David Ballheimer first appeared on Countdown on Valentine's Day in 2000, knocking out Daniel Vanniasingham and going on to win seven more games to become Series 42's second octochamp and the number one seed, with a tally of 474 points. He then returned in June for the quarter-finals, where he beat Jim Ainsworth in a close-fought game before being knocked out in the first semi-final by one point in a low-scoring contest against John Hastings. He returned for the eleventh Championship of Champions in January 2003, where he fell foul of the eventual winner of the contest, Graham Nash. This is David's story...
It all started on Christmas Day (Boxing Day maybe) 1998. I was watching the Grand Final of Countdown Series 39 with my cousin and her family, two aunts and my parents (it was to be my father's last Christmas - more about that later). I don't remember it, even slightly, other than the fact that I had a very good afternoon and outscored both finalists heavily.
My cousin, in particular, was impressed by my performance and she said that I should apply to appear on the show. I informed her, as I had told my family many times before, that I was not prepared to enter, but if she wanted to enter on my behalf, then I would go through with it. Although she said she would do so, I didn't think any more would come of it.
About four weeks later, I received a letter from YTV/Countdown inviting me to fill in an application form. This I did and I thought nothing of it, my father's deteriorating health being of greater concern. Three months later, I was notified that there would be an audition on 24 August at the Mind Olympics at London Olympia and if I was interested, I should let Mark Nyman know. This I duly did.
Three days before the audition, my father, who, in the spring, had been diagnosed as suffering from both scleroderma and bowel cancer had been rushed to hospital and was very ill. After much deliberation and conversations with other family members, it was decided that I should go to the audition. About 60 people were at the audition, some of whom were only interested in testing themselves in a simulated situation.
In fact, the audition was little like the show. It was a written examination of about 20 words rounds, 10 numbers rounds and 7 conundrums. The second of the word rounds created INTESTINE, something I had become all to familiar with following my father's illness. It blew my mind away and I was little more than a robot for the rest of the 45 minutes we were given for the test. I didn't even care much how I did; I was more concerned about my dad.
At the end of the test, I explained to Mark Nyman that my father - a huge fan of the show - was desperately ill in hospital having had an ileostomy and that, after seeing the second set of letters gave the word INTESTINE, I could no longer concentrate on the test. Mark had told us before the audition that there was little point in retaking it - although he made it clear that a re-application wouldn't be rejected for that reason - because as he said, "Almost everyone who fails this test first time, will fail it again." I felt I had a valid reason for asking for a second chance and Mark said he would take it into account (he had raised an eyebrow when I mentioned I had spotted INTESTINE) when marking my test and, of course, in the circumstances I might well do much better. My father passed away two weeks later.
Two weeks after the funeral a family friend, who lived abroad, came over for a visit and on the Friday evening, we went out for a meal. When we returned home, I rewound the video ready to watch that day's edition of Countdown, a family ritual - I try to watch the show the evening after it has been first broadcast, and as often as possible with my mum, who may have already watched it. As I was doing that, my mum said, "Oh, I forgot to tell you, there was a letter from Yorkshire TV for you." I opened the envelope...
With a whoop of joy I read the first couple of lines, which included the words "congratulations" and "appear on the show". How I had managed to complete the test I do not know - to this day the only two of rounds that I remember are INTESTINE and the last conundrum, HARLEQUIN - but I had obviously done a good enough job to merit a place on the show. The letter said I may have to wait months before the recording details were known, but I would have plenty of time to make arrangements.
In the event, the YTV/Granada contract and personal information questionnaire arrived within a couple of weeks and both were duly returned. A few days later, I received details of when I would be going up to Yorkshire: Tuesday 7 December 1999, for the series to be broadcast in early 2000. It was to be the second show of the day. The letter explained that if I won those five remaining shows, I'd have to return to Leeds on Friday 10 December for up to three more games. Travel expenses (second class rail, bus fare/fares or reasonable petrol expenses, plus taxis to/from the station/studios) would be reimbursed and accommodation provided in a hotel close to Kirkstall Road. A map of Leeds, showing major roads into the city, plus the station and hotels close to the studio was also sent.
