In my opinion, Countdown has become part of British culture since its inception in 1982. Just about everybody who's ever watched TV has seen or at least heard of Countdown, and many will have played along from the safety of their living rooms. In 1990 and 1992, I applied for a place on the show and reached audition stage, but failed to get through both times - at that point I had given up hope of ever getting a place.
In the ensuing years, I would watch occasionally and play along, and usually do ok against the majority of contestants, but generally fall over against the better players. I was always somewhat in awe of the prodigiously clever youngsters that would come along with an extraordinary vocabulary and a ridiculous ability to spot mysterious words.
In late 2014, I happened to come in early from work one afternoon to find Anthony watching Countdown and joined him on the sofa. After a couple of rounds of out-scoring the contestants, we got talking about my failed attempts to qualify, which ended up with me filing a new application. Two weeks later, I had an audition which was now over the phone rather than face to face... this was significantly less nerve racking, and words and numbers came much easier to me - in fact, barring one round, I maxed the audition which led to an invitation to appear!
I was told I would be going to Salford in around 6 weeks to record - it later turned out to be over 3 months to wait. Whilst this was disappointing at the time, it turned out to do me a huge favour with loads of extra time to learn, rehearse, and practise. I joined up with Apterous, an on-line gaming site that follows the Countdown format, and is frequented by many past champions, and contains a membership made up mostly of avid Countdown aficionados. Several hours per week on Apterous, coupled with closely following the TV game and I was as well prepared for my recording as I ever could be.
The applicants pack arrived in the post, and much to the amusement of Katharine and myself, I had to familiarise myself with a number of contestant requirements, including never asking for numbers by saying "Can I get...", rather it has to be "Can I have..."; not allowed to say "please" after each letter selection, only after the first and last letters; ensuring correct pronunciation of "consonant". There were others which I can't recall now, but these 'rules' were mandated due to viewer complaints! Some people clearly don't have enough in life to worry about if they spend their daytime afternoons judging TV contestants by their use of language and grammar and taking the trouble to complain having been offended by innocent errors.
With further rules around what shirts could and couldn't be worn, I had to start digging through the wardrobe for shirts that weren't pale colours and were without stripes, checks, patterns, or logos - that was a challenge!
The pack also included filming dates - I would get to play three games (if I survived) on 11th March, and a further five on 23rd March if I were able to sustain a run. If I were to make finals, they would be filmed on 24th and 25th March. This was a problem as I was due to take Rebecca to Glasgow for an International Para Swimming meet on the 25th, ready for a 7am start on the 26th. If by some fluke, I were to make the finals, I would be stuck. I had two choices - pull out and ask for a later filming date in the next series, or go ahead with the proposed dates and take the risk of making finals. I chose to be realistic - there was no chance of me making finals, and I really didn't want to wait any longer, so agreed to go ahead.
So March 11th arrived - it was a Wednesday morning that followed a sleepless Tuesday night, and I needed to be at the studios in Salford by 09:30. Full of fear of the morning commuter jams through the roadworks on the M6, 5am was the departure time (commonly known as ohmygoditsearly o'clock). Clearly nobody was commuting that day, and I arrived in Manchester before 7am and had two hours to kill. Subway do nice breakfast subs.
Sat in reception from 8.30, and chatting with the other new contestants - the nerves were coming on strong, particularly when the reigning champ (David Pooley) arrived and was so cool and confident. Meet and greet at 9.30, and taken to the green room - an observation at that point... the green room was actually green in most aspects. Quick coffee, and confirmation of the stuff Nick would be talking to me about, then off to make up.
I was to be entering the fray for the third show of the day, with five shows filmed in total throughout the day. The contestants for the first two shows hit the make up chair first, and were both done and dusted (literally) in less than two minutes.... my powdering took a little longer for some reason.
Now I discovered the benefit of playing the third game of the day rather than the first - I got to sit in the audience for the first two games and gain some experience of the atmosphere and of the proceedings in general. Nerves were killing me at this point, and were made worse by the fact that I played against the players in those two games, and came nowhere near their scores - this did not feel like it was going well at all. I was looking at letters and numbers from the audience seat, and I may as well have been trying to decipher ancient Martian.
Games one and two came and went and game three was up next, and I was called for final prep. Gulp!
More to follow............