Countdown. Thrills me to bits, with its hundreds of letters. Well, 26. There's a few VCRs of Countdown recordings I still have somewhere, and there's a photo album, featuring a photo of myself and the similarly-aged son of a friend of my father's (blimey, what a mouthful) watching a Richard Whiteley Countdown in 2004. I followed Countdown religiously when I was young. We'd done our own job of creating a homemade letters stack (easier said than done) and then I saved up and bought a proper board game from Hamley's in London. £20 was a lot in 2005 for a six-year-old!
When Richard Whiteley died I apparently balled my eyes out (I was only 6!!). Des Lynam took over, and apart from his monotonous voice, the only thing I remember about him was that he always seemed to be very quick to start the clock, too much so, he'd punched the button before he'd finished saying "start the clock!". This gave rise to a lasting memory of Carol Vorderman reading out viewers' criticisms ("Digital Des", "Lightning Lynam"). Series 54, Conor Travers' series, I was hooked (Conor Travers was just awesome) and the Championship of Champions in 2006 that followed was fantastic. Apparently I shed a tear or two when Conor was knocked out of that (sorry, Paul!). I didn't watch Series 55 through to the very end of Series 61 (and I don't remember why I gave it up).
In December 2009, I'm channel-hopping with a friend of friend when I see the clock and it all comes flooding back. It turns out to be the third half of the epic Innis Carson/Chris Davies semi final, and Innis pulls away with SOLENOID, before Chris aces a numbers game and unscrambles EPITUSSLE on 25 seconds. I was hooked again.
During Series 62 in 2010, I combined the internet and Countdown - and that's when I discovered the various websites out there. In late 2010, I even tagged along to a meeting of contestants and fans to play Countdown. I finished stone dead last. I did this again the following year at the same location. I was getting CAT whilst they were getting CATACLYSM. At this stage, the wonderful Jeff Stelling left the show, to be replaced with Nick Hewer. I didn't take to Nick at first, but he grew on me by 2013. Just as well, as 2013 was the 30th Birthday Championship. The final was fantastic. The first "ambulance" in history, three nines in a row, and the joint highest ever score... from Conor Travers. December 2013 gave us the Series 69 finals, with Dylan Taylor taking on Callum Todd in the final, with Todd prevailing on a tie-break conundrum. That was very good.
I filled out the form as soon as I could. My 16th birthday meant I was now eligible to appear on Countdown (due to some annoying regulations). A life ambition for me, although perhaps not as good as some of the players in and around my ability. I send the form off in September 2014.
Fast forward to November and I get a phone audition. I spotted ESSENTIAL in one of the rounds and that pretty much cracked it. It takes the team four months to give me a date, and then I get 37 pages of notes in the post, looking for that date... there it is. Sunday 19 April 2015.
I don't remember much about the train journey up there except for me struggling with modern technology, trying to listen to Blackpool vs the mighty Fulham, then trying to watch qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix on 3G. There was a hotel laid on for us by Channel 4 and my father and I got there in time to watch Adam Federici make the costly error that dumped Reading out of the FA Cup. I can't remember the rest of Saturday very well.
The schedule for Sunday was an odd one. I was show one but that wasn't until 12:30 anyway. So a big breakfast (something I don't usually have) and I was up to the studios.
My first opponent was the carryover champion from Series 72, James Judge, having been stopped by the finals, and this was the very first programme of the new series. The wonderful Colin Murray was in Dictionary Corner, and he came in to make-up and spoke to us all before going down.
I remember make-up quite well. Once James, myself, and the players for shows two and three had turned up for the "morning" session, we were all taken upstairs by Lucy, whose job title I can't remember. A young man informed us that "Rachel's been shopping", and I saw Rachel eyeing up the brilliant (and the not-so-brilliant) dresses on the rack. Anyway, I ended up conversing for a while in make-up with Susie Dent. She's very different off-camera. It strikes me that she still looks nervous on camera 23 years after her debut, as she was very talkative backstage (and indeed, when the cameras weren't recording on the set).
