Behind the scenes at Countdown, part 2

It's a strange experience watching yourself on television, seeing yourself the way other people see you, and finding out how you really sound.  It's an even stranger experience watching yourself on television in the St Machar Bar in Old Aberdeen, as an academic Englishman surrounded by Scots.

My debut on Countdown, broadcast on Friday at 3.10pm, was recorded less than two weeks earlier.  It was the final show of five filmed on Monday May 9th, all featuring Delia Smith making her debut in Dictionary Corner.

Despite the recentness of its recording, I was bemused when watching the broadcast to discover how little of it I really remembered.  In many of the letters rounds I was looking at the combinations as though I'd never seen them before, and on a couple of occasions was genuinely surprised by the word I submitted.  It is lucky, therefore, that I made notes whilst I was in the studio, and can therefore piece together what went on.

To paraphrase Run DMC, it goes a little something like this...


It was late afternoon, and a chap called Tom Barnes was on a roll in the champion's seat.  He'd won six matches already, and most of the production team thought he would go on to become an octochamp.  So, it seemed, did most of the contestants lining up to appear on the show.

Tom's seventh opponent was Brian (rather than Dennis, as I'd misremembered last time) Gale, and his eighth would be lovely Liz Dey, with whom I was sitting in the audience.  Despite scoring well in the games we watched together, including getting a nine-letter word (MINISTERS) that neither Tom nor Brian spotted, Liz had little confidence she could win.

I tried to convince her otherwise, but maybe it was easier for me, knowing that there was no way I could come up against Tom.  Sitting next to Liz and me was Tom's friend Ned Pendleton, already an octochamp from earlier in the same series, and now in the audience.  Ned hoped Liz would win, as this would make it likely that he and Tom would get to play against each other in the quarter-finals, but he wasn't optimistic.

The game between Tom and Brian began, and Tom won fairly comfortably, but there was a tea break before Liz could move into the challenger's seat.  Off to the Granada Canteen for dinner we pootled.  This included Delia, whose arrival in the queue for hot food induced seven faintings, three resignations, and two self-immolations among the serving staff.

Picking our way through the carnage and the bodies, those of us able to stomach the dining options took our places at one of the tables.  I found myself in conversation with Tom and Ned, and didn't endear myself to either of them by recalling an academic study that suggested chimpanzees could out-perform stock market professionals:

"One of our most intriguing findings is the low level of correctness when professionals were required to pick a winner from two stocks. The results suggest that a chimpanzee, a symbol of randomness in economic contexts, could have outperformed the stock market professionals in this study. And chimps do not possess cognitive advantages." (Torngren & Montgomery 2004)

Tom is a trader, and Ned used to be.

We returned to the studios, the evening audience now in place (and being stirred up by Mr Doolittle, of course) and Liz's game was ready to start.

Filming began, and with Delia in Dictionary Corner, Jeff kicked off by asking Rachel if she was a good cook.  "Jamie eats everything I put in front of him," she replied, and off-camera, various male technicians struggled to suppress their euphemistic sniggering.

Having introduced Tom as an almost-octochamp, Jeff asks Liz if she's feeling confident about her chances. 'No!' she laughs, but the scores are level after a couple of rounds.

Sadly, as she feared, Liz can't keep up.  She risks WATTLIER as an eight-letter word, but it is rejected, and she is 37-13 down at the break.  Delia fumes about foam, then the match recommences.

RANDIEST puts Tom further ahead, and Liz loses her numbers to fall 66-24 behind.  When EQUALS doesn't equal 7 letters, and MICIER (which really ought to be a word but isn't*) is given the thumbs down, Liz's hopes are snuffed out, and it finishes 96-42.

Tom is an octochamp, Ned won't play him, and now it's my turn.  It's also the turn of another new player, who just happens to be called Tom.  He has been sitting with me in the audience, unsure if he'll get a game or not, and at least now he knows his trip across from West Yorkshire has been worth it.

