The Channel 4 show “Countdown” was, famously, the channel’s first programme when it launched in 1982. It has been broadcast almost every weekday afternoon since then, well over half of my life. There have been various times in the last 30 years when I have been able to watch it live but until recently I had not seen it for many years.
It’s now repeated at 6am and lately I have taken to watching repeats first thing in the morning. I head downstairs before anyone else has stirred and switch on the TV so that I can check the local traffic news on BBC Breakfast just before 6.30am. Either side of that I take a look at the repeat of “Countdown” from the previous day. It includes the few minutes when Susie Dent discusses the origin of words. She is the only member of the team left from when I last watched the show regularly, many years ago, when the children were babies.
Before we had children there were a few years when my working hours alternated between 7am-3pm and 10am-6pm. On those weeks with an earlier start I would often watch the show live when I got home (and frequently dozed off while doing so). Back then it started at 4.30pm and lasted 30 minutes. As with many successful shows the format and start-time have changed. I see that it now starts at 2.10pm and lasts 50 minutes, including commercial breaks. Both of these changes have contributed to me being unable to watch it live. If it were still shown at 4.30pm there would be odd times when I could watch it after the school run but even then 50 minutes in front of the TV on a bright spring evening would feel like too much of an indulgence.
Another factor that took “Countdown” out of my viewing habits was the change in personnel. It was, unsurprisingly, never the same after its original host Richard Whiteley died in 2005. Desmond Lynam took over and did a good job, and that was the last time that I saw it more than once or twice a month.
On the day my daughter was born in 2006 we were able to watch the show in the delivery room in the later stages of my wife’s labour. “Deal or no deal” immediately followed “Countdown” in those days, and we watched that too. Less than an hour after it finished my daughter popped out. I see that “Deal or no Deal” is no longer on Channel 4. Its demise, in December 2016, passed me by.
Des Lynam was followed by Des O’Connor as host of “Countdown” and then Jeff Stelling took over. Co-host Carol Vorderman was replaced by Rachel Riley (in January 2009 – I had to look that up) but by then we hardly ever watched the show and I missed the news that Nick Hewer replaced Jeff Stelling as host in January 2012.
The first time I saw him on the show, and the first time I caught one of the early morning repeats, was during a holiday in Ireland in the summer of 2014. I woke before 6am, having gone to bed early the night before, and switched on BBC News while eating my breakfast. We were warned, before they screened footage of civilians being gassed in Syria, that “some viewers may find the following scenes upsetting”. They were right. I was one of those viewers and switched channel, landing on “Countdown” and its new host. I was out of practice with both the letters and the numbers. In the 1990s I could usually match most of the contestants, regularly making 7- and 8-letter words and even the odd 9-letter word (gestation was one that I was especially pleased with). Over the last month I have been able to match the contestants with the number rounds but am frequently behind them on the word rounds, managing only a 6-letter word where they can make use of 7 or even 8 of the letters. There haven’t yet been any occurrences of the old “Countdown” favourites “leotard”, “moonset” or “moonrise” but if I carry on watching there probably will be.