The quiz show that time forgot

After 22 years, Countdown's quirky formula still mesmerises teatime television audiences. How on earth do they do it? Julia Stuart spends a day behind the scenes, spying on Richard Whiteley's wardrobe, Carol Vorderman's epic make-up operation, and the fierce rivalry of its star-struck contestants
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It's 12.30pm at Yorkshire Television studios in Leeds. The Countdown production team is about to record a week's worth of shows in one day. But before they start, they are politely tucking into their usual slap-up complementary buffet lunch, in a private room away from the contestants and audience members now queuing up in the canteen.

Richard Whiteley says his fellow presenter Carol Vorderman isn't there because she spends two hours in make-up. Cindy Ritson, the PA, tells everyone that last week a man rang up requesting a copy of the show's famous 30-second music, which is played while the clock ticks down. His mother, a huge fan, had died and he wanted to play it at the funeral. There is speculation over whether it will be played as the coffin makes its final passage through the crematorium curtains.

It is not the first time that the music has been requested for a funeral - testament to the show's popularity. The 45-minute quiz, broadcast every weekday afternoon, was the first programme to be broadcast when Channel 4 launched in November 1982. Apart from the news, it is the only programme to have survived - along with Whiteley and Vorderman, its original presenters; these days, the Cambridge-educated pair get at each other like an old married couple - presumably much like their viewers.

Initially panned, the programme now attracts an average of 1.3 million viewers a day - the highest audience share in the C4's daytime schedule. In July, the channel recommissioned the show for another five years. In the same month, Countdown was also honoured with a House of Commons reception in recognition of its promotion of literacy and numeracy.

Lunch over, Whiteley is in his dressing room selecting the first of five of his trademark garish jackets and ties (one for each show) that he will wear today. He comments that he once wore a tie made by a viewer with the show's name down the front. However, the "down" was obscured by the desk and the first letter "O" by his microphone. None of the "buggers in the control room" noticed the resulting rude spelling. After several loud "ha, ha, has", he cheerfully admits he wouldn't get the job of the show's host if he were auditioned today. "I'm not the archetypal quiz master," he says. "People call me bumbling. I wouldn't say I'm bumbling. I think I'm quite witty, actually. It's totally unscripted and we just fire off our wits, basically."

It's 1.40pm and Vorderman is already in the studio standing in front of the audience - 90 largely bespectacled, balding or permed aficionados from Wigan - talking to them like a polished raconteur. During the lifetime of the show, she has morphed from a chubby, shoulder-pad wearing frump to a diet-thin vamp with go-faster curves. When she appeared in a corset and fishnet tights in the men's magazine GQ in May, sales increased by 23 per cent. Today, her taupe skirt is so tight it's clamped to the undercarriage of her much-studied bottom. The spikes of her heels could kill small mammals.

Suddenly Whiteley, in a navy jacket, pink tie and stripped shirt, blows in like a paint-splattered small yacht. Vorderman stops mid sentence, bows and announces: "We're in the presence of greatness." The audience - there is currently a two-year waiting list for tickets - cheer ecstatically. He beams at the reception and joins in the banter.

Quite what is behind Countdown's enduring appeal is anybody's guess. Whiteley happily admits it would never be commissioned today. Two contestants compete to make the longest word out of a random selection of nine vowels and consonants, which Vorderman sticks on a board. To increase the tension, a lexicographer and a celebrity sit in "Dictionary Corner" trying to beat them. In the numbers round, the con- testants compete to reach a computer-generated figure from six random numbers. Maths supremo Vorderman writes out their calculations on a large piece of paper with a felt-tip pen. For a large part of the show - while the clock ticks down for 30 seconds - nothing happens. The prize for the series winner is a 20-volume leather-bound set of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary.

Dudley Doolittle, the warm-up man, explains the importance of clapping to the audience: "We get a nice little atmosphere from you and everyone performs." Seven cameras are trained on the set, which was changed a year ago from warm tangerine to violet, producing protest from viewers, as does every modification to the show. (A revamp to the 30-second music caused such outrage it had to be changed back again.)

The celebrity guest, the magician Paul Zenon, is already sitting in Dictionary Corner with lexicographer Susie Dent. Also on the set is the current champion, white-haired John Hunt, 69, from Suffolk, who worked in property before retiring, and the equally white-haired Peter Gerosa, 77, from Reigate, Surrey, a former civil servant.

As Whiteley kicks of fshow number 3,780, he introduces Gerosa, saying he has an interest in Scottish islands. The presenter then suggests he may want to "mull things over". The audience moans, but deep within their comfortable shoes their toes collectively wriggle with delight. As the game starts, they frown in unison, hunched over white Countdown pads, furiously trying to beat the contestants. Every time Vorderman puts a letter on the board, she turns to camera three, her hair extensions swinging down her back, and gives the kind of smoulder that would blow a pacemaker.

At the end of each word game, the prop man Spike, dressed in jeans and T-shirt, leaps onto the set, grabs the letters and hightails it off again. The audience whisper their answers so loudly to each other that they are asked to keep it down by Trevor, the floor manager. Hunt wins 108 to 61. There is a loud cheer from the audience. The winner, presenters and residents of Dictionary Cor- ner troop off to change for the next game.

Before filming resumes, Whiteley, stand- ing in front of the audience, announces that he saw Vorderman's "celebrity teeth" (which one assumes have been bleached) in the News of the World. "You can't leave it alone, can you?" he says. "They are a bit white," she admits. The show under way, Hunt, who is introduced as the "champion from yesterday", beats Renée Dunbar, a retired bookkeeper from Derbyshire, 106 to 51.