Ned and Tom One depart, but not before Ned has instructed Tom Two and I to join a website called 'Apterous'.  It is apparently an online version of the game; I ask Ned what being wingless has to do with Countdown, and he tells me, somewhat disparagingly, that apterous is a word that commonly appears on the show.  Tom Two and I look at each other rather as though it might be the 8+ Club of The IT Crowd fame.

Then we are ushered onto set and take our seats, which are comfier than expected, and get miked up by the sound guys, dusted up by the make-up lady, and built up by Mr Doolittle.  Well, strictly speaking only Delia, Jeff, Rachel and Susie are, but who am I not to bask in associated glory?

Tom - who is a support officer with People First Keighley & Craven, and also a fine art printmaker - has won the toss, so gets the champion's seat and choice of the first set of letters.  Before that, however, Jeff asks me 'What the heck's a palaeontologist?' and I babble for a while.  I manage to extricate myself from the web of waffle with a reference to Ross from Friends and the fact that neither I nor any other palaeontologist I know has ever dated Jennifer Aniston.  This gets a chuckle from the audience, but when the show is broadcast, I am informed by my former housemate, Mr Nerwyg Eel, that my attempts at humour are so cringeworthy they cause him to root for the other chap.

The first two rounds are tricky, but FOIST and RAKES give me ten points.  I can't, however, have VENOMS in the next round, as Susie says it ain't in the big book of words she consults from.  She apologizes and says she is 'very mean' for not permitting it, so I will forgive her, and will not refer her to this entry from the Oxford English Dictionary:

1904    Brit. Med. Jrnl. 10 Sept. 574   The toxicity of the most powerful venoms.

It doesn't matter, anyway, as in the next round I make A LIAM DENT into LAMINATED, which gets me a Maximum Bongo (as nine-letter words aren't known).  The audience gasp, Delia likes it, and Jeff says it's "absolutely brilliant," and with a shared numbers game, it's 35-17 to me at the break.

Clearly trying to butter me up, Susie describes my submission of NATTILY in a round after the interval as 'fantastic' and 'beautiful', but then she has TONALITY so can afford to be generous. After that, there's not much between me and Tom, although his DISHIER beats my SHREWD, and by the time of the final numbers game, I am too far ahead to be caught.

Showing how easy it is to joke when you're winning, I submit the same solution to 148 as Tom with a claim of "I wasn't copying, honest!"  This has audience members vomiting in disgust at my further attempts to be comedic.

And then neither of us get the conundrum, allowing an old lady in the audience to spot SHOPFRONT in delight, and the final score is 58-82, and Jeff tells me I am now the new champion of Countdown.  In the screening in the Machar, this earns me a round of applause from the two dozen people present, showing that intellectual game-shows can break down the barriers of class and culture between the English and the Scots.

Delia signs off by refusing the idea of a statue outside Carrow Road, saying "I'm not modest, I just don't want to be covered in pigeon... stuff!" and the week's filming is over.  A member of the studio audience congratulates me, which is very kind (if slightly unnerving), and then Tom gives me a magnanimous lift to the Ramada Piccadilly, where we're all staying.

Down in the hotel bar a short while later, Tom and I are joined by fellow contestant Christine Buffrey and her daughter Catherine.  Christine had been the unfortunate recipient of the heaviest of Tom One's beatings, her 119-7 defeat apparently being a record, but she was delightfully sanguine about it and we had a lovely time chatting about anything and everything.

The four of us stayed in the bar till closing time, at which point Tom One and Ned returned from a celebratory night on the town.  Understandably, they were keen to carry on drinking (and in Ned's case, getting me to solve more anagrams) but, having to be back at the studios at 9.30 the next morning for my first match as defending champion, I declined, and retired to bed.

And if you want to see how I got on in my first defence, you'll just have to watch today's episode of Countdown (or else hang on a few days for another blog post).


*Jeff tells her she's "squeaking up the wrong tree."
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