So after being pampered (thinking "this won't stay on"), James and I finally got into the studio. We sat down, and in what proved to be a recurring theme, the floor manager tried (and failed) to mic me up. Finally, we got underway. I refused myself SOUPIER early on and although it made no difference at the time, by round four James had spotted FANCIEST to take the lead, before I struck back with MUTATED in round five. I then mistranscribed my solution to Round 6 (I wanted to say 100 + 50 + 9, but forgot the + 9), meaning I again trailed by 8. James got another eight onto his lead and I felt resigned, trailing by 16. I refused myself OUTRANGE in round eight as James also had seven. But in round nine I hit back with an exact solution. It was 49 - 43 going into the third half and I was the 43. Things got worse thereafter, when I had CAPITAS and PACIEST written down. I went for CAPITAS. PACIEST was in and CAPITAS wasn't. The gap was 13 with five to go. I then took six off that with TANNOY, before we both got sixes in rounds 12 and 13. 7 gap, 2 to go. I then managed to get one away on a 4 large so difficult Rachel couldn't get it... James was eight away. So it was 68 and 68 going into the conundrum. BOLDPAPER came up. The clock ran out and DROPPABLE was revealed. Difficult. Filming was stopped for a second conundrum, at which point I said to Colin that "we could be here all night!!" Conundrum #2. HONEYPLOX. Again, no answers. XYLOPHONE the solution. Susie then pointed out that OXYPHENOL was also a solution, so here we go again for conundrum #2 #2. GADWINNER. I immediately saw REWARDING, before spotting the extra N. I buzzed on 4 seconds to say "WANDERING" - and I made it. I still feel very sorry for James. He played very, very, well, and I was lucky to win in all honesty.
But for program two I was up against one of those people who was doing the game show circuit, Michael Stokes. He'd been on 15 to 1 in 2014 (as had James Judge in the William G Stewart era), so immediately I was nervous. Nick dubbed this "performers' edition", as I had sung Dead Or Alive whilst Michael had appeared on stage with Diana Ross. But I always think the key to this game is to get a lead early on. And I did so, memorably declaring GONADS in round one (prompting Nick to ask Susie if she had any GONADS in the corner). We tied rounds two and three and so I led 22 - 16 going into the break. Golden gonads was doing the trick for me. We tied round four, but a horrible set in round five allowed me to get FINER whilst Michael could only get RAIN. I then hit the numbers game on the head, giving me a 21-point advantage at what I consider to be the halfway stage (although it technically isn't). Round 7 was two 7s, before Michael played PLANING in round eight whilst I stuck with PLAIN (although Rachel misspelt this on the board as PLANE), but Michael had used a phantom N, so this gave me a bigger advantage. We then both got the third numbers, and then I made the biggest mistake of all: Michael declared four in round 10, I had a six and a seven. Feeling a little complacent with a 26-point lead, I went for the invalid COZIEST. We then tied the next two letters rounds before I pulled out another seven in the last letters game with IMPALED. I then hit the numbers game on the head, giving me a chance to get 100, something I've not done online often. I couldn't see the answer to LONGTULIP, mind you, and it finished 92 - 63.
My third opponent was one amazing woman who's lived a full-on life. There is so much she has done it would easily be a post in itself. Maxine Jones was, amazingly, 60. She looked very good for 60. In round one, I spotted OUTLINES to take an eight-point lead, before we both hit a seven in round two and got the numbers game in round three. 25 - 17. I pulled out another seven in round four, and although we couldn't get past five in round five, I hit the numbers in round six splendidly, to lead by 25 points. I then extended my lead further in round seven, but Maxine struck back with HAREMS in round eight. I then hit round nine on the nose and I had a 36-point lead going into part three. We tied rounds 10 and 11, before Maxine, trailing by 36 with four to go, gambled on SONDAGE, but this was disallowed, and I now had a 42-point lead with three to go. I then took my foot off the gas a little, and missed the darrenic seven in round 13, did something completely stupid in round 14 (if you're going to declare not written down, make sure you can remember your method), and missed MULTICONS (which Rachel got). Maxes in those three rounds would have given me 108, but as it was I only got 81. Maxine got 53, but I think she deserved more than that, the scoreline didn't fully tell the story.
The next two contestants arrived at the studios and I was immediately worried as one was a university student and one looked serious and focused. I fell behind to the University student, Abby Fawkes, early on, when she found CRAWLED in round two. I managed to get two away on the numbers game to draw level. But in round four I fell behind again when Abby declared POLITE and to add insult to injury, my five was disallowed. Meanwhile, DC suffered from PENILE dysfunction. My plight got worse in round seven when I had PAILED disallowed, giving me a 12-point deficit. I declared LAUNDER in round eight to get this back to five, before we both failed to get the target on round nine, and I pointed out to Rachel that Nick read out the same clue to Teaser #2 as Teaser #1. I wrote this piece before transmission, so I don't know how they rectified this. [Ed - it turns out they didn't] But in round 10 all thoughts of double teasers were behind me now, and I spotted RADIOS whilst STAIRS was disallowed as Abby had spotted a phantom S, giving me a one-point lead. I then hit the darrenic seven before round 12 produced one of the crappiest letters selections in the history of Countdown. Abby had a 3. I had a 4. DC had eight. No, literally, they had EIGHT for five. I was now 12 ahead but not 100% home and dry yet. I pulled out further in round 13, and with 19 points the gap Abby picked two large on the final numbers game. I got it and she didn't, giving me a 29-point cushion. On the conundrum I could hear Colin scribbling away frantically on my right, knowing that he'd probably got it. The scramble was BLEAKRAJI and I could see JAIL-, but I rather stupidly was looking at the -ER route so declared JAILBAKER on 26 seconds. Abby hit the buzzer on 29.75 and declared JAILBREAK. I was annoyed with myself (although I didn't say this on camera when asked!). The final score was 78 - 59.
