Behind the scenes at Countdown, part 1

Looking at the rules and regulations of the contestant agreement I signed, writing this blog is quite probably illegal.  Indeed, even mentioning the agreement probably terminates my rights to the Countdown teapot I won, but I will fight tooth and nail to keep it.  More than anything, I need a pot for brewing tea in.

Me, gurning, in the Countdown challenger's seat.

So, yes, Countdown.  A British televisual institution.  The first programme broadcast on Channel 4 on the day it launched in 1982.  The legendary stomping ground of Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman.

Being that the only two things I've ever been reasonably, consistently good at are spelling and mental arithmetic, it is pretty much my perfect game show.  I watched it as a schoolboy and as a student, and occasionally thought about applying to be on it.  One of my housemates in Liverpool even got me an application form, but I never sent it off.

And then years passed, and I never watched it, because I wasn't at home of an afternoon, or even living in the right time zone.  I have to say I rarely even thought about it, let alone about being on it.

But then I moved back to the UK after my sojourn in Newfoundland, and, being singularly hopeless at obtaining gainful employment, found myself at home in the afternoons.  And Countdown returned to my life.

It isn't quite the Countdown I remember, of course.  Richard Whiteley is dead, and Carol Vorderman has moved into the new and exciting territory of ranting belligerently on Question Time, so the show is now hosted by Jeff Stelling, with Rachel Riley in the numbers corner.  Susie Dent is the resident of Dictionary Corner, accompanied each week by a different guest, and the programme now lasts 45 minutes, rather than the 30 I was originally familiar with.

The premise remains the same, however: choose nine letters a few times, and make the longest words you can; choose six numbers a few times, and use them to reach a randomly chosen target; and rearrange the conundrum at the end.  Score anything over 80 points and you've got a decent chance of winning.

Sitting down with a pen and paper and trying my hand, I found I was still fairly good at the game, and after a couple of weeks I decided I had nothing to lose.  I applied to be on the show.

Within a couple of days, I'd been invited to an audition in Leeds, which took place on a very sunny day in early March.  It was held at the Yorkshire TV studios, and was an entirely male affair, which was disappointing, if not entirely shocking.

I think there were about ten of us in the room, and Sarah, the show's Associate Producer, tested us in the time-honoured way: some letters rounds, some numbers rounds, and some conundrums (conundra?).

I thought I'd done ok, but not very well on the numbers, so was pleasantly surprised when Sarah called me a couple of days later to say I'd made it onto the show.  I decided that being a palaeontologist had probably helped, as it would give the presenters something different to talk about, but wasn't too bothered how I'd qualified.  I was going to be on Countdown!

Confusingly, although Yorkshire TV commissioned it originally, and the production team is still based in Leeds, Countdown is filmed in Manchester, so it was to the Granada TV studios I was invited.  This wasn't such a bad thing, though, as I already knew the place reasonably well, having filmed University Challenge there in 2001 and then University Challenge: The Professionals in 2004.

The show was to be recorded on Monday May 9th, and whatever happened, I could only play one game, as mine was the fifth of the day, and thus 'Friday' in the schedule.  I was therefore booked into the Ramada hotel in the centre of town for the Monday night, just in case I won and had to come back the next day to film another.

Before all that could happen, though, I had to fill in some forms.  One was to confirm I'd try not to die on set, another to say I was happy to have my train fare paid for along with a small allowance for food, and a third was the contestant agreement form which I am most certainly not allowed to mention.

I will not mention, therefore, that "no physical violence will be tolerated during the Filming Period, even if Ms Dent rejects a plural of a mass noun that you are sure can be made into a nine-letter word by adding an 's'."

So, having made very little effort to practice (because I am a lazy sod, not because of any over-confidence), I caught a Monday morning train to Manchester, dropped some stuff off in the hotel, and then walked to the Quay Street studios in time for my designated 3pm appointment.

Upon arrival, I find one other person in the same predicament, the lovely Liz from Newcastle, accompanied by her daughter Karen, and we have a bit of a laugh about the strangeness of it all.  When Paul the runner comes to fetch us, he tells us that there is a tough champion in the hotseat, but it isn't clear if Liz or I will face him.

Liz and I share a semi-serious worried look, but decide it doesn't really matter, and have plenty of fun nattering away in the green room whilst watching him - Tom - play his ongoing match on the TV monitor.  It ends up being fairly tight, which makes us feel a bit more comfortable.

Paul then asks us if we're ready to go through to make-up, at which point I learn that the black shirt with turquoise stripes I was going to wear is unsuitable.  Apparently it will behave strangely under the lights and cameras, and broadcast secret messages to alien civilizations (or else The Jeremy Kyle Show being recorded next door, which is much the same thing), so I have to don some less exciting back-up clothes that look suspiciously like the ones I was already wearing.

We go into make-up and are beautified, although Liz gets lipstick, which she says she doesn't normally wear, and which makes her feel a bit strange.  I offer to wear some too, to make it fair, but the make-up lady thinks I'm joking and sends me out with just the foundation, blush and mascara.

Looking suitably radiant, Liz and I (and the already radiant Karen) are then invited to join the audience to watch the next episode, where Tom the Proto-Octochamp will take on Dennis from Derby.  Writing this now, I am sure he wasn't called Dennis, but it will have to do for the moment.  Accuracy is over-rated.

There are far fewer seats in the audience than I anticipated, the rows being only five or six deep, but I suppose there are other attractions in the Manchester area.  Nonetheless, there is a decent crowd of excited octogenarians, and the warm-up man, Dudley Doolittle*, soon has them baying for blood.

This surprises me, as I didn't expect Countdown to need a rabidly seething mob, but I suppose the radiant loveliness of Rachel and Susie and the raw animal magnetism of Jeff was bound to provoke a strong response.  The audience are only human after all.

Also, the guest in Dictionary Corner, making her Countdown debut, expects nothing less.

Delia Smith makes her Countdown debut.

With his jokes about Gracie Fields, Mr Doolittle makes me suspect I am not part of the usual demographic, but it is all novel and good fun, and soon the match is underway.  And due to contractual obligations, including the fact that the show hasn't been broadcast yet, I can't reveal what happened.

For the moment, you'll just have to make do with the knowledge that I will be gracing the small screen with my silly-haired presence on Friday, at 3.10pm, on Channel 4.

*not his real name, which is actually Aloysius Applebottom**.

**This is also incorrect.  His real name is Percy Picklethwaite***.

***this isn't true either§.

§yes it is§§.

§§It isn't.