Ben Wilson first appeared on Countdown on 6th November 2001, knocking out namesake Peter Wilson in a contest that was closely fought until round 9 when Ben began to build up what was to prove an unassailable lead. He then went on to record five further victories and become the series' third viscount. Ben amassed a very respectable 570 points, which together with his highest score of 102, was enough to make him the number one seed come the quarter-finals. In the finals, Ben saw off fellow auditionee Simon Cartwright and Stirlingshire's Paul Ryan before finally beating number six seed Steve Sandalls in a vintage final on Christmas Day.
It all really started in December 2000, just after Christmas. I was nearing the end of my 'A' levels (although, effectively, I'd stopped several months previously), and was finding new and improved ways to waste time in the Christmas holidays, when my mother told me, for no particular reason, that she had a spare envelope and a spare stamp (she was writing letters and had miscounted the number of people to write off to - maybe she included herself on the list or something), and asked me whether or not I had any competitions I wanted to send off for (I have a weakness for magazine competitions). I didn't have any in particular, so instead, I hit on the idea of sending off for an application form for Countdown. As you do. This did, of course, require another stamp and another envelope (you have to send an SAE), but my mind was made up - I wanted in. I mean on. A couple of weeks passed, and I received back an application form from Leeds, which I quickly filled in. It took a while to get a passport photo (the machine in our local Asda was on the blink - although in reality it was more like conjunctivitis), but eventually, I sent the form back, and was told that I had a date for my audition - February 28th, 2001. I marked that date down in my diary, and it swiftly came.
And went. It was about 8:45 on that Wednesday morning that I was awoken, of all people, by Damian Eadie (Countdown producer) ringing from Leeds to tell me the audition'd been cancelled due to poor weather in Nottingham, where the audition was to have taken place. Great. Now I had another month to wait before my next audition. I eventually did go to school that day, I just didn't bother going to the lessons (which I'd already excused myself from beforehand). A week later I was instructed to get myself down to Nottingham for April 5th.
This is about the part of the story when I introduce my "manager" for my time on Countdown - my brother, Matt, who acted as grocer (keeping me full of liquids), chauffeur (driving me to Nottingham and Leeds - and back), and psychologist (keeping me permanently psyched up for the challenge). He was very good at all these tasks - who says that all you learn in the forces is how to kill people? He'd booked leave on February 28th, and was none too pleased when the audition was cancelled. Like me, he went along to work anyway, but I'm not sure whether or not he actually did any work that day. Anyway, March came and went, bringing with it my 18th birthday on the 22nd (and around £250 birthday money - ker-ching!), and April 5th soon dawned on me.
I got up, sat by the phone for half an hour, expecting Damian to ring again and scupper the audition, and when that didn't occur, we had a green light for go - me and Matt boarded his K-reg Calibra, and off we went to Nottingham.
We got there an hour and a half too early and it was p***ing it down, so we took a quick vote and unanimously voted for the only proposal - stay in the car. I had brought my Countdown "Puzzle Mountain" book with me, and I began practising using that, with Matt (who was himself busy working on a speech) throwing in the odd 7-9 letter anagram from time to time. All this while listening to some soothing music - well, actually, it was Limp Bizkit, but never mind. I went into the audition fired up, prepared, and knowing that I had the ability to get on the show. When watching it, I'd frequently play myself against the reigning champions and see how well I did - once, I figured, I would have run out with a 38-point winning margin - and the champion had got the conundrum!
Back to the audition. This audition was conducted by Marie, the show's contestant researcher - others are often done by Damian or Michael (Wylie, Countdown producer) themselves. This time, they'd sent Marie to put us through our paces. It was a pretty informal affair - we were sat at a table, each with a pen and some pieces of paper. I was by far the youngest there, the next youngest being (I figured) in his late 20's/early 30's. This is the guy I will later describe as doing very well, often besting me - the same guy who turned out to actually be Simon Cartwright, also from Lincoln, who I would later meet in the final knock-out rounds.
The audition consisted of 7 letters games, 3 numbers games and 3 conundrums - it turns out you don't have to answer any conundrums correctly to get on the show - Damian and Michael just like throwing them in for fun. If you're interested, my results from the audition were - letters - one 6-letter word, three 7-letter words (one disallowed - FACIEST - my little knowing that the word SH*TFACE was there and perfectly allowable - I'm not kidding!), two 8-letter words and one 9-letter word. Of the three numbers games, I got one bang on, was within five for another, and completely blobbed the last one (try for yourself! - 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, target - 773). I got two of the conundrums, at this point not having being told that they didn't count. After the audition, I walked away with a touch of optimism - I reckoned I had done well enough to get on the show, but wasn't quite as good as another guy who was auditioning with me (who turned out to be Simon). Marie told me that I'd be informed whether or not I'd passed within a few days.
A few days later - a letter arrived, postmarked Leeds, with the news - I was successful. Later in the year, I would be going to Leeds to record at least one show (and get the worst night's sleep I'd ever had). When I told everyone at school, their first response (I'm not kidding here) was "Why didn't you apply to go on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" to which my response was "That's too hard to get on - not as many people apply to go on Countdown". Harsh, true, but it doesn't really take anything away from Countdown's appeal. The letter telling me of my success informed me that my recording date would be revealed a few months hence, which was fine with me, but not with my schoolmates, who were (constantly, in some people's case) asking me "When will you be on Countdown?". My responses to this ranged from "I don't know, I'll find out later this year" to "Argh! I'll know later in the p***ing year, already!". As it turned out, I was told in mid-August, long after the school year had ended, depriving me of the opportunity to show off down the tube again. Still, at least I'll get to go on national TV and they won't (obligatory snide bit there. Sorry). The recording date was sometime at the start of October (can't remember exactly when), so the days off were booked, everything was prepared, and a back-up plan was formulated in case Damian rang and scuppered it again (just kidding, Damian).