Countdown is a British game show involving word and number puzzles. It is produced by ITV Studios and broadcast on Channel 4. It is currently presented by Nick Hewer, assisted by Rachel Riley, with regular lexicographer Susie Dent. It was the first programme to be aired on Channel 4, and 78 series have been broadcast since its debut on 2 November 1982. With over 7,000 episodes, Countdown is one of the longest-running game shows in the world, along with the original French version, Des chiffres et des lettres (Numbers & Letters), which has been running on French television continuously since 1965. Countdown was initially recorded at The Leeds Studiosfor 27 years, before moving to Manchester-based Granada Studios in 2009. Following the development of MediaCityUK, Countdown moved again in 2013 to the new purpose build studios at Dock10, Greater Manchester.
The programme was presented by Richard Whiteley for over 20 years, until his sudden death in June 2005. It was then presented by Des Lynam until the end of 2006, Des O’Connor until the end of 2008, and Jeff Stelling until the end of 2011; Nick Hewer has presented the show since 2012. Carol Vorderman, the show’s co-host, who had also been on the programme since it began, left the show in December 2008, at the same time as Des O’Connor. She was replaced by Rachel Riley. Cathy Hytner originally placed letters on the board for the letters games before this was taken over by Vorderman.
A celebrity guest features in every programme, and provides a brief interlude midway between the two advertisement breaks. The two contestants in each episode compete in three disciplines: ten letters rounds, in which the contestants attempt to make the longest word possible from nine randomly chosen letters; four numbers rounds, in which the contestants must use arithmetic to reach a random target number from six other numbers; and the conundrum, a buzzer round in which the contestants compete to solve a nine-letter anagram. During the series heats, the winning contestant returns the next day until they either lose or retire with eight wins as an undefeated “Octochamp.” The best eight contestants are invited back for the series finals, which are decided in 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.
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 was to be a spin-off of their regional news programme Calendar. As the presenter of Calendar, Richard Whiteley was the natural choice to present Calendar Countdown with his daily appearances on both shows earning him the nickname “Twice Nightly”. These shows were only broadcast in the Yorkshire area.
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.
Channel 4 originally planned a parallel Junior Countdown in which the contestants were children. The pilot episode was filmed on 26 November 1982, less than a month after the first adult version was broadcast. The presenter was Gyles Brandreth, with Ted Moult in Dictionary Corner. The format mirrored that of the adult version.
No further episodes were filmed, and the pilot episode was never broadcast. Brandreth, speaking on Countdown in November 2012, stated that the concept had proved disastrous, and was abandoned.
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 talent as a mathematician. Gradually the tasks performed by the extra presenters were taken over by Carol Vorderman, whose role within the show essentially became that of co-presenter.
Whiteley fell ill with septicaemia in 2005, and as a result he was no longer able to record Countdown. Although Whiteley made a slow recovery from his illness, he died on 26 June 2005, after a failed operation to correct a problem that had been detected in his heart. Channel 4 took the following show off the air as a mark of respect, and the next programme was preceded by a tearful tribute from Carol Vorderman. The final five shows Whiteley had filmed (the conclusion of Series 53) were aired, after which the show was placed on hiatus before returning in October 2005, with Des Lynam (who had featured on Celebrity Countdown in 1998) as the main presenter. On 30 September 2006, Lynam said 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 (400 km) 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’s final show as Countdown presenter was broadcast on 22 December 2006. O’Connor first presented Countdown on 2 January 2007.
The other studio mainstay is Dictionary Corner, which houses a lexicographer and that week’s celebrity guest (referred to as “GoD” or “Guardian of the Dictionaries”). Initially farmer and broadcaster Ted Moult was on hand for verification. The role of the lexicographer is to verify the words offered by the contestants and point out any longer or otherwise interesting words available. The lexicographer is aided in finding these words by the show’s producers, Michael Wylie (until his death in November 2008) and Damian Eadie. The production team is insistent that no computer program is used in this role, and that the words suggested in Dictionary Corner have been found manually.
Many lexicographers have appeared over the years, but since her debut in 1992, Susie Dent has become synonymous with the role, and has made over three thousand appearances, becoming the permanent lexicographer in 2003. The celebrity guest, sometimes known as the “Dictionary Dweller”, also contributes words, and provides a short interlude halfway through the second section of the show. These guests have included Nigel Rees, Jo Brand, Martin Jarvis, Richard Digance, Geoffrey Durham, Ken Bruce, Magnus Magnusson, Pam Ayres, Paul Zenon and John Sergeant, and, most regularly, Gyles Brandreth, providing poems, anecdotes, puzzles and magic tricks. Alison Heard replaced Susie Dent over the winter of 2007–08, whilst Dent was on maternity leave. Dent returned to the series on 6 February 2008.
It was announced in July 2008 that Des O’Connor would be stepping down as host in December 2008. In the same month, Carol Vorderman announced that she would also leave the show at the same time.
On 21 November 2008, Jeff Stelling was confirmed as the new host, with Oxford graduate Rachel Riley in the Vorderman role. It was announced on 24 May 2011 that Stelling would be leaving the programme, and he presented his final show on 16 December 2011.
On 16 November 2011, it was announced that Nick Hewer would be taking over as host, with his first show broadcast on 9 January 2012.
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, homemakers and pensioners, owing 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. When Des Lynam became the new presenter after Whiteley’s death in 2005, the show regularly drew an average 1.7 million viewers every day—which was around half a million more than in the last few years of Richard Whiteley presenting and the Series 54 final, on 26 May 2006, attracted 2.5 million viewers. From 3–4 million viewers had watched the show daily in its previous 16:15 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. Minor scheduling changes have subsequently seen the show move from 15:15 to 15:30, to 15:45 to 15:25, and 15:10. As of 2018, it is broadcast at 14:10.