IF YOU saw Richard Whiteley on The Mrs Merton Show on Thursday night you might have been struck, as I was, by the relatively gentle ride he was given. But the following day he revealed to me what Mrs M had said to him after the recording: "I couldn't really be beastly to you because the audience was all your sort of people."

It's true that the retired elderly still form the basis of the audience for Countdown, the Channel 4 weekday afternoon word game whose charm derives in large part from the affable, bumbling presence of its host. And I'm not being rude when I describe Richard as bumbling - he offered the description himself. But in recent years, the programme that was the first ever broadcast on Channel 4 when it launched in 1982, and is one of only five originals still running, has acquired cult status, at the same time as widening its appeal so far that, as of last week, it became the network's highest- rated home-produced show with 3.6million viewers. If Carol Vorderman can take a lot of the credit for that, so too can Richard Whiteley.

"I first realised something was up when I went to Leeds University a couple of years ago and the reception was unbelievable," he told me. Students bet on what colour jacket he's going to wear; he's in demand on the university circuit; chat shows have discovered him in a big way. Not bad for someone who says that if the job came up now (Wanted: new host for Channel 4's top programme), he wouldn't stand a chance.

Richard, who is 54, had been hosting a similar show on Yorkshire TV when Channel 4 launched, and "I got it because I was reasonably acceptable and I was cheap". But at that time nobody was thinking beyond its initial four-week run. "Its reputation has built to the point where 4.30 on a weekday afternoon is part of the national timetable. The appeal is very simple. It's an old-fashioned parlour game, wonderfully low-tech and unthreatening."

Yorkshire is still Richard's home. Countdown is a Yorkshire TV production and he also has a weekly interview programme on the network. He lives in the Dales and is on the board of governors of his old school in Giggleswick, where another good sport of the entertainment world, Russell Harty, was a near-contemporary.

Now Countdown's rise is about to be acknowledged with a series of Celebrity Countdown, starting on Channel 4 on 23 April. A measure of its importance is that it will be granted a peak-time slot of 7.30 in the evening. Guests will include Edwina Currie, Lord Steel, Desmond Lynam, Roy Hattersley, Jo Brand, Arthur Smith, and Ron Atkinson.

In spite of its success I thought Richard might be impressed when I pointed out to him that Countdown features as one of the running jokes in Nick Hornby's new novel About A Boy. "Oh it's cropped up in loads of novels," Richard said. "It's continually alluded to. It's part of the fabric of society." And Richard Whiteley's place in broadcasting history is assured.

I'VE BEEN thinking about aliens again. You recall, perhaps, my audience with Robert Temple - he of the Sirius Mystery and little men from outer space visiting an African tribe a long time ago - and now alien expert Colin Wilson has made his contribution to the debate in his new book Alien Dawn.

"It is a very confusing subject," he told me, from his home in Cornwall. "First of all you have the conspiracy theorists who believe the American, and even British government know about aliens and are suppressing information - then you have the abductees.

"There are an enormous number of reports of alien abduction, and I think that the entities involved try to make the abductees' story sound unbelievable, they try to make it sound nutty." Mr Wilson accepts he himself might sound nutty from time to time. "After doing research into the subject I came to the conclusion that they don't want to be discovered."

Surely this is a curious proposition based on the number of people who now spot UFOs on a regular basis, and abductees who remember their experiences? "No, I think they have already been through what we are going through now, and look at us and want to move us on from the position we are in. We seem to have become stuck in our evolutionary development, caught in a cul-de-sac of evolution."

Mr Wilson believes aliens are keen to help us but aware that they shouldn't interfere for fear of destroying our civilisation, in the way that missionaries created problems. "I think they are trying to gradually make us aware of their existence, and that many may be among us in some hybrid form or as abductees who have been programmed or influenced to behave in certain ways."

Thankfully, Mr Wilson does not think they are here to cause us any harm. "At the moment I'm quite hopeful that we're not at the hands of fate or chance. When you start to realise that you start to feel a lot more cheerful for the future."

Free spirits embrace arts

LONDON clubland continues to flourish. Hot on the heels of the just reopened Academy Club comes the not-to-be-confused Accademia Club in Belgravia. "A love of the arts" is the only criterion for membership, I am told. No media mafias here, thank you. Anyone can apply, with subscriptions offered at pounds 200 if you enroll before the end of April (pounds 250 for a couple), rising to pounds 400 and pounds 500 respectively after that. The club is an offshoot of the Accademia Italiana and the European Academy for the Arts, and will share their rather splendid 19th century premises in Grosvenor Square.

The club has yet to be granted a drinks licence, so would-be members are being invited to install their own cases of champagne or wine in the cellar and, for the moment at any rate, spirits are free. If that doesn't get people brushing up on their Roman antiquities, then I don't know what will. Though I'm assured that when it comes to top-ups, the management will be exercising its discretion.

THE same proviso will apply at a central London men's branch of Vidal Sassoon hairdressers when, from next month, it offers late-afternoon customers a glass of beer. That's right - you'll be able to quaff while they see to your quiff.

"We've always offered tea or coffee," the Brook Street manager Stuart Lloyd tells me. "We're just trying to make coming in a more relaxed business." A limit of one bottle per person should stop people ending up, er, half- cut. Make mine a blow-dry Martini.

Time to rail at on-board TV

A FEW weeks ago I drew attention to the fifth birthday celebrations of Pipedown, the organisation that campaigns to rid the world of piped music. And although I like to think I'm fairly relaxed about these things, my thoughts turned towards it again last week when I travelled to Heathrow Airport on the new Heathrow Express "Fast Train" from Paddington. The train is beautiful, it zips along and is infinitely preferable to the Underground. But for one respect: the TV monitors that pump out promotional videos and muzak the entire length of the journey, and will soon be offering news.

I think this is probably a first, at least as far as trains are concerned. An "experiment" with TVs on buses by a company in Yorkshire was abandoned last year, and not even Richard Branson has so far seen fit to inflict Virgin-via-TV on his passengers (though perhaps I shouldn't be giving him ideas).

According to the Heathrow Express man I spoke to, it's all about "customer care". Certainly there is an information element to the broadcast, and maybe there are people who can't bear to go more than five minutes without an update on the stock market figures. But what about the passengers who don't want to listen to this stuff? "The technology has moved so far forward that we can set the sound at a level which is there if you want it but can be ignored if you don't," I was told by David Goffin, of the Catz agency, which installed the service. I was baffled by that. Either you can hear it, or you can't, and the fact that the muzak was obviously intended to soothe ("light baroque music" was Heathrow Express's description) only made it more irritating.

There is another agenda here. It's called advertising. Already the TV "service" includes an ad for British Telecom, and when the line is properly up and running - at the moment there is a bus transfer to the terminal at the end of the train journey - I understand that two and half minutes of the 15 that it will take to get to and from Heathrow will be filled by commercials. Any advertiser would of course be thrilled to reach an audience that doesn't have the freedom to switch over or leave the room, but the fact that there is no escape is precisely what makes this development intolerable. And the idea that one might choose to be "entertained" by piped music on a train journey is, in the age of the personal stereo, ridiculous.

As an entirely private project, Heathrow Express can, of course, do what the hell it likes. For me, though, TV on trains is an intrusion and TV ads on trains a cynical intrusion. You have been warned.