Clock Watching

Behind the scenes at Countdown by Ian Jones

First published December 2007

Helping craft the survival of British television’s most redoubtable words and numbers game is a man deeply schooled in judging the correct ratio of vowels to consonants and unscrambling that all-important nine-in-a-line.

Damian Eadie’s first brush with Countdown was 13 years ago, as a contestant. But his original motivation for taking part wasn’t shaped by any lofty desire to dazzle the country with cerebral acrobatics. “I was just looking to experience something new and different,” he explains. “Countdown was meant to be the stepping-stone to landing a place on the greed shows – a couple of cars, a new house, a murder mystery weekend at a place made famous by Agatha Christie, that sort of thing. I went into it expecting absolutely nothing.”

Eadie believes that absence of preparation – “I hadn’t studied word lists, I had no idea what seven times 75 was if asked off the cuff” – worked in his favour by ridding him of nerves. “The whole thing became one exciting adventure. The realisation that millions of people would watch the show never crossed my mind.”

On first walking into the contestants’ dressing room at Yorkshire Television, long-time home of Countdown, he encountered two brothers, one in his mid-20s, the other a mere 13 years old. “I’d no idea which one was the champ.” Inevitably it turned out to be the 13-year-old. “A nightmare for most,” concedes Eadie, “but not for me – I merely waited until his brother nipped off to the toilet then threatened him with extreme violence should he dare to come up with anything longer than five letters!”

Before he knew it Eadie had notched up six consecutive wins and bagged a place in the quarter-finals. Having deliberately not watched any of the series in which he was taking part, he hadn’t a clue who was the current number one seed, or who was favourite, or who was “the uber-geek”. All of which had a further palliative effect on his already calm demeanour. “The whole thing was still pure fun and just doing it again was enough for me.”

However he endured a tense quarter-final against Chris Hawkins, today a highly-ranked Scrabble player, ultimately winning by one point. “It was a nail-biter and the hardest game I’d had. But more tellingly it was the first time I’d realised that nerves had began to creep into my system.”

The semi-final, fortuitously, proved to be a more straightforward victory. Then came an hour’s meal break, the entirety of which Eadie spent smoking “far too many cigarettes” and pacing around the dressing room in the presence of his opponent – hardly the most relaxing of interludes. “We were both pretty terrified and I think it showed in the game itself.” Yet Eadie came through, largely, he insists, thanks to his skill at the conundrum: he managed to solve both, handing him a valuable 20 points. “I was delighted with winning, my mum and dad were proud and once the final was aired I had my ugly face in almost every national newspaper.” He also gifted his brother a fairly hefty win at the bookies, after he’d put ¬£10 on him to win at 40-1.

Eadie’s unflappable personality and natural charm seemed to have made an impression at Countdown headquarters, for pretty soon after his victory he received a call from the show’s then-executive producer John Meade. Historically Countdown had rotated on a three-monthly basis with Fifteen-to-One. But Channel 4 had just decided to increase its annual commission from 125 episodes to 250, effectively putting Countdown on screen all year round.
Needing another hand in the production office to cope, Meade asked Eadie to come to an interview for the role of researcher.

It was a propitious offer. “I lived in Blackpool, so was up north anyway. I didn’t have a brilliantly paid job, and I didn’t have the qualifications to warrant being anything other than a semi-skilled worker, so I suppose I was an ideal choice for them.” Conscious of Meade’s reputation – “a legendary character, a very sociable personality and also quite outspoken and controversial” – Eadie was aware his interview could be “pretty interesting!” Arriving at Yorkshire TV at 11.30am, Eadie was taken straight to the bar where Meade promptly sat him down with a pint of lager and asked just one question: “Do you get PMT?”

And that was that. The job was his, several more pints were imbibed, and Eadie “crawled” back to Blackpool at the end of the day an employee of Countdown.

He has been with the show ever since, graduating up through the ranks until arriving at the role of producer. It’s not meant wholesale banishment behind the camera, however. Since early on Eadie has enjoyed, or rather endured, spells in Dictionary Corner, when none of the usual resident Oxford University Press boffins could make the recording. “Originally all the lexicographers were heavily involved with work-related issues on a daily basis, and were simply unable to drop everything and hot-foot it up to Leeds whenever we asked them to.”

