The Deborah Ross Interview: Richard Whiteley - No taste, no style, no shame. No contest

The first time I speak to Richard Whiteley - that "icon of post- modern irony" for all those who can't bring themselves to simply say he's fab - it is over the telephone, the night before we are due to meet. He's rung and left a message, so I return the call.

"Hello!" he cries enthusiastically on answering the phone. "I'm just eating a Ryvita."

"How ... um ... glamorous."

"I shouldn't really," he presses on, guiltily. "We do get two good meals on Countdown. I'll just have this one and then one more."

"You go for it, Richard."

"Do you watch Countdown?"

"Absolutely!"

"Arthur Smith was on this week. He's very good. The audience love him. You'd think our audience wouldn't, but they do. They also love Jo Brand, when she's in tea-time mode. They like their bit of rough!"

"Don't we all!"

"We've had Stephen Fry on. He's a big fan of the show. He said to me: `Richard, I love Countdown. I go home at half-four, put my feet on a little pouf, and switch it on.' Ha! Ha! Now, I've booked a restaurant in Leeds for 12.30pm, OK?"

"Fine. I take it you're at your Ilkley house now, and not your Wensleydale one?"

"Yes. I mostly live in the Ilkley one. Wensleydale is just a bolt-hole, really. Americans never know where Wensleydale is, so I tell them it's between Tuesleydale and Thursleydale. Ha Ha!" He laughs heartily. I imagine much moist spraying of Ryvita at the other end. I laugh heartily, too.

Some jokes are so bad that they're much funnier than those that really are funny, if you get what I mean. It's the way they somehow manage to bypass any kind of true wit that does it. Plus, of course, I'm something of an expert in this field myself. Indeed, I even go on to tell him my dearest wish is for him to appear as a contestant on Supermarket Sweep, because then when Dale says: "Where are you from, Richard?", he could say "Wensleydale, Dale", and that would somehow be immensely satisfying all round. We both laugh heartily again. "Wenselydale, Dale!" he hoots between breaths.

"Between Tuesleydale and Thursleydale!" I hoot between breaths.

I can tell, already, we are made for each other. I am besotted before we even meet. I tell my partner and son I might never return from Leeds. "Oh, good," they chorus, supportively.

Anyway, off to Leeds on the train the following morning. I was planning on a nice little snooze, but no. Richard's got my mobile number, and he's a spectacular fusspot. So, irritatingly, it's: "Ring, ring ... "Have you reached Peterborough yet?" And "Ring, ring ... are you coming into Leeds station?" And: "Ring, ring ... I'm at the restaurant and looking for a parking space." And then, just as I'm walking into the restaurant, the final, triumphant call in this gripping saga: "I've found a meter! I'll be there in a tick! How will I recognise you?" Tragically, I am rather unexceptional looking, I tell him. "That makes two of us," he bellows ecstatically. I'm still not sure what all this phoning business was actually about. I think it might be just, simply, that he likes to chat a lot.

Certainly, I recognise him from the off. In he trots, as appallingly dressed as ever. A black-and-grey herringbone jacket. A blue shirt. A tie that is not only bold stripes of turquoise, red, orange, green and navy, but is further decorated with a number of little brown spots that may be soup, but then again may be gravy. I don't think his clothes are an affectation. "The tie is by Gene Meyer. I like his ties. I get them at Liberty." He is wholly genuine, I'm fairly certain. Plus I just don't think you could set out to be Richard Whiteley.

Looks-wise, he is not exactly a sex god but, that said, if he were he'd be somehow lost to us. He is portly, yes - "I'm all for widescreen TV. Ha! ha!" He would like to order steak and chips, but doesn't think he should. "I was actually a devil with the Ryvita last night. A devil! I had three more spread with Olivio after I spoke to you." He has florid cheeks and glasses and is one of those men who can make his own hair look like it isn't. He laughs happily when I tell him this. "I do have this terrible, wig-like hair-line, don't I?" He seems to be immune to insults. Someone, he says, once said he had a face like "a cartoonist's suicide note". Ouch! I say. "Oh no," he says. "It's a spectacular description. I've put it in my publicity material." What is his appeal? Is he a symbol of "post-modern irony"? Does he know what this means? "No, I don't. When journalists phone me from Islington and say that's what I am, I say I'm sitting here in Yorkshire and don't know what the bloody hell you're talking about." How would you explain your appeal, Richard? "I think it's probably because I have no timing and can't deliver lines." Come now, I protest. Don't do yourself down. Think of all the things you can do. Think of your tremendous linking ability. Is there a link you're particularly proud of, Richard? "Well, on Countdown we once had a contestant called John Collier, so I said: `John Collier, John Collier, the winner to watch!' Now, that was very good.

"I also did an excellent ad-lib the other day. Angela Rippon was on. I said I went to bed at 7pm last night because I'm so used to going to bed after News At Ten. That was a very, very good one." I think I might go back tonight, after all.

Anyway, on to Countdown. Richard's been famously hosting this sort of Scrabble-meets-mental-arithmetic game show ever since it opened Channel 4's broadcasting 16 years ago. "I've said `hello' 2,700 times." It was not, actually, an instant success. Although four-and-a-half million watched the first edition, only 800,000 stayed for the second. "And that," boasts Richard happily, "is the biggest ratings drop in television history. Ever!"

