Julian Fell's Experience - Page 2

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I had discovered The Countdown Page towards the end of the previous year, marvelling at the site's incredibly thorough logging of the history of the show. I had no idea the programme had such a tradition about it, and it was fascinating for me, as a relative newcomer, to read about great players from the past whom I'd never seen such as Harvey Freeman and Allan Saldanha, about the classic anecdotes like David Acton's refusal of the dictionaries and Scott Mearns' 100% score at the audition, and the classic games such as Julian Hough's comeback in the final of series 7 and Jill Bright's 36-0 lead after two rounds against Wilma Anscombe.

It might sound silly, but for me it was a real honour, when my shows went out, to be included in Mike's weekly updates and to see my games entered on the Series Page; to have my name mentioned alongside Harvey Freeman, Darryl Francis, David Williams and the rest was very flattering, though I doubted I deserved these comparisons. To break all those records was beyond my wildest dreams, especially as regards the feat of getting all eight conundrums, which I'm normally useless at.

Anyway, on to the 11th, and after a stressful journey where we missed two trains, my mum and I eventually got to the studios with five minutes to spare. It was a bit scary at first walking through the main entrance to find all the other finalists sitting there eyeing me up expectantly, but it was also probably the best thing about the finals, meeting for real all these people whom I'd seen and admired on TV. I quickly had confirmed what I had dreaded - in return for my record-breaking run and top seeding, I had the dubious reward of a game against surely the best number eight seed of all time, one who had been watching the show for twenty years to my two, who had in effect 'written the book'. Yes, Mike Brown would be my opponent in the quarter-finals.

It was much more crowded in the green room now, and relatives were no longer allowed in (well, not officially, anyway). As we waited, David Nickeas talked about not daring to offer FELLATIO as a word in one of his games, as the TV showed the live feed from the studio, where Carl Moore was struggling to seventy points against Rob D'Agostino. Soon it was time for make-up, into the hot seat again, then dinner. Back in the green room, after Mike and I had changed into new shirts, Marie tossed a coin to decide who sat where. Mike won and chose the challenger's chair.

The nerves which I had been spared up till this point now returned with a vengeance. If Mike was feeling the same as we took our places, he was doing a good job hiding it, joking with Richard Samson about not getting Susie again, whilst I was going to pieces inwardly and probably outwardly too. I could hardly think straight - I have never felt that nervous before, nor have I since. I had my Cambridge interview on the day that quarter-final was broadcast and it was no comparison.

As a result my first 'half' was extremely shaky, but Mike couldn't quite take advantage and I had a narrow lead going into the break. Pam Ayres' poem about the know-all was one of the all-time great celebrity pieces into the break (my parents and I became fans and have since got ourselves a CD of her readings), but it was largely lost on me as I tried to get myself together for the second 'half'. My relief when I pulled away with WOMANISER was visible. I finally started to relax, and beat Mike on four of the last five rounds to rack up a flattering winning margin which didn't reflect the closeness of the game. I was pretty worn out after an extremely tough challenge and was happy to take a back seat for the next few games.

The finals are a totally different animal to the initial run. You can't get up a head of steam, you're on, then off for a bit, then on again, and somehow the watching and waiting in the audience is more tiring than playing games one after the other (and not just because of the uncomfortable audience seats!). You have to repeatedly be able to hit the ground running in your games.

The next day was an early start (ten o'clock!), and after the shock of seeing the highly impressive Rev. George Greenhough eliminated by Joe Zubaidi, I felt really bad for giving Danny Hamilton a bit of a thrashing in the first semi-final. He was a really nice guy, who had his Greek fiancée with him at the studios, which was nice for him. After Richard and Carol had recorded a 'This Is Your Life' tribute to David Dickinson in front of the conundrum board, it was time to go. In a strange game, there were four rounds with nines and the rest with fives or sixes the best possible, and I managed to beat my own record score, though without any sense of elation this time. It had nothing to do with my failure to get the conundrum, it was simply that, with respect to Danny, I couldn't take any pleasure from such a one-sided semi-final, and it was getting to the stage where I was praying no more nines would come up so I would stand out less, but they kept appearing and I had no choice really but to offer them. By the time Danny failed to see DEFLATION it was getting a bit ridiculous, and I would have liked to end the game there. But I saw it out and hoped fervently for a more even contest in the final. Apart from anything else, I was a bit tired of always having it my way and everyone treating me as if I was unassailable.

