Calendar Countdown (ITV, 1981)
Countdown is a game show that I have looked back at a lot on this blog, so I was rather pleased to discover that the unaired pilot had been uploaded to YouTube (some parts were also shown on TV’s Finest Failures that I reviewed a while back). What’s always fascinating about unaired pilots is seeing a show before it is properly defined, and to discover what parts of a show were already established, and what parts failed to make it when the show finally came to the screen. The Countdown pilot is a perfect example of this because although there is a good idea in there somewhere there is little to indicate that the show would become a long-running success.
One thing that is noticeably in place right from the start is the host Richard Whiteley. In 1981 he was well-known to viewers in the ITV Yorkshire region as the host of the local news programme Calendar, and he had already been appearing on TV for about 15 years, and he would host the show until 2005. Countdown is a game show that is based on a French format, and it seems that Yorkshire decided that they wanted to develop a British version to be shown on ITV.
Everything else about this pilot is almost how we know Countdown today, but not exactly. For example the large clock that has become the famous symbol for the show is rather different. It doesn’t have a moving hand, instead it consists of 45 lights that come on second-by-second as time ticks. Also, the famous theme music isn’t exactly as we would come to know it. It’s all rather rough around the edges.
Two contestants take part and play six rounds featuring letters and numbers, although the rounds were a lot more varied. For example, in the letters round they have to make the longest word from a selection of eight letters (not nine), once in 45 seconds, and then in 30 seconds. The numbers game was fairly similar to what we know, only again contestants had 45 seconds, the target number was generated on what looked like a fruit machine, and Carol Vorderman was nowhere to be seen!
There was also a round where contestants had to buzz in to declare the word that they had found, and the game ended with the sixth and final round, which was essentially the Conundrum (again using an eight-letter word). After this, the winning contestant stayed on and faced their next opponent until time ran out, which might indicate that they planned to straddle games throughout the series rather than have one whole game per show.
Also featuring in Dictionary Corner was Ted Moult, who would go on to appear on the first seven editions of the Channel 4 series. Another noticeable thing was that Richard hosted the show sat in-between the contestants, so we had to look at him staring into space while the contestants used their thinking time, and there were lots of other minor errors including buzzers going off at the wrong time that would be eventually sorted out. It would definitely get better.
Someone must have seen some potential in Countdown though, because when Channel 4 launched in 1982 and they needed something for their afternoon schedule, they decided that this would be the ideal choice. And they weren’t wrong, as Countdown has now run for over 35 years, and there have been almost 7,000 editions made. As many people in the YouTube comments have said about the pilot, thank goodness they persevered and worked hard to eventually get the right formula.