As I have now reviewed just about every British game show that I have wanted to, and I have also looked at several American versions of game shows as well, I have decided that, like with my pieces about pop music, it’s time to go to down under to Australia and look at what some of their versions of famous game shows are like, and thanks to YouTube, it’s possible to do this.
Countdown (which has now had over 8,000 editions in this country) is based on the French format Des Chiffres Et Des Lettres, and there have been several versions around the world. The Australian version didn’t begin until 2010, which was called Letters And Numbers, because Countdown had already been taken by a long-running pop music show. The host was Richard Morecroft (not the first Richard to have hosted this format).
The co-host who was also the statistician was Lily Serna, and the lexicographer was David Astle (there was no celebrity guest). The format is just about the same as the British version (and the studio is very clearly based on the look that was introduced in 2009). As always, two contestants took part (and they had only their first names in front of them, rather than their full names).
Editions were half-an-hour long, and featured nine rounds (five letters, three numbers, and a conundrum, along with two break teasers). The scoring system is the same though. Of course they have 30 seconds to determine their answers, and it is a rather odd experience to hear different music while the clock ticks. In the absence of a celebrity guest, instead of an anecdote, the lexicographer has an Origin Of Words section.
They also had some terminology, such as describing a nine-letter word as a “full monty”. If games end in a tie, there is a tiebreaker conundrum. Winning contestants can play up to six games (not eight) before having to retire undefeated, and the highest scorers return for a knockout tournament at the end of the series to determine the overall champion, where they receive the star prize of rather a large amount of dictionaries.
Letters And Numbers ran for four series (plus one that wasn’t completed), along with a special Masters series (the equivalent of Champion Of Champions). About a decade on from this, there was a celebrity version. There was a different host, this time three contestants took part, and they scored points for their words regardless of whether they were the longest in the round or not.
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.
And now… here are the ten people who have made the most appearances in dictionary corner over the past four decades…
10th: Jan Harvey (134 appearances, 1992-2002) Jan is an actress who has appeared in Howards’ Way… and… er, lots of other things I’m sure.
9th: Paul Zenon (145 appearances, 2004-2021) Paul is a magician. In the 90s, he showed off his skills on some CBBC shows including Tricky Business and Tricks And Tracks. So unsurprisingly he often takes the chance to dazzle and show off his crazy tricks. You won’t believe what he can do with a pack of cards. His mate Arbie The Robot would be proud I’m sure.
8th: Martin Jarvis (152 appearances, 1990-2008) Martin is another successful actor, who has a very nice voice and cosy presence, which is probably why he turned up so often.
7th: Geoffrey Durham (164 appearances, 1995-2006) Geoffrey is a magician. In the 80s, he was known as “The Great Soprendo”, and he was also married to the much-missed Victoria Wood. By the 90s though, he had lost a lot of weight, and was a rather regular presence in the corner. As well as tricks, he would also set puzzles that viewers could ponder during the break, and then reveal the solution.
6th: Phil Hammond (170 appearances, 2006-2021) Phil has a double career as a doctor and a comedian. He used to be in a comedy group called Struck Off And Die (ha-ha), and as well as making jokes about healthcare, he would make lots of serious points as well. He has also written books, and made documentaries.
5th: Richard Digance (173 appearances, 1996-2020) Richard is a comedian and musician, who became known as “The West Ham Warbler”. He had several TV series in the 80s and 90s, where he would tell jokes in a rather dour style, and he would play his guitar and perform his comedy songs. This means that he always had a rather bizarre anecdote or two to tell.
4th: Philip Franks (176 appearances, 1992-2006) Philip is an actor, who is best-known for appearing in The Darling Buds Of May, which was one of the most successful TV dramas of its era, and also Heartbeat. He is one of the more cultured guests, he set puzzles that were usually based around lists, and he would go on about famous writers and poets. He was also in the corner for Richard Whiteley’s final edition.
