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Richard Whiteley

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For the Series 65 contestant, see Richard White.
Host
Richardwhiteley.jpg
First appearance 2 November 1982
Last appearance 1 July 2005
Appearances 4,107
Episodes with Richard Whiteley

John Richard Whiteley OBE, known as Richard Whiteley (28 December 1943 - 26 June 2005) was the presenter of Countdown from its inception in 1982 until his death in 2005. He was the first face on Channel 4 and, with over 10,000 television appearances, he accumulated more broadcast hours than anyone else in the history in British television. He began his career as a newsreader, before beginning to present Countdown in 1982 and leaving newsreading in 1995. Born during the Second World War to a mill owner, he would attend Giggleswick School between 1957 and 1962, before a career in television began after graduating from University in 1965.

As a newsreader, he had several major incidents that gained him national attention, but his most famous role was as the host of Countdown, hosting over 4,000 programmes (including specials, Masters, and Celebrity editions) and only missing one episode as host prior to his death, and that was when he played as a contestant. Whiteley died in 2005 and was succeeded by Des Lynam at the start of Series 54.

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Early life and education

Richard Whiteley was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, on 28 December 1943, to his father, Thomas Whiteley, and his mother, Margaret Whiteley. At an early age, he lived in Number 23, Ferncliffe Drive, in Baildon. In the early 1950s, he would do paper rounds in the local area, before the family moved to a house in the next street that the young Whiteley was already very keen on on account of its pond in the front garden. Whiteley would live at this house for many years and his parents lived in the house until the early 1990s, thus ensuring that until Whiteley managed to find a place of his own he would stay there into the early 1970s. His father, Thomas, was a businessman, who owned Thomas Whiteley & Co., a mill. The mill ran through three generations of the Whiteley family before being closed in 1963.

At the age of 13, Whiteley won a scholarship to Giggleswick School in Yorkshire in January 1957, his father having attended the school in the 1920s. Though not the most athletic student, claiming that he never touched the ball during an entire term's worth of rugby matches (36), he would often win prizes at the school's speech day and was an impassioned public speaker and debater. Whiteley's love affair with television was such that during sermons at school he would envisage the positioning of cameras for an outside broadcast should one ever occur from the Giggleswick chapel - an eventuality that eventually did happen, although Whiteley claims his advice on camera positioning was rejected. He was taught by Russell Harty and later acted in comedy sketches with him, before later inviting Harty on to Countdown. After leaving school and going to university, Whiteley later became a governor of the school, and upon his death Giggleswick built a theatre, costing £1.3m, which opened in late 2010. Gyles Brandreth described Giggleswick as being the single most important factor in Whiteley's life.

Whiteley read English at Christ's College, Cambridge, between 1962 and 1965.

Television Career

Calendar

Whiteley's interest in television began when he saw a BBC van on the top of Baildon Moor on the way back from primary school on a Saturday. Whiteley himself described it as a "defining moment" in a 2003 documentary in his life.

Whiteley spent three years at ITN before moving to YTV. Whiteley was initially offered £2,500 per year: this was much higher than Whiteley's expectations of around £1,850, and thus stunned him into silence. With his employer thinking that his silence was a rejection, Whiteley was then offered £2,600, which Whiteley accepted, joining in 1968. As a Calendar newsreader on YTV, Whiteley very rarely missed an edition, and although not one of the most well-known journalists in the country, had three major incidents which gained him national attention, the first of which was being bitten by a ferret in 1977, often repeated on out-take programmes.

He interviewed every Prime Minister between Harold Wilson and Tony Blair (the incumbent at the time of Whiteley's death), as well as Alec Douglas-Home after his election defeat, and his interview with Margaret Thatcher angered Thatcher's Conservative Party colleagues after he noted during the interview that her husband Denis was a divorcee, although Thatcher herself was not deeply offended. It was another incident involving Thatcher that gained him further national attention in October 1984, when the IRA attempted to assassinate Thatcher in Brighton and Whiteley, covering the Conservative Party Conference Thatcher was attending, was still awake at the time of the incident and was in the foyer of the hotel at the time of the blast. He was thus was the first person Thatcher spoke to after the bomb. Whiteley described it as the biggest story he was ever involved in.

In 1993, he achieved his third and final major news scoop when he broadcasted live from the site of Holbeck Hall Hotel, which was collapsing into the sea, and the dramatic moment of a chimney collapsing occurred whilst Whiteley was live on camera in Scarborough. Whiteley left Calendar in 1995, thus ending 13 years of moonlighting on Countdown and Calendar which earned him the nickname "twice nightly Whiteley". Whiteley claimed that a more accurate version of the innuendo would be "once yearly, nearly", and Kathryn Apanowicz described "twice nightly Whiteley" as an accurate comment on Whiteley's bladder.

Countdown

In the summer of 1982, Whiteley was asked to present another Calendar spin-off programme, having already done many spin-off shows for Calendar, called Calendar Countdown. After two pilots and a laborious eight episodes, the show was commissioned for the new Channel 4 and would also have the unusual distinction of being the very first programme to be broadcast. Initially featuring a cast of several others, by Series 18 the cast was whittled down to just Whiteley and Carol Vorderman and the show was given a relaunch with a new set, new titles, and new clock music, which, after some minor tweaks in 1991, would prove to be very successful as the programme became one of the most popular shows of the 1990s. His rapport with Vorderman was considered a major factor in the popularity of the show. One week of Countdown in the mid-1990s occupied the top five most-watched shows for Channel 4 for that week.

