David Ballheimer's Experience - Page 2

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The quarter-finals were in March, on Thursday 21 and Friday 22 (the first two days of horse racing's flat season, with the meeting at Doncaster). I caught the same train as I had for the earlier recordings, although I did not need to be at the studios until 3.00. It didn't turn out that way. Racegoers missed the start of the season if they were on my train. The one ahead of ours pulled down the overhead power lines and brought the service to a juddering halt between Grantham and Retford. We were stationary for 40 minutes, reversed to Grantham, waited there for half an hour, crawled back to the spot we had previously stopped at, stayed there an hour, before finally inching our way up to Yorkshire. We finally arrived in Leeds at 2.55 - 2 hrs 30 mins late for a 2 hrs 20 mins journey - leaving me with five minutes to reach the studios.

I had left about four messages with Damian at the studios explaining my predicament, but I was not the only one in strife. Thankfully the taxi queue moved quite quickly and I got talking to the person in front of me, discussing what we were doing in Leeds. She didn't have a TV and knew nothing about Countdown. As I was explaining the game a head popped out of a cab in front. It was Carol. "Oh, hello David," she said, "are you going to the studios?". I said yes and she let me share the cab with her.

She, too, had suffered through the awful journey and had made sure that everybody knew the situation. To my great pride, I can say that Carol gave me a ride in the back of a cab. At least 30% of the men I tell this story to now believe I enjoyed a relationship with Carol (perchance to dream). The first person I met as I walked into the studios, carrying Carol's bag of course, was the Publicity Director of Oxford University Press, Kate Farquhar-Thompson, a long-time friend of mine who was up in Leeds tieing up the deal for OUP to continue their liaison with Countdown.

Recording didn't start until about 4.00, two hours behind schedule. I don't remember anything about the first few shows that day, but Jim Ainsworth made pretty short work of three or four opponents to become a five-game undefeated champion and the No. 8 seed. He decided to take his chances in this series rather than waiting until Series 43 and making a bid to become an Octochamp.

Ned Sherrin was in Dictionary Corner, alongside Damian, who was the only Dictionary person in my first four days. I was the No. 1 seed, so I opened up the finals series with a quarter-final against Jim. We were level through five rounds before things went pear-shaped for me. It started with LTEGTISGU and, having worked on a golf book a few days earlier, I remembered seeing the word GUTTIES, a term for gutta-percha golf balls used by retro golfers who travel to the wilds of Scotland and play with niblicks, mashies and the like, hitting old-fashioned gutties. Jim came up with UGLIEST. Despite being able to explain the meaning and context, the word was disallowed (Mike Calder, the No. 2 seed, said he thought it was Scottish for someone who was miserable; Terry O'Farrell, No. 3 seed, said it was an Irish word meaning something unpleasant). No matter, the word was disallowed so I was seven points adrift.

The next selection was horrible. Seven of the letters were ERSOCES (COQRSEEMS - Ed.). I saw SCREES; Jim saw SCORES (I am a sports journalist, among other things, and use "score" or derivatives about 20 times a week). Once again, after much checking, my word was rejected because a scree is mountain stones, so is obviously a mass noun and cannot be pluralised. Jim's was fine, of course. With two rounds remaining, I was 13 points adrift. My choice of numbers in the penultimate round was dead easy and we both got it without problem. I was out. Or was I?

Just as Richard was about to introduce the Conundrum, Damian piped up. "I am sorry, Richard," he said, "but I have just heard from upstairs about a ruling that affects the game. David, what do you think screes means?" I responded that I thought a scree was rocky hillside and, apparently, that was another meaning. Of course, there can be more than one rocky hillside, thus there could be SCREES. The difference was down to seven. I turned to Ned Sherrin and said, "Now I know what it must be like to sit in an electric chair during a power failure."

Up came the Conundrum. CANDIRIOT. Obviously, this was something ending in TION. Cardition, no, Radiction, no. The clock was in the late 20s when I saw Indi. Aha; Indication. At 29 seconds I pushed the bell. The audience gasped and Richard asked me for the word. Suddenly I saw the R again, so I said, with barely a pause, INDICATOR. The screen went big, relief flooded over me and I knew I had escaped. I don't think Mr or Mrs Ainsworth will ever forgive me.

I didn't sleep well that night as I was emotionally wrecked. The next day my semi-final opponent was decided: John Hastings, from Workington, defeating Rodney Marrison - whose wife was headmistress at an infants' school where a colleague's daughter had been a pupil - on a second Conundrum after neither had seen GINORMOUS. As I said to Richard when sitting in the hot seat, "I may be ginormous, but I didn't see it." That drew a laugh.

The semi-final turned on one lucky gamble from John. I was 14 points ahead, but in the seventh round made the selection FRISROSED. I saw DOSSIER and was confident that it would not be beaten. John, at the point of no return, gambled. He offered DROSSIER. Damian said, and this sticks in my mind, "I am sure it is not in the dictionary. What do I know? It is." John was now within six and got closer on an impossible second numbers game. Down to the Conundrum and if I live to be 240 years old I will never see CHIRRUPED.