I learned that Martin Jarvis, one of my favourite guests in Dictionary Corner, was to sit in judgement of me, alongside Damian Eadie. Martin nearly never made it to the studios. About three weeks before the show, he walked past me on his way to a recording studio near to Goodge Street Station in London's West End. He was not sure which way to turn as he came to the crossroads at Goodge/Whitfield Streets. I was too scared (shy) to say anything to him, even though we were to meet in a few weeks. As I knew where I was going - and knew the road I was about to cross was a one-way street - I had already looked to my right and saw a van approaching. Suddenly Martin turned into my path and I had to swerve to avoid a collision that could have seen him end up in the path of the van.
December 7 dawned and I was at King's Cross in plenty of time to get to the studios. We were told to be there by 1.30, but I was almost an hour early. Mark Nyman said hello to me and a few minutes later Damian took me to the dressing room. I had spoken to Damian frequently over the previous weeks as his beloved Blackpool FC met my team - I am Press Officer of Hendon FC - in the FA Cup 10 days before the first recording. We had planned to meet for a drink the night before the game; sadly he couldn't make it. For the record, Blackpool luckily beat Hendon.
In the dressing room, the wardrobe manager told me that many of my tops were either too white, had too much advertising or were just unacceptable. Lucky I had brought nine tops with me! After pacing the room for about 10 minutes, the next contestant rolled up. He was a 17-year-old, sixth-form student, Daniel Vanniasingham. His mother was a district nurse, who had at some stage treated my uncle. Daniel was the first challenger of the day, so he had no idea about his first opponent, but Damian told us that it was a woman called Barbara, who had won her first game on the last show of the previous recording day, directly after the first Octochamp of the series - Mike Calder - had retired. My thought was, please, Barbara, beat Daniel - it is every adult contestant's nightmare to face a youngster and get a hammering. Even if you had won one game, there was less embarrassment in losing to a "child".
A few minutes later, a family from Glasgow entered the dressing room. The contestant was an even younger man, Ravi Choudhary. I was nervous - I guess we all were - but Ravi was even more nervous than me. The dressing room was completed by a fourth male contestant, a 30-something-year-old Teletext text editor, Jason Witcher, from Surrey. The day's other two contestants were women, Janet Nettleship, studying at Oxford University, and Maureen Graham, a Women's Institute volunteer who - it turned out - fed the crew and contestants with some scrumptious biscuits she had baked.
Then it was time for make-up. To my surprise it didn't take me very long to get ready, and it was back to the dressing room. Time seemed to stand still, but then Damian came in and said, "David, you can go into the studio and get miked up in the Hot Seat." Nerves were jangling as I walked into the studio and took my place in the Hot Seat. Greg Scott was the warm-up man and I cannot remember a word of his patter, but I know he made me laugh. Although I was determined to enjoy myself and take in everything, it all passed in a flash. Carol came onto the stage, followed by Martin Jarvis and Richard Whiteley. Their patter with the audience went down a treat and their professionalism shone through, although it must be very tedious to come up with almost the same gags and stories twice a day two dozen times in six months.
The show began and it was soon obvious that my first appearance was going to be against a "boy wonder". I was mentally preparing myself for a quick trip to the contestant's chair, a sound beating and an early train home on Wednesday morning. But a funny thing happened on my way to defeat. I was better than Daniel. After the penultimate round, I was 13 points clear and guaranteed victory. It didn't matter that he got the conundrum in two seconds; I had won. I WAS A CHAMPION!!!!
There was a break for a cup of tea and the photos. My heart was racing and I was so proud of myself. I looked at my next opponent, Janet, and she looked terrified. Before I went back to the dressing room to change my shirt, I crept out of the studios to ring home with the good news. The next game was a no-contest as Janet simply froze. The final score of 55-15 summed up the one-sidedness and I felt very sorry for Janet, because I am sure she was better than her score suggested.
Ravi was my third opponent of the day, and I knew it would be much closer. I thought he would be brilliant at the numbers - I enjoy the numbers game, and don't have a favourite selection. I decided always to say to Carol, with a gentlemanly flourish, "Carol, the choice is entirely yours" (and if I could have whipped off a Musketeer-style hat it would have been done with a sweeping, flourishing bow). I was not wrong; Ravi was hot on the numbers and is probably a genius with a computer too.
