Chris Wills' Experience - Page 2

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Chris Wills returned to our screens on 7th January 2003 for the Championship of Champions, where he initially faced David Williams in an extremely tight game before going on to face Loz Sands in the quarter-finals. Having dispensed with Loz, he knocked out John Rawnsley in the semis to set up the mouth-watering prospect of a final against a similarly unbeaten Graham Nash. This is Chris's version of events...

Sunday 17 November 2002: Coronation Street's own Dick Dastardly, Richard "but Audrey, I insissst" Hillman, reveals his senile mother's inability to do the numbers game on Countdown as the root of his murderous tendencies.

Monday 18 November 2002: Chris Wills boards the train to Leeds and the long-awaited Champion of Champions.

Quite a lot had happened since I recorded the finals in April. The recognition had come (and still does) in a steady stream - I'd done interviews for a couple of newspapers and I'd been up to Edinburgh, where I was guest of honour at a special meeting of the Edinburgh Countdown Club at Edinburgh Zoo. There I met Nita, Jenny and all the others and played a few games. In one of them I incurred my first defeat - to Melanie Beaumont. It would prove to be an omen of what was to come...

Anyway, I got sick of bananas after a couple of weeks, so I was let out of the enclosure and allowed to go home. There I returned to the normality (well, sort of) of everyday life, knowing however that, come mid-November, I would be returning to Leeds for a crack at Countdown's elite event. Fifteen others would be there as well, including the likes of Michael Calder, Graham Nash, Ben Wilson and, from my series, Tom Hargreaves and Rupert Stokoe. I was looking forward to it and was even mildly confident about my chances. Then, a month before recording, Julian Fell appeared. Here was someone who seemed able to produce not only obscure words, but also their precise definitions at will, remorselessly - and indeed he did over 8 games. Julian retired by beating my score of 129 in his final game, and I felt like retiring as well! Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained...

I arrived in Leeds knowing that one champion wouldn't be there - Stuart Wood, who needed a leg operation and therefore had to forego Champion of Champions. Stuart, if you're reading this, I hope the leg's better now and that we see you again some time in the future.

Tuesday morning and there were no contestants in view in the dining area of the hotel. So I went into Leeds to kill a couple of hours, looking for a NatWest cash machine. By the time I returned to the hotel, Geraldine Hylands was there with her family. We chatted for a while and then David Williams, my first opponent appeared, followed shortly after by Tom and his mum. Then it was time to go to the studios. There was a lovely familiarity about walking into YTV reception and then being greeted by Paula. Then it was on to the dressing room - rather bigger than last time. There I discovered that my tops - which I had planned on wearing for weeks - were at least partly unsuitable due to the new set. So I had to trail off with Hayley to wardrobe and find a replacement so I didn't strobe, clash with or disappear into a set that sounded like Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen's idea of a sick joke. And at first glance, that's exactly what it seemed like. After three days of lengthy exposure, I did get used to it and even began to warm to it. A bit of a shock at first, though. Finally I was reunited with Pam in make-up.

Other contestants appeared in the green room and by the time recording was due to start I had met pretty much everybody apart from Terry O'Farrell - and Julian. That meeting was to be deferred until the following day. Everybody was soon fairly relaxed and chatty. It was great seeing Tom and Rupert again, as well as meeting Ben for the first time.

On with the first game then, as Michael Calder took on Loz Sands. Mike was one of the contestants I feared most, due to an incredible performance in his final that included MYOGLOBIN in the first round. Loz, meanwhile, had moved up in the world (or down, depending on your point of view) from knicker elastic to shoelaces. Loz took the lead after a typically virtuoso first numbers game, a lead she held throughout the game, eventually winning 77-60. A bit of an upset to start with, then - and I was the next champion in the firing line...

Before my match against David Williams started, I had the opportunity of chatting with Dictionary Corner's guest for the day, the wonderful Martin Jarvis. I got him to sign an old Just William tape and also chatted briefly with him about Doctor Who. That, however, was the light relief before the serious bit started. For 8 rounds we were totally deadlocked. In Round 6, we both got a nine. I took it as read that everyone in the studio had got a nine (hence that idiotic nodding and grinning). Finally, in Round 9, I ventured GUNSMITH and got ahead, but 8 points was to prove as much of a lead as I could manage. In Round 13, David beat me with UNLOAD to reduce it to 2 points. Then he beat me on the numbers meaning that, for the first time ever in my Countdown career, I was behind going into the conundrum. I managed to unscramble NELLYRATE into ETERNALLY and buzz in just a microsecond ahead of David. I was into the quarter-finals by not even the skin of my teeth, 113-111. The only consolation for David was that he had recorded the highest-ever losing score in the show's history.

