Ever since the Countdown host Richard Whiteley died after having heart surgery three years ago, bosses at Channel 4 have been left with a sizeable conundrum: How do you replace a man who hosted one of television's most enduring shows for 23 years, keeping the old viewers who loved his bizarre sartorial predilections topped with excruciating puns and attracting new fans at the same time?
Now they appear to have found the answer in the guise of the comedian and Pimms man Alexander Armstrong. Sources close to the show last night confirmed that Armstrong, 38, has been asked to be the show's new presenter and was sifting through his contract. Clearly optimistic that they have finally found willing replacement, a celebratory dinner has already been planned.
"The papers are nearly signed," said a source. "He has been offered the job and hopefully he'll take it. He has always been the top choice, the producers love him and they think he would make a great host." Should Armstrong take up a role with Countdown, he would be the youngest presenter in the show's 26-year history, representing a major shift towards capturing new audiences. Younger viewers might not otherwise be aware of a show that holds a particular appeal among wordsmiths and equation fanatics countrywide.
Armstrong, described recently by one critic as "one of those lovely, polite types who my gran would have loved, but young and leftfield enough to perhaps appeal to a wider audience", appears to fit the bill as the type of presenter who can take Countdown to a whole new generation and keep the veterans on side as well.
A former chorister who turned to comedy at university with the Cambridge Footlights revues, Armstrong spent most of his early career doing stand-up in Notting Hill with fellow comedian Ben Miller. Nominated for the Perrier awards, the two first appeared on television in 1998 with their sketch show Armstrong And Miller. It ran for four seasons on the Paramount Comedy Channel and later on Channel 4. They amicably dissolved the partnership in 2000. Armstrong went on to appear regularly on Have I Got News For You? and advertised Pimms drinks on television. He was also in the recent BBC comedy drama Mutual Friends, and has just revived his partnership with Miller for a new series of The Armstrong And Miller Show on BBC1. His arrival at Countdown will end months of speculation about who will carry on Whiteley's legacy. Producers of the show were left struggling to fill the void left by Whiteley following his death in 2005.
Des Lynam stepped up to the mark but left within months, while Des O'Connor said earlier this year that he was leaving the show at the end of the current series because he missed doing live television.
Countdown executives are also still struggling to find a replacement for the co-host and maths guru Carol Vorderman, who is set to leave at the end of this series. In a series of angry interviews with tabloid newspapers earlier this year, Vorderman said she was leaving after 26 years because she had been asked to take a 90 per cent pay cut. She initially considered quitting the programme when Whiteley died but chose to stay on.
Since Whiteley's death, viewing figures have plunged. Currently, Countdown averages 1.7 million viewers per episode but in its heyday it was able to attract an audience of up to three million.