Unfortunately, my opponent in the final had looked a bit jaded in her quarter and semi. Grace Page had been very strong in her octochamp run, beating me with some excellent words like FLAGSTONE, MATRICES and EPIGRAM, but now she seemed somehow less inspired - although nerves and the strength of the opposition may have played a part in that.

Still, though, the final is a showpiece occasion, the culmination of six months of effort, of great games and poor ones, brilliant nines, miserable fours, one-second conundrums, dodgy spelling, suspect multiplication, hilarious anecdotes, Whiteley mispronunciations and inevitable sightings of LEOTARDS. Surely Grace and I, the top two in the seeding, would rise to the occasion and produce a game worthy of the final of a great series (and the last game played on the old set to boot), played to the highest of standards by two contestants so evenly matched you couldn't separate them in a photo-finish.

Well, it didn't materialize. It was a truly dire game, neither a decent individual performance by either of the contestants, nor a close match. I was in a state of utter disbelief when Grace declared eight in the first round - when the final letter was put up I said to myself, great, an easy nine so eighteen points apiece to kick off the final with a bang. I still don't know quite how, but Grace managed to miss CREMATION, and then compounded the situation by failing to see the eternal Countdown favourite LEOPARDS in round two, meaning that this eagerly-awaited decider was over as a contest almost before it had started. I switched off after that, my expression and body language giving away my huge disappointment that I was not being stretched, and I didn't show anything like my usual form.

As the game fizzled out tamely through the last few rounds, I was desperate just to get it over with and forget all about it, knowing that I hadn't played well. Indeed, Grace beat me with the excellent KNITWEAR and with the final numbers game to restrict me to one of my lowest totals yet. I felt like apologizing to the people watching at home on TV and to those who had waited several years for audience tickets for the final, only to be served up with a non-event like that. Unfortunately there was still the presentation and umpteen photographs to be done. Grace said at the end "He was far too good", but the thing is, I wasn't, I was very ordinary, and if she'd just stayed with me early on, the game was there to be won.

In the bar afterwards I cheered up a bit, talking mainly to Mike and to Damian about the upcoming C of C. As Basle went 3-0 up against Liverpool on the TV in the corner, Joe Zubaidi said to me, "You may have got the dictionaries and the clock and everything, but we got the Santa", meaning the sweet knitted one that Richard had been sent by a viewer. Well, that's all right then. Brenda Wilson, the director, also came over to talk to us - she may have had a special reason to congratulate me, as she had drawn me in the sweepstake the Countdown team have for the finals!

There was barely time to take stock before the Championship of Champions was upon me, and I was back at the studio for the third time in seven weeks. When we arrived for the second day of filming (where I was to make my debut), Ben Wilson was already at reception with his mum (his brother Robert hadn't come along this time; Ben said he had got a new job as a policeman and was now nicknamed 'Robbocop'). We were taken through to the green room, and I sat there, watching the door in nervous excitement as we were joined by Graham Nash, John Rawnsley and others, and last of all, Tom Hargreaves and the charismatic Chris Wills. For someone who hadn't even appeared on the show until a couple of weeks before, this was dreamland. It was sometimes hard to grasp that I was actually in the same room as all my Countdown heroes.

