Countdown

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Countdown: A TV institution since 1982.
Countdown is a British game show presented by Nick Hewer and Rachel Riley, and the subject of this wiki. It was the first programme aired on Channel 4, and over sixty series have been broadcast since its debut on 2 November 1982. With over 6,000 episodes, it is one of the longest-running game shows in the world.

The programme was presented by Richard Whiteley for over twenty years, until his death in 2005. His position was taken over by Des Lynam, who retired from the show on 22 December 2006 and was replaced by Des O'Connor on 2 January 2007. O'Connor and co-presenter Carol Vorderman left the show in December 2008 at the end of Series 59. Jeff Stelling and Rachel Riley made their debuts on 12 January 2009, the start of Championship of Champions XIII. Current host Nick Hewer took over from Stelling for the start of Series 66 on 9 January 2012.

The two contestants in each episode compete in three disciplines: ten letters rounds, in which the contestants attempt to make the longest word from nine randomly chosen letters; four numbers rounds, in which the contestants must use arithmetic to make a random target number from six other numbers; and the conundrum, a buzzer round in which the contestants try to be first to solve a nine-letter anagram. During the series heats, the winning contestant returns the next day until he or she has accumulated eight wins. The best contestants are invited back for the series finals, which are decided in single-knockout format. Contestants of exceptional skill have received national media coverage, and the programme as a whole is widely recognised and parodied within British culture.

Contents

History

Origins

Countdown is based on the French game show Des chiffres et des lettres (Numbers and Letters), created by Armand Jammot. The format was brought to Britain by Marcel Stellman, a Belgian record executive, who had watched the French show and believed it could be popular overseas. Yorkshire Television purchased the format and commissioned a series of eight shows under the title Calendar Countdown, which were to be part of their regional news programme Calendar. As the presenter of Calendar, Richard Whiteley was the natural choice to present Calendar Countdown - his daily appearances on both shows earned him the nickname "Twice Nightly". These shows were only broadcast in the Yorkshire area.

Richard "Twice Nightly" Whiteley
An additional pilot episode was made, with a refined format, although it was never broadcast. A new British television channel, Channel 4, was due to launch in November 1982, and bought the newly-renamed Countdown on the strength of this additional episode. Countdown was the first programme to be broadcast on the new channel.
As the countdown to a brand new channel ends, a brand new Countdown begins.
— Richard Whiteley introducing the first Channel 4 episode of Countdown.

Presenters

Calendar Countdown was presented by Richard Whiteley, with Cathy Hytner and Denise McFarland-Cruickshanks managing the numbers and letters rounds respectively. When Countdown was commissioned for Channel 4 the number of hostesses expanded further: Cathy Hytner and Beverley Isherwood selected the letters and numbers tiles respectively, and calculations in the numbers rounds were checked by Linda Barrett or Carol Vorderman. Vorderman, a Cambridge graduate and member of MENSA, was appointed as one of the numbers experts after responding to an advertisement in a national newspaper which asked for a young woman who would like to become a game show hostess; unlike almost any other game show hostess of the time, however, the advertisement also made it clear that the applicants' appearance would be less important than their being a talented mathematician.

A promotional image of Whiteley's successor Des Lynam with co-host Carol Vorderman.

Gradually the tasks performed by the extra presenters were taken over by Carol Vorderman, whose role within the show became essentially that of co-presenter. The show was briefly taken off air following Whiteley's death in June 2005, but reappeared in October 2005 with Des Lynam as presenter. On 30 September 2006, Lynam admitted that he had decided to leave the programme after Christmas 2006. Lynam's departure was due to travel requirements for the demanding filming schedule, with the show recorded in Leeds and Lynam living 250 miles away in Worthing, West Sussex. Channel 4 had tried an extra programme on Saturday in early 2006 which Lynam had agreed to, subject to part of the filming schedule being moved nearer to his home. However, viewers reacted angrily to the idea of the show leaving Leeds and, when Lynam found out that a move would cause considerable disruption for many of the programme's camera crew, he decided to leave. On 7 November 2006, it was announced that Des O'Connor would succeed Lynam as host. Lynam presented his final episode of Countdown on 22 December 2006. On 23 July 2008, O'Connor announced that he would be leaving the show at the end of the year, and two days later Vorderman also announced her departure. On 21 November, the new team were announced as Jeff Stelling and Rachel Riley, with Susie Dent remaining as the show's lexicographer. The pair made their debut on 12 January 2009, with Nick Hewer taking over as host from 9 January 2012.

