Novelist. Author of APSARAS and tales from the beautiful Saigh Valley. First person to quantify spiritual values.

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Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Countdown Champion

I IMAGINE that many of the readers of The watch or have at some time watched
Countdown, the Channel 4 numbers and letters game. Have you ever thought what it would be like to attend a filming or actually take part in a contest? Watching Countdown was a part
of my day when we had Steventon House Hotel. The end of the programme signalled the start of the evening’s work as new guests began to check in for the night. Like many people, in the comfort and stress free atmosphere of one’s own sitting room, I thought I was quite good and decided to apply. Whether it was because of the large numbers applying, I don’t know, but it was some time before I had a reply and an invitation to attend a preliminary meeting at a north Oxford hotel with Damian Eadie, a one time contestant and producer of the show. With about a
dozen other applicants, I undertook several of the thirty second tests with numbers and letters and did sufficiently well to be invited on the show to be broadcast on 8th and 9th July 1999.
The filming of the five shows that make up one week’s viewing is done in the afternoon and
evening of one day; three shows in the afternoon and two in the evening.The shows are filmed in
front of a live audience which is changed before the evening filming. About midday, after driving up to Leeds from Abingdon in the morning,
I made myself known to the reception desk at the entrance to the Yorkshire TV studios. After a
while a production assistant came to take me to the studios, explaining what was happening as we
went. I was to be in either the second or third game of the afternoon, depending on how well, the reigning champion Scott Mearns performed.
As I sat amongst the audience, watching what went on and becoming acclimatized to proceedings, it was clear that Mearns was in top form, easily despatching his first two opponents. This meant that he had become an eight times winner; an octochamp and had to retire. Scott Mearns was later to win the champion of
champions competetion; a formidable player, indeed. This turned out to be a stroke of luck for me as I had to face another newcomer rather than Scott and almost certain defeat. My opponent
was to be Andy Conner, a man who admitted to me later, who didn’t enjoy the experience as
much as he should because he was too tense. There was little time to meet the Countdown team
before the filming, but the show was compered by Richard (Twice nightly) Whitely with Carol
Vorderman on the numbers board. In dictionary corner was Damian Eadie and the guest for the week was comedian and script writer, Barry Cryer. I started well and was soon a few points in the lead, a position I held until the advert break. In those days the show only lasted thirty minutes and comprised of three letter games and one numbers game each half. In the second
half, Andy pegged me back and the result of the game depended on the final ‘Countdown
Conundrum’. After about twenty seconds I blurted out the answer and pushed my button simultaneously. Fortunately it was correct and I’d won. There was now a break whilst the afternoon audience left and the evening audience arrived in their coaches. It was a well rehearsed operation as you might expect from a programme that had been going strong since 1982. I had hoped that I would have a chance to talk to Carol and Richard but it wasn’t to be. They were preoccupied by a visit of another television presenter, Gaby Roslin, who was
making a programme about ‘Countdown’. If I was disappointed not to talk to the main presenters, I was thrilled with the friendliness of the guest, Barry Cryer, a man who is as funny in life as he is on screen. He couldn’t have been nicer and more charming, giving his time to the contestants and generally making us feel a valued part of the show.
As the new champion and tea pot winner, I met my next opponent, Kay Powick in the make up room. To my eternal shame I thought, as we spoke, that I would easily beat her and looked forward to the contest. In the end, it was I
who was easily beaten. I don’t know whether it was because,
having won my tea pot, nothing else mattered or whether I was anxious to return home, but I think, in truth, Kay was simply better than I. If I had a six letter word, she had a seven and so on and by the end of the game I was thoroughly
deflated and put in my place. Kay went on to win another five times; a first class champion.
I should just say a thing or two about the filming. Before the show started I remember that Carol came in front of the audience and did a stint as ‘warm up man’, talking
about her new borne child. The crowd loved her and it balanced the surprise I had by how little she actually did to earn her money during the show. Of course, she has
to often solve a difficult mathematical puzzle but apart from putting the letters and numbers on the board, there is little else to do as she has an assistant to clear the board afterwards. To make a thirty minute show,
the film taken was later edited, but there were very few retakes and those we did were mostly due to the faux pas of Richard Whiteley, a charming man who one could sense was much loved by the production team. Since the finish at the studio was late, I stayed in Leeds overnight and travelled home very early next morning, returning with my precious teapot, in time to serve breakfast at the hotel.

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Kevill Davies is author of ‘Apsaras’. Available at most on line book shops.

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