Friday, 7 November 2008

Count your blessings

Countdown is such a curious televisual beast, isn't it? The longest running show on Channel 4, nay - the first show on Channel 4, it remains an incredibly popular programme among a sizeable cross-section of the British public.

Unsurprisingly for a show that's been on air for 26 years, Countdown is now woven into the fabric of popular culture, lauded, derided, lampooned and respected as it is. For such an innocent and unassuming programme, how on earth has it managed to live so long?

Maybe it's the show's undeniable simplicity. A series of rounds where two contestants have to make the longest word they can with nine randomly drawn letters is about as straight-forward as it gets. There is of course a 'number round' every once in a while to break up the monotony, plus the conundrum at the end (essentially an anagram that has to be deciphered) but that's really it as far as the quiz element is concerned.

All well and good, but that alone can't be the sole reason for Countdown's popularity. Perhaps it can also be attributed to the resident personnel who provide a cosy sense of continuity to every show.

First of all, there's Des O'Connor - variety performer, singer, comic and butt of Eric Morecambe's jokes. With all the showbiz experience you'd expect of a 76-year-old, he very capably provides smooth and polished linkage throughout the programme and brings an infectious sense of contentment to proceedings.

Then there's Carol Vorderman. Once part of the team of five that featured on Countdown during its infancy, she now shares the presenting duties with Des and has become a TV personality in her own right. As everyone knows by now, she's not just a brainless dolly bird (see 'The Price Is Right', 'Play Your Cards Right' and others for evidence of the genre) - far from it. Carol's main function on the programme is to provide speedy solutions to the show's often difficult mathematical puzzles which, if nothing else, has enabled her to launch a whole range of books, DVDs and computer games.

Finally, there's Susie Dent, resident lexicographer and Queen of Dictionary Corner. Her job is to excel with words in much the same way as Vorderman does with numbers. Though more timid and demure in character than the others, Dent nevertheless carries out her duties with a similarly admirable sense of competency.

Between the three of them, O'Connor, Vorderman and Dent form a tenacious triumvirate, but to add a further element of spice, there's always a guest celebrity to keep Dent company in Dictionary Corner over the course of any given week. With a single opportunity to regale the audience with a well-chosen anecdote half-way through every programme, the choice of celebrity can be key to adding to the show's appeal.

From comedians to politicians, from actors to sports stars, few of the guests in Dictionary Corner fail to disappoint with their stories that provide a happy contrast to the serious business of puzzle-solving. Even Susie Dent herself now has a five-minute slot in which she discusses the origins of words or phrases in the English language that inform and educate in equal measures.

As for the contestants, you'll find people of all ages and backgrounds from 8-year-old children to clergymen in their 70's. Many of them go on to become champions in their own right and one never ceases to be amazed by their tenacity and intelligence.

So the concept is simple, the presenters are professional, the celebrities are entertaining and the contestants are inspiring. What's not to like?

Some may criticise the cheapness of the show - that is to say there's little in the way of glitz or glamour to please the eye. Certainly there are no round-the-world holidays or vast fortunes to be won, but they'd be surplus to requirements anyway. This is a daytime quiz show appealing to people who like to stimulate their brain cells, not be sent into a zen-like trance by the latest talent show or reality TV epic.

Put simply, Countdown is a valuable stalwart of British television that deserves to exist because of its charm and humility. How long it continues to exist beyond the end of the year, however, is open to some debate. As has been well publicised, Des O'Connor is leaving the show to pursue further musical and performing projects while Carol Vorderman is leaving out of protest at the 90% pay cut she was asked to take.

This latter point has created much furore among many of the celebrities to have appeared on Countdown in the past. Esther Rantzen and Rick Wakeman were just two of the personalities to leap to Vorderman's defence by suggesting that Channel 4 have made a mistake in dismissing the presenter.

Putting aside the subject of whether she deserves to be paid an estimated salary of £900,000, one has to wonder how enjoyable the show will be without Vorderman along with O'Connor and many of its regular guest celebrities when it appears on our screens in 2009.

Some will be quick to point out that Countdown's popularity remained largely intact after the death of Richard Whiteley (the show's original host) three years ago, but this is potentially much more damaging. I suspect Countdown will survive for a lot longer yet, but there's no doubt it will lose many of its fans as a result.

Weakened as it may be, this long-running and much-loved programme is sure to go on for one good reason. In a world going ever so slightly mad, it offers that most precious of things - refuge for the weary viewer thanks to the good, clean, harmless fun it provides. Unfashionable as it may be, there's still a place for it on British TV which is exactly why it should be treasured and loved for as long as is humanly possible.


Duffman 11 November 2008 at 00:40  

Kudos to you Chris for getting the delicate matter of Des O'Conner's first mention on this blog out of the way. May it pave the way for many more.

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