Following “Ted Heath” (as he probably would’ve put it himself) of Victor Lewis-Smith late last year, I thought that I would take a look at another of his shows that I found online. He was best-known for being a TV critic in the London Evening Standard on weekdays for many years, and for a short while he had a column in the national Daily Mirror at the weekend too (I often read both of these).
He became known for making rather bad taste jokes, and barely liking any of the shows that he reviewed, often despairing at the state of the industry. I would quote some more of his famous jokes, but you know what they say, imitation is the sincerest form of being an unoriginal thieving bastard (oh no, I’ve done it again!). He also once managed to get on to the cover of Radio Times.
And it could be said that there were some people who didn’t consider the style of humour in his TV and radio comedy shows (including Ads Infinitum and TV Offal) to be the funniest of its era, although even they would have to concede that they were some of the weirdest. This was a one-off that was a spin-off from Club X, a late-night Channel 4 culture show that was so badly received even The Word looked classy by comparison (if you can believe such a thing).
I’m not even sure when this was shown though (possibly around 1989?), maybe in typical VLS style this just randomly turned up in the schedule one night where an episode of Cheers or some such show was expected to be. Now, despite working in the business for so long, he clearly made a very basic mistake. This show was called Up Your Arts, which sounds a lot like “up your arse”, do you think that nobody noticed, how embarrassing!
This was a parody of arts shows, that looked at various subjects, including, opera, the BBC, showbiz, and foreign films. This led to all kinds of unusual moments, including out-of-context interviews with various industry figures, revealing the difference between Bruce Forsyth and Ben Elton, and the idea that Ceefax took a very long time to reach the page that you wanted to look at.
I also noticed that among the cast taking part in the sketches was Denise Black, who would later go on to find fame as Denise Osbourne in Coronation Street, which is a rather big career swerve. I don’t know if Up Your Arts managed to break the barriers of television as was the possible intention, and this was probably watched by about nine people at the time, but it is proof of how VLS really was a one-off.
These are the ten people who have made the most appearances as host or co-host on Countdown since 1981. Who will come out on top?
10th. Anne Robinson (265 appearances, 2021-2022). Anne had previously made six appearances in Dictionary Corner in 1987. She became best-known for hosting shows including Points Of View, Watchdog, and The Weakest Link. Her appointment as host was a surprise, any many wondered if she would apply her curt style from The Weakest Link to a show with a much more cosy atmosphere. This even earned Countdown the honour of a Radio Times cover in anticipation of her debut. However, although she wasn’t rude to the contestants as such, it was clear that she wasn’t the most suitable choice, and she vanished about a few weeks into a series to the relief of many which sums it up really.
9th. Des Lynam (303 appearances, 2005-2006). Des found fame as a sport host, on BBC shows including Grandstand and Match Of The Day before surprisingly defecting to ITV. He was a contestant on a celebrity special in 1998 which he won. He had the difficult task of replacing the irreplaceable after Richard Whiteley’s departure. He hoped that viewers would approve by saying on his first edition “you can’t be more nervous than I am… I hope I’m not too much of a shock for you”. He acknowledged that the show was about the contestants, and he also brought an air of calm, where once the studio had threatened to descend into a cacophony. There was even a Saturday edition briefly added, meaning that Countdown was six days a week. Unfortunately, after a short while, Des became frustrated with having to travel to the studio, and he had also started to look rather bored. He soon departed, although he did return to appear in Dictionary Corner for the 5,000th edition.
8th. Des O’Connor (470 appearances, 2007-2008). Des had been famous for many years, as a comedian, game show host, and chart-topping singer. He added a touch of showbiz to things, and as he also had a daytime chat show for a short while a year or two before, five decades into his career he was appearing on TV more than ever. He decided to leave at the same time as Carol Vorderman though.
7th. Cathy Hytner (647 appearances, 1981-1987). Cathy put the letters on the board going all the way back to the unaired pilot, and eventually did the numbers too.
