Philip Hensher: The essential decency of Richard Whiteley

Ninety-nine TV presenters out of a hundred could drop dead and no one would feel anything much
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The Independent Online

Probably a lot of people picked up the paper on Monday, glanced at the headline, and, as I did, felt a small tug at the heart. "Oh - Richard Whiteley - oh, no, that's not supposed to happen." As with all one's thoughts about Richard Whiteley, this one felt very slightly absurd; a small but authentic little pang of grief over someone who you never met, who you only ever saw on the television in the afternoons.

Probably a lot of people picked up the paper on Monday, glanced at the headline, and, as I did, felt a small tug at the heart. "Oh - Richard Whiteley - oh, no, that's not supposed to happen." As with all one's thoughts about Richard Whiteley, this one felt very slightly absurd; a small but authentic little pang of grief over someone who you never met, who you only ever saw on the television in the afternoons.

But Countdown, for years now, has been a regular commitment of mine, and most people who know me won't risk phoning between 3.15 and 4 o'clock on a weekday. Most game shows leave me quite cold, but I absolutely adore Countdown. For anyone who doesn't know it, the contestants choose nine letters, specifying vowels or consonants, and then have to make the longest word they can out if them. Every few rounds, there is a number game, where they have to work out how to produce a particular large number out of six small ones.

Nothing more than that. There is a celebrity guest, cracking weak jokes or telling celebrity anecdotes. There is no prize, apart from a motley "goody-bag" of mugs and T-shirts and a dictionary. It never, ever alters from one edition to the next - even the camera angles seem set in stone.

Any producer, I once heard, who arrives determined to make changes is almost certain to be carted off by the men in white coats within six months, and the whole thing looks like something emanating from behind the Iron Curtain, circa 1974. I read that each edition costs £13,000 to make, a figure meant to impress with its cheapness, but frankly, one wonders what on earth they spend it on.

But then, there is - was - the banter between Richard and Carol, based firmly on a series of ludicrous in-jokes. Richard's wig-like hair, Gypsy Creams, the village of Wetwang (of which Richard eventually became Mayor), Carol's juggernaut-like celebrity, and Richard's unconsummated passion for the Vord at the Board; it just went on, enchantingly, for years on end.

Everyone with nothing better to do at that time of day seems to watch it; the Queen (famously), students, pensioners, freelancers, children, novelists. And we all really love it - after 23 years, it is still one of Channel 4's most popular programmes. Probably, too, quite a lot of us feel, in some way, grateful towards it.

I certainly do. I must have watched it occasionally, but I first developed a serious habit at a very low point in my life. I was in a job I hated, under a great deal of stress; a relationship had ended in a messy way, and I was finding it fairly hard to leave the house or achieve anything very much. It was just daytime television, something which, for the most part, symbolises a state of depression even to its viewers.

At first, I thought I couldn't stand Richard - the weak jokes, the awful clothes, the chortling, the letters from the viewers. But I liked the game. The nice thing about it is that there isn't a right answer; you just do the best you can. A bit like life.

After a while, I started joining in with the game, and though I've never been any good at it at all - I get FRONT, they get FORTUNATE - it didn't matter at all. For a short time every day, I started to feel as if I was actually doing something, making an effort, and my efforts were not inadequate, or failures; I was doing the best I could.

And then, of course, you start to like Richard. At a time when almost everyone on television was starting to wear a frantic grin and a crazed gleam in the eye flickering over the autocue, he was unmistakably just a nice man with only the vaguest idea, if that, of what he might say next.

He was totally genuine, and looked exactly what he was, an upper-middle-class Yorkshireman. There was no faking that, no bogus salt-of-the-earth rubbish, nor any pretence at competence. Though the show always kept going, there was often a suspicion that it might, one of these days, grind to a complete halt. That, really, was what everyone secretly loved about the whole ramshackle spectacular.

So of course one thought "Oh no - not Richard -". His colleagues were obviously utterly sincere when they said that they were "devastated".

Ninety-nine television presenters out of a hundred could drop dead and no one, apart from their immediate family, would feel anything much. If someone dropped a house on Fearne Cotton's head, the most anyone could be expected to think was "Erm - did she do Crimewatch? Or was it the Holiday Programme?"

But that hundredth person had a sort of magic; you honestly felt that you knew and liked him, that an essential decency and kindness was being revealed. It was quite hard to watch an edition of his lovely programme without feeling much more cheerful afterwards. Could anyone say that about Big Brother?

I suspect he will prove utterly irreplaceable; there just isn't anyone like that on television, and anyone who tries to take his place will look like a slick, manufactured eccentric.

I would love Countdown to go on forever, but I can't imagine it any more; so let's just crack open a packet of Gypsy Creams and enjoy the memory of someone who, in a tiny but authentic way, cheered us all up for three quarters of an hour, five days a week.

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