and it’s only the heartless that venture to argue otherwise. As Richard said in his new catchphrase: “It’s a date – that’ll be great!” No question.


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