The atmosphere in the green room was quite intense, and much less relaxed than it had been in the series finals. It must have had to do with what was at stake, and everybody, even Loz Sands, who had seemed so extrovert on screen, seemed quite withdrawn and tense. I asked Chris about his experiences on Fifteen-to-One and we had a brief discussion about Ken Hom's brilliance as a DC-celebrity, whilst David Ballheimer, a sports writer who had been a semi-finalist in series 42 (before I started watching), regaled us with his stories about America and George Bush and 9/11.

Anyway, we eventually got into studio, and I got my first glimpse of the new set; very classy and professional-looking, I thought, although the purple colouring meant I still couldn't wear my red shirt. Ah well, that's fifteen quid wasted. The lovely Susie was back, along with Sir Tim Rice (the only Countdown celebrity guest to have an entry in the NODE), so all was well. For the first game I watched from the hot seat as Tom gave John Rainsden a bit of a drubbing; I did not feel too sorry for John - yes, he was the meanie who had knocked out my hero Kevin McMahon all those months ago (boo hiss)! I did manage to meet Kevin during the day, and I was glad I got the chance to tell him what an impression he had made on me early on in my Countdown fandom.

It was then time for my game against Dubliner Terry O'Farrell, who had flown over that very morning. I didn't know a lot about him, other than the statistics from this site, but it proved to be one-sided again. Val, the floor manager, was crowing during the second ad-break, having been just about the only person in the entire studio to see ELECTRONS in round nine. Graham then beat David B. to set up a tie with me in the quarter-finals.

After Chris had narrowly seen off a spirited challenge by Loz Sands (the last lady left in the competition) and John Rawnsley had beaten Rupert Stokoe, it was on to the final day (and another early start), and you could really feel things hotting up now. Again I would watch Tom from the hot seat for the first game, and he was absolutely on fire against poor Ben, who saw his unbeaten run come to a crushing end, though no-one would have fancied taking on Tom in that sort of form - and he was waiting in the semi-finals if I could get past Graham. Some prospect.

So the nerves were back again, as I prepared to face Graham and his interesting line in shirts (a whole battle had preceded the game, between Graham and wardrobe girl Hayley, who threatened to take the scissors to the shirt, but Graham eventually won the day). Here I would like to say a word in support of DC guest Eric Knowles - he really got into the spirit of the show, building up a good rapport with the audience and Richard, and he was the only celebrity while I was on to actually come over to the contestants on set before the show and talk to them, sharing a joke or two in an attempt to alleviate some of the tension. I think this would be even more valuable in the ordinary shows, where contestants are not yet used to the situation, so I hope he will become a regular feature in Dictionary Corner.

The game began, Graham's fan club rooting for him high up in the audience, and Graham himself matching me stride for stride. By virtue of a disallowed word from Graham, I led into the first break for the thirteenth time in a row. But my name wasn't written on the next round this time. The big turning point came in round nine, where I immediately saw the safe seven IMAGERY, but wondered about GAMBIERS.

I knew that GAMBIER was a mass noun, but the recent rule change made it uncertain whether a plural would be allowed. I thought (mistakenly) that GAMBIER was a chemical compound, which is one of the categories of words where a plural of a mass noun is normally allowed, and in any case I thought after Ben had had MANGES allowed in the previous game that more or less any mass noun could now be pluralized unless it was totally ridiculous to do so. I also thought I should go for it, as with Graham's skill on the letters and my lack of ability on the numbers, I couldn't see where the next chance to increase my lead was coming from. So when Graham declared seven, I gambled, but still, I was fairly confident the decision would go my way, so it was a big blow when Susie disallowed the word. For those of you who are into trivia, it was the first time I'd been behind in a game, the first time I'd had a word disallowed, and the first time I'd been beaten on a letters round by a male opponent!

