Game Show Memories – Game Show Stars Part 5.

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The many faces of Richard Whiteley from a 2000 edition of Countdown

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.

Game Show Memories – Countdown Series 1.

Countdown (Channel 4, 1982)

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. vlcsnap-00690

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). vlcsnap-00814

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. vlcsnap-00925

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 Rightvlcsnap-00930

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. vlcsnap-00936

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. vlcsnap-00908

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). vlcsnap-00939

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.

Game Show Memories – Countdown 1500.

Countdown 1500 (Channel 4, 1994)

Countdown is a show that has always liked to acknowledge its anniversaries and milestones, and in July 1994 there was a special to celebrate the 1,500th edition (although it was actually the 1,523rd edition). As always, Richard Whiteley was the host along with Carol Vorderman. As it was a special, it was a 45-minute edition that was the equivalent of a grand final, where two of the most successful contestants returned for another letters and numbers challenge.

Well who would’ve thought they would get so far? And they didn’t realise at the time, but Countdown would still be going after almost 37 years. This would be a great way to start the new series. The two contestants were Gareth Williams and Allan Saldanha, who have 22 wins between them (Allan was also a finalist in the Supreme Championship that took place a few years later). This is going to be one humdinger of a contest. vlcsnap-00020

But before all that, there’s a look at Carol’s first-ever numbers game from November 1982. In Dictionary Corner is Denis Norden of It’ll Be Alright On The Night fame, someone who I’m sure was very grateful about how many cock-ups Countdown contributed to the show, along with Mark Nyman. It is also pointed out that the contestants are keen Scrabble players and have had lots of success in that area too. vlcsnap-00029

The action finally begins with the first of the 14 rounds. But their words in round two are both disallowed! Then there’s a tough numbers game when Allan doesn’t pick any big ones. Then there’s more shock when in another round their six-letter words are disallowed as it’s actually a five-letter word. Allan then takes the lead with an eight-letter word, but Gareth is now in front after a good numbers round. Allan then gets the first of the two conundrums. vlcsnap-00081

Then there’s more success for Allan with some good words. After lots more numbers rounds, Allan is now 25 points ahead. Then there’s another eight-letter word found, and an amusing moment when Denis spots that the letters A, S, P, E, and L are among the selection, so Richard is made to think that it’s a clue that Michael Aspel is about to announce he’s going to be on This Is Your Life. “That’ll be the day!” laughs Richard, although I think he really did get the Big Red Book treatment a few years later. vlcsnap-00086

There’s an indication of the high standard when a nine-letter word is found by both contestants. After one more numbers round, Allan gets the final conundrum and wins 99-62. Both contestants are then given the prize of a certificate as a token of thanks for taking part. We then finish off with a quick look back at the way they were, with Carol’s remarkable 80s fashion sense being a particular highlight. What a great occasion. vlcsnap-00107

Game Show Memories – Countdown Masters.

Countdown Masters (Channel 4, 1989-1991)

This is another variation on the classic game show Countdown. In 1989, Channel 4 launched a breakfast schedule for the first time, with The Channel 4 Daily. This ran on weekdays from 6am-9:25am, and it was a fairly straightforward show, featuring news, sport, business, and so on, and presenters from ITN were around the world in various “bureaus” (not “studios”, definitely not) to fire at us the latest updates.

Among the features was Countdown Masters, which as ever was hosted by Richard Whiteley, alongside Carol Vorderman, who had just became the sole co-host. This was a five-minute show where former contestants who had done well returned to play each other in a game that ran throughout the week. It was originally shown at the rather specific time of 8:19am, before moving to 8:45am. vlcsnap-00286

It was designed to get the brain thinking at an early time in the day, and every day there were three rounds played, a letters round, a numbers round, and a conundrum. It was the contestant’s choice as to whether they wanted to choose the letters or numbers. The scoring system remained the same. Also, it seems that there was no celebrity in Dictionary Corner, and no studio audience present either. vlcsnap-00377

