Friday, November 1, 2002 by

On the occasion of Channel 4′s 20th birthday, but with a moratorium on anything remotely resembling joviality apparently in place across the network, it was a relief that Richard Whiteley for one was able to wriggle free of the company hairshirt.

You can understand the essence of the thinking behind the ban on commemorations: that the delicate upheavals triggered by chief executive Mark Thompson necessitate the emphasis be placed firmly upon the future, not the past. But to go so far in the opposite direction as to not even acknowledge the anniversary at all is more than a little perverse, if not a bit petulant. A tribute to the legacy of the channel, coupled with a subtle statement of what it represents today, could have served to at least conjure up an air of self-confidence within the station. Yet to totally ignore the past doesn’t exactly bode well for the future, implying everyone is so obsessed with today there’s not much thought being given to tomorrow.

Anyway, Richard Whiteley wasn’t having any of this. He’d been busy all week hyping up both the 20th birthday of Channel 4 and of course Countdown itself. Expectations were high for the anniversary show, despite it not being on exactly the same day as the programme’s launch in 1982. Indeed, you wanted Richard to make a big deal of things to try and compensate for the lack of cheer and acknowledgement elsewhere. If ever there was someone to indulge in a rather shameless bout of nostalgia then Whiteley is the man. The evidence was there in the shape of his fine track record for making a big fuss about special occasions. Recent highlights included Countdown‘s 18th birthday in 2000, and the 3000th episode the following year which had been accompanied by a documentary memorable for managing to be both entertaining and still feature contributions from Paul Ross and Arthur Smith.

Trouble is, there’s been something not quite right with Countdown ever since the show switched from a 30-minute format to three quarters of an hour in September 2001. Its signature characteristics – bookish eclecticism and low farce – have proven to wear rather thin when stretched over the extended running time. Now it feels like each programme always slightly outstays its welcome, and the familiar dose of unabashed self-indulgence is no longer entirely cancelled out by enduring charm or pace. These are worrying factors that taken together nudge you towards wondering whether the show does have a limited shelf life after all, and whether the revamp came about through expediency, pragmatism or blind panic. Ultimately it just makes you feel more anxious about Countdown‘s chances at escaping the axe currently being wielded so publicly by Mark Thompson.

So it was somewhat telling, therefore, that this celebration was, as Richard conceded, a “low-key” one. The words “Happy Birthday” were spelt out on the letters board, but as Richard gruffly confirmed, “We had to do that ourselves.” The usual clips from the first ever show were wheeled out (always a pleasure to see again) and there was one particularly fine routine involving Richard “receiving” a package from, supposedly, Buckingham Palace. Playing the moment for all its worth, he elaborately opened the bundle to find a card with a suitably regal message inside … followed by the scrawled dedication: “Best wishes from all below stairs.” To much laughter, Richard was temporarily rendered speechless while he felt a “tingling all over”.

The rest of the game, however, was distinguished only by one contestant – a “man of the cloth, and we need more of them” – getting a nine-letter word in the very first round. This helped add a bit more of a celebratory feel to proceedings, topped off by Richard remarking he could feel “a tear in either ear”, the sort of slip of the tongue the audience had really come to see. But as the show progressed and a clear winner emerged, so the time started to drag. Whenever there’s no edge-of-the-seat stuff nowadays, Countdown always tends towards the aimless and the laboured.

There was precious little spark in dictionary corner either, thanks to the presence of Rick Wakeman. This was really quite unsatisfactory, as at the very least this viewer was bargaining on Gyles Brandreth or Richard Stilgoe; even Tom O’Connor would’ve done. Instead Rick’s doleful presence sapped further energy out of the programme, while his key contribution amounted to a dull anecdote about – of all things – meeting Jim Davidson for dinner.

Still, there was some limited fun to be had out of beating the contestants and trying (and failing) to master the conundrum. As the end approached, though, it was clear that “low-key” meant resolutely low-key and there was no sign of any cake, decorations, surprise guests or, sadly, any more archive clips. Richard rather desperately assured us and his colleagues that the cards would be “arriving tomorrow,” and with that there was little else left to do. “Thank you for your support these 20 years,” he signed off rather poignantly, before adding, “and congratulations to Channel 4 on 20 great years.” It was a nicely timed and long overdue tribute, and all the more effective for being virtually the only one voiced on the entire channel.

Countdown exists in a vastly changed landscape to that it cosily inhabited as little as five years ago. A glance at the most recent set of TV ratings figures shows the extent to which Channel 4 appears to be suffering, especially in relation to its nearest rival BBC2. Of the top 30 most watched programmes on BBC2, C4 and C5, only four were shown on C4 (Friends, Grand Designs, The Showbiz Set and Scrapheap Challenge) while 23 were on the Beeb. Taken in isolation – and out of context – it’s a pretty damning indictment of a station that had BBC2 on the run for most of the ’80s and early ’90s. If major surgery is to come, which you’d guess it surely will, Countdown‘s erstwhile role as a lynchpin of daytime schedules suddenly doesn’t seem obvious.

It’s depressing and a little daunting to even consider for a moment a world without Richard, Carol et al, but in the fight to chart out C4′s short and long term future the impression is being given that those who aren’t pulling their weight must go. On the occasion of Countdown‘s 18th birthday, the self-assurance and optimism on display were contagious. Two years on, it’s impossible not to pick up on a faint trace of unease within the fabric of the programme. It might just be tiredness, it could be on the expressed orders of those on high; but those involved in the 20th anniversary edition of Countdown couldn’t completely hide the fact that for the first time the programme is feeling its age, and doesn’t quite know what to do about it.


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