Monday, November 3, 2003 by

It’s a pity Channel 4 seem to have forgotten that the best way to get shot of a listless, ageing programme is to dispatch it, cleanly and coldly, with one swift blow. You do not fuss and flap about, one minute fiddling with its running time, the next shuttling it in an uncouth fashion around your schedules, forever fighting shy of discharging the inevitable.

The channel’s had a particularly hard time recently, ending up prolonging shows it so obviously wants to be rid of thanks to legal complications, loss of nerve, personality issues, an absence of vision, or all of these combined. High-profile cases have stacked up: The Big Breakfast, TFI Friday and RI:SE, while other stubborn small-scale efforts such as Eurotrash defy expectation and cling on time and again. Countdown, however, has been dealt a particularly unfair hand over the past few years. From the marvellous twin highs of its 18th birthday and 3000th episode in 2000, it promptly tumbled violently out of favour so as to suffer a pointless expansion to 45 minutes in 2001, and then, two months ago, having its start time ungraciously kicked back an hour to 3.15pm.

All long-running programmes have to evolve to survive, of course, but Countdown‘s sudden move didn’t smack in the least bit of constructive, forward-looking thinking. Indeed, the very fact that the entire operation was neither obvious nor comprehensible to viewers actually turned out to do the most damage of all. The outcry that followed, “questions asked in Parliament” included, resonated on a different level to the majority of textbook TV moral panics. Its cause wasn’t, as seems so often to be the case, something the armchair agitators purposefully refused to understand, or deliberately misrepresented to score personal points and air pet grievances. At the heart of the complaints was an unrefined bewilderment, one that manifested itself into a frenzied din spanning a mixture of ages, all taking issue with an action that appeared at best perverse and petulant, at worse a marker of impending execution.

A half-hearted publicity campaign attempting to promote C4′s entire afternoon line-up as a coherent, seamless whole did little to stem the tide of alarm. Explanations did eventually emerge, but too late to do any good. Perhaps the channel needed to bolster its schedules round 3pm, or a newly re-energised Richard and Judy was no longer in requirement of a third party injection of audiences come 5pm. Whatever, Countdown was cut adrift to float backwards into the wilderness of the mid-afternoon siesta: too soon after lunch to enjoy over a plate of tea and biscuits; too early to catch the eye of bored yet inquisitive kids home from school; too barren and bleak a slot to offset the impression of a programme being nudged into the equivalent of a rather tatty, ill-kempt retirement home.

It’s all been very clumsy, poorly handled, and extremely undignified – three criteria you could never ever have previously leveled at Countdown, regardless of its trademark half-incidental, half-self-perpetuating idiosyncrasies. The long term will tell if the move turns out to pay dividends or merely accelerate a tailing off in the confidence and quirkiness of C4′s afternoon schedules. The effect in the short term has been to render Countdown‘s 21st birthday celebrations – and, of course, those of Channel 4 itself – a rather self-conscious display of sobriety.

Like last year, the actual date of the anniversary – 2nd November – fell on a day when the show wasn’t on air, so the revelry was spread in typically eccentric fashion over two separate programmes either side of the weekend. Monday’s edition was closest to the grand day itself, however, and opened with predictable yet reassuring exchanges of clumsy reminiscence. “We are in fact 21 years and one day old, n’est pas,” Richard Whiteley began grandly, before continuing, “thanks very much for your telegrams, er, what are they called nowadays?” “E-mails?” suggested Carol Vorderman, playing to the very back row of the audience.

But while the laboured asides and mistimed anecdotes all felt natural and correct and properly in place, the ebb and flow of the ensuing contest did not – a reminder, yet again, that the shift to a 45-minute format two years ago has never paid off. Regardless of the sterling competitiveness of the contestants and the ceaseless simple charm of the individual rounds, three quarters of an hour is just too long for such patented low-key jousting to stay fresh and engaging. When the programme’s second commercial break arrived, you still felt like it should be the end of the show. The final chunk of proceedings just dissolved into a fog of confusion – did Richard just say round 11, or 12? Was that the second numbers game or the third?

The resident Dictionary Corner guest did little to lift things: a businesslike Barry Norman, introduced by Richard as the “straight-talking legendary film critic,” chose instead to regale viewers with an over-polished account of the time he appeared on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show, with both Richard and Carol having to laugh extra loud to disguise the fact there weren’t any jokes. The contestants were, at least, vintage Countdown material – studious, resolute, utterly oblivious to the camera. Their careful demeanour, the loyal support of the studio audience, and the unabashed collective revelling in individual displays of erudition were all factors that shone through regardless; factors that have, of course, endured pretty much unchanged for the entire 21 years.

A gesture of remembrance, then, but an awkward one and, set in the context of the programme’s recent history, closer to a valediction than a celebration. Given that there was not even the slightest trace of any other birthday festivities anywhere else on Channel 4 (again, just like last year), the entire carry-on seemed even more desperate and akin to a last hurrah. This attitude towards birthdays at C4 has got to stop; even Jeremy Isaacs wasn’t this puritanical, while Michael Grade used to mark the event by dressing up as an ice-cream salesman.

So the final irony was that, on what should’ve been a day for good-natured, well-publicised festivity and recognition (C4 inheriting “the key to the door”, no less), a single lowly programme had to carry the flag for the entire organisation – a programme, moreover, deeply unsure of its own future, and still reeling from a clutch of ignoble rescheduling’s and vague whispered threats of cancellation.

If Mark Thompson and his team really want to get rid of Countdown, then they should pull the plug now and spare everyone the sight of watching a once indomitable schedule warhorse embark on a sorrowful decline into not just plain embarrassment, but undignified irrelevance.


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