Now, though, students love it. The pensioners of middle-England love it. I love it. These days, around five million people tune in daily, which makes it Channel 4's most popular programme after Brookside. The success of Countdown is, on the surface, rather mystifying. It's hardly a high- tech, zingy affair. It's just Richard and Carol Vorderman ("a gorgeous girl who tells me off for being too fat"), a few felt-tip pens, a load of magnetised letters and numbers, an exceedingly nasty pearlised grey set, a celebrity stuck next to a former Scrabble champion in "dictionary corner", and a tremendous prize on offer - a set of dictionaries and a Countdown teapot.

Still, it's this total lack of sophistication that actually gives Countdown its charm. Just as, perhaps, it's Richard's total lack of sophistication that gives him his charm. He likes chops and treacle pudding. Musically, he is into "songs from the shows". His icon is David Frost. I would say he wasn't overly ambitious. I would say what you see is what you get. I would say the other thing that makes Countdown so great is that it and its host are a sublime match. The package is just irresistible.

Certainly, it has made Richard into something of an icon. And a busy one. He's currently spearheading an advertising campaign for a Japanese beer. He's about to do a pilot interview show for the BBC. Plus, this week, he sets off on a 10-date national tour, billed as Getting Intimate with Richard Whiteley. This doesn't bear thinking about in its literal sense, I know, but in the other sense it's a "unique" live chat show, with celebrity guests whose names won't be revealed to him until the previous night. "I like to be spontaneous. I like to do interviews off the top of my head. There's no script on Countdown, you know. I make it all up as I go along." No! "Yes! I do!"

We order our lunch. He goes for the steak in the end, as do I. The chips come on a silver plate, and are put next to me. "Put them in the MIDDLE. In the MIDDLE!" he cries. All right, all right, I say. Keep your hair- that-is-yours-but-looks-like-somebody-else's on. The photographer joins us at this point. His name is Kipper. "Did you hear about the Birmingham man who went into a cafe and asked for a kipper tie?" asks Richard. The photographer looks at him, perplexed. "Kipper tie. Cuppa tea," Richard explains. The photographer forces a brittle little laugh. Encouraged, Richard continues with: "Have you heard about these new corduroy pillows? They're making headlines." He explodes with mirth. I'm definitely going back tonight, I decide.

Richard was born and brought up in a village just outside Bradford. His father, Kenneth, ran the family business, the Thomas Whiteley textile mill, until he sold up in the Sixties. His father died five years ago but his mother, Margaret, is still around and she lives nearby. "She is very Alan Bennett. I told her I was taking a roadshow round the country. She said: `Oh, do you have to go?'"

At 11, Richard was dispatched to Giggleswick School, a minor public job in the Yorkshire Dales. "My father went there in the Twenties, and was determined I should go." On the whole, he liked it there. "The food was very good." He had Russell Harty - yes, that Russell Harty - as his English teacher. "He was inspirational. I can hear him now, taking us through Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. We couldn't wait for the next lesson, to find out what happened. He was brilliantly innovative. He even had a telly in his room. I remember him coming into the study one evening while we were all doing prep, and saying: `I've just seen this wonderful thing on TV. It's about a street in Manchester and there's a woman with a hairnet in it.' It was Coronation Street, of course."

Harty famously remained a lifelong fan of The Street, and Richard adores it, too. Yes, he misses Hilda Ogden. "I liked it when she had to go into hospital for her Very Coarse veins." But he has found some consolation in Natalie. "She has such sexy arms!"

OK, Richard and his sex life. Sorry, but it had to come sooner or later, and I have kept it to later. Actually, he doesn't want to discuss it. He even made me promise beforehand that I would not discuss it. Occasionally, I do broach the subject. Would you say you weren't the marrying kind, Richard? At this, he gives my nose a playful tweak - arggh! - and says: "Don't be a naughty little sausage." I don't know why he's being so coy. As far as I can work out, nothing deeply sinister or Tantric has ever gone on.

He was married, briefly, in his twenties. He then had a relationship with a journalist which led to a son, James, now 11. James lives in London with his mother, and Richard sees him regularly. Do you get on? "Don't be a naughty little sausage!"

He has a long-term girlfriend, Kathryn Apanowicz, the actress who played Dirty Den's mistress, Mags, in EastEnders, and is now a Radio Leeds presenter, but they don't live together. Why? "You ARE A NAUGHTY LITTLE SAUSAGE!"

I think, possibly, Richard doesn't need to live with anyone. He is always around to laugh at his own jokes. And as they come off the top of his head, it's not like he's ever heard them before. I don't mean this unkindly. I'm not sure how else I mean it, but I do know I don't mean it as that.

Anyway, he has to go. He's a governor at his old school, and there is a meeting there at 5pm. We part with a lot of big hugs and promises to meet for a drink when he's next in London. I get the train home.

"Oh, so you're back then," chorus my partner and son, enthusiastically. Watch it, I tell them, or I'll tell you a joke about a corduroy pillow. Then you'll be sorry.

There are two messages from Richard awaiting me. One goes: "Hope you got back all right." The other goes: "Hope you got back all right." I phone him to reassure him I got back all right. "Are you having a Ryvita?" I ask when he picks up the phone. "I've just finished the pack!" he exclaims. "I'm not sure what to do now. Should I have a banana, do you think?" As I said, you can't set out to be Richard Whiteley. You just are.

Richard Whiteley, Bloomsbury Theatre, London WC1, 18, 19, 20 Feb (0171-388 8822)

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