As such a stand-in, on occasion, had to be found. Another member of the production staff Mark Nyman was the first to get the call. “He was awash with good looks, a superb brain and was relaxed … so to balance things out they asked me to have a crack it as well!” Eadie is categorical in his response to such a hallowed responsibility. “I hated doing Dictionary Corner. Even to this day, if there is an emergency and the usual personnel, I’d rather scrap the recording session than do it again. Make up on the face, stiff shirts and ties, having to play the game all day long? I don’t think so.”

Now supervising producer, Eadie’s role has become one half guardian of the show’s past, one half guarantor of its future. From a practical perspective, he is involved in compiling the conundrums, preparing the pre-advert “teatime teasers” and ensuring the celebrity guests are well-armed with tall tales and words of whimsy, never mind collating suitable opening material with which presenters Des O’Connor and Carol Vorderman can have an all-important gossip. In this he’s backed by half a dozen staff – “a brilliant team” – who also help deal with the deluge of correspondence from viewers, press enquiries, liase with Channel 4, and come up with future guests.

On the day of recording, Eadie is in permanent close contact with Dictionary Corner to make sure all rules are observed, to watch that the correct adjudication is made, and to ensure all edits and retakes will work. “The director is responsible for what you see on screen in terms of visuals; I’m in charge of content.”

Finally there are the numerous incidental tasks, from fielding requests for permission to use the famous “clock music” (such as in Terry’s Chocolate Orange commercials) to the production of various Countdown-related spin-offs such as DVDs, internet games and puzzle books. Requests for clips from other TV shows need to be vetted. Post-production involves slimming down each recording, filtering out all the awkward pauses, coughs and – surely not! – dull moments, then signing off a final cut of exactly 36 minutes to send down to Channel 4. “Throw in the odd bit of writing, the compiling of new audition tests and the over-analysis of viewing figures, then that’s pretty much about it.”

“Part of the enjoyment of the job is that it’s never the same,” Eadie confesses.

He has made a few changes during his tenure behind the scenes, though he’s careful to stress these have been “nothing major; just tweaks and fiddles.” For example, the length of each series used to be three months, meaning that in any one calendar year there would be four overall Countdown champions. For Eadie, this was “nonsense. No sooner have you won the thing and your 20-volume dictionary set arrives at home, you’ve already been replaced by somebody else.”

These typical three-month runs were also generating roughly just three “Octochamps” (contestants who’d won eight games in a row, the maximum possible) and a few with six wins, with the number eight seed barely scraping a trio of victories. Hardly impressive stuff. “It made perfect sense to me that, if we double the series, we’ll double the standard of the finals and it will make for better television,” Eadie explains. He got the go-ahead, and sure enough the overall quality of participants improved. 18 months in, all the eight quarter-finalists were “Octochamps”. “A joy to watch,” affirms Eadie.

A more controversial change was banning American spellings. “I never liked them and never quite understood them,” he admits. “You cannot buy a British newspaper and do a crossword that has American spellings incorporated into the clues or the answers. You cannot buy a newspaper that incorporates them into its text, so why were we allowing ‘CIGARET’?” Eadie’s decision to forbid the use of these in the show’s word rounds won him friends among purists and, he believes, boosted Countdown‘s educational credentials. It meant, though, taking a knock from Scrabble buffs for whom American spellings have, bafflingly, long been considered wholly permissible.

When the programme expanded its running time from 30 to 45 minutes in 2001, Eadie came afoul of no less a figure than host Richard Whiteley himself. “We fell out about it for a while. The concept of having three parts to the show, or three ‘halves’ as Richard would call them, was a new one to get our heads around, and it took lots of fiddling around to get it right.”

As always seems to be case with radical TV revamps, there was barely enough time to fine tune the details – in this case, one week precisely. Whiteley wanted a show made up of 12 rounds, affording ample banter opportunity. Eadie did some timings and concluded this would indeed free up more space for chat but, in his view, too much. Whiteley held out for 12 rounds. Eadie insisted this wasn’t anywhere near enough.