6th. Jeff Stelling (675 appearances, 2009-2011). Jeff found fame as a host on Sky Sports, and made his debut alongside Rachel Riley. Sometimes he did seem to think that he was hosting sport coverage, and sometimes fell back into thinking the game was a football match, but he showed a lot of enthusiasm, and I would have to say that he is my favourite of the post-Whiteley hosts. After his departure, he hosted game show Alphabetical, which wasn’t a success.
5th. Nick Hewer (2,129 appearances, 2012-2021). Nick first became known for being one of the assistants on The Apprentice. He was an unlikely choice for host, but he managed to always help things along, even if sometimes he looked like he was about to fall asleep. He was also the host for almost a decade.
4th. Rachel Riley (3,310+ appearances, 2009-present). When Rachel replaced Carol Vorderman, she was a newcomer to TV, but soon made the role her won. And 14 years later (how time flies), she is still there, and she has hosted various other shows.
3rd. Richard Whiteley (4,107 appearances, 1981-2005). I have already done some pieces reflecting on Richard’s career, so I shall just say that he was the host who had been there since the unaired pilots, and he presided over the peak of Countdown‘s popularity. His final edition was shown posthumously, and if he was still with us, he would’ve been 80 this year. Who knows if he would’ve been the host all these years on.
2nd. Carol Vorderman (4,832 appearances, 1982-2008). Carol was originally only a vital statistician, and she became the only co-host in 1989. She has also gone on to host several other TV shows, and her double-act with Richard Whiteley which eventually developed would it has to be said often veer from being hugely entertaining to immensely irritating (usually in the same edition). There was supposedly a big scandal with Carol’s departure, well if you read Woman’s Own magazine there was. But who could possibly top Carol’s huge amount of appearances to be the Number One?
1st. Susie Dent (5,250+ appearances, 1992-present). Susie made her first appearance as a lexicographer in 1992. By the mid-2000s she was the only lexicographer to appear in Dictionary Corner, and by the late-2000s she was officially made one of the co-hosts (which is how she qualifies for this list). Just like the break for the celebrity anecdote, Susie has one for the Origin Of Words feature, telling us about all of the weird and wonderful stories that are behind phrases. She is a regular to the point that in more recent years when she was been unavailable, there hasn’t been a stand-in for her. She has also released several books about the English language, and is seen as the ultimate authority on such things. Congratulations, Susie!
Following on from the list of the Top 50 people who have made the most appearances in Countdown‘s Dictionary Corner which was rather well received, I thought I would also do a list featuring all of the hosts and co-hosts that there have been over the years, going all the way back to the unaired pilots in 1981. Only appearances as host or co-host will be included, although if they did also appear in Dictionary Corner, that will be noted. This list is only for the main afternoon edition, anyone who has only hosted the 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown spin-off will not be featured. I have also decided not to feature people who only appeared as lexicographers, as there isn’t a huge amount of information out there about them. I make it that there have been 27 people who have hosted or co-hosted Countdown, part one will feature positions 27-11.
27th. William G Stewart (1 appearance, 1997). William first found fame in TV as a director and producer. He became a host in 1988 when Fifteen-To-One launched, which was soon shown before Countdown, resulting in a popular daytime game show double. He hosted the 1997 Christmas special, when Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman were the contestants. He also hosted a special to celebrate the 2,000th edition.
26th. Angela Garbut (2 appearances, 1981). Angela was the “vital statistician” (the fancy term for the co-host who solved the numbers rounds) in the two unaired pilots. A blackboard was used to write the solutions.
25th. Jenny Eclair (4 appearances, 2022). Jenny has made 45 appearances in Dictionary Corner, going back to 2012. She was a last-minute stand-in host when the other last-minute stand-in host Les Dennis was unavailable. If that makes sense.
=21st. Floella Benjamin (5 appearances, 2022). As part of the 40th Anniversary celebrations, four people hosted for one week, some of them having no previous association with Countdown. One of them was Floella, who is best-known as a children’s TV host of several shows including Play School.
=21st. Richard Coles (5 appearances, 2022). Richard had made ten appearances in Dictionary Corner, before he became another one-week host for the anniversary. He had previously found fame in the 80s as a part of the group The Communards alongside Jimmy Somerville, whose cover of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was a chart-topper, and the biggest-selling single in the UK in 1986. He then went on to become a vicar and a regular face on TV.