However, there was a lexicographer present to check on the words (back in the days when they used to rotate the lexicographers every week), and they used to sit alongside Richard, and he would do his usual amount of puns. The contestant who achieved the highest score at the end of the week after 15 rounds was declared the winner, and won a (much coveted I’m sure) Countdown Masters folder. vlcsnap-00397

Countdown Masters ran for two series and there were about 100 editions (although a few were not shown due to extra news coverage), and as well as there being a weekly winner, there was also a bonus prize on offer for the contestant who got the highest score in the entire series, and they won a set of dictionaries, which was what the overall regular series champion also won. The highest score in the series was 120 points.

Game Show Memories – consolation prizes.

“We hate to lose you, but lose you we must”

Time for something a little different. There used to be a time when however good or bad they did, game show contestants would be given consolation prizes for taking part. Here’s a look at what I think are 16 of the most memorable prizes that were given away. These are the shows where you definitely didn’t go away empty handed…

Backdate. A rather nice electronic organiser.

Big Break. A snooker cue and a trophy, and a waistcoat too if you were lucky.

Blankety Blank. Probably one of the most famous consolation prizes, the chequebook and pen. It’s really isn’t an exaggeration to say that it was more valuable than most of the actual prizes on offer.

Blockbusters. A sweatshirt and a dictionary. Definitely worth having. p3

Bullseye. Tankards, darts, and the bendy Bully. Or the badge and chalk holder that were on offer in the early series.

Countdown. What is always called a goodie bag, including cups, books, and the board game too of course. And don’t forget the teapot either.

Every Second Counts. Not surprisingly considering this was a show based around time, a wallclock and some watches.

The Generation Game. Various prizes in the early-90s revival included a telephone and pocket TV that seemingly only ever showed a picture of Bruce Forsyth’s co-host Rosemarie Ford. p6

Lucky Ladders. A pair of watches. Now they must be expensive.

Raise The Roof. This was the show where the star prize was a house, so the consolation was a teapot in the shape of a house, often known as “Bob’s Bungalow” (after host Bob Holness).

Small Talk. A trophy that according to host Ronnie Corbett was “crafted by my own fair hand”.

Telly Addicts. Another goodie bag similar to Countdown including books about TV, T-shirts and so on. p9

Today’s The Day. A copy of a newspaper from the day that you were born, and maybe a bottle of bubbly too.

Turnabout. Another show that gave everyone a dictionary. Not that exciting, but just any excuse to talk about Turnabout really.

Wheel Of Fortune. Another show that gave away watches and board games.

Wipeout. Early series featured a paperweight, before this was changed to an umbrella. p12

And they all had a lovely day.

Game Show Memories – Countdown 3000 And Counting.

Countdown 3000 And Counting (Channel 4, 2001)

In 2001 Channel 4’s long-running game show Countdown reached its 3,000th edition, which was something that they were very proud about. There was a special show to mark this occasion called 3000 And Counting. This was somewhat different to the special for the 2,000th show that I reviewed recently that was in front of a live studio audience, as it was done in the style of a documentary (narrated by Sue Perkins). vlcsnap-00801

This included a look behind the scenes and contributions from Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman who had worked together for almost 20 years by this point (it is a surprise to realise that Carol left the show almost a decade ago now). There were also contributions from celebrity fans of the show, and everyone from Chris Moyles to Terry Wogan told us why when the time hits 4:30pm they always like to regularly watch. vlcsnap-00805

We saw some classic archive clips (although they were mostly the same as the ones that featured in the 2,000th edition special). We also saw some of ITV Yorkshire’s Calendar Countdown series, which wasn’t that great really, but it was still much better than the unaired pilot from 1981, that really was a shambles. At least there were no ferrets in the studio. We should be grateful that Channel 4 saw the potential in the idea when they needed a daytime game show for their launch schedule. vlcsnap-00796

