Richard Whiteley has died. Now that might not mean much to you, Gentle Readers, but it gives me a chance for a bit of a Puff Piece, such as been sadly lacking round these parts. In addition to being the answer to a terrific trivia question (who was the first person shown on a Channel 4 broadcast), Mr. Whitely personified (to YHB at any rate) one of the facets of English television that I like so much.
Countdown was forty-five minutes (with one commercial interruption, if I remember correctly) of minor manipulation of letters and numbers. There were two games: a letters game and a numbers game. In the letters game, one contestant asks for either a consonant or a vowel, which is flipped off a stack and put onto a board, then ask for another, then another, and so on until nine letters have turned up. Then there’s thirty seconds of music and scribbling, after which the two contestants reveal the longest word they made from those letters, usually seven or eight letters, usually two or three letters longer than the longest word I found. Then we go to the panel, two people, one of whom is actually a lexicographer, who may have come up with a longer word, or may not have, depending. They do this three or four times in a row. Seriously. Just “May I have a consonant, please? A vowel? A consonant? Another consonant. A vowel, please. Another consonant, a vowel, a consonant and a final consonant please.” Then a comment or two, thirty seconds of music, then “What did your come up with, then, Jim?” “A six, Richard.” “Ah, and how about you, Sarah?” “A seven, actually.” “Excellent, well, let’s start with Richard.” And so on. Three or four times in a row.
Then, for a break, they do a numbers game. The contestant picks numbers, again off two stacks. This time, there’s a stack of small numbers and a stack of large ones (25, 50, 75 and 100), the contestant gets six of them. Then there’s a random three digit number revealed, which is the target number. The contestants have thirty seconds (with the theme playing, of course) to combine their six numbers using the four basic functions to get as close as they can to the target number. So, for instance, if the numbers are 3, 6, 4, 2, 25 and 50 and the target number is 742, you could do, um, [(6+4)(25+50)] - 4 - 3 for 743, right? I never ever ever ever get these. In thirty seconds, I usually can’t get within thirty, much less within five. The contestants always are within five, and often hit the button. Anyway, they see who gets closest, and then (I’d forgotten about this) the girl who flips over the letter part comes up with a better way, and then back to the letters game.
They do the letters game eleven times, and the numbers game three times, and there’s a tiebreaker nine-letter anagram that goes to the first one to get it. That’s it. It’s a simple, difficult game, and they get contestants that are very good at it. And they play it over and over again.
And this is the clever bit—they don’t fuck it up. They just bring on the contestants, play the game, bring on more contestants, play the game again, come back tomorrow and we’ll play it again. They didn’t make it easier, or harder, they didn’t add a third game, they didn’t make it more visual, or double the money. Actually, I can’t remember them talking about prize money at all. I suppose there must be prize money involved, but I have no idea if it’s in the thousands or if it’s twenty quid and coach fare. All they do is play the game.
And, you know, if you don’t like it, there are three other channels.
As for YHB, well, if it were on tv here, I suspect I would not only arrange my afternoon so I could watch it (or else invest in some of that new-fangled automated recording technology) but stop everything else and sit with a pad of paper scribbling and humming the music.
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,