=21st. Angela O’Dougherty (5 appearances, 1983). Angela was a stand-in for Cathy Hytner for one week at the end of the second series.
=21st. Moira Stuart (5 appearances, 2022). Moira is best-known as a BBC news host. She was another one-week host for the anniversary, having previously never appeared.
20th. Trevor McDonald (6 appearances, 2021-2022). Trevor is the news host who worked for ITN for several years. He hosted a special edition, and he was then invited back as another one-week host for the anniversary.
19th. Denise McFarland-Cruickshanks (7 appearances, 1982). Denise was the vital statistician in the Calendar Countdown series.
18th. Les Dennis (8 appearances, 2022). Les is known for being a comedian, actor, and the host of various game shows, including Family Fortunes for 15 years. He made five appearances in Dictionary Corner in 2011, and he was a last-minute stand-in for Colin Murray who was unavailable.
17th. Robena Sharp (9 appearances, 1981-1982). Robena put the numbers on the board in the unaired pilots and Calendar Countdown series. She also selected the target, which was a rather low-tech one-armed bandit machine, before the shinier CECIL came along.
16th. Linda Barratt (41 appearances, 1982-1983). Believe it or not, in the first couple of series, there were two vital statisticians, who appeared in alternate editions. And while Carol Vorderman would find fame and appear for many years, Linda was barely ever seen again.
15th. Lucy Summers (56 appearances, 1989). Lucy put the letters and numbers on the board for one series, before it was decided to make Carol Vorderman the only co-host.
14th. Anne-Marie Imafidon (61 appearances, 2021-2022). Anne-Marie was the co-host for the special, and then she returned when Rachel Riley was away on maternity leave.
13th. Beverley Isherwood (117 appearances, 1982-1983). Looking back now, it is remarkable how many young female co-hosts Countdown used to have, up to four in some series, an idea that was more suited to game shows like 3-2-1 or The Price Is Right. Beverley put the numbers on the board and pressed CECIL’s button, and that was about it.
12th. Colin Murray (125+ appearances, 2020-present). Colin has been a TV and radio host, and he has made 60 appearances in Dictionary Corner, going back to 2009. He was first the stand-in host when Nick Hewer was unavailable, and he also took part in a celebrity special, which he won. He is still the stand-in host, although he is the favourite to be given the job full time. He almost seems to be playing the game along with the contestants, rather than being impartial, always fiddling with pieces of paper, and seemingly trying to guess what their words will be. But he’s definitely brought a lot of enthusiasm to proceedings.
11th. Karen Loughlin (168 appearances, 1987-1988). Karen looked after the letters and numbers following Cathy Hytner’s departure.
When the digital channel E4 launched in 2001, among the repeats and imports, there was some space in the schedule for some original comedy programming. This included the final series of The Adam And Joe Show, and TVGoHome, but there was also this rather bizarre game show, which led to some critics saying that they were knocking spots off what some of the competition had to offer.
Banzai was essentially a parody of those Japanese game shows that were sometimes shown in this country where contestants had to endure some rather bizarre things. But this one had betting elements, and viewers were invited to guess the outcome of some rather unusual challenges. Some of these were rather bad taste, and some featured celebrities, who probably wondered what they were getting themselves into.
Look, there’s Pat Sharp! Look, there’s Peter Davison! He used to be on the telly! The challenges would be explained, we would then be asked to bet, and the outcome would be revealed. This was all usually accompanied by some breathless commentary from Harry Hill’s mate Burt Kwouk (there was no in-vision host as such). And there were also a few regular features.
These included Lady One Question, who simply asked a celebrity just one question, and viewers would have to guess how long it would be before they walked off. And there was also Mr Shake Hands Man, who would interview someone whilst shaking their hand for as long as possible. He started to become well-known to the point that he was replaced by someone else for the second series.
I also remember at the NME Awards one year somebody thought that it would be good to do this (I can’t remember if it was connected to this show or not), so there was a page with lots of short interviews that mostly consisted of “yeah, it’s been great, I’ve been having a good time… er, you can stop shaking my hand now”. 32 seconds, wow!