Diagram of the Countdown studio between 2003 and 2008, illustrating the position of:
1 - Carol Vorderman;
2 - Susie Dent;
3 - the celebrity guest;
4 - the champion;
5 - the challenger;
6 - the host

The other studio mainstay is Dictionary Corner, which houses a lexicographer and that week's celebrity guest. The role of the lexicographer is to verify the words offered by the contestants (see Letters round rules) and relay any longer or otherwise interesting words available. The lexicographer is aided in finding these words by the show's producers, currently Damian Eadie. Many lexicographers have appeared over the years, but since her debut in 1992, Susie Dent has become synonymous with the role, and has now made over a thousand appearances. The celebrity guest, sometimes known as the "Dictionary Dweller", also contributes words, and provides a short interlude at the end of the first section of the show. Dwellers have included Jo Brand, Martin Jarvis and Geoffrey Durham, contributing poems, anecdotes, puzzles and magic tricks. Current lexicographer Susie Dent presents a brief Origins of Words slot at the end of the second section of the show, explaining the etymology of words or phrases.

Character

Countdown quickly established cult status within British television — an image which it maintains today, despite numerous changes of rules and personnel. The programme's audience comprises mainly students, housewives and pensioners, due to the "teatime" broadcast slot and inclusive appeal of its format and presentation. Countdown has been one of Channel 4's most-watched programmes for over twenty years, but has never won a major television award. In its 3.30pm broadcast slot, the show drew about 1.7 million viewers every day — around half a million fewer than with Richard Whiteley presenting — and the Series 54 final, on 26 May 2006, attracted 2.5 million viewers. Up to 2 million viewers had watched the show daily in its previous 4.15pm slot. The drop in viewers following the scheduling change, coupled with the show's perceived educational benefits, even caused Labour MP Jonathan Shaw to table a motion in the UK Parliament, requesting that the show be returned to its later time. The broadcast time has since been moved further back to its current 3.10pm slot.

A Countdown teapot, the prize for any contestant who wins a game.

In keeping with the show's friendly nature, contestants compete not for the Countdown winner's teapot, which is custom-made and can only be obtained by winning a game on the programme. The prize for the series winner is a leather-bound copy of the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary, worth £4,000. However Series 31 winner David Acton refused this prize on account of his strict veganism, instead opting for a CD-ROM version of the dictionaries and donating the monetary difference to charity.

An overhead view of the current Countdown set.

Though the style and colour scheme of the set has changed many times, the clock has always provided the centrepiece and, like the clock music composed by Alan Hawkshaw, is an enduring and well-recognised feature of Countdown. Executive producer John Meade once commissioned Hawkshaw to revise the music for extra intensity; after hundreds of complaints from viewers, the old tune was reinstated.

Format

Countdown has occupied a tea-time broadcast slot since its inception. Currently an episode lasts around 45 minutes including advertising breaks. During the normal series, the winner of each game returns for the next day's show. If a player wins eight games, he is declared an "octochamp" and retires until the series finals. At the end of the series, the eight players with most wins (or the highest total score in the event of a tie) are invited back to compete in the series finals. They are seeded in a knockout tournament, with the first seed playing the eighth seed, the second playing the seventh, and so on. The winner of this knockout, which culminates in the Grand Final, becomes the series champion. Each series lasts around six months, comprising about 125 episodes.

