Monday, January 12, 2009 by

Letters, prey?

Dear Great TV Controller in the sky,

Please make Countdown good again. Please make it how it used to be, only not quite how it used to be, because it was never as good as you remember. Please make it so the studio set looks different but yet similar to what it used to be. Please banish all that did not work about it before, only not quite everything so that it does not feel like a different programme. Please make it a different programme all the same. Please send a new woman to do the letters and numbers. Please make her different yet similar to the one before. And above all please send a new host who looks new but does not feel so new that he feels different from the one before and the one before and the one before that. But is different. But also not.

Yours, a viewer.

Dear viewer,

You might have seen those new adverts on the side of buses that say I do not exist. It is just as well that they are right, because what you are asking is impossible. I cannot make the perfect Countdown, because there is no such thing. It has always been a programme that is not the sum of its parts. Parts have always been found wanting as far as Countdown is concerned. Indeed, for a time you just couldn’t get the parts.

So meanwhile why not accept that it will never be the same as it used to be. Wishing won’t make it so, let alone praying. After all, even if they do screw it up – again – it’s hardly the end of the world. No, that would be:


That’s my teatime teaser for today. B-bye now.

And lo it was that Countdown came back from the dead for another time.

And many did predict great things and did go out of their way to fill columns of newsprint and live blogs and online forums with glowing testaments to the wonderment of Jeff Stelling and spoke of how the host of a live multi-hour Saturday afternoon satellite television sportscast would be perfectly suited for a carefully-scripted pre-recorded 50-minute Channel 4 teatime parlour game.

At least, that was the impression.

With gospel-like authority, word had been spread by the C4 publicity machine that Stelling’s appointment as the latest anchor of Countdown had proved an epiphany. Everybody involved with the series, it was intimated, fizzed with the zeal of a new model army of daytime television. Together with the first re-appointment of a words-and-number woman since the programme’s birth, in the shape of Rachel Riley, it would all add up to a jubilant rewatering, or at least a reseeding, of this once fertile patch of the schedule.

did he mention he's interested in football?

Jeff Stelling: did he mention he's interested in football?

Well, Stelling is no saviour. He isn’t that much of a screen presence either. Purely off the evidence in this first edition, he’s capable at keeping things (literally) ticking over. He can hold affable conversations with strangers, in the shape of the contestants and, given the near-total recasting of the Countdown family, the studio as well. He can crack the odd joke.

However he also exudes the demeanour of the over-participatory mature student, uprooted from one very particular environment with its own nods, winks, in-jokes and bluster, to another. And in compensating for what are perceived as drawbacks (lack of familiarity with his peers, an absence of pedigree as quiz show host) he likes to major on what perhaps he believes from experience to be his strengths.

This means gags about football. It means footballing similes and jargon. On one occasion it even means supplying a footballing turn of phrase for a word that had nothing to do with football.

Never having watched Soccer Saturday, Stelling’s stomping ground on Sky Sport, all of this schtick was just downright annoying. Who cares whether the words you’re “more used to are foul, penalty, referee and blind as a bat”? Just persuade viewers you are good at doing this job, not your other one.

Things get a bit hairy on the whiteboard

Things get a bit hairy on the old sums whiteboard

He didn’t even say hello, choosing to inaugurate his tenure by declaring, in simpering Charles Hawtrey-esque tones: “It’s cold and it’s damp and it’s miserable and the electricity bill and the gas bill and the phone bill have all arrived on the same day and it’s still six months to the summer holiday, but are we downhearted? No we are not, because Countdown is back!”

Maybe, if fortune smiles favourably on this self-professed relaunch, Stelling will calm down and find the right timbre to match the tone of proceedings. The more hours he puts in, hopefully the less he’ll feel moved to choose babble over instruction and hectoring over chat.

He is the only raw point in the programme’s texture. Rachel Riley feels refreshingly free of her predecessor’s penchant for gurning and attention-grabbing. As she selflessly admitted during the show, making a debut on a Champion of Champions edition was never likely to give her much to do in the way of marker-on-whiteboard maths wizardry. Stelling’s superfluous verdict? “You’re looking good so really enjoy it.”

Sachs does 3 minutes of I'm Not Manuel material

Sachs does three minutes of I'm Not Manuel material

Andrew Sachs was in Dictionary Corner. “He may be from Barcelona,” trilled Stelling, “but he’s with us today.” Sachs’s sole contribution was a smug yet harmless recitation of a 1920s comic monologue, replete with GCSE drama hand gestures. Susie Dent - “an old hen” – sat next to him as usual.

“This is the same Countdown you’ve grown to love over the years,” Stelling cooed by way of reassurance. It’s not. It’s different. It feels more like a programme again and not a pantomime, or a performance of a tired cabaret routine. It feels like it features people who are interested in television again. Whether all of them are interested in us remains to be seen.

In short: a qualified pass. Could do better.

A graded moan, if you like.


7 Responses to “Countdown”

  1. Mary Irwin on January 15th, 2009 5:28 pm

    Can the pattern of letters have changed? We have the impression that there are many more double and triple letters. Many of the famous countdown favourite words do not have a letter repeated. Although champions are playing now there are very few 8s and no 9s. M

  2. ian thomas on February 2nd, 2009 5:46 pm

    3 weeks in and looking fresh after its makeover. Stelling is still trying too hard and comes across as rather forced. Rachel is an inspired choice – friendly,unaffected,down-to-earth and almost impossibly pretty. She is the girlfriend every man wishes he had. Not too hot at mental arithmetic,though!

  3. laraine robison on February 4th, 2009 11:22 pm

    The whole programme comes across as being rather stilted.Rachael has made numerous mistakes and also appears rather ungainly.I was never a great fan of Carol Vordermann but with hindsight ,acknowledge her presenting skills.

  4. D Eadie on April 3rd, 2009 6:09 pm

    Seems rather odd that you write a comprehensive review after one edition with the new team. The first edition was never going to be the finished article. Look again and eat your words about Jeff. He’s the dogs bollocks.

  5. Jodie on April 6th, 2009 3:09 pm

    Hi sorry but it really gets on my nerves when the woman with the blonde hair speaks the letters. She says them like A- yuh , B- yuh , C- yuh, D- yuh , E – yuh and so on, please do something about it or I will throw a fit ! but all in all this quiz show is great .

  6. Mike on May 29th, 2009 4:16 pm

    Who arranges the letters so that there are so many DOUBLES? If a pseudo-random-number generator was used, based on the frequency of letters in the English language, it would be a great improvement. And why doesn’t Stelling let the audience guess the conundrum when no competitor can?

  7. Dez on June 1st, 2009 12:13 pm

    Mike, your questions were answered by the producer here: