I’ve stayed relatively silent since my appearance on the weird and wonderful game show that is Countdown, partially because I’m a blogger and half of blogging is screaming “I SHOULD REALLY BLOG TODAY” while falling asleep into your Sainsbury’s own brand Granola. But partially it’s because, after much posting and tweeting and excitement before going on the show (and sometimes during) the actual experience was so enjoyable in its own right I didn’t feel the need to.
Like, I’m sure when the Apollo 11 crew were on their way up to the moon they were all like “Oh fucking christ I can’t wait to Instagram this” and then when they got back they were too busy eating moon cheese and gravity-banging the life out of their astronaut wives to be bothered updating their Tumblr.
I am, in this and so many other ways, much like the Apollo 11 crew.
But now, with almost a month having passed since broadcast, I feel it’s time to talk about my Countdown appearance. I don’t want to spoil it, but I definitely got a blowie under the desk from Mariella Frostrup during the ad break.
As a bit of background, let me tell you about my previous relationship with Countdown. Growing up, I watched Countdown religiously. In fact, as it was on five days a week and religious people only go to mass once a week, I was five times more devout a follower of Countdown than any of them.
This is how I know that when St. Peter tries to stop me entering heaven because of all the peen I’ve had in my mouth, Richard Whiteley will snap his neck Seagal-style and blow the gates open with a rocket launcher. Then we high five and eat vol-au-vents for the evening.
My mother was and is a huge fan of Countdown since before I was born, and I was one of those weird, insufferable kids who was always desperate to stretch his brain in new directions. It was a match made in heaven. I’d park myself in front of the telly every day at 4.30 (those were the halcyon late afternoon broadcast days of the show), watching the evolution of Richard’s garish ties and Carol’s general hotness over my formative years.
Much is made of Richard and Carol, and they will always be such a huge part of my childhood, but I was in it for the numbers and letters, baby.
I love Countdown. There are few things in life that we can do again and again and again and have each experience feel like something fresh and new and desirable. One is food, the other sex, and — for me at least — the third is Countdown. I could, and have done, watch six, seven, eight episodes back-to-back without feeling the need to get up. If it weren’t for the limits of the human bladder and the NHS’ steadfast refusal to grant me a live-in nurse I’d probably be lying on my bed watching it right now.
Richard’s death hit me. I won’t say it hit me hard, because I don’t go in for the flowers-by-Buckingham-Palace brand of celebrity grieving that makes me question why humanity hasn’t been wiped off the map yet. But I’d grown up with him, and he was a joy to behold. A man who could best replicate my own experience of Countdown. As if every show was his first, as if he’d never get tired of it. That is the consummate professional: not the one who has unending wells of charisma, or slickness, or knowledge, but the one who has a river of enthusiasm that won’t run dry.
But Richard died, and Carol moved on too.
I feigned horror at the new arrangement. The new Countdown. But I knew deep down I was really in it for the letters and numbers.
One lazy afternoon, too much time having passed since I’d last watched the show, I flicked on the telly. Rachel was there. The feigned horror had earned a place in my gut, and my instant reaction was “Pshhh, who does she think she is?”.
Then she fucking owned the numbers round, and I was convinced.
This is one of the other great joys of Countdown. There is no other show on television, in my reckoning, that so bluntly celebrates intelligence above all else. There are many game shows out there that would try to claim the mantle, but many of them are driven by the whisper of executives, the dull monotonous “What makes this unique?”.
That is how you get inventive (and often enjoyable) shows like Pointless, The Chase, and Eggheads. The last is the only show that makes my mother swear: the phrase “Oh of course you ‘guessed’ it Daphne, you cunt!” echoing through the Irish midlands every weekday evening.
In terrible circumstances, that “unique selling point” quality delivers the sigh-made-flesh that is Deal Or No Deal.
But Countdown is not interested in being flashy. It has a format that works, a clarity of rules, and a string of celebrity guests that make the cast of Last Of The Summer Wine look like Rihanna and Ke$ha at a blood orgy.
It is good enough to be good enough.
In watching Countdown more recently, it’s also struck me why this simplicity is vital. The whittling process for contestants on game shows can often be more about the fact that Jenny once got her tits caught in the fan extract while on a hen trip in Magaloof, or that Margaret’s step-son is dying of cancer of the eyeball. It demands personalities.
To put it in the kindest way possible, any brief viewing of Countdown will bring to light that the show is not interested in personalities. I was watching a championship game not so long ago, and the two contestants involved were so guileless, so not built for television, so drowning in enthusiasm to be on the show that I kept screaming at my laptop “YOU’RE SO CUTE I HOPE YOU GET MARRIED TO EACH OTHER”.
I’d feel bad about saying that if it wasn’t for the fact that I think Countdown contestants are the best contestants on television. They are sincere, enthusiastic, polite, and judged in a meritocracy.
