The Countdown to the end

With Des O’Connor and Carol Vorderman departing, the end is nigh for Channel 4’s words and numbers quiz.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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Du-du, du-du, du-du-du-duhh, BONG.

With Des O’Connor and Carol Vorderman both announcing this week that they are leaving the show, it’s time to ask: is Channel 4’s afternoon quiz programme Countdown finished? Alas, I fear it is.

For people unfamiliar with this show, and people outside the UK, Countdown is a letters and numbers game that has been going since 1982. It was based on the French TV show Des Chiffres et Des Lettres (literally, ‘numbers and letters’) and as its core element has co-hostess Carol Vorderman selecting nine random letters from which the two contestants must compete against each other to make the longest word.

In between the word games are two number rounds, where six numbers selected by one of the contestants must be added, subtracted, multiplied and divided to get as close as possible to another, randomly selected number. This is the bit where Cambridge graduate Vorderman really comes into her own, showing us all how it’s done when contestants and viewers alike fail the test.

Countdown has always been regarded as somewhat unfashionable. It has been derided as a programme for lazy – and probably hungover or stoned – students, for pedantic and bored librarians and schoolteachers taking their late afternoon break, and for middle-aged Daily Mail readers who regard crosswords and Sudoku as the highest form of intellectual endeavour. No wonder it was parodied so brilliantly by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie:

Fry and Laurie’s Countdown spoof

I’ve always been a fan of Countdown. Any show that encourages literacy and numeracy – and above all, pedantry, a much and often unfairly maligned quality – is a force for good. With so many quiz shows based on luck or sheer malice these days – Deal or No Deal or Golden Balls, for example – I think it healthy to have a programme that actually involves using your intellect.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Countdown has really recovered since the unexpected death of its first anchorman, Richard Whiteley, in 2005. Sure, his first replacement Des Lynam was cool, smooth and cerebral. But I always felt that his heart wasn’t in it. The fact he left because he couldn’t be bothered to go to Leeds every week, where Countdown is filmed, speaks volumes. His successor, Des O’Connor, has been equally genial, but you always got the feeling that he wanted to be somewhere else. Whiteley was a bit chummy, naff and smarmy, but at least you knew he cared about the game.

Giles Brandreth has been touted by some as the potential successor to O’Connor, and I think this would be an excellent choice. This former Tory MP is much funnier and sharper than most people realise. In one episode, the two contestants both come up with the answer ‘wankers’. A bemused Whiteley turns to Brandreth to ask for the definition, prompting Brandreth to ask him if he really needed to know what the meaning of ‘a wanker’ was:

The ‘wankers’ out-take

This is one of the most brilliant out-takes from a TV show ever, and some of Countdown’s other out-takes provide similar levels of hilarity. Vorderman has also given us ammunition for ‘erection’ (1), ‘poof’ (2) and inspired a parody skit for a word that’s even too rude for me to mention (3).

Yes, I know bad language is mostly very silly, and is used too frequently these days which, in turn, devalues it. But like Roger’s ‘Profanisaurus’ section in Viz magazine (4), Countdown has inadvertently shown us the beauty, variety and most of all the versatility of the English language. Rude words can be amusing, but mostly in the weirdest of situations. Just read Chaucer and Shakespeare to find out.

It would be a shame if Countdown was killed off now. But I can’t see who’s going to take Vorderman’s place. Des O’Connor will be easy to replace: Brandreth or even the likes of Phil Jupitus, Johnny Vegas, Richard Madeley and Rick Wakeman could do it. I wouldn’t be surprised if William Hague or Jerry Springer (always looking for work in the UK now) became the Countdown main-man. Jesus, I would even place money on Giles Coren, a man with an impressive pedigree for pedantry (5).

But there’s no-one brainy enough to fill the shoes of Vorderman. Maybe ‘dictionary corner’s’ tasty Susie Dent will have a go, but I suspect words, not numbers, are her forte. The only other TV person with a mind for numbers is Channel 4’s racing tipster John McCririck, but I think he’s too busy constantly insulting his female co-host with sexist remarks, while tipping all of Aidan O’Brien’s horses, to get involved in Countdown.

So I would bet, as McCririck might say, that Countdown is now a non-runner. Or doubtful. I wouldn’t even place an each-way wager on it surviving. It’s altogether a pity, as the programme not only taught layabout, stoner students how to spell and do the math, but it also showed us how to use swear words cleverly. And it also gave us that classic Viz letters page joke: ‘I got aroused by watching Carol Vorderman on Countdown. Not bad for seven letters.’

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

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(1) See Youtube clip here.

(2) See Youtube clip here.

(3) See Youtube clip here.

(4) See Viz magazine here.

(5) ‘I have never ended on an unstressed syllable’, Guardian, 25 July 2008

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