The contributors felt that the secret of the show’s success is simply that it is so easy to play along with at home, everyone likes to try and outperform the contestants. There was also the appeal of Richard’s terrible puns, and various other things like the way that some words rather unusually seem to turn up rather frequently, so if you meet a Countdown fan, shout “LEOTARDS” at them, they’ll know what you mean. vlcsnap-00792

Although there have been a few more special documentaries about Countdown, I am fairly sure that this is the last one that was made to celebrate an anniversary. But for the 5,000th edition in 2010 Des Lynam appeared, making him the only one to have completed the hat-trick of being the host of Countdown (from 2005-2006), a contestant (on the celebrity version in 1998), and a Dictionary Corner guest (although only for this edition). vlcsnap-00804

This special was shown shortly before Countdown was extended to 45 minutes, and it’s clear why many people consider the show to be an institution, and it is remarkable how much it has changed over the past 35 years. Deal Or No Deal is the only other UK game show that has passed the 3,000 edition landmark, but Countdown is now not far off its 7,000th edition. It looks like the end could still be a long time away.

Game Show Memories – Countdown Supreme Championship.

Countdown Supreme Championship (Channel 4, 1996)

Here is yet another interesting Countdown variation. In 1996 the 33rd series of Countdown was also the Supreme Championship. This was where the best contestants from over the years, mostly series champions and runners-up going all the way back to the first series in 1982 competed against one another to determine who really was the best of them all.

The contestants were put into seven groups, with the group winner advancing to the quarter-finals, and the eighth place was taken by the winner of the most recent Champion Of Champions tournament. When the climax of the series finally came, the two finalists were Allan Saldanha and Harvey Freeman, who were widely regarded to be the two best contestants at that point in Countdown‘s history. vlcsnap-00669

This meant that although host Richard Whiteley always insisted that Countdown was never anything more than a daytime game show, when the standard is this high the gameplay will be a delight to watch. Carol Vorderman was the co-host as usual and Nigel Rees was in Dictionary Corner, but it would be tough to keep up with these two talented contestants. vlcsnap-00666

Countdown is also a show not known for its big prizes, but there was a specially commissioned trophy on offer for the winner, along with a trip to Paris to see an edition of the original French version of the show being made. As this was a final, this was a 45-minute edition which featured 14 rounds, including two conundrums, and the studio audience was filled with the other contestants who took part throughout the series, and Richard might just take the opportunity to ask if they are keeping with the finalists. 

Would this be a game worth watching? Well in round one Harvey finds the nine-letter word CREOSOTED to take an 18-0 lead straight away. After same fairly easy numbers rounds, Harvey maintains his lead going into the first conundrum. Surprisingly, neither contestant can guess that the word is SPEEDBOAT. Maybe they should watch Bullseye more often. vlcsnap-00668

After the break, Harvey manages to solve some slightly more difficult numbers games, and he has extended his lead to 30 points, but there would be no more nine-letter words on offer though. Allan has managed to reduce Harvey’s lead to 13 points by the time of the second conundrum which is the final round. Allan solves the conundrum which is the rather appropriate SUPERSTAR, but it isn’t enough, and Harvey (who also won series 10) wins the final 82-79. vlcsnap-00674

Harvey is then presented with the main trophy by the chairman of Channel 4 Sir Michael Bishop (runner-up Allan received a smaller one) to much applause in a final that definitely did live up to its promise. In more recent years there was a similar series to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Countdown where again lots of series champions took part and the gameplay was of a very high standard. vlcsnap-00672

Game Show Memories – Countdown 2000.

Countdown 2000 (Channel 4, 1997)

Having looked back at many variations of the classic Channel 4 game show Countdown… it’s time to review yet another one. In 1997 Countdown had been going for 15 years and celebrated reaching its 2,000th edition with a special show (although it is now not far off its 7,000th edition, and by some distance it holds the record for the most editions of a UK game show, with over twice as many as the show in second place which I’m fairly sure is Channel 4’s Deal Or No Deal with 3,001).