3rd: Nigel Rees (184 appearances, 1984-2001) Nigel is a writer who is best-known for hosting the long-running BBC Radio 4 panel game Quote… Unquote, and compiling books about humorous graffiti. Which is great news for people who find phrases like “I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure” amusing. He is also something of a Richard Whiteley lookalike. And when he made his 100th appearance in the corner, he was given a bottle of champagne to mark the occasion.
2nd: Richard Stilgoe (240 appearances, 1985-2006) Richard’s talents are rather hard to define. He has been a songwriter and musician, he became known for performing songs that reflected on what was happening in the news, although he always liked to look on the brighter side, on shows including That’s Life! He has also worked in musicals, and has done a lot of charitable work. He is best-known for making anagrams of the contestants’ names, which are sometimes rather bizarre. He has also received a knighthood, presumably for his contribution to charity, not anagrams.
1st: Gyles Brandreth (333 appearances, 1983-2017) As if it could’ve been anyone else! The ultimate dictionary dweller, Gyles is just about the quintessential Countdown guest. Even people who aren’t too familiar with this show would know that throughout the 80s and 90s, Gyles could often be found making his observations, usually whilst wearing some horrid knitwear. He has had a remarkable career, there really is little that he hasn’t attempted to do, he is also a keen Scrabble fan, and he seemingly has an amusing anecdote for every occasion. Nobody else really does it like Gyles. Congratulations!
Well I hope that you found this interesting, why not tell me your favourite. Next, I might as well do a list of the other important element of Countdown, the hosts, co-hosts, and lexicographers. That’ll be soon…
More excitement (possibly) as positions 20-11 are revealed of most appearances in Dictionary Corner…
=19th: Ned Sherrin (87 appearances, 1983-2000) Ned was someone who had a rather varied career. He was a satirist, who contributed to That Was The Week That Was. He was also the host of long-running radio series Counterpoint and Loose Ends. And he was an author as well.
=19th: Rick Wakeman (87 appearances, 1997-2008) Rick is a musician, who is best-known for being a member of the group Yes. He can play ten keyboards at the same time apparently. And he is also someone who insisted he won’t appear again, still bitter about how Carol Vorderman’s departure was handled.
18th: Gloria Hunniford (88 appearances, 1998-2021) Gloria is a TV and radio host. Her TV work includes hosting chat shows, and she also had a rather long association with BBC Radio 2. Her daughter was a successful TV host too.
17th: Ken Bruce (89 appearances, 1986-2013) Ken has had a rather long career in radio. He joined BBC Radio 2 in the 80s, and he briefly hosted the Breakfast Show, before moving to the mid-morning slot, where he has remained ever since. His what always has to be called a “Celtic twang” has been enjoyed by listeners for many years. He also hosts PopMaster, and is the radio commentator on the Eurovision Song Contest.
16th: Jon Culshaw (98 appearances, 2011-2022) Jon is a comedian who is best-known for being an impressionist. He was a regular on the radio and TV versions of Dead Ringers, before going on to other comedy shows where he has shown off his range of voices. He also likes to do prank phone calls, usually as the voice of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who to tell them that there is about to be an alien invasion or something.
15th: Keith Barron (99 appearances, 1999-2008) Keith was an actor who appeared in lots of TV shows throughout his long career. Among the most popular was the 80s sitcom Duty Free.
14th: Jo Brand (100 appearances, 1998-2022) Jo first became known as the comedian who had something of a deadpan style, and took no nonsense from anyone. Some were surprised when Jo was revealed to be a fan of this show, but she has appeared regularly, and she also took part as a contestant in the first celebrity series, and the 18th anniversary special.
13th: Tim Rice (115 appearances, 1989-2020) Tim is best-known as a songwriter and composer, being behind several successful musicals and films. He has even won an Oscar. But best of all, he was on the team that put together the early editions of The Guinness Book Of British Hit Singles, how terrific.
12th: Bill Tidy (116 appearances, 1985-1993) Bill is a cartoonist, and some of his strips have appeared in magazines including Private Eye, and newspapers including the Daily Mirror. He often used to whip his pen out and draw a quick picture, and then reveal what the joke was, which was always enjoyable. He was also among the contestants in a special game for the 500th edition.