The next match between Rupert Stokoe and Grace Page created another surprise. Grace, who had managed to hold Julian well in the Series 48 final, seemed rather nervous and never really got into the game, and although she got the conundrum at the end, Rupert still won 90-80.

After a break for dinner, it was time for John Rawnsley to play Kevin McMahon. Kevin looked more terrified than ever now he was seated, and a technical hitch that delayed the start of the recording can't have helped. Yet, once the game actually started he seemed really focused and determined. Mind you, so was John, and the game was really tight all the way. Eventually, with Kevin 8 points ahead, it was down to the conundrum. Kevin buzzed instantaneously - and then blanked, a horrible moment. John buzzed just half a second later with the right answer and he, like me, had come from behind to claim a place in the last 8.

The last game of the day saw the Nebagram himself take on Geraldine Hylands. Geraldine made a fatal error on the first numbers game, and that was to ultimately prove decisive, as it meant that Ben ended up with enough of a lead by the conundrum that, although Geraldine got it, it was he who advanced 94-91. The luck of the Irish seemed to have run out, and with their last representative given arguably the worst draw of all, things didn't look good. The main thing for the moment, however, was that it was time for the bar at the end of a long, but enjoyable day.

Day Two was a grey and miserable one. I didn't bother to venture outside the hotel, instead spending much of the time chatting to Loz and watching Michael Jackson's latest antics with a somewhat open jaw. However, while the weather might have been dull, someone was about to make the studio very bright...

We gathered at lunchtime, and got to meet Julian, who was clearly very pleased to meet all of us. I think I now know how Tom must have felt about meeting me in the recordings for the Series 47 finals. Julian did however turn out to be very personable and really very modest about his achievements.

His was the second match of the day, as first up was Tom, against John Rainsden. Tom took control of the proceedings pretty much from the start and eventually won 117-65. Then it was Julian's turn, against Terry O'Farrell. I think Terry was probably just hoping not to get humiliated, and fortunately for him it didn't happen. Julian won 118-64, but did miss a nine - the director got it, and it was apparently the first nine she'd ever spotted!

The last match of the day saw David Ballheimer take on Graham Nash. Or rather, David Ballheimer's green and yellow shirt take on Graham Nash's Hawaiian shirt, the likes of which probably haven't been seen on TV since the days of Magnum P.I.. I have to say that the Hawaiian shirt won - and so did Graham, 103-70 in a contest that was perhaps expected to be closer. In any case, the final 8 was now decided - and I was up next in the first quarter-final, against Loz.

Once again, the Dictionary Corner guest helped me relax a bit, this time because it was the familiar presence of Tim Rice. Perhaps it made me relax a bit too much, as I tried COAGULENT in the first round. Bad idea - it's COAGULANT only. Thereafter, however, I managed to take the lead and then led for the rest of the game (although I also missed TADPOLES, shamefully enough). A one-second conundrum with FRIVOLITY gave me a 98-69 win over Loz, although I have to say the scoreline was rather flattering.

The last match of the day saw Rupert take on John. This was a close match, but one where John always seemed to have that extra bit of edge. So it proved, as he eventually ran out the winner 89-70. No rematch against Rupert, then - instead, I would be taking on a fellow champion for the first time the next day.

In the bar afterwards, I revealed my prediction for the final conundrum. Damian got it in 1 second and said that wouldn't be it. Nice try, though...

On to the final day then, and an early start, as we were needed in the studio at 9.30am sharp. The first match of the day saw Ben against Tom, with Eric Knowles now in Dictionary Corner (I should mention at this point that Susie Dent, being the Trojan that she is, was on duty for all three days). Tom was on seriously good form - in fact they both were. The cruel irony for Ben was that, having finally got a nine, he ended up finally losing, with Tom running out the winner 131-98. I now had only the 4th highest score in Countdown history!

