Monday, November 3, 2008 by

Do not go gentle into that good night…

…but might it be possible, once in a while, for a tiny acknowledgement that time is, y’know, getting on a bit, and after all nobody’s here forever, so why not make like it’s all been worthwhile and sound like you’ve still got a bit of life in you? It is your birthday after all.

Fat chance. “We’re all looking rather sombre this afternoon,” drawled Carol at the top of this anniversary show. *Click*. Thanks but no thanks. Oh, but hang on. Maybe she’s being, well, ironic. Maybe she’s about to lead the studio in a rousing chorus of felicitations? Maybe Des is about to read out a batch of cards, and some celebrities will turn up on film to proffer messages of congratulation?

Yes, and maybe Countdown is still the warm and satisfying afternoon rock cake of the schedules it once was. For this was the birthday show that wasn’t. Not one mention was forthcoming. Not one reference dropped, not a single joke essayed. It was the great unmentionable. And the occasion was all the less for it.

Heavens, even Des Lynam, who struggled continuously to absorb and radiate Countdown‘s once-stout conviviality with its own past, at least had a go. At least he tried to sound like it was a special day. At least he observed that Countdown actually had a history.

The right way for a TV parlour game to celebrate an anniversary

The right way to celebrate a teatime TV anniversary

Not this time. This was the most depressingly-staged birthday the show has ever had. A pall hung over proceedings, which it was impossible to separate from recent off-screen events concerning not so much the business of Countdown‘s past, but the nature of its future.

Was this edition recorded, you wondered, before or after Des O’Connor and Carol had decided to quit? And that they had revealed as much to the production team? Or the public?

It was very easy to read into their respective personalities a pointed sense of going through the motions. Of a duty to be discharged. Of eyes fixed firmly on the finishing line off in mid-distance, their gaze never once raised to the horizon or cast down for a moment’s introspection.

This was not comfortable viewing. It seemed Countdown‘s star turns were no longer reconciled to our presence. A bond felt like it had snapped. Even the contestants were addressed coolly. The special guest in Dictionary Corner, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, didn’t smile once for a full 13 minutes.

Reticence was something Countdown shook off in the 1980s. Formality it discarded a decade later. Here both were on display, and unambiguously rampant.

What have you got for us, CECIL?

"What have you got for us, CECIL?"

12 months ago it was possible to say the programme was “more alive and distinctive than ever”. There was no spark to this particular affair, however, nor joy for the moment. The fact it was also a birthday compounded things to the extent of turning an excuse into a felony. Each 30-second voyage down the left side of the clock felt twice as long. To echo Clive James, any funeral moving at such a pace would have been dispersed by the police before it got to the graveyard.

It would be heartless not to document the positives. Des and Carol were perfectly capable as host and foil, appearing professional throughout. The primacy of words and numbers were respected. Knowledge was rewarded, mistakes tolerated.

On the evidence of this edition, all the fundamentals of Countdown are still sound. But they said the same about the UK economy, up till about four months ago – coincidentally the same moment both Des and Carol announced they were off. And it’s unfortunate that this most austere of quiz shows is teetering just at the point when the country is once again embracing, admittedly not by choice, a degree of frugalism. Nobody could ever accuse Countdown of promoting greed or avarice. It might still become an emblem of recession Britain.

Yet if it’s heartless to dispute the programme’s worth, it’s worthless disputing the fact it has lost some of its heart. Sulking on your birthday is just not on. Susie Dent discussing etymology is no substitute for a giant cake.

"What a load of old rubbish"

"Watched myself in Countdown. It was terrible."

Maybe Countdown is not, and should never be, a crucible for Dylan Thomas-esque emotional grandstanding. You’re not going to see Des O’Connor raging at the dying of the light, even if he’s only got a few weeks left on his contract. But if this show is still meant to stand for anything, it’s got to be that television can take the mechanics of a parlour game and twirl them into something bewitching enough to dance with an audience’s soul.

Old age should burn and rage at close of day. And if not, as close to 3.30pm as possible.


3 Responses to “Countdown”

  1. Rob Williams on November 4th, 2008 4:11 pm

    It seems like Channel 4 treats Countdown like wallpaper… Its just there until they decide to have something new. Unfortunately they think Big Brother is more important…

  2. David Pascoe on December 9th, 2008 10:57 pm

    Cheer up Ian, for what is that I see charging in on horseback in a Hartlepool United shirt? It’s the cavalry! It’s Jeff Stelling!

  3. Rob Williams on December 10th, 2008 3:01 pm

    At least it seems that Countdown has gone square one and started again. I for one am excited by Jeff Stelling, also knowing his form on Soccer Saturday….