Every episode of Countdown ends with a conundrum – a nine-letter anagram that the contestants have to unscramble to find a single nine-letter word. The conundrum in yesterday's edition, the final programme of the 59th series, was the touchingly appropriate: ERACLOSES.
After 26 years as a semi-ironic pin-up for generations of students who ought to have been writing essays, Carol Vorderman was saying goodbye. So, come to that matter, was Des O'Connor, the programme's actual host, but given his mayfly service – just two years in the chair – that seemed far less important.
The occasion for her departure – though nobody had the bad taste to bring it up – was a reported demand that she accept a 90 per cent cut in her salary; a reflection of hard times at Channel 4 but perhaps also of what to the outsider has always looked like a bizarre mismatch between, on the one hand, Vorderman's visible talents and Countdown's unspectacular ratings, and, on the other hand, her vast pay packet. For some years, she was the best-paid woman in British television (and her total earnings – from newspaper columns, from endorsements for a "credit consolidation" company, from detox diet books and sudoku manuals – put her high on the list of 20th best-paid women in any industry). Even with her head for figures, you wonder how Vorderman got the numbers to add up for so long; and the anomaly became more blatant after the death in 2005 of Richard Whiteley, host for 23 years, and a subsequent slide in ratings.
Yesterday's finale was preceded by a tribute, One Last Consonant Please Carol. It was exactly as glitzy and star-studded an affair as the occasion demanded – that is to say, not even a little bit – but very jolly. Gyles Brandreth presented, and contributors included his fellow Dictionary Corner denizens Keith Barron, Barry Norman and Rick Wakeman. Clips demonstrated how Vorderman's dress sense has fluctuated over the years, from Duran Duran groupie at one extreme to figure-hugging Bond villainess chic at the other; and she reflected warmly on her 23 years as Whiteley's "screen wife".
After that, the game itself was a brisk, cheery affair – the usual combination of mildly impressive, emphatically pointless arithmetical and anagrammatic skills. High emotion was kept contained until the very last moments, when Vorderman briefly broke down as she delivered a valediction.
From the fuss, you'd think the programme itself was finished. In fact, it returns next year, with the Sky Sports presenter Jeff Stelling in the chair and Vorderman's place taken by – a sign, one fears, of the times – a pretty blonde less than half her age. But that they will ever be able to resurrect anything approaching the cosy, camp chemistry between Vorderman and Whiteley seems doubtful. The solution to the conundrum, by the way, was "Casserole" – and it may be that Countdown's goose is cooked.