11th: Tom O’Connor (121 appearances, 1996-2008) Tom started out as a teacher, before becoming famous as a comedian. He used to tell stories in a rather easy-going style that steered clear of vulgarity. He also hosted a few game shows, including Name That Tune and Cross Wits.
Here are positions 30-21 in the dictionary corner appearances list…
30th: Janet Street-Porter (59 appearances, 2012-2021*) Janet is someone who has worked in newspapers for several years, and she has also been behind strands aimed trying to get teenage viewers interested in TV (that became known as the “yoof” market). And she is another self-styled grumpy old woman. *made four further appearances in Series 86
=28th: Colin Murray (60 appearances, 2009-2020) Colin is a TV and radio host. He was one of the many people who appeared on Channel 4’s short-lived breakfast show Rise. He also hosted a show on BBC Radio 1. Such was his enthusiasm in his appearances, he was chosen to be the temporary host on a couple of occasions.
=28th: Eve Pollard (60 appearances, 1984-2004) Eve is another one who has worked for several national newspapers, including being the editor of the Sunday Express. Her daughter is rather famous too.
=26th: David Jacobs (62 appearances, 1993-2001) David was a TV and radio host. He was on BBC Radio 2 for many years, playing classics from the days before those pesky rock ‘n’ roll singers came along.
=26th: Simon Williams (62 appearances, 1989-1993) Simon is an actor, best known for appearing in Upstairs Downstairs, and much more.
25th: Tim Vine (69 appearances, 2009-2022) Tim is the comedian who is known for his quickfire jokes, that usually contain an amusing pun (well I find them amusing). He has also gone on several successful tours, where because of his style, his audiences have barely recovered from the previous joke before the next one comes along. He has also been an actor, and hosted a few game shows himself. As well as creating laughs, he has done a few unusual things in the corner too. On one occasion, he wore a wig, on another, he was spotted playing his “pen behind the ear” game, and he even once appeared as his “Plastic Elvis” character. In his spare time, he likes to recreate Columbo episodes in his garden.
24th: Alistair Stewart (79 appearances, 1998-2018) Alistair is a news host. He worked at ITN for many years, before he joined LNN to host London Tonight, and he just about coped with the constant technical errors. He also became known for hosting those bad driving-type shows, plus ITN’s General Election coverage on a few occasions, and a show on GMTV. He also appeared as a contestant on the first celebrity series, where he won comfortably.
=22nd: Pam Ayres (80 appearances, 2002-2021) Pam first found fame as a poet, and was soon making lots of TV appearances. She is also only one of two people who has appeared in the corner with six different hosts.
=22nd: John Inverdale (80 appearances, 2008-2021) John has been a sport host for many years, including lots of live coverage on various channels. He also hosted a show where he interviewed famous sportspeople.
21st: Barry Cryer (85 appearances, 1996-2009) Barry had a very long and successful career in comedy, as a writer for just about every big name in the business. He also seemed to contribute to every documentary about the old troupers, he was a stand-up, and a welcome regular on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. He was another one who could always guarantee laughs with his comments, and he liked to do an “on this day” feature, revealing the stories behind the moments in years gone by.
On we go with positions 40-31 of the people with the most appearances in Dictionary Corner…
=39th: Jenny Hanley (43 appearances, 1992-1996) Jenny was a host of CITV show Magpie. Her parents Jimmy Hanley and Dinah Sheridan were famous too.
=39th: John Junkin (43 appearances, 1984-1987) John was a comedy writer and actor. He also hosted the 80s game show Ask No Questions, where his co-host happened to be Carol Vorderman.
=37th: Jenny Eclair (45 appearances, 2012-2021) Jenny is a comedian who is a self-confessed grumpy old woman. She once did an advert about salt. She was also the stand-in host for four editions in Series 86.
