`Countdown' is faked, says Parris

MATTHEW PARRIS, the man who "outed" Peter Mandelson, has exposed another beloved national institution, the cult Channel 4 show Countdown.

The former Conservative MP yesterday unravelled the mystery of why the celebrity guest and resident sidekick in Dictionary Corner almost always unearth longer, more exotic words than any contestant. Obviously the dictionary helps, but so, Mr Parris reveals, does an earpiece connected to two wordsmiths off-camera.

Although principally worn to receive direction from the programme's production control box, the earpiece is also handy for relaying some of the English language's more extravagant flourishes to grateful celebrities unable to think beyond four-letter words.

"They put in an earpiece," explained Mr Parris, "and from some control room somewhere suggested words are dictated to you. You can pick your own words if you want but I found the suggestion from the control came much faster. I was pleased with the help, as I would have been struggling without it. I used to wonder why the celebrities were so clever - and now I know."

On hand to bale out the celebrity are four people: Mark Nyman, a former world Scrabble champion and Countdown champion of champions; Michael Wylie, a former Countdown winner; Damien Eadie, another former Countdown champion of champions; and Susie Dent, of the Oxford University Press.

One sits at the guest's side, while the rest play the game in the control box and "prompt" the celebrity. The programme's main contestants, of course, play unaided, as does Carol Vorderman in the mathematical segment of the show.

Mr Parris said he was not minded to raise the assistance with the show's producers afterwards. "Good heavens, no," he said, "it saved me from humiliation." A parliamentary sketch-writer for The Times, he is campaigning against TV producers he believes are misleading the public. It follows rows over faked documentaries and confessional talkshows on daytime TV that booked actors instead of real guests.

Mr Parris disclosed on BBC2's Newsnight that Mr Mandelson, former trade and industry secretary, was gay.

However, his disclosure about Countdown, which opened Channel 4's transmissions 17 years ago, marks his most daring outburst. Countdown is the network's most popular programme after Brookside, the combination of Ms Vorderman's arithmetical gymnastics and Mr Whiteley's bad jokes making it must-watch for students and pensioners.

"The point is that I don't think that it would ruin the show if the viewers were told about the help (celebrity) guests get," Mr Parris said. "It would be useful to let the audience know the difference between the really clever people and the apparently clever people. Overall though, Countdown was less rigged than some of the shows I have been on." A spokeswoman for the programme insisted there was no deception involved.