Viewers at home really could play along though. If they pressed the red button on their remote control, they could make their choices, and their score would be calculated and revealed at the end. I remember that I did play this once, although I don’t think I did that well. There was some merchandise released too, including a book, DVD, and even a soundtrack of the music. Banzai ran its course after a few series though.
This is one of the most successful home-made sitcoms in Channel 4’s history, which ran for almost a decade. Drop The Dead Donkey was a satirical sitcom that was created by Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton, who wrote the majority of the episodes, and have worked on various other comedies and dramas that have focussed on politics over the years.
The main setting is the TV company Globelink News (prop. Sir R Merchant), and the people who work there, who are always hoping that they can deliver only the biggest and best news to viewers, eagerly awaiting the telex machine to rattle out the latest updates, or whatever they did in those days. But if it was chaos behind the scenes, then it was certainly no better in front of the camera.
The hosts were as incompetent as anybody else was, often looking into the wrong camera, being virtually inaudible, or somewhat unprofessional, thank goodness news channels aren’t as error-riddled these days?! I can only imagine that the management were tearing their hair out at this chaos, if they had any (management that is, not hair).
As this was a sitcom that was about the world of news and politics, where the various happenings seemingly never ceased to surprise people, scripts were written rather close to transmission, to make sure that they could be as topical as possible (it is probably no surprise that the same production company was also behind Have I Got News For You).
This meant that when there were repeat runs, they were proceeded with short additional introductions that featured newspaper headlines to remind viewers of what exactly was on the agenda that week, as things can’t always be topical, and there was the possibility that we were another two or three Prime Ministers down the line by this point.
And episodes would also end with cast members speaking over the credits about the news too. CITV’s Press Gang also did this, but I’m not sure who came up with the idea first. Drop The Dead Donkey did well with viewers, and a film version was planned in the mid-90s, but didn’t get too far, although there was a novel which contained a further exploration of the new familiar characters. And a Bafta award was won as well.
There were 65 episodes of Drop The Dead Donkey in six series (including a couple of short specials for Children In Need in the mid-90s), and they all been released on DVD. I don’t recall there being too many repeat runs on any channels in more recent years, although it has to be remembered that some of the episodes are now over three decades old.
Britain’s Got The Pop Factor And Possibly A New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly On Ice (Channel 4, 2008)
As people continue to anticipate Peter Kay’s return to the stage after a long time away with about 500 dates at the O2 or whatever it is, here is a look at another of his comedy shows. Following the success of sitcom Phoenix Nights, viewers keenly looked forward to his next move, but the spin-off sitcom Max And Paddy’s Road To Nowhere didn’t do so well.
But this didn’t stop another of his ideas grabbing a lot of attention, partly because this was rather intriguing. Britain’s Got The Pop Factor… was essentially a parody of musical talent contests that been clogging up the screen for a while, including Pop Idol, and the like. And this was going to take the idea to the extreme. To add a touch of authenticity, the host was Cat Deeley, and the judging panel included Pete Waterman, who had contributed to the real shows.
Kay was Geraldine, a young lady who was hoping for stardom. Just about every cliché in these shows was tackled, including the sob stories, the rather average performances, the elaborate staging, the overexcited studio audience, the guests appearances by pop stars, and so on. Geraldine had managed to make the later stages, and was aiming for the dream of being the champion coming true.
But somehow, Geraldine somehow captures the eye of the viewers as well as the judges, and has a rather remarkable triumph. Britain’s Got The Pop Factor… was supposed to be a scathing spoof of these type of shows, that were beginning to run out of steam by this point. But at times, with plenty of people taking part sending themselves up, this actually came across as rather affectionate.
One of the more amusing moments was the stage design, which meant the contestants had difficulty walking off. And this concluded with a performance of the winning song by Geraldine, which was released as a single for real (and they were hopeful that they had pressed enough CDs to deal with the huge demand), meaning that some felt that technically this was all an advert for this song.
This made the Top Ten as well, meaning that there was the rather complicated situation of Kay having a hit that he did sing on that wasn’t released under his name, unlike the re-release of “Amarillo”, that he didn’t sing on, but was credited. There was later an extra edition showing how Geraldine was coping with this newfound fame, along with another single, but the joke had worn thin by this point, and Kay went off to do other things.
