Behind the scenes at Countdown, part 3

I suspect that if Countdown didn't already exist on British television, and was pitched as a new show, it wouldn't get commissioned.  I mean, can you seriously imagine any TV executive today having the nerve to produce a show that is, in essence, a spelling and mental arithmetic test between two people, much of it spent without anyone saying a word, stretched out over 45 minutes, fronted by a northern chap with a penchant for low quality gags?

But therein lies its charm.  For although I am obviously biased, Countdown is a show to be lauded, and its status as a national treasure is wholly justified.  Unlike almost anything else on the box, it praises intelligence and mental agility, it encourages an interest in words and numbers, it is played in a sportsmanlike way, and its atmosphere is one of friendliness and enjoyment.  Watching Adam Gillard and Edward McCullagh battle it out in the final of Series 64 on Friday - both wanting to win, both showing incredible wordplay and mathematical skills, and both wholly respectful of their opponent - made me feel quite proud.

And now that the final has been played, it's time for Series 65, and time for me to reappear on your screens, lowering the quality of the show immeasurably.

I can't say how I get on, though, or else David Abraham's henchmen will come round to my house and give me a kicking, so I will go back instead to where I left off last time, and my second day in the studio.

It began at 9.30 a.m., in the Granada studios waiting room, where I met the other contestants: Jamie, Gary and Tom.  Jamie had come up from Turves, near Peterborough, where he works as a bookmaker and also runs a business helping people who've just left the armed forces to find new careers.  Gary was from Macclesfield, and Tom (who was very nervous indeed) from Chesterfield.

It was me versus Jamie first, and when Jeff introduced him as a bookie, he asked what odds Jamie gave himself on winning.  6-1, he said, because he was up against a palaeontologist, but Jeff was mildly incredulous that Jamie was giving such poor odds in a two-horse race.

Replacing Delia Smith in Dictionary Corner it was Alistair McGowan, who was a lovely chap, very friendly and very funny.  A few laughs certainly helped break down any residual nervousness, and then we were away.

Thanks to MOLESTED and POTIONS, I made a 'flying start' (Jeff's words, not mine) and an IMPALA meant I was 26-5 ahead at the first numbers game.  Jamie solved it whilst I didn't, but it wasn't enough for him to tell Jeff he was now drifting slightly to 8-1.

In part two, I struggled to turn CGASOELRI into anything more than seven, but when Jamie said he had an eight, I gambled on GIRASOLE, which I thought was a plant, but also thought I might be making up.  For once, I wasn't, and that kept me ahead.  It was all fairly even after that, but spotting RIGOURS pretty much sealed it for me, especially as I'd had DRUIDS, which Jamie played and which turned out to be capitalized.

Again I failed to spot the conundrum, so it finished 82-57, and Jamie said that 6-1 had probably been about right.  And after Mr McGowan had finished up speculating that William Blake was a Brummie (the only way 'immortal hand or eye' could rhyme with 'symmetry') it was time for a short break before my next game.

Maybe the shock of winning two matches had gotten to me, or maybe it was just that Gary was a tougher opponent, but when the game began, I was pretty hopeless.

I started off ok, as UNTOLD ENGINES ensured it was 13-13.  But then TBREINSOA came up, and I knew there was at least an eight, but couldn't see it.  Then I spotted BERATION, which made me chuckle, as I'd used it in a word game recently, and my friend Aleks had challenged it, but we'd had no dictionary to consult, and eventually, after a very narrow-band internet search found a couple of examples of usage, she'd reluctantly accepted it.

So I simply had to play BERATION, if for nothing more than to find out what Susie made of it.  I even thought about pluralizing it, but then decided against.  And of course when Susie checked the word it wasn't in the dictionary, so Aleks was correct, and I scored nothing, whilst Gary got seven, and Susie and Alistair told us that BARITONES and OBTAINERS were the two nines available.

It was 27-all at the first break, and then Gary submitted FALLEN when there was no N, only an M, and I got a streaky six-point advantage.  My good luck didn't last long, though, as the next round's BUTANES were rejected by Susie, despite Alistair saying that's what he'd got too, and thanks to RESISTER, Gary was 57-49 up at the next interval.

I closed the gap with ADDLED, and then I had an extraordinary second slice of fortune, as Gary mixed up Ns and Ms again, submitting an impossible DEACON.  With a three-point lead, I then failed to get beyond GRANITE in the next round, whilst Gary got TAPERING, and if he'd spotted OPERATING the match would probably have been all over.  For the numbers round was a mess - he didn't get 456, and then I misread my own handwriting in submitting 461, and talked myself (incorrectly) out of seven points.

So it was now 60-65 and just the conundrum to come and I hadn't got one yet.  But perhaps my cricketing expertise saved me, for when EDGEDLATE popped up, I quickly saw that it was DELEGATED, and grabbed ten points for a bum-squeaky win.

It turned out I was even luckier than I thought, as Gary had actually forgotten to bring his reading glasses with him, so couldn't read the letters on his desk monitor.  Having to look up at Rachel's letters board, which is slightly at an angle if you're sitting in the challenger's seat, Gary couldn't see the end of the last letter, so on both occasions thought an M was an N.

It was little consolation, but the producers gave Gary the first N from the COUNTDOWN board by way of special memento, turning the game show into COUTDOWN.  I thought it was lucky that it wasn't the letter O he had had problems with.
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