From Shaun Ryder’s ban for swearing live on TFI Friday and the much-criticised Brass Eye, to unapologetically airing genitalia close-ups in Naked Attraction and broadcasting a live autopsy, Channel 4 has always been known for pushing boundaries.
But when it started back in November 1982 the channel launch was a rather more wholesome affair, with Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman debuting on Countdown – the simple letters and numbers game still going strong 40 years later, proving you don’t always need controversy to make a TV hit.
Loved by pensioners and students alike, the afternoon staple finished its 40th year with its 86th finale just before Christmas, and begins 2023 with a new Champion Of Champions series.
While quizzes such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and The Chase bring the drama, Countdown is comfort TV; the timeslots and presenters have changed over the years but it is always there with a teatime teaser, gentle humour, and a treasure trove of word knowledge from long-time resident lexicographer Susie Dent – or “that woman in Dictionary Corner” as she is known to her million-plus Twitter followers.
Ahmed Mohamed, who became the first ever black Countdown champion when he won the 84th series in 2021, and Tom Stevenson, who triumphed in the latest series just a few days ago – after setting the record for the programme’s highest ever score of 154 during his heats – will both take part in the upcoming Champion Of Champions series.
Throughout his entire run in his heats, Tom remained unbeaten in every single round – something that had never been achieved before.
“I was there to just have a good time, try and win the teapot and hopefully not to disgrace myself,” he says. “But Colin [Murray, the current presenter] was seriously invested.
“It got to the final game and there were a couple of occasions when my opponent declared a longer word than me, but it wasn’t in the dictionary. And then it got to the final conundrum, and I managed to solve it and Colin was very excited. You can see the clip on YouTube.”
During his time on the show, Tom also scored with the word “hornier” – not a rude one that had to be cut out, forever to live on in Countdown blooper memes, but one he was proud of nonetheless.
“I can assure you that nobody has let me forget the fact I declared that word on national television,” he says. “Forget about all the other achievements, that is definitely something that stuck with me as a result.”
Knowing your nines: Bolection and tepidaria
Ahmed, 28, also wowed during his time on the show. However, he freely admits his impressive ability at coming up with good words – and spelling them correctly – isn’t necessarily based on knowledge of meaning, but rather studying Countdown vocabulary.
In the opening round of his third show, Ahmed scored a nine-letter word, “bolection… something to do with architecture”, and says he was also proud to decipher a final conundrum as “tepidaria”. Just don’t expect him to have the definitions at his fingertips.
“Every time I declared a word that sounded a bit crazy, Anne [Robinson, host at the time] would ask me every time, like, what’s the meaning of that word? ‘I don’t know, Anne. I don’t know!'”
Anyone who loves the show will tell you the key to its success is its simplicity: spell the longest word possible from a mix of nine consonants and vowels; calculate a three-digit number from a mix of six small and large numbers using basic arithmetic. All followed by the conundrum, Countdown’s equivalent to the Gladiators travelator.
They will probably also credit its longevity to Whiteley being at the helm for so long.
Finalist Mark Nyman, who took part in the third series in 1983, says there was “a general feeling of family from the start”. After going on to be crowned the first ever Champion Of Champions in 1984, he later became a producer on the show and also appeared in Dictionary Corner himself in dozens of episodes.
‘He was like a god, really’
Initially, he says he was brought in as a programme associate, or a greeter, to meet contestants and help put them at ease the night before filming. “Have a couple of drinks and make them feel part of the Countdown experience,” he says. While it wouldn’t be the first show that comes to mind when it comes to raucous behind-the-scenes tales, he says “there were probably a few hungover contestants” playing back in the day.
Whiteley, the presenter who hosted until his death in 2005, was “the cog at the centre of it all”, says Mark, who was made a co-producer in the 1990s. “He appealed to the older demographic but also to students and younger ones as well, which is quite rare, to appeal across the board.
“That was because he was a bit of a bumbling oaf at times and the students loved to take the mickey out of him, but in a nice way. He was like a god, really. So welcoming. And once you’d earnt his respect, he would do anything for you.”
‘I just thought he was a bit cocky’
As a producer, Mark also interviewed potential contestants, deciding whether or not they were good enough for the show. He says he must have carried out about 15,000 in total and that a “few quite well known” people applied over the years, including The Chase quiz mastermind Mark “The Beast” Labbett.
It was a no from Nyman.
“He was really good at the numbers at the interview, but he was average on the letters. In borderline cases, I would go on personality and it wasn’t that I didn’t like him, I just thought he was a bit cocky. So I rejected him. But if there were borderline cases, I would always give them a second go… and he did try again and he got through the second time round.”
Countdown was never about picking people purely for “good telly”, bad contestants for cheap laughs, he says. It is 100% about ability. “It doesn’t matter if you get someone socially inept winning eight shows, people admire their brilliance… and they might say something stupid, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
With the next Champion Of Champions series set to air, Tom and Ahmed are getting ready to see themselves back on Channel 4 once again.
Both say the experience has been life-enhancing, for different reasons.
Tom, who suffered from agoraphobia as a teenager, says appearing on the show was something he pushed himself to do. “I nearly did drop out on one occasion, but it was something I could say to myself, it doesn’t matter how I do but I can say that I’ve done it, and it’s something that’s pushing me massively out of my comfort zone because I haven’t been on TV before.
“I was just hoping to win one episode. And even if I did end up losing that, as long as I felt I’d done myself justice then all was good by me. But it’s been an incredible experience. People have remarked that they think my confidence has gone up.”
Ahmed says he was proud to become the first black champion. “I was really happy about that. I live in Tottenham and it was going a bit viral – I was getting a lot of mates I haven’t talked to for years finding me online saying they’d heard about me on the news.”
The upcoming Countdown Champion Of Champions series begins in January