Opponent five looked difficult. Olly Hall had a beard (which automatically makes men look 100% more serious). I fell 10 points behind early on when I missed an easy numbers game, but closed this down in round four - even though I refused myself DOSAGES, I declared a six when Olly declared five. SOAKED was my word. We then tied every round up until round eight, when I took the lead by virtue of having PUNNET versus the invalid PINCE. In round nine I got the numbers game with four away (and during the break, Rachel, Colin, and I were all trying to crack 807 without success). With my appalling conundrum record (17% at that point) then I knew 9 points wouldn't be enough of a lead, and so by spotting AIRPORT at the very last second in round 12, I pulled out to 16. I then achieved my second ambition on Countdown (to get a "very, very good" and a "he knows his Countdown words" from Susie) when I declared ATOMISER. During a filming break, Susie asked me about the invalid nine MORTALISE, as she thought it was in (but was promptly disappointed). I replied that I knew it wasn't in as I'd seen it come up before and be disallowed. Conundrum cock-up #2 followed, when I really should have got RESPONDED, but stuck the R and E in the wrong place and rang in with SPONDERED... Olly did something similar and rang in with DESPONDER, before an audience member (who ended up starting a fan club for me afterwards, even stalking me when I went for dinner) answered with RESPONDED. End of day one and I was the returning champion.
At the time, I was glad to get to the overnight halt. Poor Nick looked absolutely knackered at this point. But I just couldn't sleep during the night and I felt even more nervous when I returned. In a sense, you're most nervous for show one, but when you start picking wins up, you lose nerves. But when you start getting a lot of wins, you end up knowing there's a finals place at stake.
I went to the green room on day two to meet the next three contestants: a serious quizzer, an apterite, and one very shy man. Beat these three and I'll be an octochamp. Show six would be against an Irishman, Pat Lonegan, the "Brain Of Kildare", which sounded ominous.
Now, I was 110% sure that ELATIONS was in, so much so that I was fishing for it; missing OUTLINES (which I had played yesterday) completely. I immediately went seven behind, and in round two I struck back with the darrenic TADPOLE, before a stupidly easy numbers game gave Pat and I 17 each into the break. I refused myself INROAD in round four, keeping the game deadlocked, before falling behind when Pat had PALLID to my POLLS. Another easy numbers game, and I started to panic. But in round seven I thought I'd get the lead back when I spotted QUIETER... only for Pat to say "ESQUIRE" and keep his six-point lead. I then missed the niner TRAPEZIUM in round eight. Thankfully, so did Pat, and everyone in the studio in the next break had to inform Nick what one was, much to Rachel's dismay. Then I picked four large on the numbers, and was so engrossed in finding 832 via the 937.5 rule that I'd completely missed the easy way to 831. I was now 13 behind. We tied round 10 before I missed ANCHOR in round 11 and I was now 19 behind, probably chasing a lost cause. But spotting ATTAINS in round 12 got the gap back to 12... we tied round 13... come on... please deliver a hard one, CECIL... Oh. We got to 536 two different ways but that was that. I had my hopes up during the clock as Pat was still scribbling away, only for him to put his pen down on 20 seconds. I knew he'd got it. He then solved VENUSCOLD to win 76 - 98.
I stayed behind to watch Pat play the next show against apterite Rob Maxwell and take a few snaps with Rachel and Nick (but not Joe "Macclederry", as Nick would say). Then I had to run off to catch the train back to London, and all of a sudden my life was back to normal.
At the time of writing, I don't know if I'm going to be in the finals or not. It's very difficult to guess, certainly. Are 5 wins and 494 points going to be enough? I'm now hoping that we don't get lots of 6+ winners (although Jonathan Wynn and Thomas Carey, two apterites I know, might fancy their chances). I don't know how the rest of that day's filming went, so we'll see.