The time I won £3,000 on Channel 5’s Brainteaser

In 2002, I came second in a BBC comedy scriptwriting competition. I was only 22 and took the runner-up prize with my very first script – which filled me with horror. I was a fraud! I had no idea how to write a script, and someone was bound to rumble me very, very soon.

Then a friend saw an MA in Scriptwriting advertised in the paper. It was at Goldsmiths College, University of London – a prestigious arts college. If I actually learned how to write scripts, I decided, maybe I wouldn’t feel so fraudulent. I submitted an application, initially got rejected, then finally accepted for sheer persistence after I metaphorically hammered on their door.

There was an ethnic minorities’ bursary for one student attached to the course, which would cover the £3,000 course fees. I told myself I’d most likely get it – after all, there were only 12 students on the whole course. The odds were good, right?

Unfortunately for me, the bursary went to the very talented Veronica McKenzie, the only other BAME student on the course.

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This meant I had to find £3,000 from somewhere. I was leafing through the Metro newspaper one day, and an advert jumped out at me: ARE YOU GOOD AT ANAGRAMS? DO YOU WANT TO WIN £3,000? Yes and yes!

The ad was for contestants for the Channel 5 show Brainteaser, which was produced by Endemol’s studios in Oxford. After a short telephone interview, I was given a date to appear on telly. I remember that they refused to reimburse travel costs, so I paid the £30 return in train and Tube fares vowing that I had to win, rather than end up £30 down.

I entered the Endemol studios and met the other contestants in the green room beforehand. I remember one of them, a lady called Joanne, trying to psych me out by listing all the TV shows she’d been on, including Bargain Hunt. She seemed very competitive and I could tell that she really wanted to win. In the green room were goody bags containing a purple Brainteaser-branded mug and pen, but being a design elitist I planned to give them to my nan.

The first round featured me and Joanne. We took our places behind two stands, but then I realised I had a big problem – I couldn’t see the letters on the screen! It was too far away and the letters were all fuzzy and blurry in front of my eyes. I’ve always been shortsighted, but glasses really don’t suit me and I’m too squeamish for contacts or laser, so I just sort of muddle along (don’t worry, I don’t drive).

Luckily, one of the elderly secretaries at Endemol had a pair of rather unfetching glasses which she lent me. We must have had the same prescription (about -1.5) as when I put them on the screen was crystal clear. With my sight problems out of the way, battle commenced!

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In one round, we had to rearrange the segments to make a word. I was a bit rubbish at this on the day, though I can immediately see that the above word says INDIVIDUALISM. Joanne raced into the lead, but I fought back hard and eventually won by a single point.

We also had to fill in crossword clues in another round, which I was slightly better at. I remember that one of the words was about a religious day at Easter, and I got it right – ASCENSION – which is ironic given my later career activities!

The presenter didn’t seem to like me much, as between the rounds she came up and whispered to Joanne, ‘You can still win this, you know!’ Eventually, after a very hard-fought battle, I won. Joanne was disappointed and I felt sorry for her, but I had an MA to fund.

I remember that I was so tense, I kept whacking the buzzer super-hard instead of pressing it gently. The presenter told me off, and her link into the adverts was ‘Will Ariane survive the next round? Will the buzzer? Join us after the break to find out!’

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With Joanne gone, the presenter asked me a few questions about myself. This was only my second time on telly, and I remember saying hi to my nan, who was watching. The presenter said, referring to the tense rounds between me and Joanne, ‘Your nan’s probably had a heart attack by now’ and I replied ‘I hope she hasn’t’ and the presenter retorted, ‘Well, of course we hope she hasn’t too – what sort of people would we be?!’

Ah, the joys of live telly…

After the break, I played a middle-aged woman called Glenys who was very sweet and gentle. This was a much easier battle, and I managed to buzz in (generally too violently) on 95% of the questions. I found the above round especially fun and easy – I can immediately answer STUDIO.

Then we played a general knowledge round which was not exactly Mastermind. Four clues would appear on the screen and you had to buzz in as soon as you knew the answer. (This one is TESS DALY.)

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Throughout the show, the presenter kept telling people to phone in on a premium rate phone line to win a competition by answering the easiest anagram ever. Brainteaser would finally be cancelled when the show was implicated in the phone lines scandal of 2007.

As for me, I was through to the final round, which was a solo anagram round in which the questions progressively got harder. If you answered another clue correctly you’d get more money, but if you tried to answer and failed, you’d forfeit the lot.

Adding a D to the word SUE to form a new word was easy, but adding a V to AROUSED? When I reached AROUSED (so to speak) I wondered if I should stick at £1,500, and nearly did – but then I found the courage to go for the £3,000, as that was what I’d come on the show for…

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… and let’s just say I SAVOURED my win! The £3,000 was mine, and therefore I could afford the MA. Though it was a nightmare course and definitely wasn’t worth the £3,000, but that’s another story entirely.

Winning Brainteaser gave me the confidence to apply for Countdown, which was a brilliant experience. I got the telly bug and would go on to appear around 20 times on news and current affairs programmes on the BBC, ITV1 and Channel 4. Plus my nan liked her Brainteaser mug and pen, and thankfully she never did have a heart attack.

Those specs, though…

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THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 27

Me: 12st 6.4lbs (total loss in 27 days: 7.8lbs)

Same old, same old.

John: 14st 3lbs (total loss in 27 days: 4.5lbs)

John has digested and excreted the elephant!

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Ricky Steer, Marc Alexander, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon. 

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!

I was a Countdown champion

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).

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[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!’

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[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!)

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[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:

Dear Richard,

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:

THE GREAT WEIGHT LOSS CHALLENGE!

Day 17

Me: 12st 9.6lbs (total loss in 17 days: 4.6lbs)

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No change from yesterday. I am still flying the Japanese flag.

John: 14st 2.75lbs (total loss in 17 days: 4.75lbs)

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Shock horror! After weeks of trailing me, John takes advantage of my feminine state to soar into the lead! The worm has turned, and I need to up my game.

This post has been made possible by my awesome Patreon supporters Ricky Steer, Chris Birkett, John Fleming, Mary Clarke, Matthew Sylvester, Brian Engler, Jack Scanlan, Dave Nattriss, Musical Comedy Guide, Mark White, Lucy Spencer, Shane Jarvis, Graham Nunn, Emily Hill and Marcus P Knight.

They receive a whole host of exciting rewards in addition to this credit, including my secret never-published fiction and top secret photos! If you enjoyed this post, please support me on Patreon.

Rewards start from just $1 a month, which is 85p in real money and gets you access to my weekly Patreon email. It’s like this blog, but EVEN BETTER!