Richard Whiteley

Garish-tied presenter of 'Countdown' since Channel 4's launch in 1982
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The Independent Online

John Richard Whiteley, television presenter: born Bradford, Yorkshire 28 December 1943; OBE 2004; married (one son); died Leeds 26 June 2005.

With a reputation for loud ties, striped jackets and cringing puns, Richard Whiteley became Channel 4's longest-running presenter after making history as the first face to be seen on its launch day, back in 1982. Indeed, he probably appeared more times on screen than anyone except Carole Hersee, the girl on the BBC test card.

As the portly, bumbling host of 3,959 editions of the weekday-afternoon words-and-numbers quiz show Countdown, he was an iconic character beloved by pensioners, housewives, shift workers and students. But it took 13 years for the star himself to realise the extent of his cult status. After appearing at Leeds University, he recalled:

The girl students were fighting to try on my glasses and give me a drink of their beer. Then they'd shriek, "Oh, he's drunk from my glass!" The president of the students' union said, "We've had a few pop groups in here, but I've never seen anything like it!"

For Whiteley, it was a case of being catapulted to national fame after years as a regional television reporter and presenter. Until the arrival of Channel 4, the host of Yorkshire Television's news magazine, Calendar, registered nationally only on the gaffes show It'll Be Alright on the Night. He was seen in a 1978 clip from a Calendar spin-off having his finger bitten by a ferret that had been brought to the studio by the author of a book about the half-tame creatures. Whiteley recalled:

In mid-sentence, the animal stuck its pearly white teeth straight into the fleshy part of my finger. It was like a dozen needles. Just as the camera panned away, he made the classic remark, "Don't worry. He's only playing, or he would have bitten through to the bone by now." When it happened, it felt like a road accident in slow motion. But, when I saw it afterwards on video, the whole incident only lasted about 25 seconds.

Then, in the summer of 1982, came the idea for another of the Yorkshire news programme's many spin-offs, Calendar Countdown, and Whiteley was asked to front the six-episode series that pitted contestants' wits and mental agility against the clock - a format based on the French television show Des Chiffres et des Lettres ("Digits and Letters"). Yorkshire Television subsequently persuaded Channel 4 to commission it as a four-times-a-week afternoon programme, the first to be broadcast on Britain's fourth terrestrial channel, on 2 November 1982.

Countdown took a while to gain a loyal audience, but Whiteley and Carol Vorderman, the programme's resident statistician, eventually became a much loved double-act noted for their banter and friendly put-downs of each other, with Whiteley playing the dunce to Vorderman's genius. (Vorderman, a 21-year-old Cambridge University engineering graduate when the programme began, was soon presenting other television shows in her own right while continuing on Countdown, which increased to five episodes a week in 1984 - all of them recorded in one day at Yorkshire Television's studios.)

Born in Bradford in 1943, Whiteley was brought up in nearby Baildon, and his father, Kenneth, ran the Thomas Whiteley textile mill in Eccleshill. At the age of 13, Richard Whiteley won a scholarship to Giggleswick public school, where he found an inspirational teacher in his English master, Russell Harty, who went on to find fame as a television presenter and chat-show host. Whiteley recalled:

He was like a tornado and a marvellous teacher. He made the subject live for me. So much so that he was instrumental in my getting a place at Christ's College, Cambridge.

In fact, Whiteley passed seven O levels and three A levels by the time he was 16. He studied English at Cambridge, where he also edited the university newspaper, Varsity. This led to an appearance on Anglia Television's regional news magazine, where he was advised to apply for a traineeship at ITN.

As a result, he joined ITV's national news producer in 1965 as a scriptwriter but left three years later to become a reporter with the newly formed Yorkshire Television. He was soon a regular presenter of its news programme, Calendar, often alongside Austin Mitchell until his co-host's departure in 1977 to become a Labour MP. Whiteley was also the regional company's political editor for a while, and interviewed every British prime minister from Harold Macmillan to John Major. He was staying at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party were holding their annual conference, when an IRA bomb exploded in 1984. Until 1995, he continued to present Calendar as well as Countdown, leading to his nickname, "Twice-Nightly Whiteley".

For Channel 4, Whiteley also hosted two spin-offs, Countdown Masters (1989-91), a daily, five-minute show that was part of The Channel Four Daily's breakfast schedule, and the eight-part Celebrity Countdown (1998), featuring stars such as Jo Brand, Bamber Gascoigne and Des Lynam. Then, he had a short run hosting a chat-show, Richard Whiteley Unbriefed (1999) for the BBC, in which he interviewed guests with no prior knowledge of their identities. (He had already hosted chat-shows in the Yorkshire Television region - Calendar Tuesday and Friday Whiteley.)

A proud Yorkshireman, who had a home in Wensleydale and another in Ilkley, near Granada Yorkshire's Leeds studios, he often appeared at regional events - and held the honorary title of Mayor of Wetwang, a small village in East Yorkshire. He said:

I'm a man for all the Ridings. I'm a West Riding lad and I'm a Deputy Lieutenant. I went to school in the old West Riding that's now in North Yorkshire, I live in the North Riding and I'm the Mayor of Wetwang - that's the great honour among all honours.

Whiteley's garish ties were matched by an equally colourful love life. His only marriage, to a woman he would identify just as "Candy", an interior designer whom he met in Harrogate, ended in divorce after 18 months. Then, in 1987, he had a son, James, from an on-off relationship with the journalist and broadcaster Lesley Ebbetts.

For the last 11 years of his life, Whiteley's partner was the actress Kathryn Apanowicz, who started on screen in the Yorkshire Television networked talent show Junior Showtime and became best known for her role as Den Watts's mistress Mags Czajkowski in EastEnders. She moved in with Whiteley only two years ago, following his admission of an affair with the actress Angela Grant.

The presenter's autobiography, Himoff!: the memoirs of a TV matinée idle (as in "him off the telly"), was published in 2000.

Anthony Hayward