Approximately every four series, a Championship of Champions tournament takes place. For this, sixteen of the best players to have appeared since the previous Championship are invited back for another knockout tournament. The producer, former contestant Damian Eadie, decides which players to include, but typically the tournament includes the series winners and other note-worthy contestants. Series 33 was designated a "Supreme Championship", in which 56 of the best contestants from all the previous series returned for another knockout tournament. Series 10 champion Harvey Freeman was declared Supreme Champion after beating Allan Saldanha in the final. A 30th Birthday Championship is set to be broadcast in early 2013, with 41 notable former contestants competing in a knockout tournament. There are also occasional special episodes, in which past contestants return for themed matches. For example, David Acton and Kenneth Michie returned for a rematch of their Series 31 final, while brothers and former contestants Sanjay and Sandeep Mazumder played off against each other on 20 December 2004.

The game is split into three sections, separated by advertising breaks. The first two sections each contain four letters rounds and a numbers round, while the last section has three letters rounds, a numbers round and a final "Conundrum". At the end of the first two sections, the host poses an anagram with a cryptic clue for the viewers at home, called the Teatime Teaser - the solution is revealed at the start of the next section. When the Teatime Teaser was first introduced, the anagrams were seven letters long, but have since been extended to eight.

The format was changed in 2013, when one letters game was replaced with a numbers game, so the three sections are now; two letters rounds and a numbers game in the first, followed by two more lots of two letters rounds and a numbers round with the Dictionary Corner guest section inbetween, then the last part has two letters rounds, Susie Dent's Origins of Words section, two more letters rounds, followed by a numbers round, then the conundrum.

Letters round

Letter tiles are arranged face-down into two piles; one all consonants, the other vowels. The contestant chooses a pile, and Rachel Riley reveals the top tile from that pile and places it on the board. A selection of nine tiles is generated in this way, and must contain at least three vowels and four consonants. Then, the clock is started and both contestants have thirty seconds to come up with the longest word they can make from the available letters. Each letter may be used only as often as it appears in the selection. The frequencies of the letters within each pile are weighted according to their frequency in natural English, in the same manner as for Scrabble. For example, there are many Ns and Rs in the consonant pile, but only one Q.

Contestants write down the words they have found during the round, in case they have the same one. After the thirty seconds is up, the players declare the length of their chosen word, with the player who selected the letters declaring first. If either player has not written their word down in time, he or she must declare this also. The words are then revealed. If either player has not written their word down, that word is revealed first - otherwise, the shorter word is shown first. Only the contestant with the longer word scores points; both score in the event of a tie. One point is scored per letter, except for nine-lettered words, which score eighteen points. If a contestant offers an invalid word then they score no points, if the second player reveals the same word as the first, this must be proved by showing the word to their opponent. Finally, Dictionary Corner reveals the best word they could find from the selection, aided by the production team.

Any word which appears in the Oxford Dictionary of English is allowable, as well as some inflections. Standard inflections of nouns and verbs - for example, escapes, escaped and escaping - are accepted though not explicitly stated in the dictionary. Comparative and superlative forms of monosyllabic adjectives - for example, greater and greatest - are valid although these too are not explicitly stated. For longer adjectives, the inflections must be stated explicitly. However, some words given in the dictionary are not permitted: proper nouns (Kurdistan), hyphenated words (re-embark), some plurals of mass noun (mankinds), and words that occur only in combination - for example, folic is invalid as it is used only in folic acid. Also, only British spelling is permitted - American spellings and inflections, such as flavor and signaled, are invalid.

Example:
Contestant One chooses five consonants, then three vowels, then another consonant.
Selection is:
G Y H D N O E U R.
Contestant One declares 7, while Contestant Two declares 8.
Contestant One reveals younger, but Contestant Two has hydrogen and scores eight points. Contestant One receives no points for this round.
Dictionary Corner note greyhound, which would have scored eighteen points, as a nine letter word.

Numbers round

One contestant selects six of twenty-four shuffled tiles. The tiles are arranged into two groups: four "large numbers" (25, 50, 75 and 100) and the remainder "small numbers", which comprise two each of the numbers 1 to 10. The contestant dictates how many large numbers are in the selection; anywhere from none to all four. A random three-digit target is generated by an electronic machine, affectionately known as "CECIL" (which stands for Countdown Electronic Calculator In Leeds). The contestants then have thirty seconds to get as near to the target as possible by combining the six numbers selected with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Numbers can be used as many times as they appear in the selection, and need not all be used. Decimals and fractions are not allowed - only integers may be used at any stage of the calculation.