=37th: Martin Lewis (45 appearances, 2009-2019) Martin (not to be confused with Martyn Lewis, who hosted game show Today’s The Day) is something of a financial expert. He has hosted several TV shows where he has passed on his money-saving advice.
36th: Angela Rippon (47 appearances, 1997-2012) Angela is a news host, regularly appearing on the BBC, before going on to be one of the original line-up on TV-am.
35th: Kenneth Williams (48 appearances, 1982-1983) Kenneth was only the second-ever dictionary dweller (Ted Moult was the first, fact fans). He was known for appearing in a lot of the Carry On films, and also for always having an amusing story to tell. He could raconteur all day. But by the end of his career, he only did some occasional TV and voiceover work, and put it this way, he didn’t consider Countdown to be one of his highlights.
34th: Richard Madeley (50 appearances, 2013-2021) Richard is someone who has been a familiar TV host for many years. He started out in journalism, and worked at the East London Advertiser newspaper (which is my local paper, well it is if it’s still going). He eventually went up north and became familiar to viewers in the Granada region. But he really first found fame when he hosted ITV’s This Morning alongside his wife Judy for 13 years, before they joined Channel 4. Nowadays, Richard can usually be seen on Good Morning Britain, where people constantly insist “ha-ha, he sounds like Alan Partridge” in everything that he does, which has become tiresome. I’m fairly sure that he has always known exactly what he’s doing. Fairly sure…
33rd: Denis Norden (52 appearances, 1994-2001) Denis was a writer of several successful comedies, usually alongside Frank Muir. But he became best-known for hosting It’ll Be Alright On The Night, the show featuring TV cock-ups, where if it could go wrong, it did go wrong.
32nd: Richard Arnold (55 appearances, 2013-2021) Richard has been a showbiz reporter for GMTV, and he also worked for Inside Soap magazine.
31st: Barry Norman (57 appearances, 2001-2008) Barry was the straight-talking film critic. He hosted TV shows about films for several years, and he also wrote books. He was always very confused that his catchphrase was something that he actually never said. And as a cricket enthusiast, he was rather pleased that a bowler taking five wickets in an innings became known as a “Michelle”.
Coming soon is the 40th anniversary of the launch of game show Countdown, which is an opportunity to do one more piece. Some people say that there are too many shows on TV nowadays that feature unnecessary contributions from random celebrities. But Countdown was doing this long before this became a fashionable thing! In every edition, a guest celebrity appears alongside the lexicographer, and they determine whether the words offered are valid, and if they found any longer alternatives.
There is also an interlude where the celebrity can talk for a minute or two, and this has been used for various things. They can tell anecdotes, recite poetry, set puzzles, or even perform magic tricks. Over the years, lots of people from all areas of entertainment including TV hosts, actors, sportspeople, singers, and so on have appeared. As there has been an attempt to try out lots of people, hundreds have now featured, and most of them haven’t appeared for more than a week or two.
But some have managed to endure, and appear more often than most. I have put some numbers together and decided to reveal the Top 50 people who have appeared in Dictionary Corner the most times (and in a nice quirk, because there is a tie for last place, the list actually features 51 people). Each entry will feature a brief biography of who they are. Any further thoughts and memories are welcome. I’m fairly sure that these figures are accurate to the end of Series 85. Who’ll be top? Let’s meet those dictionary dwellers…
=50th: Mark Foster (37 appearances, 2010-2016) Mark is a swimmer who has been a medal winner in various tournaments around the world.
=50th: Brian Johnston (37 appearances, 1987-1992) Brian (or “Johnners” as he was known in the dressing room) was a cricket commentator on the TV and radio for almost five decades. He is arguably the quintessential host of BBC Radio’s Test Match Special, and he must be responsible for creating the cliché that even regular listeners aren’t familiar with of talking about cakes more than the cricket. He never said “the bowler’s Holding, the batman’s Willey” though. He was also often on the after-dinner speaking circuit, and hosted some game shows including Trivia Test Match.