Countdown 2000 came from the Greenwood Theatre in London in front of a live studio audience and was hosted by Fifteen-To-One‘s William G Stewart (who also hosted the 1997 Christmas special). This edition was a little like This Is Your Life as Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman were joined on stage by various celebrities and fans who shared their memories of the show (coincidentally, Richard and Carol were both subjects on BBC1’s This Is Your Life in 1997, the year of this show). vlcsnap-00632

Highlights included a look at the Calendar Countdown series that was shown on ITV only in the Yorkshire region in 1982 (which evolved from the 1981 unaired pilot that I also reviewed recently) which led to the show being picked up Channel 4, some memories of the earliest series where along with Carol, Richard had so many co-hosts it almost came across more like The Price Is Right (Carol didn’t become the sole co-host until 1989), and also some of the most famous Dictionary Corner dwellers including Gyles Brandreth and his jumpers. vlcsnap-00633

There was also a look back at some of the most successful contestants and the famous parody on BBC2’s A Bit Of Fry And Laurie. The show ended with Denis Norden (of ITV’s It’ll Be Alright On The Night fame) taking a look back at some of the best cock-ups on the show, including the time when Richard accidentally called the 1,500th edition “the 15,000th”, said that the next series coming in 1996 would be “in 1966”, and when he almost fell asleep during a numbers game. vlcsnap-00631

This was an enjoyable edition which really did show how fondly thought-of this long-running game show is, although a lot has changed in the 20+ years since, and there is still plenty to explore. When Countdown reached its 3,000th edition in 2001, there was another special made looking back at the history of the show called 3000 And Counting and I might review that soon too. vlcsnap-00635

The YouTube Files – Countdown unaired pilot.

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. vlcsnap-00551

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. vlcsnap-00547

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! vlcsnap-00550

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. vlcsnap-00548

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. vlcsnap-00549

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.

Game Show Memories – Countdown Grand Final.

Time for a look at another variation on the Countdown format, and this time it’s the grand final, the showpiece event that concludes every series where the overall winner would be found. The final had a slightly different format to a regular edition throughout the 80s and 90s. Firstly, it was the only edition of the series that was 45 minutes long before every edition was extended to this length in September 2001, and also it featured 14 rounds instead of nine.

Here’s how the knockout stages worked. Contestants could play up to eight games before they have to retire undefeated. The eight best performing contestants would then return at the end of the series to play in the quarter-finals. They would also be seeded on how well they performed, with the winners going into the semi-final, and then those winners going into the grand final. vlcsnap-00833

This was always a big occasion, and another change for the grand final format would be that there would always be two celebrities taking part in dictionary corner alongside the lexicographer, but from about 1997 it was just the regular one. The 14 rounds would consist of eight letters games, four numbers games, and two conundrums, as the 7th and final rounds. Usually, the conundrum was only the final round, and in many grand finals whoever got these right would turn out to be crucial, especially when it was a close-scoring game. vlcsnap-00837

There have been a few other special Countdown tournaments over the years which featured a knockout format that concluded with an extended grand final. These included the Champion Of Champions series, where about every four series the finalists from previous series come back to play one another again to determine who has been the best player over the past year or two. There have also been special tournaments that were held to celebrate the 15th and 30th anniversaries of Countdown, when players from all eras of the show returned to compete against one another, and the standard in these games was very high. vlcsnap-00842

Another thing that should be noted were the prizes that were on offer. It’s well known that the overall series winner receives the complete leather-bound Oxford English Dictionary, but various other prizes are also on offer, such as cash prizes, computers, and also a special trophy. Everyone who makes the quarter-final stage also receives a small trophy, and in the Champion of Champions series prizes such as bowls have been on offer. Countdown has now been running for 75 series and anybody who becomes the overall champion in any variation of the show has definitely achieved something great and it should be considered an honour. vlcsnap-00846