Then it was on to the final match, Julian against Graham, who was wearing an even more colourful Hawaiian shirt than the day before (as a consequence there was an even more colourful dispute with Hayley). This proved to be an absolute nail-biter. Julian gained a narrow lead, but then later risked GAMBIERS. Unfortunately for him, the more flexible rules on mass nouns wouldn't stretch to this word, and Graham now led by one point. He maintained that tiniest of leads all the way to the conundrum. By now the tension was unbearable, and as I was sitting next to Julian's mum I could feel it even more! Up it came and Graham got DISMISSED in 1 second to win 120-109. No disrespect to Graham, but there probably weren't many people who expected him to win. Not surprisingly, we all felt drained afterwards, and it was just as well that it was then time for lunch.

A couple of hours and one pizza later, I was back on set and facing John in the first semi-final. The pizza must have got my brain in gear, as I forged ahead with FORESTER and then the risky (but this time okay) nine DECAGONAL in the first half. That lead set me up for the rest of the match, and it was only on the conundrum that I faltered, John spotting CAFETERIA after 8 seconds. Nonetheless, I was still home and dry 120-88. I was in the final of the Championship of Champions, and scarce able to believe it.

So next, it was Tom and Graham, the two tallest contestants in the tournament. Graham had decided that his shirt was lucky and wore it again. It proved to be lucky as well. Tom had a couple of unlucky breaks on the letters - particularly in the round where he tried RESCALING to Graham's CLEARINGS. Nevertheless, after Round 13, Tom was only 11 points behind and still within striking distance. Agonisingly, however, yet another easy numbers (Cecil seemed to have gone to sleep by this stage) meant he was still 11 points behind going into the conundrum. Graham got in there first to seal a 104-83 victory. So, the final was going to be Wills v Nash. If only Richard Wilson's screen wife had been in Dictionary Corner...

Graham was a bundle of nerves before the final, but once again he was wearing his lucky shirt. I was starting to feel almost too tired to be nervous, as it had been a long (albeit very enjoyable) three days. In the first round, we both got a seven, but I had seen an eight - COULTERS - only to decide not to go for it. Perhaps I was still haunted by COAGULENT. I did pull ahead in Round 4 with GAMBADE, but then an impossible numbers kept the scores at 28-21. In the second half, it went a bit pear-shaped, as I missed PENSIVE in Round 6 and then slipped up with MISTLE in Round 8. By the end of the half, I was trailing 53-59. It was low-scoring and pretty obvious that a century wasn't on the cards. We remained level on the last three letters games and then Graham tried 6 small ones on the numbers. However, these turned out to be almost the 6 smallest possible, making the target unattainable, which meant that it was still 79-73 in his favour going into the conundrum. I'd won from behind before, could I do it again?

OVERSPADE came up. I stared and stared at it and, as the 30 seconds ticked by, couldn't make anything of it. Neither could Graham. The answer was EAVESDROP. But that hardly mattered - as the clock finished ticking, he exploded with delight. The deputy night store manager from Preston with the mind-blowing taste in shirts, who only ever really wanted make-up to make him look like George Clooney, had ended my unbeaten run - and become Champion of Champions to boot. He thoroughly deserved to win, and the shirt has now surely passed into TV legend!

So it was all over, three days of high-class action and I felt privileged to be part of it. Drinks and nibbles in the bar followed and discussion of what we were all going to go on next. Because the end was the worst bit, knowing that, barring the odd special (or maybe a turnover of staff!!), our Countdown careers were probably over. Still, as Nita Marr said to me when I made another visit to Edinburgh a couple of weeks later, she thought the same after she had done her series back in 1987, and they've kept having her back ever since. Most recently for a match against some bloke called Mike Brown, which will get televised. Eventually.

As for yours truly, who knows where you'll see me next. Those of you who can get Channel 5 may have caught me on Brainteaser recently, and I can assure you that the guy from Folkestone who really, really does like Dover will be back on your screens again soon. However, no matter how many other quiz shows I do in the future, I suspect that my memories of doing Countdown will always remain the fondest, thanks to all the people who work there and the other contestants.

Here's to another 20 happy years.

Chris Wills

[The second part of this article was written in January 2003]

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