=48th: Linda Papadopoulos (38 appearances, 2017-2022) Linda is a Canadian psychologist who used to appear on Big Brother to determine the behaviour of the housemates, so they could try and claim that there was an educational element to this show, and they weren’t just trying to manufacture arguments between everyone, honest. She has also written several books.
=48th: Sylvia Syms (38 appearances, 1988-1992) Sylvia is an actress, who appeared in several popular films in the 50s and 60s.
=46th: Kate Humble (39 appearances, 2009-2022) Kate has been a host of several wildlife and science shows.
=46th: Alistair McGowan (39 appearances, 2010-2018) Alistair is a comedian, who is best-known for being an impressionist. For a while he had his own comedy show The Big Impression where he showed off his variety of characters, his take on David Beckham seemed to turn up rather a lot.
=42nd: Nicki Chapman (40 appearances, 2013-2022) Nicki is someone who worked in the music business, which led to her being a judge on Popstars. She has also done lots of TV and radio hosting.
=42nd: Helen Fospero (40 appearances, 2015-2020) Helen is a TV host who was a regular on the GMTV sofa, along with appearing on Watchdog.
=42nd: Magnus Magnusson (40 appearances, 1997-2003) Magnus was a game show host at the more genial end of the scale, being in charge of Mastermind for 25 years, which is regarded as one of the toughest to win. He also wrote several books about history.
=42nd: Sheridan Morley (40 appearances, 1991-1997) Sheridan was a theatre and film critic for several newspapers, and he also did a lot of TV and radio work.
41st: Chris Packham (41 appearances, 2012-2021) Chris is another one who is known for hosting several shows about wildlife, including The Really Wild Show and Springwatch. He could happily watch an otter for hours. He was also a contestant on the second series of the celebrity version.
Here’s someone who is fondly remembered for hosting one game show, although he did do much more TV work beyond this. Richard Whiteley started his career in the 60s working in news, for ITN, and then in the Yorkshire region. He was already a familiar figure to viewers for hosting Calendar, when in the early-80s when was chosen to host the British version of a game show that had already been running for a long time in France.
Calendar Countdown ran for only one series, but when Channel 4 felt that they needed something for their afternoon slot, Countdown was chosen, and this was the show that they launched with, a fairly low-key choice it seemed. But very few could’ve predicted just how long-running and successful this show would become. If you were in the Yorkshire region, you could now get a double dose of Whiteley!
His style was rather stilted at first, but he soon relaxed, becoming known as much for his terrible wordplay as for his encouraging of the contestants. By the early-90s, Carol Vorderman had gone from being the mathematician in every other edition to being the main co-host, Richard and Carol soon formed a popular double-act, and about a decade on Countdown was continuing to do well.
Viewers decided that they wanted more, so in the mid-90s, Countdown was on Channel 4 all year round, by which point he had left Calendar. In the late-90s he achieved an ambition when he had his own chat show on BBC1 called Richard Whiteley Unbriefed, because he didn’t research the guests in advance, not because he interviewed them not wearing any trousers! Or maybe he did.
The guests would simply come on stage as a surprise, and he would have to ask questions off the top of his head based on what he knew about them, which sometimes wasn’t too much. This was a fun idea that should’ve got a full series. By the early-2000s he had long settled into the Countdown role, and he also appeared on several other shows as a panellist where he showed off his knowledge and didn’t seem to mind sending himself up.
Countdown was then extended to 45 minutes, although by this point, even though he knew when to be silly and when to be serious, Richard and Carol’s endless laughing and joking seemed to be overshadowing the game. He also hosted That’s Your Lot, shown only in the Yorkshire region, where it seems he would cheerily think nothing of banging himself in an awkward place.
Despite all of this, there was much shock at his unexpected departure in 2005. By this point he had hosted almost 4,000 editions of Countdown, with his final one being shown posthumously. People of all ages from across the UK sent their condolences. I try not to get too worked up by celebrity deaths, but this one moved me more than most, I’m not sure why, you just thought that he would always be there really.
