Before I start this story, I should say that a Countdown champion is just a contestant on the Channel 4 show who wins at least one game of Countdown. It shouldn’t be confused with a Countdown series champion, or, god forbid, the ultimate Countdown winner’s title of Champion of Champions.
I used to love Countdown when I was growing up. I was always decent at anagrams, and could play along with the telly. I could do the maths too, though I was never quite as good at it as the letters. And I loved the urgency and excitement of the conundrum, especially if the outcome of the game hinged on it.
After winning an episode of Channel 5’s Brainteaser in 2002, aged 22, I decided to apply to be a Countdown contestant. It was a long process that would see me becoming friends with the show’s legendary executive producer (and former Champion of Champions) Damian Eadie.
After I applied, Damian and I struck up a friendship. First we wrote letters to each other (his were addressed to me in Pinner, mine to him in Leeds); then we graduated to emails. Then I did my first audition, which took place at the Holiday Inn in Euston – and I failed! It was really tough. I remember getting the rejection letter and feeling so depressed.
But Dame (his preferred short form of Damian) encouraged me to give it another go, so I bought some little handheld electronic Countdown games (way too rudimentary for 2019 – now potential contestants presumably practise with state-of-the-art computer games) and practised for weeks. I actually started seeing the letters dancing behind my eyes when I closed them, and I couldn’t look at any writing (shop signs, street names, etc) without starting to rearrange the words into different combinations. It’s fair to say I was obsessed.
It all paid off though – I sailed through the next audition and won a place on the show!
My excitement was dampened when I arrived in Leeds and checked into the Holiday Inn, and discovered to my horror that my second opponent would be a 14-year-old boy, Chris. But first I would have to vanquish the previous champion Adrian, a middle-aged man with a moustache.
Arriving at the Yorkshire Television studios, I discovered that everyone on the show was absolutely lovely, from Damian and production assistant Charlotte to Carol Vorderman and Richard Whiteley. I particularly loved Richard – he was just so goodnatured and warmhearted and enthusiastic, even after more than two decades hosting the show. Carol was kind and friendly too, and offered me a Haribo. I thought about joking ‘No thanks, I’m on the Carol Vorderman Detox Diet!’
We took our places behind the desks, and were given a pad of paper and a pen for working out the anagrams and numbers. The letters were also on a little screen embedded in our desks, in case we couldn’t see the big display. And before long, we were off! I remember my first opponent Adrian being very irritated with me for some reason, which might have had something to do with my defeating him 85-56 (sorry Adrian).
[I’m behind Carol; Chris is to my left; Paul is to his left; Adrian is in the stripy jumper.]
They pretend in the show that games are filmed on separate days, but this is only because the viewer will have had a day between watching games. As a champion, you have to go straight into the next game, pausing only to change your top. Being quite proud of my cleavage, I had brought along an array of revealing tops. I remember Susie Dent saying that I looked glamorous in them, and joking ‘I could never get away with that!’
[Me: ‘Hello television viewers, here are my boobs!’]
Next up was Chris Philpot, my schoolboy challenger from West Sussex. He and I both teased each other about knocking the other out of the game. If you’d like to read the quite entertaining summary of our episode, it’s here on the Countdown wiki – but the upshot was that I won 91-60 (unsurprisingly, given that I was nine years older). Chris was upset as he’d wanted the iconic Countdown teapot, but it’s only awarded to winners, so I gave him mine. (The Countdown wiki says I was altruistic; but to be honest, I’m heavily into interior design and it was an Art Deco monstrosity, so I was quite happy to let Chris have it!)
[The dreaded yet much-coveted teapot. Ugh!]
Finally, after two games, I met my match in teacher Paul Habershon. It was a very tough, low-scoring game, and I was eventually defeated 61-64 during the conundrum (my Kryptonite was always words that started with vowels; I just couldn’t ‘see’ them, and the conundrum was OFFICIOUS).
To my mind, the day was a success: I’d managed to beat a champion, avoid being beaten by a 14-year-old whizzkid (which would have been very embarrassing!) and only went out thanks to a -3 deficit. Plus I was immortalised in the Countdown wiki, and won a big set of dictionaries. Of course, I would have liked to achieve over 100 points in a game, and win eight games in a row and become an ‘Octochamp’, but oh well.
Here’s a short clip of 23-year-old me on the show with Chris, who memorably made the word ‘PUBIC’! Bonus points if you can work out what my six-letter word was:
After the show, wonderful Richard Whiteley signed my introductory cue card with ‘Remember me when you’re famous – I’m sure you will be!’ Tragically, he died only two years later. I was really upset when I heard the news. I don’t think any of the other presenters have come close to capturing that same boyish excitement and warmth he conveyed – it was so clear that he genuinely loved the programme.
Two amazing things happened as a result of my appearance on the programme – one was that I got to write for Countdown for three years, penning the poems and stories they read out at the start of the show. So I spent years writing poems like:
I’m sorry to say that your ties
Do terrible things to my eyes
It’s the colours, I think
With the purple and pink
Of the set – on the whole, most unwise
Overall Dick, you dress like a pro
With a sharp dapper suit for each show
But those things round your neck
Make me think ‘flipping heck,
‘Why did someone not say to him, “NO!”‘
After Richard Whiteley died, I was asked to go up to Leeds and be a fake contestant when they filmed three episodes of the show to audition Noel Edmonds, Des Lynam and Richard Digance as Richard’s replacement. Des Lynam won the part, and Carol Vorderman wanted to take over more of a presenting role, so I started writing poems and stories for both of them.
I remember writing a riddle about Des Lynam’s moustache for Carol Vorderman:
I’m pale white and very hairy
People find me hot but scary
I’m prickly but I know my place
I love to sit on Des Lynam’s face!
(Apparently Carol Vorderman refused to read it out!)
But the strangest, most bizarre thing that happened came from the fan mail I received. A singer called Chris Peck emailed me, saying he thought I was gorgeous. I was flattered, but received hundreds of emails after the show and never wrote back to him. Years later, we got in touch again via my ex-boyfriend who managed Shed Seven. Chris was in another indie band called Boy Kill Boy, and he told me he’d written a song called Suzie about me appearing on Countdown!
Suzie reached number 17 on the UK Top 40 in 2006. I listened to it, and sure enough, the chorus went ‘Countdown, Countdown, Countdown to the disappointment/I’m yours tonight.’ But the oddest thing was the video, which you can view on MTV here – it features a brunette woman walking with numbers falling all around her! Having a hit song (and video) written about me is one of the craziest things ever to happen to me (and trust me, there have been a few).
Here’s the audio for the song:
This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Peter Weilgony, Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Sammy and Jelly, Charlie Brooker, Mary and Tim Fowler, Steve Richards, Alan Brookland, Mark Ormandy, Oliver Vass, Keith Bell, John Fleming, Mark Bailey, Rebekah Bennetch, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Aragorn Strider, Lucy Spencer, Dave Nattriss, MusicalComedyGuide.com, Mark White, Dave Cross, Graham Nunn, David Conrad, Rob Turner, Shane Jarvis, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.