The Joys of Modern Life; 22. `Countdown'
Tuesday 01 December 1998
Not working at work, as I remember it, involved an elaborate subterfuge of looking busy, or at least awake. Not working from home involves doing exactly what you want, as long as you stay out of the cleaner's way on Thursdays. Most of my days begin at 10am or 11am and progress directly to lunch. Sometimes I'm too "busy" to get dressed. And it is a hard day indeed that doesn't come to a crashing halt at 4:30pm, just in time for Countdown.
Like most people, I like Countdown for all the wrong reasons. I like the way it doesn't appear to be staged for anyone's benefit. I like the rapier-sharp exchanges between the host, Richard Whitely, and the "keeper of the dictionary", one of a strict rota of bearded radio personalities.
I like Richard Whitely's jokes, most of which seem to come straight from a book of best man's speeches, and all of which are received in appreciative silence by the studio audience. Best of all I like the tortured, pun-laden route Richard takes when he shifts from introducing the dictionary guy to introducing Carol Vorderman. Some days you can't believe your ears. My personal favourite went something like this: "Speaking of plays, there once was a play called I Am A Camera - well if I were a camera, there is nothing I would rather be focused on than the lovely Carol Vorderman." We often say that things are beyond parody, but it's always nice to have an example at your fingertips.
The game itself is secondary for me, basically because I am no good at it. The other day the letters E, A, L, C, R, E, T, P and O came up. In 30 seconds someone had figured out a way to use them all to spell PERCOLATE. I got TOP. No programme on television has Countdown's special knack for making me feel smug and brain-damaged at the same time. I have often consoled myself with the thought that I would do much better if I allowed myself to use a bit of paper and a pencil, which goes against my belief that television is meant to be passive entertainment .
I watch Countdown with a connoisseur's eye, in that I appreciate it, without really understanding what is going on. I look out for little strategies and psychological insights that might affect the course of play. You will notice, for instance, that Carol makes a little grimace of commiseration whenever the letter Q turns up, as if to say, "Oooh, bad luck mate." At this point I often shout at the television set that Q is just as good as any other letter, and that with a little imagination, and a U, a real player could turn this setback to his or her advantage. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, and it only proves that I am largely missing the point. As for the numbers game, I find I do tolerably well at it for someone who has never fully understood its rules.
Chiefly I watch for the same reason that everyone else watches. I'm watching for the day when Carol flips over those letters and the first four are F, U, C and K.
As far as I'm aware it hasn't happened yet, but if the helpless, showstopping corpsing that goes on whenever they accidentally spell something like BRA is anything to go by, that day will be apocalyptic.
Actually they'd probably edit it out, then collect it together with all the other times they've spelt out TIT, ARS or COQ ("Oh, a Q - sorry dear") and put them out on a video with a 15 certificate. I'd buy it.
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