Countdown was the first proper programme shown on Channel 4 on its launch day in the UK on November 2, 1982 (after a short "Hi, welcome to Channel 4" introductory bit). It was originally commissioned for just seven weeks. However, it has stood the test of time. It celebrated its 1000th edition on July 2nd 1990, its 2000th edition on May 23rd 1997, and its 3000th edition on April 27th 2001.
Contestants have ranged in years from 8 (James Squires) to 87 (Bertha Bourne). Arguably the best ever player is Harvey Freeman who won the "Supreme Champion" show in 1997, in which former champions were invited back to compete against each other.
The show has always been hosted primarily by Richard Whiteley, with the assistance of various ladies to handle the letters and numbers. Carol Vorderman was originally only there to work out the numbers results, now she is the sole co-host. There are also two regular guests - one from the Oxford English Dictionary to help look up words, and another celebrity to keep things moving along.
Until 2001 the show was half an hour long with the grand finals 45 minutes long. All episodes are now 45 minutes long.
Each 15 minute segment consists of the following.
- Introduction to the players (first segment only).
- 3 letters games.
- 1 numbers game.
- A Conundrum (not in the first segment).
The contestants take turns to pick 9 letters, asking for a vowel or a consonant. Usually they'll pick 3 or 4 vowels, although this may vary depending on what letters come up. The contestants then have 30 seconds (timed by a big clock on the wall) to make the longest word possible (with certain restrictions - eg no proper nouns, but plurals are allowed as long as the letters are present).
Once complete, both players present their answers, and they are checked to ensure the words exist. The player with the longer word gets points equal to the length of the word. If both players have a word of the same length, they both get that number of points. A 9 letter word scores double.
The contestants take turns to pick 6 numbers, which are arranged face down on a desk. They key thing is that the top row contains 25, 50, 75 and 100, with the other rows containing numbers between 1 and 10. Sometimes players will specify exactly where to take them from, more often it will simply be "1 large and 5 small" or "2 large and 4 small". Fun can be had with 0 or 4 large numbers!
Then, Carol presses the button that makes CECIL (Countdown Electronic Computer in Leeds - a random number generator) pick a number between 100 and 999. The players have 30 seconds to make that number from the 6 provided, using each number no more than once (although they don't have to use all 6 numbers), and the four standard mathematical signs (+, -, *, /). Spot on scores 10, within 5 scores 7 and within 10 scores 5. Only the closest gets any points unless, again, both players get the same. The players have to talk Carol through their workings which she checks on a large board. Often she can find a solution, even if the players can't. (But not always!)
Sometimes the decider, sometimes irrelevant if one player is more than 10 points ahead. Richard presses a button and a 9 letter conundrum (anagram) turns round and the 30 second clock start. Players are on the buzzer. If a player buzzes in and gets it wrong, the other player has the rest of the 30 seconds to try to get it. 10 points to the winner.
RIP Richard Whiteley
Richard Whiteley died on June 26th 2005, a few days after having heart surgery, having hosted Countdown for 23 years.
According to spiregrain, Noel Edmunds and Des Lynam are in the running to replace him.