Thursday, November 2, 2006 by

By the look on Des’ face, you’d have thought someone had died. But no, it was just Countdown‘s 24th birthday, and as usual our man was doing his best to grace the occasion with a crisply-executed ill-suited response.

“It’s a very special day,” he mumbled as if delivering a eulogy. “Yes,” immediately boomed Carol, jump-starting proceedings by wrestling proceedings out of Des’ grey hands and into her own forever-affable universe.

“It’s a very special day,” she repeated, before leading the audience in a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday to Us”. Visiting pupils from Otley grammar school were shown enthusiastically joining in. A couple of old women began to sway. The air was thick with the whiff of embarrassed jubilation. And still Des didn’t smile.

In fact he refused to crack a grin throughout the entire programme. At one point he appeared on the verge of letting slip a sly chuckle, only to resolve this dribble of emotion into a cocky snort. His eyes betrayed no sign of enjoyment. His voice rarely rose above that of an apologetic restaurateur. At several points he appeared to be checking an atlas for the quickest route home. He bid us goodbye as if brushing off a money spider that had been stuck to his moustache.

And it was all going so well. From those dark days of the late ’90s, when he single-handedly made enemies of the entire nation by defecting from the BBC to ITV, Des had just reached the point at which everybody had more or less forgiven him – only to go and blow it all again by proclaiming himself too lazy to continue making the journey up to Countdown‘s Yorkshire studios. Now he’s off, presumably to spend more time pottering in a diameter of three or so miles around his sundial, leaving behind him a show that is once more looking for a suitably avuncular, comforting host.

Which would make a change from the present incumbent. In retrospect Des was never going to completely settle into Richard Whiteley’s high-backed purple chair, despite this reviewer’s initial enthusiasm. Time just wasn’t on the man’s side. It actually worked against him, conspiring to illuminate rather than mask his shortcomings. And it was happening day after day after day.

A dose of Des every 24 hours soon proved a far cry from a regular weekly helping. Those dusty turns of phrase and mildewed mannerisms which proved to be devastatingly effective following hard on the heels of frantic football action started to seem singularly jaundiced cloistered within the confines of a parlour game. Suddenly Des and his patter felt very, very old. Worse, so did Countdown.

The one factor above all else which had helped keep the format, ahem, ticking over down the decades – the show’s blatant comprehensibility – became an anachronism. Des wasn’t conferring any dignity or patronage onto Countdown‘s enduring rules and rituals. Instead he was behaving as if he didn’t much care for them. He came to treat them as an irritation rather than representing the whole point of him being there. The show had always been inconsequential, but Des somehow turned this into a bad thing.

It’s hard to see how any of this was intentional. It’s equally difficult to doubt Des’s sincerity in accepting the job in the first place and seeking to make a reasonably decent fist of following in the footsteps of someone like Richard Whiteley.

The problem now is trying to convince us he’s not bailing out because he’s given up. His stated reason of disliking the travelling is simply not worthy of a man of Des’s reputation and grasp of public relations. Sure, he may have harboured such feelings deep down, but you’d never expect somebody like him to come out and say so on the record.

His actions smack of taking the least worst way out and of not wishing to face up to the challenges before him. Now we’ll never know whether Des did have the capacity, in the long term, to fashion the programme in his own image, accept its values, cherish its quirkiness and learn to smile. You’d like to think he could have made it a success. The fact he’s denied us – and himself – that pleasure is pure petulance, bordering on the selfish.

So he’s lost the good faith of the nation all over again. And it’s a pity he had to dress up his exit in such tattered clothing which ill suits both him and the programme he’s leaving behind.

Yet you have to wonder now whether it’s worth pulling the plug for good, especially as whoever takes over would have a bigger mountain to climb than that which faced Des. At least he inherited a show that was still a success. The new presenter will step into a show that is sprawling on the ropes.


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