Friday, November 2, 2007 by

From early incarnation as embarrassing great uncle to latterday guise as sassy grandmother, the status of Countdown in the Channel 4 family has always been at odds with that of the clan as a whole.

Where once the station was cheeky, inconsistent and unpredictable, Countdown was dour, unchanging and suffocatingly polite. It wasn’t so much accommodated in the schedule as reluctantly tolerated. Then, as the channel sharpened up its act and became more professional, slick and business-like, Countdown‘s profile mutated into that of a slightly shambolic, harmless cult. It was indulged for its whims and begrudged for its following.

Finally, as the century turned and C4 homogenised into a mainstream, mass market entertainment channel competing with, rather than complementing, its rivals, Countdown ended up the jester at the court. It was the survivor, defying all knockers and naysayers and numerous relaunches, overcoming not just the death of its founding host and ambassadorial raconteur, but also the departure of a second, equally-iconic, front man. Now, where everything around it seems bland and never-changing, Countdown – partly by default and partly by design – feels more alive and distinctive than ever.

This, the 25th birthday show, was always going to amount to more of a whirling dervish of whimsy than usual. It was a good job, though, that O’Connor and not Lynam was in charge of revels, or else, going off the evidence of last year, things would have been a Des-aster.

While his predecessor never appeared to care much for the show’s legacy or the devotion of its followers, O’Connor has, since taking over, been far more comfortable playing to the gallery. In other words, letting Carol be the star turn and the viewers’ champion, while settling for the rank of stooge and put-upon breadwinner.

Des was in his element here, ringleading the celebrations and cueing in an unexpectedly non-ironic roll call of celebrity well-wishers. The principal treat at this birthday feast, here were premier league personalities conferring sincere felicitations via This Is Your Life-style video “messages”, united in their well-meaning praise and by a judicious invitation, to which they all acceded, to pick letters and numbers on behalf of the studio contestants.

This made for some dashingly surreal moments, as the likes of no less a regal presence as Lord Richard Attenborough, Lord David Puttnam and Sir Terence of Wogan took turns to pick either consonants or vowels, while Carol gamely pretended to “talk” to them as if everything was happening live, like Noel Edmonds used to do in the celebrity rounds of Telly Addicts.

Speaking of whom, the man himself elbowed in from “the Dream Factory, here in Bristol”, replete with a bit of telephonic nonsense from the Banker. Patrick Moore erupted into shot from within a giant flowery shirt. Alex Ferguson petulantly insisted he “actually does quite well, by the way” when “playing along at home”.

Members of Emmerdale and Coronation Street clowned – as is law whenever soap opera casts do inserts for other programmes – through raucous congratulations. Amir Khan, fulfilling the role of “trendy young celebrity”, pledged his support. Even Gordon Brown looked in from Downing Street, crediting the show for helping to promote numeracy and literacy, for being “really good exercise on my mind”, and also to wish that Carol could have – ho ho – helped him with his “sums” while Chancellor.

All this was done with such grace and good nature that only people with no soul would have failed to be touched. Apart, that is, from the reappearance of Brown, this time being played by Rory Bremner and soaked in all that familiar, tired “fiddle the figures” and “got rid of the old boss” gaggery. Why the man seems forever willing to hire himself out to any occasion going, no matter how undignified and unnecessary, is a conundrum as inscrutable as, well, “SMILEMORE”.

Which nobody in the studio got – it turned out to be the far-from ubiquitous word “SOMMELIER”.

For amidst all the hoopla there was indeed a battle of sorts being played out, but it wasn’t that edifying or consequential, being between two former champions competing for pride and the self-declared intent to see who could offer up the most preposterously lofty and unfamiliar words possible.

“Geraniol”, “manque” and “droseras” were amongst the purposefully arch (and hence unappealing) weapons deployed by the joyless contestants, who at least conformed to tradition by virtue of being on the one hand a “bit of a joker” and on the other a unappealingly brainy teenager. With a permanent frown. “I think I saw a bit of a smile there,” cracked Des half-threateningly, when the child clinched victory.

Everything else was pure embellishment. “I’ve had quite a few requests to wear my birthday suit,” teased Carol. This turned out to be the outfit she wore on the very first edition, a quarter of a century ago. “Tie granddad down,” goofed Des. Julie Andrews sent her best wishes and thanks for helping her “spelling and math (sic)”. And clippage of Richard Whiteley was resurrected from the archive. Rather than all the proverbial business from Wetwang to “wankers”, this turned out to be just one scene of the great man, trying (and failing) to read out a letter without corpsing. Simple, flattering, and perfect.

Countdown is currently sponsored by Digital UK, the government campaign to raise awareness about the forthcoming digital TV switchover. On its present form, and with a fair wind, the show deserves to still be flourishing when the very last analogue signal is turned off. Which, appropriately enough, should be round about 2 November, 2012.


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