I remember saying a few words of congratulations for John, who was delighted to have dethroned the No.1 seed and reached the final. No matter how gutted I was, he gambled on a word and it came up, so good luck to him. I had been in a great position to reach the final, but I had blown it. Watching the closing credits, I can see myself shaking my head in disbelief. But John needed more than luck when Mike Calder came up with MYOGLOBIN in the first round for an 18-point start. It was one-way traffic after that and Mike admitted after the show that he had probably played his best ever game in the final. He went up in my estimation; anybody who can produce a best-ever performance in the biggest game of their life must have ice-water running through their veins.

That was that, I thought. The change to 45-minute shows meant, surely that the Champion of Champions would only involve winners of the longer shows, especially as there was no C of C after two years. Out of the blue, one August afternoon, 2002, my phone rang at work. A familiar voice was on the other end, "Can I speak to David Ballheimer, please," a slightly breathless northwestern accent said. My response was, "Hello Damian, it is David Ballheimer." Damian had been in Dictionary Corner the previous week so his voice and accent were once again familiar, although I would have recognised them almost immediately at any time. "We are doing a Champion of Champions series at the end of this year and I would like to invite you to take part. Are you interested?" Without a second thought, I said, "Yes please, I would love to."

A few date changes later - oh the joys of being a freelance, where date changes aren't too inconvenient and I can take whatever time is necessary to do the recordings - the final draw came through. I would face Graham Nash, the young giant who had won the series after mine, the show going out on his birthday, Christmas Day. I knew it would be a tough assignment to get past him. The draw was even more unkind than that because the quarter-final pitted us against the winner of the second series of 2002 or Terry O'Farrell, but as Julian Fell seemed to be unbeatable, I was certain that Graham or I would be taking on the York wonder-kid.

The journey up to Leeds was uneventful and on time. I eschewed a taxi in favour of a walk to the Hotel. There was little to do but get a nap. I had seen that Ossett Town FC were playing a match that evening and, with nothing else to do, had planned to go to the game (I am a football, no make that a sports, junkie). Just as I was about to leave, Damian rang me on my mobile.

"Do you want to come and watch the recordings this evening? If you do, can you be at the studios in less than 10 minutes?" I said I would love to, threw on a pair of shoes and a sweatshirt and walked the 600 yards to the studios. Damian was waiting for me as I arrived at reception and I was shown into the Green Room, a much more commodious accommodation than the small dressing room that had been available three years earlier. All the contestants from the first five shows of the C of C were there, except for Mike Calder, who, I learned, had been beaten by Loz Sands, the knicker-elastic lady - now promoted to shoe-laces. We went into the studios to watch the fourth and fifth shows of the day. The standard, even for Champions of Champions, was impressive to say the least.

After recording, we went to the bar for a quick drink, then it was off to bed. Wednesday was my big day and I wanted to be fresh for it. Like there was a chance of me getting a good night's sleep. I had more chance of beating Julian Fell 150 to 25!! In the morning, Graham and I spent quite a bit of time together. He was easier to get on with than any of my first 10 opponents and we commiserated with each other on the prospect of facing the magnificent Julian in the quarter-finals.

I decided to wear my Green Bay Packers No. 4 shirt (the same one I wore for my first ever appearance and, no, touch wood, I am not superstitious) for the first show, especially when Graham produced two of the most incredible Hawaiian shirts imaginable. He was deeply upset that the yellow one was, at first rejected, although they relented and he wore it for the quarter, semi and final. As fashion statements go, I think it was a call to rebel!

Two shows were recorded before ours and the nerves started, but they weren't too bad, despite what I said to Richard. It was much more adrenaline flowing than nerves. If I won, all well and good; if not, que sera sera. All went well for three rounds, then I missed BEACON for the fourth or fifth time in a row. That put me behind and it was uphill from there. I didn't see VINTAGES, so went into the final half of the show trailing by 14 points. I gambled on GALOPED (the past tense of the verb to do the galop, a ballroom dance) only for Susie Dent to disallow it (NODE lists galop as a noun only; my old COD, even the one-volumed edition, has it as a noun and verb, so I was unlucky - I would have been 12 points adrift with three rounds to play). We both were perfect on all three of the numbers games and missed the Conundrum, which was the not-too-difficult TEMPERATE. Watching the show's recording, I still didn't see it!

Losing wasn't too disappointing, because my poor form of the previous fortnight continued in the recording and I deserved nothing better. But I was a little upset not to have done myself justice albeit against a brilliant opponent, who has won 15 straight and includes Julian Fell among his scalps. Interestingly, all three contestants (and Octochamps) from Series 42, myself, Mike Calder and Terry O'Farrell, had been well beaten in the first round.