I’d also feel bad if I didn’t recently join their lofty ranks. I am the obsessive, inverted-T-requesting, anagram-hoarding Countdown contestant, and I couldn’t be prouder.
My reasons for applying to be on the show should be obvious. I love it. When I was young my mother would always tell me to apply, but neither of us worked up the mixture of courage and getting-off-the-couch-and-doing-some-research to actually go ahead with the endeavour. I’d travelled a good bit in the past few years, and being in London it seemed like the right time. The stars were aligning, I felt.
As it turned out, they were. But not for the better.
The auditions for Countdown are, for want of a better word, adorable. Led by delightful liaison Holly into the conference room of a London hotel, I was suitably intimidated by the competition: a suave businessman, a skinny nerd in thick glasses, and the greatest academic competition of all — a woman of indeterminate South Asian origin.
I don’t know if any of them made it on to the show, as the audition levels aren’t — to my knowledge — treated as a strict “best and only the best proceeds” arena. Holly tested our word and number skills over an all-too-brief period (if I didn’t go on I was determined to stretch this time out), and lead us on to the dizzy heights of “WOBBLIEST” and “WATERFALL” conundrums to cap off our day. Then we were ushered out, and I began to pray to the neck-snapping ghost of Richard Whiteley.
When Holly called me to confirm that I’d be on the show, I tried to play it cool. I thought if I cracked then they might change their minds, as if this was the final test. I gently hung up, then jumped up and down in the kitchen for a few minutes and Skyped my mother.
There was no question that she would be joining me for the main event. Ditto for my brother, who as a child wore Eclipse-brand clothing, listened to Oasis, and looked askance at my daily Countdown viewings (though he long ago became a convert in his own right).
My preparation involved watching the show every day, frantically improving my penmanship in the misguided belief that I’d have to squint across the studio at the letters (actually, there’s a desk-mounted screen for each contestant). I also discovered a demon of a website called Apterous, where Countdown obsessives – many of them previous contestants — pit their wits against each other. Through my daily viewing and nightly bouts on Apterous, I truly felt that I had a strong shot of winning a few games.
And then came Giles.
I travelled up to Manchester aboard a train, something I never do because of my student finances, and felt like a fancy business lady the whole way there. I met my family, made a graphic joke about the pink and brown Manchester tram lines (which made my mother blush, smile, and say “Oh, Alan, that’s awful“), and we settled into a cut-price but lovely hotel.
With two friends joining us before the show the next day, it seemed like nothing could go wrong. I had a posse.
The first alarum bell was sprung on my arrival at Countdown studios. Or rather, ITV studios (not Channel 4, which confused me muchly), in the lovely Media City — a sort of post-modern land on the edge of Manchester where laptops are king and hamburgers eat people.
We were led by another of the many gleeful Countdown staff to a green room, which was blue, and where — at various points, and for no apparent reason — the theme tune would be blasted in at 120 decibels. I met with some other contestants who were shaping up for the day, and then disaster struck.
“So, just to let you know, Giles is the contestant who was on yesterday, and he was, well, he’s…. he’s very good. He’s doing very, very well, so… good luck!”
She slipped out as we searched the room for sharp objects. Before we could proceed, however, we were then met with the man himself. Or should I say, young man. Boy. Ish. Boy-man. Man-boy. Man-bear-pig.
Giles is, I can assure you, a perfectly nice person. A very intelligent young man, with a mop of hair that would make the Biebs off himself harakiri style.
But the only thing that was running through my mind when he entered the room was: “WHY, SEAGAL GHOST OF RICHARD WHITELEY? WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME AND DELIVERED A CHILD PRODIGY UNTO MY DAY OF RECKONING?”
That was my one fear. Not being on television, not tripping over myself when I met Rachel and Susie, not even losing. I just wanted not to be up against a fucking teenager. Is that too much to ask?
From there, you can imagine what happened. I was third up, so I had to sit in the green room, clutching my friend Louise’s hand and watching Giles devour the first two contestants like the finishing move in a Mortal Kombat game. It wasn’t pretty, and no amount of floppy hair could hide the dark machinations of the devil himself flowing through Giles’ vein.
There was evil in that child, I thought. Pure evil.
By the time we’d had lunch (quiche, not that great, but I ate a lot of it), I had achieved a sort of nirvana level of calm. I thought I was in with a chance, I thought that Giles maybe had some cracks in his armour, and I’d ordered for some holy water.
In the dressing room, I encountered Susie Dent and immediately suffered a brain hemorrhage. For some reason I thought it would be “cool” and “friendly” to immediately accost her with questions about the use of the suffix “-IZE” (despite there being no American spellings allowed, it’s granted as it’s technically an older and more correct Greek origin of the suffix). She answered breezily, but I worry I may have terrified her.
The Countdown studio itself is much smaller than it looks on television. It’s still impressive, like stepping into a Rodgers & Hammerstein production of Tron, but it’s not as intimidating as I’d feared. I quite liked it, in fact, and the blow was softened by the fact that I almost immediately fell madly in love with the floor manager, Jay.
