Monday, October 31, 2005 by

It had long become the case that you could tell exactly what type of Countdown was on the cards by the precise kind of fanciful countenance struck by Richard Whiteley in the show’s opening seconds. Gently twitching eyebrows meant capricious wordplay was in store. A few lazy waves of the arm in a gesture of mock hubris guaranteed he was about to read out another letter “from” the Queen. Impatient adjusting of his lapel signalled that this was to be a no-nonsense, efficient affair wherein Richard would mix up the contestants’ names and forget to properly press his buzzer on at least two non-consecutive occasions.

Such cosy telegraphing of intention ended up just as much motif as mode of operations – a kind of semaphore of suburbia, radiating outwards across the nation to reassure regulars and harmlessly perplex newcomers as to the exact nature of the ensuing contest. Indeed, as the years went by what used to be a cursory welcome (both Richard and Carol were still being introduced via on-screen captions well into the 1990s) unfurled into a cavalcade of whimsy. The ground so carefully laid during the ever-expanding prologue became material to be tended and tilled ceaselessly during every subsequent pause between rounds.

Ultimately it got to the stage where the quizzing was reduced to playing second fiddle to the unrestrained, gargantuan artifice that was Whiteley versus Vorderman. Neatly packed into half an hour, this was reasonably palatable. Strung out over 45 minutes, however, and your patience would be sorely tested. The last four years of Countdown under Richard’s tenure were really tough going: an ordeal by numbers (literally) and a sometimes-joyless war of weasel words. Yet, as OTT dutifully noted 12 months ago, the show had been recommissioned to run until 2009. A stay of execution had materialised. “To be honest,” we confessed, “you can’t get angry with Countdown for very long.”

Well, circumstances have since conspired to turn the series into a completely different proposition, albeit one that was sensibly rested before being relaunched. But the simple appeal and inoffensive pedantry of the new model Countdown caught at least one viewer by surprise. It wasn’t so much that there was a different person sitting in Richard’s chair that continually made this watershed edition so compelling; more the way the actual game was able to emerge into the spotlight once again, unfettered by all the froth and trimmings of old.

As proceedings elapsed, jocular banter played support to astute calculation, rather than the other way round. Real bibliographic jousting took place. Genuine acclaim was ventured at the discovery of a nine-letter word. Above all, no ground had been laid during the first few minutes that went on to make the whole endeavour feel artlessly, if amiably, predictable. Our host was reacting to everything he heard and saw around him, rather than expecting everything to react to him. The mood of the show was being set by the sum of its parts, not the sum of its opening seconds.

In one sense this was just as well, as the opening seconds had been given over to Carol alone for an uneasily jubilant welcome and equally raucous salute to the new chairman, Des Lynam. Seasoned Countdown watchers will have noted Carol’s growing tendency over the last few years to adopt a distinctly Gaby Roslin-esque approach to TV presentation: namely, sporadic fey giggling interspersed with a barrage of shrieking. When parried by Richard’s bombastic dithering, the results often ended up a near cacophony of nonsense. When married to Des’s calm, muted mutterings, however, the improvement was immediate. With less of a bellicose foil to play against, Carol instinctively piped down. Not, it has to be said, a particularly great deal; when Des essayed the restrained promise that “we’ll pay respect to Richard from time to time,” Carol instantly interrupted with a blustering cry of “many times!” But there was a noticeable difference, and you could see her attitude being tempered by more than just deference to absent friends.

A less pragmatic figure would have fallen prey to cliché and attempted to retread old, tired paths. Not Des. He was in his element, even if he did his best to convince otherwise (“You can’t be more nervous than I am … I hope I’m not too much of a shock for you”). The occasionally aloof and distant way he went about his business shouldn’t be mistaken for disdainful under-performance. It only feels that way because he’s following on the heels of the calculated over-performance and comic exaggeration of his predecessor. The definitive TV version of Richard Whiteley took years to crystallize. It could, indeed should, take Des a fair few months at the very least before he finds his preferred balance of louche charm and dry reason.

But he’s got the time, and bags of it, because in the world of Countdown such a thing as time isn’t organized in the same way it is in the real world. If you find yourself in a position to watch the show regularly for a number of months, it won’t feel like a number of months come the point you switch off. Seasons will have passed in the blinking of a rheumatic eye. Pretty soon it’ll feel like Des will have been hosting Countdown forever. It might only be after two weeks. It might be six months. It doesn’t matter, though, because normal rules don’t apply to the most atypically conventional quiz show on television. Any other instance of a replacement host taking over an established format and they’d be on probation, in the minds of the viewer just as much as the programme-makers. Not this time. This is an appointment for, well, life. As long as Des wants a life as a television face, of course, which will hopefully be for some years to come.

After the wretchedly messy defection to ITV and a hapless innings helming The Premiership, Des seems to have tumbled back onto his perch. “It’s really all about the two contestants,” he stated simply at the top of today’s show. Therein lies the future of Countdown: as a modestly becoming and unintentionally retuned parlour game. It may still feel like an age between the first round and the conundrum, but at least there’s now something of substance beyond the opening seconds again – which, for a format as old as Channel 4 itself, is the greatest and most welcome surprise of all.


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