Richard Whiteley, the matinee idol who seduced 'Countdown' viewers, dies at 61

Richard Whiteley, the game-show host and the first face to appear on Channel 4, has died at the age of 61.

The Countdown presenter, from Ilkley, West Yorkshire, famous for his poor jokes and even worse collection of ties, had been ill for a number of weeks suffering from pneumonia. Reports said he died after undergoing corrective heart surgery

Whiteley and Carol Vorderman hosted Countdown since Channel 4's launch in 1982. It was originally planned to run for five weeks but has outlasted every one of the station's other programmes, bar the news, and regularly attracts four million viewers. With more than 10,000 appearances Whiteley was said to be the most-seen face on British television, apart from the test card girl Carole Hersee.

Not surprisingly his biography was called Himoff! ... The Life and Times of a TV Matinee Idol, in reference to the remark "him off the telly" and his daytime television star status.

Whiteley was instantly recognisable by his loud ties and stripy jackets. At the last count he owned 528 ties and 186 jackets, many of which were sent in by fans. A popular feature of the show was his frequent anecdotes and puns often met by groans from guests and audiences. He did not miss an episode for 23 years until last month when he was taken to Bradford Royal Infirmary with pneumonia.

A Channel 4 spokeswoman said: "We are shocked and stunned to hear of Richard's death. Our thoughts are with Kathryn [Apanowicz, his long-term partner] and Richard's family and friends."

She said a decision would be taken overnight about whether to broadcast today's edition of Countdown, which features Whiteley. He has appeared on screen for the past few weeks as the shows were pre-recorded.

This week was to have been the last to feature Whiteley ­ from next Monday the programme was to have been hosted by a number of guest presenters. A spokeswoman for ITV Yorkshire said friends and colleagues were shocked by the presenter's death. She said: "We were optimistic that things were going well, and we are shocked and deeply saddened to hear tonight's news."

Ms Vorderman's agent John Miles said: "Carol is absolutely devastated, she is so devastated. He was such a good friend whom she loved dearly ­ they had 23 years of making programmes together, that's about 4,000 programmes together."

Mr Miles said he had spoken to Ms Vorderman yesterday morning and Whiteley had seemed to be well. "It is all the more difficult because of the shock," said Mr Miles. "We never, ever expected it to happen.

"As far as we knew he had had a heart operation a couple of days ago and was making good progress. It was hoped that at the end of the summer he would be back making Countdown programmes again. Carol is having great difficulty in coming to terms with what has happened."

Ms Apanowicz also had a television career with a part in the BBC soap Angels before appearing in EastEnders and Emmerdale in the early Eighties.

Born on 28 December 1943, in Bradford, John Richard Whiteley attended Giggleswick public school near Settle in the Yorkshire Dales, then Christ's College, Cambridge, where he took his first steps into the media as editor of the student newspaper.

His television career lifted off in the late Sixties when he was a local news reporter on the news programme Calendar on Yorkshire Television.

In 1984, he was among the first journalists at the scene of the Brighton bombing because he was at the Grand Hotel when it happened. He has also interviewed every prime minister since Harold Macmillan. He spent a record 27 years as the news anchorman at Calendar.

Whiteley made it on to the big screen with a cameo role in the 2002 film About a Boy, which starred Hugh Grant and Rachel Weisz. Other TV highlights from his colourful career included a notorious bite from a ferret and receiving a "Gotcha" award from Noel Edmonds.

Whiteley's hobbies included walking and looking at views from the windows of country pubs. He was also a keen horse racing fan. Last November, Whiteley was honoured with an OBE from the Queen, who is said to be a fan of Countdown, as was the late Queen Mother.

Broadcaster and writer Ned Sherrin, 74, who made more than 80 appearances in dictionary corner in the show's early years, described Whiteley as a "charming man". He said: "He was very good at his job, I admired him and liked him. We always got on terribly well."

Paying tribute to Whiteley last night, Esther Rantzen said: "He was just one of those people who made you smile. It was always a pleasure to meet him. He was genuinely self-deprecating. Although he was a very, very bright man, he wore his considerable brain in a very English, unassuming, modest way.

"You had the mathematical powerhouse that is Carol Vorderman and the charming, slightly bumbling figure, with a terrible taste in puns and jackets, holding the show together. It is easy to underestimate his strength on screen. It is very difficult always to be welcome on screen and he never outstayed his welcome. They won't be able to replace him."

A spokeswoman for Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust said: "We are saddened to hear that Richard Whiteley has died and our sympathies are with his family at this time."