If you look at me in the first few minutes of the show, I’m actually staring clear past Nick’s opening monologue and am lost in the pools of Jay’s eyes and the huge, pool-adjacent palm trees of Jay’s arms.
But needless to say, Jay would add to my day of disappointment by failing to return the clear message I was sending through my eyes.
Alas, on to the game itself. Rachel entered just before we started filming, and gave me a friendly, warm smile, like you’d throw to a chicken moments before it has its head lopped off by the farmer. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
To be fair, after a rocky start (Giles bested me straight off) things were going quite well. I got eights, he got eights, I got sevens, he got sevens, I got numbers, he got numbers.
And then, something glorious happened. I’d always said that if nothing else I’d be happy with a nine letter word, and mid-way through the game I found myself staring at my note pad where I’d frantically scrawled “EMBARGO/ED?”. Was “embargoed” a word? The journalist in me said yes, of course, it must be, but then again the journalist in me says that “sexpert” is a word. In the end, Giles announced he had a nine, so my hand was tipped, and we both walked away with eighteen points.
Excellent. Amazing. What a confidence boost. What a new lease on life.
A few rounds later, I was still behind, but not by a huge amount. Enough that a late game power play would put me in the lead.
And as Giles announced an eight shortly before the end, I turned to Nick and — with a smirk akin to the moment Mrs. Doyle guessed Todd Unctious’s name in the Father Ted Christmas Special — announced that I had another nine.
An audible “ooh” moved through the crowd of OAPs, students, well-wishers and the chronically unemployed. I announced with a degree of gravitas that I had found the word “MOORLINES” among the nine-letter shuffle. Moorlines, the ropes that one uses to tie a boat to the dock. Finally, my status as child of an island woman was paying off, and I would walk proudly on to the pier of Inishbofin next time I visited, waving my teapot and exclaiming “People of this island, I thank you, for you have–”
“Oh, I’m sorry Alan, I’m afraid it’s not in there.”
Susie smiled apologetically, and that was that. There was no coming back then. Giles had it. His flop of hair was mocking me with its easy-to-manage shine. I toyed with climbing on to the desk, ripping a hand from the Countdown clock, and beating him to death with it. But I am better than that. And that clock is really well built.
The game ended with little drama. He beat me on the conundrum, which is a good thing as I was just about to buzz in with a very incorrect answer. We shook hands, the audience applauded, Jay continued to not fall madly in love with me, and my friends and family slinked away into obscurity — with nothing to remind me of my visit but a tote bag, Dictionary, mug, clock, pen and Susie Dent’s book “What Made The Crocodile Cry?”.
Over his remaining games, Giles went on to be the highest-scoring contestant in the show’s history, and that night my posse drank heavily and went to the worst gay bar in Manchester. A fitting end to an undignified exit from the Countdown universe.
But I was not heavy of heart. I was not beaten. I had had a lovely time, among a bunch of lovely people, and for a brief shining moment I birthed an entirely made-up word into the minds of the Channel 4 viewing public.
“Moorlines on, Alan”, they’d whisper, “moorlines on.”
As you get older — and yes, I know I’m not old — it gets a little bit scarier, as you realise that not all the dreams you had when you were a kid are going to come true. Whether for reasons biological, economical or otherwise, you won’t win an Olympic medal or have awesome sex with Heath Ledger or be the first acrobat on Mars. You realise that some things aren’t going to happen for you, and by and large it’s a fairly painless experience. You come to appreciate that life never amounts to those big moments, not really, that it’s about the fabric of living that you’ve stitched for yourself, the quality of the day-to-day activities and people and experiences that you surround yourself with. It’s growing up, and it’s fine.
But every once in a while, it’s nice to have one of those big moments. Anyone who knows me particularly well will know that I’ve had a less than ideal time of it over the past two years, and while I’m all about the day-to-day fabric it’s still important to have these big, ridiculous, surreal experiences that remind you how strange and stupid and funny the whole world can be.
For aren’t those moorlines, the moorlines of friendship and family and love, aren’t these moorlines only boosted by these rejuvenating moments? I’d say yes, and then I’d say moorlines again. Because it is a word.
I’ve since asked about appearing on the show again as a contestant, and the lovely Holly informed me that there’s a ten year embargo on coming back. Which seems a little… excessive. So now I’ve made it my goal — and mark my words, everyone at Countdown, this day will come — to best this time frame by appearing as a celebrity in Dictionary Corner in less than a decade. I may be the show-runner on Doctor Who, I may have married Holly Willoughby, I may have even achieved fame for the world’s largest collection of miniaturised airports. However it happens, it will happen.
I will have you again, Countdown. And by that time, moorlines will be in the fucking dictionary.
If you want to watch my episode, it’s still (though not for much longer) on the Countdown website here.