On this blog I have done some pieces that compared the first and final series of popular long-running shows, where I looked at how they changed and eventually evolved into a successful format, or in some cases became past their best. I have wanted to do a comparison piece about Countdown, but of course this still hasn’t reached its final series (and will it ever?), as it is still going on Channel 4.
So instead it’ll be a review of an edition from the first series, but not the first edition which has been much repeated (and was the very first programme on Channel 4), but from one later on that was first shown on 14 December 1982. And it is a surprise to discover just how much the format has changed since then. There was a rather funky opening sequence, and the host of course was Richard Whiteley, who remained until 2005.
The first series was the shortest one there’s been, only being shown four days a week for under two months. There was the winner stays on format, but it didn’t conclude with a knockout competition. Instead, the two highest scorers in the series returned to play in the grand final. A notable thing about the set design (which lasted until 1989) is that the five-second intervals marked on the clock have now been added, they were absent from the very first editions (and the music which was also used until 1989 still doesn’t conclude with famous the extra “boo!” note).
Richard is very pleased to have received a letter from a viewer, which might be an indication that the show is beginning to grow a loyal fanbase. And there are plenty of terrible puns of course. In Dictionary Corner is Kenneth Williams, who was only the second celebrity to appear in the corner, the first being Ted Moult (who also appeared in the unaired pilot and Calendar Countdown series). Kenneth went on have a very long run in the corner, appearing in 39 consecutive shows (stretching into the second series), and he is welcomed by a very enthusiastic studio audience.
A very enthusiastic studio audience.
Kenneth is joined by a lexicographer, but it definitely isn’t Susie Dent, and they aren’t even namechecked in the credits. Richard also announces that the highest possible score on offer is 90 points, with ten points available in all nine rounds (I’m not sure when the 18 points for finding a nine-letter word rule was introduced). Another point is how many hostesses there are. One is Cathy Hytner who puts the letters (that are a horrible yellow on grey colour, and wouldn’t be changed to the more familiar while on blue for many years) on the board. You can tell that it’s the early-80s as Cathy seems to have turned up dressed as a member of Tight Fit.
When we get to the numbers round, there is another hostess who is Beverley Isherwood who selects the numbers and presses CECIL’s button (CECIL wasn’t given a high-tech makeover until 2013), although she doesn’t actually speak, it’s Richard who announces the target. Then we meet our third hostess on the show, the vital statistician 21-year-old Carol Vorderman. In the first series she alternated with another statistician (Linda Barrett), meaning that this series had no less than four female co-hosts, as if it was 3-2-1 or The Price Is Right.
It wasn’t until 1989 that Carol became the single co-host, and she eventually built up a enjoyable double-act with Richard, before leaving in 2008. Carol also writes the solution on a piece of paper that promptly falls off (the paper wasn’t replaced by a whiteboard for the co-host to write on until earlier this year). Carol doesn’t get it though and says “no I didn’t this time Richard, I’m afraid I was two out”, to which Richard replies “oh dear, you’ll have to do better next time, my dear”. It goes without saying that Richard and Carol’s interaction improved over the years.
Kenneth then goes into the break with an anecdote. Then, after the break, Richard still seems to be disappointed that the contestants didn’t correctly solve the numbers round, saying “it was his maths that let him down I’m afraid” which seems a little harsh. It’s by this point that Kenneth is still rambling on and Richard begins to look like he doesn’t know what he’s on about but laughs politely anyway.
Carol does get the second numbers game though, what a relief. Then it’s the conundrum. At this time the nine-letter word was randomly scrambled, and was physically turned over by Cathy (when she remembered to do it, the clue actually appears with two seconds already on the clock). The game ends as a draw, and this means that there will be a replay tomorrow (it wasn’t until series 22 that ties were split with extra conundrums).
Another interesting thing is that this edition in a 30-minute slot runs for 26 minutes. It wasn’t until September 2001 that the show was extended to 45 minutes with extra rounds added, meaning that it has almost been running for longer in its extended version. The closing music also runs for longer than 30 seconds! Finally, Countdown was a Yorkshire Television Production for Channel 4 at the time, but it is now made in Salford.