Points are awarded for the closest solution, and again both contestants score if the solutions are equally close. 10 points are given for an exact answer, 7 points for a non-exact solution up to 5 from the target, and 5 points for a solution between 6 and 10 from the target. If neither contestant can get within 10, no points are awarded.

Example:
Contestant One requests two large numbers and four small numbers.
Selection is:
75, 50, 2, 3, 8, 7.
Randomly generated target is:
812.
Contestant One declares 813, while Contestant Two declares 815.
Contestant One is closer and so reveals: 75 + 50 - 8 = 117. 117 × 7 - (3 × 2) = 813, which scores seven points.
Rachel Riley notes: 50 + 8 = 58. 7 × 2 × 58 = 812, which would have scored ten points.

For some games, there are many ways to reach the target exactly. However not all games are solvable, and for some selections it is impossible even to get within 10. There is a tactical element in selecting how many large numbers to include. One large and five small numbers is the most popular selection, despite two large numbers giving the best chance of the game being solvable exactly. Selections with zero or four large numbers are generally considered the hardest.

Conundrum

The final round of the game is the "Countdown Conundrum". A board revolves to reveal the "conundrum" - a nine-lettered anagram, usually arranged into the form of two condensed words (see example). The contestants have thirty seconds to find the word. The first contestant to buzz with the correct answer is awarded ten points, but each contestant may guess only once. Once a contestant guesses correctly or the time expires, a second board rotates to reveal the answer. Each conundrum is designed to have only one solution but if, unintentionally, the conundrum has two answers (e.g. CARTHORSE and ORCHESTRA) then either is accepted.

A "crucial Countdown conundrum" occurs if, before the conundrum, the leading contestant is ahead by ten points or fewer. The studio lights are dimmed and the first contestant to answer correctly wins the game. If the scores are level after the conundrum, additional conundrums are used until the match is decided.

Example:
Conundrum is revealed:
C H I N A L U N G.
Contestant One buzzes, and says LAUNCHING, which scores 10 points.
Example 2:
Contestant Two is leading by 81 points to 71, so it is a crucial conundrum. Conundrum is revealed:
A P E X J O U S T.
Contestant One buzzes, and says JUXTAPOSE, which scores 10 points. Scores are now tied 81 to 81, so a second conundrum is needed to break the tie. Second conundrum is revealed:
A N G L E H O A X.
Contestant One buzzes, and says HEXAGONAL, which scores 10 points. Contestant One wins 91 to 81.

Evolution

The rules of Countdown are derived from those of Des chiffres et des lettres. Perhaps the biggest difference is the length of the round; DCedL's rounds are each 45 seconds long to Countdown's 30. Also, DCedL has a standard letters round as its final round, so there is no analogue to Countdown's Conundrum finale. However DCedL has an alternative two rounds, called "duels", in which players compete to solve a mental arithmetic problem, extract two themed words, or spell a rare word. Other minor discrepancies include a different numbers scoring system (9 points for an exact solution, or 6 points for the closest inexact solution in DCedL) and the proportion of letters to numbers rounds (11 to 3 in Countdown, 8 to 4 in DCedL).

The pilot episode followed significantly different rules to the current ones. Most noticeably, only eight letters were selected for each letters round. If two contestants offered a word of the same length, or an equally close solution to a numbers game, then only the contestant who made the selection for that round was awarded points. Also, only five points were given for an exact numbers solution, three for a solution within 5, and one point for the closer solution, no matter how far away.

Until the end of Series 21, if the two contestants had equal scores after the first conundrum, the match was considered a draw and they both returned for the next show.

A significant change in the format occurred in September 2001, when the show was expanded from nine rounds and 30 minutes to the current fifteen rounds and 45 minutes. The older format was split into two halves, each having three letters and one numbers game, with the conundrum at the end of the second half. When the format was expanded to fifteen rounds, Richard Whiteley jokingly continued to refer to the three segments of the show as "halves". Under the old format, Grand Finals were specially extended shows of fourteen rounds, but now all shows follow the same format.