Whiteley was also known for garish outfits and brightly-coloured jackets and ties. One clothing-related incident fondly remembered by Vorderman on Piers Morgan's Life Stories occurred during the grand final of Series 46, whereupon Whiteley had been sent in a tie by a viewer with the word "C O U N T D O W N" on it, and, having decided to wear it for the Christmas Day final, the "D O W N" had disappeared underneath the desk whilst his microphone had covered the first "O", thus leaving a certain four-letter word.

His habit of appearing on out-take shows continued when on Countdown, with notable incidents including glossing over the word WANKERS, and noting that he did not want to appear on such shows with Kate Ogilvie's memorable declaration of ERECTION.

He appeared in every single edition of Countdown prior to his death, and all but one of these was as the host (the only one he didn't host was the Christmas special, where he was a contestant). In addition to 3,959 regular episodes of Countdown, he presented all the Calendar Countdown shows, all the Countdown Masters programmes, and all the special episodes, thus totalling over 4,000 appearances, currently third only to Susie Dent and Vorderman.

Other appearances

Due to his links with Countdown, he appeared on Star Spell in 2005, a programme that tested celebrities on spelling, which he won. He also presented the ITV Telethon for the Yorkshire region in 1988, and two chat shows in the late 1990s, the latter of which he was not informed about his guests beforehand. He also made guest appearances on Celebrity Fifteen to One, Top Gear, Have I Got News for You, and The Big Breakfast. Archive clips of Whiteley have been reused in several feature films, such as About a Boy in 2002 (showing a clip of Episode 2971) and, posthumously, Pride in 2014.

A TV documentary on his life, Richard Whiteley: Television Man was released in 2003, and rereleased with some minor changes in 2005. On 1 July 2005, the programme Mr Countdown: A Tribute to Richard Whiteley was shown on Channel 4.

Archive clips featuring Whiteley are occasionally reused on Countdown, most recently in June 2021, with a clip from Episode 549 of him introducing Anne Robinson.

Personal life and death

Whiteley married interior designer Candy Watson in June 1973. However, the marriage did not last very long, only about 15 months, which Whiteley felt unhappy about and only wore a black tie for the following year. He later had a long-term relationship with actress Kathryn Apanowicz, who survived Whiteley having been together for 11 years despite Apanowicz being 17 years younger than him. Despite this, Whiteley also admitted to having a affair with Angela Grant in 2003. He had a son with Lesley Ebbetts, James, born 1987. Whiteley was very close to his son, and they both enjoyed watching cricket together.

In the late 1990s to early 2000s, Whiteley claimed to be the mayor of Wetwang, an honorary town in Yorkshire that has no mayor. He borrowed chains of a local mayor, but after an incident where he claimed to "know how it feels" to be a mayor when saying goodbye to contestant Les Noble (whose brother-in-law was the mayor of Sunderland), he mentioned less of the term.

Whiteley's younger sister, Helen, died from liver cancer aged just 48 in the late 1990s, and shortly afterwards lost his father, his mother, and his niece, the latter of whom was just 28 years old.

He was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2004, with some speculating that he took the opportunity to ask the Queen whether or not she watched Countdown, as was rumoured.

In May 2005, Richard was taken ill with septicaemia, and died in hospital on 26 June after an unsuccessful heart operation. The scheduling for the finals week was changed at short notice following Whiteley's death. No edition was shown on 27 June, with the third and fourth quarter finals pushed back by a day. The two semi finals were then double-billed on 30 June, before Channel 4 cleared its afternoon schedule on 1 July, to show Richard Whiteley: Television Man at 2:30pm, followed by the grand final at 3:15pm, and Mr Countdown: A Tribute to Richard Whiteley at 4:00pm. At the time of his death, it was thought that he had accumulated more hours than anyone on British television (other than the BBC test card), with over 10,000 hours of broadcasting, more than 2,000 of which were on Countdown alone.

His death resulted in the show taking a four month hiatus with Des Lynam taking over, starting his run at the beginning of Series 54 in October 2005.

Whiteley left behind an estate of £4m in his will.

Spy claims

In 2017, Ricky Tomlinson claimed that Whiteley was a spy after presenting a programme that led to Tomlinson's conviction in 1973 for conspiracy to intimidate. Apanowicz described the claims as a "load of tripe", whilst Vorderman was not so brutish in her assessment but still cast doubt over it.

Other works

Whiteley wrote the book Letters Play! A Treasury of Words and Wordplay in 1995 (republished in 2000 as A Treasury of Words & Wordplay), and an autobiography, Himoff!: Memoirs of a TV Matinée Idle, and was posthumously the subject of a biography, Richard by Kathryn, by Apanowicz.

Episodes

# Date Type Contestant 1 Score Contestant 2 Guest Lex Max
CS1997 25/12/1997 X Richard Whiteley 30 – 43 Carol King Magnus Magnusson Mark Nyman 59

See also

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