It's 4.30pm and time for the tea break. A plate of chocolate-coated biscuits has been placed on the table in the green room, which is, in fact, peach. "It's a bit exhausting, especially at my age, but you carry on, " says Hunt. "My wife died last year and we always used to play Countdown against each other and I thought I would like to play against some real people instead of just on the television. It stretches the mind, which is good when you're getting on a bit."

Gerosa admits to being disappointed by his defeat. "I thought I could do quite well at it, but I proved to be wrong. My performance was below par for me. But it's been a great day. I've been watching Countdown for about eight years. I like Richard's sense of humour. He's very entertaining and Carol's amusing to watch."

Recovering in a cream leather armchair, Dunbar, who took two years and two auditions to get on to the show, confesses that she couldn't see Vorderman or the letters behind her. "There was no way I was going to appear on television in my glasses," she says. "I didn't do very well at all, considering I'm a book-keeper. It was nerves. At home it's so much easier. I'm relieved it's over, but it was a wonderful experience. Lovely. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Carol is gorgeous, isn't she? And Richard is lovely."

John Cox, 69, from Surrey, is about to play the champion. "I've got butterflies," admits the retired shipworker, who, for the past 14 years, has been taping the show every day to watch while he and his wife eat supper. "I'm going to have a cup of tea and a glass of water and try to calm myself."

Trying to help steady his nerves is Charlotte Hudson, whose job it is to look after the contestants. "I try to make it a relaxed atmosphere and tell them a couple of jokes," she says. "You're sort of like their best friend. I've had some contestants cry when they haven't done as well as they wanted to. There's nothing you can do apart from comfort them." Cox goes into make-up.

Back in the studio, the cameras roll and Whiteley introduces Hunt and compliments him on his "thoroughly excellent performance" so far. "I keep on saying how interesting you are. I hope you are interesting." The game starts, but several retakes are needed as Whiteley confuses the two Johns. At one point, Spike and Vorderman drop the letters as they're clearing them off the board and start giggling. It's been an excitingly close match, but Hunt does it again, winning 80-73. Whiteley fluffs his farewell. The contestants have a group photograph taken with the presenters. Hunt is "dying for a ciggie".

Members of the audience rush up to Vorderman, who is first off the set, asking for her autograph. Joyce Traynor, 61, a retired medical records clerk who lives near Wigan, leads the horde. "I've thoroughly enjoyed it," she enthuses, wearing what appears to be her Sunday best. "I think Carol's brilliant. Her personality, her charm, everything. The autograph's for me. I'm going to show it to my friends and my daughter. I think she will try to get it off me, actually."

Cox wanders down the corridor lined with old pictures of Whiteley in windshield glasses and a round-cheeked Vorderman. "I'm gutted," he says. "I was slightly irritated because I actually got the conundrum one second after the time was up. If I had got it, I would have beaten him."

It's 5.30pm and a new audience starts to arrive at the studios for the evening session. Before having supper, Vorderman pops into her dressing room. Inside are neat rows of shoes, tights and what she refers to as "gripper knickers" (presumably because of their constraining abilities). She says that last week a man gave her a brooch that belonged to his late wife, a devoted fan, as well as some cherry tomatoes from his greenhouse. One day, she says, she'll wear the brooch on the show.

Sitting on a sofa, Vorderman recalls the early days of Countdown. "Richard used to pretend he was a professional presenter," she says, laughing. "He'd put on this act and people didn't like it. In those days, I just used to do the answers to the numbers game, nothing to do with the letters. I'll never forget the first time I said to him something about his jacket. He said: 'How dare you comment about my jacket.' It took him about a year to get used to it and the thing then fell into place. He's terrible to me as well." She insists his incompetence isn't put on. "He enjoys fluffing his lines. He knows no one is going to shout at him anymore, like they used to. The old producer used to make him redo things and he used to get quite nervous about it; he wouldn't admit to it, but he did."

During supper, Susie Dent the lexicographer admits that the celebrity in Dictionary Corner is fed suggestions for words by Damian Eadie, the producer and a former contestant, through an earpiece. One celebrity guest turned out to be dyslexic. "It was a nightmare. They kept misreading the words," she says.

Two further games are played, one of which has to be stopped as the control room says Vorderman's jacket is gaping at the bust. She is taken behind the set by the wardrobe mistress. Hunt ends the day still champion. "I'm shattered," he says when the lights go up for the final time.

It's 9.30pm and Whiteley walks off the set, still as excitable as a shaken can of Coke. He praises Paul Zenon, who performed several magic tricks during the show: "Some people in Dictionary Corner bring something different to the party. There have been one or two lazy ones who have just come for the money." He says he's going to have a sit-down in his dressing room before being chauffeur-driven home - "one of the perks of the job". Then he adds: "I don't speak on the way home." It's an incredible prospect. Once there, he'll watch Newsnight, have a cup of tea and then go to bed.

As he walks towards his dressing room, he bumps into contestant Jenny Masters, 62, a nurse from Cornwall. "Don't worry, he was very hard to beat," reassures Whiteley. "Thanks for the shortbread."

It's 9.40pm and a figure dressed in black combats and trainers, carrying a rucksack, is slowly walking up the now deserted corridor towards the exit, pulling a tiny suitcase. It's Carol Vorderman in mufti.