However, the second letters game produced STANSIDRE (those were the letters, the order may been different) and, within two seconds I had TARDINESS. I was a multiple champion and I got to say, "I have a nine, Richard." It proved to be decisive as I ran out the winner by 10 points, even after he got the conundrum. Before the end of the recording Ravi recited the complete Greek alphabet; at that stage, I doubt if I could have done the English alphabet!! We then had the dinner break, during which time more family members were informed of my success.
Jason Witcher was opponent No. 4. As can be seen from his piece, we were very well matched, but I remember something he said to me as we were waiting to record. He said, "I hope it doesn't come to a crucial conundrum, because I am not very good at them." Eight rounds later the scores were 62-62 as we had matched each other round for round eight times. The conundrum showed MENTALTOL. Within a few seconds I saw ALLOTMENT; I pushed the bell and the sound of deflation came from my left. I announced my word and I had won. One more game to go and I would be back on Friday. Maureen Graham came up a letter short in each of the first two games and she missed out on the first numbers game too. It finished 60-22 and, in Damian's estimation, I was one win short of being a certainty for the finals. Mark said to me in the bar after the recordings were over, "I was sure that Daniel was going to be an Octochamp, so you had to be good to beat him."
That night passed in a blur. After one drink I went back to the hotel and went straight to my room. It was hot and stuffy, but the night was quite cold. I couldn't open the window because the noise of the traffic was tremendous. The excitement, stuffiness, hum of the air conditioning and traffic ensured I had a lousy night's sleep. At least I didn't have to return to the studios to continue my run for a couple of days. Instead, I went back to London and was at work - regaling colleagues with my adventures - by early afternoon.
On the Friday, I returned to Leeds, made my way to the studio and set about working on an index of a book on the Kray family. A freelance is always available for work and a three-hour rail journey is a great opportunity to work and play simultaneously. In the studio dressing room, my peace was soon interrupted by the arrival of a very loud family. Mark Stubberfield was my opponent and everything about him suggested I was to be the first road bump to be crossed on his path to world fame. He was studying at the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, but came from Kent. His father talked exactly like my brother's father-in-law and Mark talked like his son - I nearly called him Darren!
Before the show started, there was a studio test for a new sound man, so Mark and I had to play a couple of dummy games. I chose the letters and Damian (playing Richard) gave us ROMANISE (even before I could say ROMANIES). Then it came to the numbers (put up by "Carol" in the shape of floor manager Val) and Mark was determined to show how good he was at the numbers - the family had talked about all the game shows they had been on, and what they had won; "game-show tarts" was the phrase that sprang to mind - so he went for four big and two small. The selection was 7, 4 and the four big ones. The target was very tough (I can't remember the exact details), but after 25 seconds, I had it. Mark got within two and gave me a look as if to say, "match that, sucker!" I nailed the number on the dot and Mark suddenly became very quiet.
The gorgeous Penny Smith was in DC and she was great fun, to say nothing of being a lovely person; the description of her in Countdown: Spreading the Word was spot on. The game wasn't close and when Mark had the chance to choose numbers at the end of the first half, he bottled it and went for two big and four small. We both got it, but it was a rare success for him as he went down 65-29. That was the sweetest victory of my run, and it got me thinking about the lack of British sporting success worldwide. Everybody wants to win a game, but the ethic in countries such as America and Australia, is not just wanting to win, but beating an opponent and there is a very clear difference between winning a game and beating an opponent: winning is almost abstract, beating somebody is subjective and personal. I wanted to win every game, but I wanted to BEAT Mark.
At this point I had some bad news. Thanks to a communication breakdown, I was given a new deadline for the index, and it meant I would have to work all through the night on Sunday to complete it on schedule. I was sailing through my next game, against Barbara Curr, when Ronnie, Reggie and Charlie floated into into my consciousness. I lost concentration, failed to score in the last four rounds, but still won 40-28.
My last opponent was Sue Downing, a paramedic from Yorkshire, and another contestant who was clearly over-awed at the whole experience. In the first letters round, I saw the word VIADUCT, but she said to Richard, "I can't do this. I can't see anything." I had a really good game - no thoughts of the Krays this time - and scored 71 points, my second best of the run. Richard was now calling me "The Maestro". At the end of the show, Sue said some lovely things to me as I sat basking in my glory. I WAS No. 1 SEED, AND AN OCTOCHAMP!