The rules regarding which words are permitted have changed with time. American spelling was allowed in early shows, and more unspecified inflections were assumed to be valid.

Notable contestants

Since Countdown's debut in 1982, there have been over 6,000 televised games and 72 complete series. There have also been thirteen Champion of Champions tournaments, with the most recent in January 2009 and a fourteenth planned for 2016.

Several of Countdown's most successful contestants have received national media coverage. Teenager Julian Fell set a record score of 146 in December 2002. More recently, fourteen-year-old Conor Travers became the youngest series champion in the show's history, gaining wide newspaper interest. At eight years old, Tanmay Dixit was one of the youngest players ever to appear on the show when he achieved two wins in March 2005. He also received press attention for his offerings in the letters round, which included fannies and farted. More recently, Kai Laddiman became the second youngest player ever to win all 8 games, at just 11 years old. Later that year, he reached the semi-finals of the series losing to #1 seed Charlie Reams in a close game, all before his 12th birthday.

In 1998, sixteen celebrities were invited to play Celebrity Countdown, a series of eight games broadcast every Thursday evening over the course of eight weeks. The celebrities included Whiteley's successor Des Lynam, who defeated Siân Lloyd. The highest and lowest scores were posted in the same game when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall defeated Jilly Goolden 47-9.

Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman competed in another special episode on Christmas Day 1997. For this game, the presenter's chair was taken by William G. Stewart, the host of fellow Channel 4 game show Fifteen To One. Susie Dent took over Vorderman's duties, and Mark Nyman occupied Dictionary Corner. The game was close-fought, and decided only by the crucial Countdown conundrum MISTLETOE which Vorderman solved in two seconds.

Celebrities including footballer Matt Le Tissier have also appeared on the show

In popular culture

The letters of the infamous round in which both contestants declared wankers.

Countdown is often referenced and parodied in British culture. In the 2002 film About a Boy, protagonist Will Freeman is a regular viewer of Countdown. The programme is mentioned in an episode of British sitcom Father Ted entitled The Old Grey Whistle Theft, Still Game (in the episode Kill Wullie) and is also referenced in the very first episode of Little Britain from 2003. BBC impression sketch show, Dead Ringers, parodies Countdown numerous times, and another television programme, the Big Breakfast, parodied Countdown in a feature called "Countdown Under". Comedy show A Bit of Fry and Laurie further lampooned Countdown in a sketch entitled Countdown to Hell. Fry played Richard Whiteley, while Gyles Brandreth got the word sloblock — an anagram of bollocks.

Countdown has also generated a number of popular outtakes, with the letters producing the occasional word that was deemed unsuitable for the original broadcast. A round in which Dictionary Corner offered the word gobshite featured in TV's Finest Failures in 2001, and in one episode, contestants Gino Corr and Lawrence Pearse both declared the word wankers. This was edited out of the programme but has since appeared on many outtakes shows. Other incidents with only marginally rude words have made it into the programme as they appeared, such as those with Tanmay Dixit referred to above, and a clip from a 2001 episode in which the word fart appeared on the letters board, which also featured on 100 Greatest TV Moments from Hell.

When Carol Vorderman first appeared on Have I Got News for You in 2004, one of the usual rounds was substituted for a conundrum round based on the week's news.

The Doctor Who episode The Long Game (2005) mentions a futuristic version of Countdown, in which the goal is to stop a bomb from exploding in 30 seconds. It is also mentioned in Last of the Time Lords (2007) whereupon Professor Docherty complains over faulty television sets, "Oh, I miss Countdown. Never been the same since Des took over. Both Deses. What's the plural of Des?"

Richard Whiteley was the victim of a practical joke while presenting the show. The contestants and rounds had been planted as part of a "Gotcha!", a regular prank feature on light entertainment show Noel's House Party. Whiteley did not uncover the joke until House Party presenter Noel Edmonds appeared on the set at the end of the programme.

On 4 July 2010, The IT Crowd showed Moss on Countdown and the selection produced TNETENNBA, of which Moss got TNETENNBA.

Often on BBC Radio 5 on a Friday evening, celebrities have to answer football questions against the Countdown clock.

See also

External links

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