“Eventually we settled on having a numbers round in each part, sticking to just one conundrum and having 15 rounds in total – a nice even five rounds per part.” Whiteley generously conceded he was wrong and accepted the compromise with good grace. “Initially the 15 round show seemed to last forever,” confesses Eadie, “but now it flies by in no time at all.”

The greatest upheaval for Eadie has been, unsurprisingly, Whiteley’s death. Devastated by the loss, he ultimately ordered the Countdown office to be closed down. The cumulative impact of all the letters, cards and flowers was just too much. “There was sackful after sackful. It became so emotionally draining for us that we just went home. We didn’t return for something like three or four weeks.”

For those with whom he worked at Yorkshire Television, Eadie attests, Richard Whiteley was always more than just a TV presenter. He was a colleague and a friend to everyone, anyone, who had the fortune to get to know him. “He’d regularly come into the Countdown office during the week when we were not recording, sit down and have a cup of tea, read some letters from the viewers, have a chat about what we were doing and generally mooch around, which was one of his favourite pastimes.

“On a personal level, he’d been absolutely fantastic to me, helping me advance through the ranks at Countdown, always supporting, offering encouragement and constantly singing my praises to anyone who would listen.” He even cut short a holiday in Portugal to attend Eadie’s wedding. “He’s still missed hugely by all of us. But we’ve got his photograph pinned up on the wall of the office, and from time to time we’ll put on the Richard Whiteley ‘Gotcha’ tape from Noel’s House Party, and have a look back at the old boy with massive amounts of respect and affection.”

One of Eadie’s favourite anecdotes of working on Countdown involves the gentle mocking of Whiteley’s legendary good nature and strict habits. “He used to have a dressing room right opposite the make-up department. One day he’d nipped in to make-up to get ready for the show, and I popped into his dressing room and used his toilet, after a heavy night out the previous evening, which naturally involved lots of lager and a curry. I scarpered before he came back, but hung around the corner to see what happened as he re-entered the dressing room. Needless to say, he wondered what on Earth had just died in there, and I still remember him summoning the Unit Assistant asking for air freshener spray.”

Since Whiteley’s passing, Countdown has seen one successor as host, Des Lynam, give way fairly rapidly to another, Des O’Connor. Eadie has vivid memories of “cracking nights out” with Lynam, including one that involved being introduced to Paul Gascoigne. Another occasion saw Eadie and Countdown director Derek Hallworth arriving at a Thai restaurant just as Lynam was leaving, and being promptly sat at a table for two with a solitary rose in a vase in the middle. “The atmosphere was a little odd to say the least.” Apparently the old fox had, before departing, told the restaurant manageress to expect the arrival of “two ladyboys!”

Eadie got revenge, of sorts, after a subsequent incident involving Lynam and a hotel electronic keycard. Repeatedly failing to get into his room, and having engaged both the receptionist and manager in his predicament, he resorted to using the hotel skeleton key to open the door of room 317. Except Lynam’s room number wasn’t 317. It was 307. “Des walked into 317 only to find a young couple in bed having sex. He was completely mortified!”

Needless to say this gaffe soon became common knowledge. The very next day Eadie had the prop department rig the show’s number generating machine, ‘Cecil’, to come up with 307. “Des never clicked, and he said, ‘So that’s your target – 307′; and he started the clock. I immediately said into his earpiece, ‘Des, are you sure it’s not actually 317?’ His face was a picture. Touch√© indeed.”

Current incumbent of the presenter’s chair, Des O’Connor, got into a memorable muddle over the word DACOITS. “It means a Burmese armed robber, or something like that. Des completely misheard the whole thing, and tried to help out Dictionary Corner by suggesting it was a game played on board a ship. He was confusing the whole thing with ‘deck quoits’. It took us about 15 minutes to regain our composure and carry on with the programme.”

It is incidents like these, which turn up from time to time but never get shown to us at home, that renew Eadie’s fondness for his job and help to explain why he’s been happily patrolling the same beat for over a decade. “They are part and parcel of why the whole Countdown team love making the programme,” he concludes, simply. “We hope to be doing so for a long time to come.”