Following the news that Peter Kay is planning to go on tour again after over a decade away from the scene, this is a look back at one of his sitcoms. After appearing in various comedy shows for a few years, Peter really made his name with Phoenix Nights, the sitcom set at a Bolton nightclub, which was full of memorable characters and situations (and this also featured some of the funniest outtakes that I have seen).
There were two series of this, but viewers wanted more. So the decision was made to do a spin-off series that featured the hapless doormen Max and Paddy, and there was more anticipation around this than most sitcoms get. Things have changed rather a lot though since we last met them, when they ran into some trouble with some hitmen, and they have now gone on the run.
This meant that they spent a lot of time in their rusty old campervan travelling the country, and again, they run into a wide variety of characters (including a few old friends) and unlikely situations. They often end the day either in a Little Chef or a prison cell. There was also a brief appearance from Brian Potter in one episode, which must’ve pleased viewers, and Noddy Holder turned up once as well. And the excitement of all this was sponsored by Chorley FM, coming in your ears.
Max And Paddy’s Road To Nowhere didn’t really sparkle in comparison to previous series, although there was a rather high standard to live up to, and plans for further episodes didn’t happen. This has been released on DVD though. There was also a scene where they did a little dance for no reason, which always goes down well, and this led to a parody of a fitness DVD being released called The Power Of Two.
Peter didn’t have to worry though, because not long after there was proof of his continuing popularity when he had some very successful chart-topping singles (that he didn’t actually perform on, but never mind that now), while Paddy McGuinness, who played, er, Paddy, has gone on to be a rather prolific TV host, turning up on everything from (A) Question Of Sport to Top Gear.
Following on from Friends, this is another American sitcom that played a big part in Channel 4’s primetime schedule for many years. And again, I have barely seen a full episode of this, but I might as well share what I do know. Frasier was a spin-off from the sitcom Cheers, which was set in a bar in Boston. Dr Frasier Crane joined in 1984, and when this came to an end in 1993, it was decided to explore this character and his life further.
Kelsey Grammer had also found fame by this point for providing the voice of Sideshow Bob in The Simpsons. Frasier had now moved to Seattle and works as a psychologist, hosting a radio phone-in, where he listens to the callers, but many of them aren’t so keen on his advice (they were often voiced by special celebrity guests, and viewers liked to guess who they were).
Other main characters include Frasier’s younger brother Niles, and their dad Martin, who has retired because he has a gammy leg (you never hear any other parts of the body referred to as “gammy” though, why is that). And there is also the English-born Daphne, played by Jane Leeves, who had previously appeared in sitcom Throb (that I reviewed recently), where she had some rather spectacular 80s hair (and a London accent), but in this, she had some 90s hair… mostly because it was now the 90s.
I am sure that I read that Lisa Maxwell off top sitcom Once In A Lifetime auditioned for the role of Daphne, but she didn’t get it. There is also Frasier’s radio producer Roz, and plenty of other people come and go too, but many considered Eddie the dog to be the real star. There were various other quirks, including the opening sequence of every episode being slightly different, and phrases appearing between scenes.
As the episodes progress, Niles and Daphne indulge in more “will they-won’t they?” than most couples do, but not too much else changed over the years. It wasn’t long before critics insisted that this was the smartest show on TV, and the quality was kept up over 11 series. After the end, Grammer went on to appear in other shows, but the trouble was that they would all be seen as inferior to this one (who remembers the sitcom Back To You now?).
There have been rumours of a revival for a while, but it still seems unclear if that will actually happen. All of the episodes have been released on DVD, and there have been a lot of repeats on Paramount Comedy Channel, and they continue on Channel 4 right to this day (as do the Cheers repeats). Maybe this is a sitcom that I should explore further, because few have as good a reputation as this one.
This is an American sitcom that needs little explanation from me really, which is just as well, because I couldn’t give an explanation because I must confess that I don’t think that I have ever even seen an episode in full over the years. But because this is such a well-known show, I thought that I might as well finally review this, because there are a few thoughts and memories that I do have.