After a second easyish numbers game, I was beginning to realize this might well not be my day. A dreaded crucial conundrum was looming, unless I could take twelve points off Graham in the remaining four rounds, which effectively meant beating him on two separate rounds, and the chances of that were slim to say the least. It was similar to a football team being two goals down; of course you keep trying, but you do start to doubt that you can do it. Or perhaps it was more like England needing to score two goals to avoid a penalty shoot-out against Germany. Theoretically if they only score one goal they still have a chance, but deep down you just know they wouldn't win the shoot-out. The crucial conundrum was like that for me. I had got eleven of the previous twelve conundrums I had faced but I didn't fancy my chances on a crucial one at all.

Graham was undoubtedly in the ascendancy as we moved into the final 'half', and I was already wondering if it would be my last. I was determined, though, to make it hard for Graham, and at least keep myself in with a chance. In the back of my mind I remembered the way two former contestants, David Williams and my old mate Kevin, who had seemed absolutely stellar and unbeatable during their octochamp runs, then went out tamely early on in the finals without even forcing a crucial conundrum. I was determined not to let this happen to me, so I stayed with Graham for the remaining rounds, making sure he didn't get further ahead. Amazingly, there was ammunition in the last two letters rounds for me to save myself, but the words in question were pretty esoteric and weren't seen by Dictionary Corner, so in all the pressure it was maybe asking a bit much for me to see ROUILLE and SPERMATID. Then in the last numbers game I only saw the solution late on - if I hadn't I wouldn't have needed to worry about the conundrum, as the game would have been over.

The tension by this point was unbelievable, but I was glad I'd kept the game close right to the end; Graham just beat me to the buzzer, as I'd always feared he would, and my only hope then was that he'd get the conundrum wrong as he had against David B.. But he didn't, of course, and it was all over.

Everyone did seem genuinely sorry to see me go; Richard asked me disappointedly whether I'd actually pressed the buzzer, warm-up man Dudley Dolittle came up as we were leaving the studio to say what a great game it had been, and I'm told that Susie, who had been the most apologetic I'd ever seen her even as she was disallowing the word, later (riven with guilt? J.) sought a second opinion among her former colleagues at OUP as to whether GAMBIERS should have been allowed.

Of course I was disappointed not to get the chance to play Tom or Chris, but I was not too downhearted, as it had hardly been a terrible performance by me. I was glad that I'd played my part in a real 'needlepoint match', as Richard might have called it, and it was no disgrace to lose to an excellent unbeaten champion at the top of his game; even then there were only milliseconds in it. Graham showed his worth by going on to beat Tom and Chris on his way to being crowned Champion of Champions - who would have predicted that before the series began? He effectively came out on top against a Who's Who of Countdown over the past few years - and none of us played particularly badly either - so he was a more than deserving winner. My involvement didn't quite end with my exit, as I watched the semis and the final from the production gallery at the kind invitation of Michael Wylie (Kevin McMahon had gone up the day before), contributing a few words for Dictionary Corner, including INHUMES and BRUITED. I'd rather have been down on the set playing, of course, but it was a great experience nonetheless, and I got to meet a whole new group of people, including director Derek and vision mixer Niki.

Afterwards we all went down to the bar as usual, where there were sandwiches and champagne laid on (as there had been for the series finals); we exchanged e-mail addresses, my mum asked Richard (yes, he was there too!) how the Wetwang business started, we pressed Michael as to when the next Supreme Championship was planned for... it was sad that it was all over, but as David B. said, it was an honour to be invited back in the first place, and we were all members of the Countdown 'club' now, so it was all right really.

More people have started recognizing me out and about since my series final was shown, and I've done a couple more short interviews for the local paper. I've taken part in a 'special' against Chris and made a trip to the Edinburgh Countdown Club, run by Nita Marr, which was great fun - I was even presented with a coveted NAFTA (Nita's Award For Travelling Anoraks). I've thought of applying for other quiz programmes, but somehow I doubt the experience on The Weakest Link or anything else would be as good as that which you have as a Countdown contestant. So if you're thinking of applying, go for it - you are sure to have a good time, win or lose.

Julian Fell

[This article was written in May 2003]

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