After our game, it was time for the photo. I then remembered that I was going to give Richard a poem to end, once and for all, the myth that there was nothing that rhymed with Syringe. This limerick had come to me as I stood waiting for a train to go to work one morning:

A dear Yorkshire friend did whinge "There's nowt to rhyme with syringe." I said, "I know one." And, then, just for fun, I threw him a big, round orange.

I told Richard about it, and he asked me to write it down for him. I forgot the exact wording and came up with much lamer lines. As everybody was getting ready for the shoot, I had to scribble it down quickly.

After the photo shoot, we had the evening meal break. Before I could eat, I had to make my phone calls to my cousin and mother, passing on the bad news. After eating, it was back to the Green Room, then into the studio to watch the recordings of the first two quarter-finals. The standard was, as usual, unbelievably high. As we went into the first break of the final show, Richard shouted out, "Is David Ballheimer in the studio? I've lost the poem he gave me." I waved and was asked to rewrite the poem. As quickly as I could I rewrote it but it took quite a bit of time. This caused consternation in the production studio, who had no idea why Richard was not ready for the second half. The poem, duly completed - with an even lamer third and fourth rhyming couplet - was ferried down from the back of the audience seats to Richard, who read it out. This deathless verse received the short shrift it deserved from Sir Tim, a far more talented lyricist than I would be in my dreams.

I had a few drinks after the show and went to bed. Strangely I slept better, but it was an early start because the final day's recording started at 10.00. I was allowed into the Green Room again and watched the first two shows of the day in the studio, including the famous eclipse of Julian by Graham. I felt so much better about myself, because if Julian couldn't beat Graham, then I had no chance.

After lunch, I watched the first semi-final from the Green Room. It was odd to view the show in a muted atmosphere. Although it was similar to watching the show on TV at home, there were five of us in the room and I wasn't the best player in the room - four were contestants - and the tension was palpable, even though we had all been knocked out. Chris Wills, a jolly chap, who is as ebullient off the set as he was on it, reached the final at the expense of John Rawnsley (who kept the flag flying for the over-24s), as did Graham, who did well to overcome Tom Hargreaves in what I dubbed the 13-foot semi-final (both youngsters were 6ft 6in tall - give or take half an inch).

In the final, my vanquisher was just too good for Chris, thus inflicting first-ever defeats on the two pre-tournament favourites (no, neither Tom nor I filled the role of top pick). After collecting the trophy, Graham and his entourage of rather bleary-eyed supporters (one had woken at 11.00 that morning to find himself in bed with a pizza and I rather got the impression he had no idea how either had got into the bed!) went into the bar for a post-series celebration. Tom was persuaded to join Chris, Graham and his gang for a night out, on the strict understanding, from Tom's Mum, that Chris would act as his chaperon. I didn't fancy a night out trying to keep up with the youngsters in terms of drink, so I had a quiet meal and went to bed.

I saw Chris the following morning. He told me it hadn't been too bad. We shared a cab back to the station, caught the same train to London, but were in different carriages and missed each other on arriving at Kings Cross.

The next 54 days were quite a trial. I vowed that nobody would get the result out of me, neither my particular game, nor the series. This was not easy. Bribes were offered and refused. Alcohol was proferred and copiously consumed, without a word being breathed. Threats were made, but they weren't carried out despite my silence. Everybody was told the same thing, "My first show is on Wednesday 15 January and the winner of this show appears on 21 January. That winner is in the semi-final on Thursday 23 January, with the final being shown a day later."

My excuse for keeping everything quiet was the proliferation of internet betting sites on the world wide web. I remember reading that a series of Stars in their Eyes had been the subject of 1 million in bets and vast sums are bet on Pop Idol, Survivor, Big Brother, etc.. Divulging such information is, I pointed out, insider trading. Seriously, though, one of the producers told me that there was a website in Ireland taking bets on the Christmas storylines of soaps - and these are also pre-recorded shows.

Just before Christmas, I received emails from Tom Hargreaves and Chris Wills inviting me to join them and other Countdowners on a ride on the British Airways London Eye. It sounds like a fun thing to do and I hope it comes off. As I said before, there was much better cameraderie between the C of C contestants than there was with my opponents on my first trips up to Leeds.

On 14 January, I went to watch a football match in rural Essex. As I walked into the ground, I was greeted by a club official who asked me how I had got down from Leeds to Heybridge in less than 2 hours. "A plane from Leeds/Bradford to Stansted," I lied. Come the big day, a television was set up in the office and I had to watch myself lose. I got quite a ribbing from my colleagues, but most were very supportive. Many friends contacted me after the show, shocked that I had lost. They couldn't believe I could have kept my secret for so long.

With Countdown's 50th series due to start later in 2003, I feel honoured to have been a small part of its enduring success. Other quiz/game shows have come and gone, but Countdown, like a faithful friend has remained true. Richard's puns, penned by whoever, remain as corny as ever and Carol defies time and gets more beautiful with age.

Long live Countdown!

David Ballheimer

[This article was written in January 2003]

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