Friends of course featured the lives of six rather young and successful people who lived in New York, and enjoyed spending time together. This came to Channel 4 in 1995, and it was also in this year that the theme song “I’ll Be There For You” by The Rembrandts was a Top Ten hit single in this country (cue lots of people asking “what does ‘your love life’s DOA‘ mean?”). After a while, the popularity grew, as was proved by the amount of high-profile guest stars who were eager to appear. It didn’t take long for Channel 4 to realise that they had a guaranteed hit as part of their Friday night schedule, suddenly everybody wanted a “Rachel”.
I also remember that The Adam And Joe Show did a very amusing parody, reimagining the cast as toys, and there was also a special episode that was made in England. As the success continued, and the lives of the characters became increasingly entangled, in 1997 “I’ll Be There For You” became a Top Ten hit for a second time, joining a small list of songs to have achieved this. Episodes also did well when they were shown on Sky One, and along with the regular repeats, plus the new episodes, this was very often on the screen. I even remember articles in Inside Soap magazine, which didn’t usually give coverage to sitcoms.
When Channel 4’s companion channel E4 launched in 2001, they took the rights from Sky One, and again, episodes old and new played a big part in the schedule. Friends managed to run for a decade, and when the tenth and final series came to a close, some dedicated viewers found it all rather hard to take. “It’s like losing a limb”, apparently. There had also been lots of special interviews and documentaries reflecting on the success, and all of the episodes have been released on DVD. But the story hadn’t ended just yet.
The character of Joey went into a spin-off sitcom. This was shown in this country by Five, who in an ambitious move, decided that it was time to have some high-profile imported comedy. This did indeed deliver some of this channel’s highest-ever ratings at first, but some critics felt that this was all rather inferior to what had gone before, and this ended all rather quietly by comparison. Channel 5 then bought the rights to Friends off Channel 4 and E4, leading to hundreds more repeats on their companion channel Comedy Central to this day, as if they hadn’t been shown enough.
The main cast had long-since gone on to work on other projects, but a year or two ago, the sextet reunited for the first time (not for a new episode though, but a special looking back at some highlights). There seemed to be a huge amount of news articles afterwards informing us that “Matt LeBlanc looked like your uncle at the Friends reunion”. Although I don’t think that he looked very much like my uncle, although that’s because I don’t actually have any… but I’m sure that he’s thrilled about that being the legacy of what he brought to this show.
Following on from Jesse (that I reviewed recently), this is another American sitcom featuring a young female character in the lead role, that was only shown in this country on Channel 4 in an afternoon slot in the early-2000s for a short while. Nikki (there was also a girls’ comic in the 80s called Nikki) starred Nikki Cox, who had previously featured in the WB sitcom Unhappily Ever After, and the ABC sitcom The Norm Show (which was also shown in this country on Channel 4, but in a very late-night slot).
She impressed enough in these to be given the leading role in a sitcom. Nikki played Nikki White, who was a dancer at the Golden Calf Casino in Las Vegas. Her choreographer is the English-born Martine, who has outrageous ideas for routines, and often struggles to keep all of the women under his guidance. They all dream of becoming famous dancers, although that is rather unlikely.
One of Nikki’s fellow dancers and friends is Mary (who had a rather terrific hairstyle). Nikki’s husband Dwight also often dreams of fame. He is a professional wrestler who is known as The Crybaby. But again, his coach Jupiter doubts if he has got what it takes to get to the top. This meant that Nikki contained plenty of action, with several scenes featuring dance routines or wrestling in the ring.
By the second and final series, various ideas were tried out. One episode featured a parody of sitcoms including Married… With Children for some reason, and even had a guest appearance from neighbours Steve and Marcy (played by the same actors from the actual show). And one episode also featured a guest appearance from the wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage, how exciting!
There were 41 episodes of Nikki, although it seems that the final six were never shown in either the US or this country, and because I’m fairly sure that there has been no DVD release, they remain unseen. Although this was not a big success, the combination of all this definitely livened up an afternoon. Nikki Cox doesn’t seem to have done too much TV work after the end of this though, which is a disappointment because she was great.