Lynam slips into Whiteley's shoes but not his wardrobe

Countdown, Channel 4
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The Independent Online

The loyal Countdowners in the audience gave a ragged cheer - trying to pitch their response into that tricky intermediate ground between outright glee and wistful memory.

It's an odd place, Countdonia. The demographics are skewed to the young, the retired, and the convalescent; the unemployment rates are sky-high; and the national pastimes are anagrams and puns cheesy enough to force the unprepared to their knees. And yesterday the citizens had to get used to their new dear leader, Des Lynam - elevated to the position after the media equivalent of a closed politburo session.

It was Carol Vorderman who said hello - but only this once, she assured us, so that she could introduce Lynam with a sample of the gamey banter which has always been part of the programme's appeal.

"There's a new boy in the house," she said. "He's got his rubber and his pencils all sharpened... he's even got his new uniform on."

For a brief second, before the studio director cut Des on screen, you wondered whether one of television's most durable smoothies had been unsmoothed, forced into one of Whiteley's garish outfits - which began as an unintentional sartorial joke, and then slowly evolved into a knowing game. But Des's tie was discreet and his suit was grey.

The manner, though, wasn't quite as cashmere-sleek as we've come to expect from Lynam. Countdown was always one of the most amiably awkward programmes on air. Even after thousands of shows, Whiteley managed to convey the sense that he'd stumbled on to set about 10 minutes before transmission - and couldn't be sure that security wouldn't eject him before the final credits rolled.

This is not Lynam's forté - but whether through deference or genuine nerves he did seem a little glassy-eyed and jittery yesterday. "I hope you're enjoying it and I'm not too much of a shock for you this afternoon," he said anxiously after one commercial break - as if the more far-flung regions of Countdonia might not yet have received news of his predecessor's death.

There were no unfortunate anagrammatic accidents - no collection of letters nudging the competitors towards words such as "deceased" or "imitation". "Morbid" came up in the second round - but there was nothing at all morbid about the mood, or the consolingly bland ingredients. Martin Jarvis, a programme regular, was in dictionary corner and the second hand ticked down to the bottom of the clock with the same "dibbidy dibbidy dibbidy-doo-doing" musical sting.

As it happened, it wasn't the only restoration in Channel 4's afternoon schedule yesterday. Immediately afterwards, Noel Edmonds returned to national television with Deal or No Deal, an utterly skill-free game of chance in which competitors stand to win up to £250,000.

On Countdown the star prize is a goody bag with a Countdown teapot in it - but if I were taking bets I'd say that Des will still be there after Noel has moved on to other projects.