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Countdown (1982-)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Countdown (1982-)
Yorkshire Television for Channel 4, tx. 2/11/1982 - present
30 mins (45 mins from 2001), colour
ProducersJohn Meade
 Mark Nyman
 Michael Wylie
 Damian Eadie
MusicAlan Hawkshaw

Presenters: Richard Whiteley, Carol Vorderman, Desmond Lynam, Des O'Connor, Jeff Stelling, Rachel Riley

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Working against the Countdown clock, two contestants play a series of word and number games.

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At 4.45pm on Tuesday November 2nd, 1982, Channel 4 launched its first broadcast, an edition of the teatime quiz show Countdown. Few watching at the time would have predicted that it would become Channel 4's longest-running programme, the general consensus being that an old-fashioned gameshow was hardly appropriate for a supposedly cutting-edge channel dedicated to experiment and innovation.

But this was a major part of its ramshackle charm. Richard Whiteley, who fronted the show from the launch until his sudden death in 2005 was the opposite of a smooth, slick television presenter. Perpetually cheerful, sporting a bewilderingly varied wardrobe of colourful jackets and ties, and with a fondness for groan-making puns, he was also renowned for putting nervous contestants at their ease. His best-known co-presenter, Carol Vorderman began as the programme's resident maths expert before becoming co-presenter in her own right.

Countdown's rules are simple: two players compete to display their verbal and mathematical agility, whether it's composing the longest possible word from a random selection of letters or attempting to reach a target number using only the supplied digits and basic mathematical functions. They get thirty seconds per round, accompanied by a large clock and Alan Hawkshaw's famous countdown music. The admissibility of the words is judged by the programme's resident lexicographer, who in later years used a 'pen-cam' to highlight entries in the actual dictionary. Each episode concludes with the 'Countdown Conundrum', a nine-letter anagram that's often used as a tie-breaker.

It began life as Calendar Countdown, a lightweight summer filler that formed part of Yorkshire Television's Calendar magazine programme (for which Whiteley also read the news). Based on a French gameshow, Des chiffres et des lettres ('Of Letters and Numbers') and broadcast over five weeks between April and May 1982, it might well have been axed for good were it not for the fact that Channel 4 was looking for a daytime quiz show. Simple to grasp and cheap to make, it was initially commissioned for seven weeks (screening four times a week), but has remained a fixture ever since.

After Whiteley's death, Countdown was presented by Desmond Lynam, who was succeeded eighteen months later by Des O'Connor, with Vorderman remaining as co-presenter. The only show not hosted by Whiteley during his lifetime was a 1997 Christmas special fronted by veteran TV quiz-show host William G. Stewart, on which Whiteley and Vorderman were contestants.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Introduction and rules (2:44)
2. OCEETSPUG (2:06)
3. Food for thought (0:47)
4. 833 (2:30)
Complete first programme - Part 1 (13:58)
Part 2 (10:23)
Title sequence (0:22)
Lynam, Desmond (1942-)
Channel 4 at 25
Game and Quiz Shows