Newcastle-under-Lyme resident Richard Priest first appeared on Countdown on 24th March 2008, when he knocked out incumbent Tony Durrant with an impressive debut score of 110 points. He then went on to register another five wins - which included three more century scores - before succumbing to Nigel Davies on a crucial conundrum, having led throughout the game. With six wins and 697 points to his name, he returned for the quarter-finals as the number six seed, which set him up for a game against octochamp Tim Reypert. Having convincingly defeated Tim, who failed to score in the last three rounds, Richard then met number seven seed Peter Davies in the semis, who had knocked out number two seed Michael Macdonald-Cooper in another apparently form-defying contest. A grand final against none other than the undefeated number one seed David O'Donnell beckoned. Could the form book be overturned just one more time? To find out, sit back and enjoy the tale of Richard's experience right from the very start...
COUNTDOWN. I first watched it when I was 15, when Carol Vorderman was Carol Mather, and fell in love with it straight away. I discovered I had a flair for the letters games and conundrums, and with practice I became moderately skilled with the numbers too. I applied, was invited by the then researcher Sandra Morgan to an audition in the autumn of 1986 at a Birmingham hotel, and went along with high hopes. I missed a nine, only solved one conundrum and failed to solve any of the numbers rounds. Needless to say, I received a letter saying my audition was unsuccessful. One of my fellow auditioners who was successful was Stephen Balment, who had been sitting right next to me and went on to win series 12.
The years passed, and I didn't bother reapplying. I was too afraid of the stick I might get for appearing on a show that was branded as being for OAPs and geeks. Then, sadly, Richard passed away and there was talk of the show being axed. I thought I might not get the chance to go on it now, and was kicking myself.
Finally I plucked up the courage to re-apply, in 2007, via email. Lara Searle, one of the associate producers, kept writing and offering me auditions in Manchester, but I had to decline them all as I was unable to get the time off from work. Once, in October, I was within a day of going, but personal matters came up and I had to phone Lara to cancel. Then, just as I thought she must be getting fed up of me letting her down, I had another letter inviting me to an audition at Granada studios on 16th January 2008.
Having been granted the day off from work, I caught the train up there, walked to the studios where I met four other Countdown-viewing hopefuls, and Lara called us all into a room where we sat round a table armed with pen and paper. Before setting off for the train station that morning I had practised by watching a Countdown show that I had previously recorded, and when the audition started I was on fire (figuratively speaking). Light bulbs just seemed to come on in my head as soon as I read the letters. I spotted four eights, a nine and a seven, solved a numbers game, came within 1 of the other and solved most of the conundrums. When declaring my first 8 I was punished with a playful whack on the arm from the lady sitting next to me who had found a 5. As we left the room a lovely lady named Alwyn, whom I had sat next to, patted me on the back and told me she was looking forward to telling people "I was at my audition with him!". I thought "what on earth have I let myself in for?".
Another auditioner, John, kindly gave me a lift home after it transpired we lived within a few miles of each other and also told me he was sure I would get on the show. And indeed, just a few days later the letter came from Lara telling me my audition had been successful and that soon I would be offered a recording date. Then, just eight days after the audition, Lara's colleague Kate Horton phoned and asked if I could attend a recording session on Monday 3rd March. Kate also said that the team had "very high hopes" for me because of how well I had done at the audition and that I might be required on 4th March too if I kept winning. I checked with work that I could have the time off, phoned Kate back to tell her I could come and waited with anticipation.
Knowing I would only get out what I put in, I watched every show until then, noting down every unusual word that came up and scouring the dictionary a la Julian Fell for a few more that I didn't know. I also bought a Countdown board game to gain extra practice. By the time 3rd March arrived I had a large list of new words that I was trying to memorise. I was getting increasingly nervous as the date approached but Kate rang me a few days beforehand to check I was still coming and reassured me I had done very well at the audition and hopefully would perform well on the show. She also told me that Ann Widdecombe would be in Dictionary Corner and if I won five shows, the following day it would be Lynda Baron.
I was due at Yorkshire TV studios in Leeds for 12.30pm on the 3rd and decided to travel up there the night before so as to avoid compounding my already-high stress levels with a last-minute dash. I drove up there with my aunt Marion and sadly can't have been much company as I was very keyed up about playing and somewhat mute and monosyllabic. We arrived at the Express Holiday Inn and the following day, after breakfast and a bit of last-minute practising with my game and boning up on the list of words, I headed with great trepidation to the studios just 10 minutes' walk from the hotel. Even as I write I can feel the anxieties I was suffering would I be taking on a teenage genius who had won seven times, would I have a mental block in front of the cameras, etc.?
We arrived, were asked to sit in a waiting area and there chatted to Gill Ford and Angus McGregor, who were also due to play that day. Shortly afterwards a young man named Jay took us through to the Green Room, where contestants and their guests can drink tea and coffee and eat fruit while waiting to play. On the way we also met the lovely Kate Horton. I was told I was due to play the first game of the day against Tony Durrant, three-time defending champion. At least he hasn't won seven, I thought. I was directed to the men's dressing room, where I met Tony and had to put my numerous tops (a different one for each show) into the wardrobe and have them all checked for suitability to wear on set - brand names, thin stripes and light colours not being permissible. I was then ushered to the make-up room, where I saw Susie Dent being attended to, and a few dabs of powder on my face later I returned to the Green Room, from where I was called on to the set just before 1.30pm to play Tony.
We walked up the corridor to the studio like gladiators about to do battle. I remember thinking when I arrived on set how much smaller it is in reality than it looks on TV especially the audience area. I also felt the thrill of seeing my name on the board on the desk where I would be sitting. Tony and I took up our positions, both of us were dusted with make-up again and I was given a spiel about various points of order, e.g. Carol will have her back to you when she's selecting the letters but only because that's how the studio is set out and not because she's being rude, put your hand up if you need to go to the loo, etc. Dudley, the warm-up man, was entertaining the audience while we waited for Des, Carol, Susie and Anne to arrive, and Lisa Radford, the floor manager, came and introduced herself.
After what seemed like an eternity Des and co. arrived and he and Carol both came and shook my hand, after which Des checked that my introduction was OK. I remember then thinking how surreal it was listening to the Countdown introduction theme tune playing, and Des sitting right next to me saying "Afternoon Countdowners". After the usual preambles the game began, and in the first round I spotted PRONATES for 8. I hoped this would beat Tony, but he too saw an 8 ADOPTERS. Nevertheless, I had scored some points and apparently exorcised the spectre of total annihilation. I sneaked ahead in the next game with OXALIS to Tony's BLAGS, this having been one of the words on my big list! My six-point lead was maintained for some time, and it was certainly no fluke that Tony had won three games because he was a very tough opponent. I was hoping to forge far enough ahead to avoid a crucial conundrum, but every time I thought I had found a good word that might beat him he came up with something to match it. Finally in the last letters game my list of words came good again as I saw UPRATED to beat Tony's TAPER. All I had to do now was not be beaten on the final numbers game, and I prayed for an easy target. My relief when I saw how to get 812 was incredible, although in my haste to get it on paper I missed out the 25 and had to own up to Des. Thankfully he accepted it when he checked my writing and my wish for a non-crucial conundrum was granted. I looked over at Marion in the audience and we shared a broad smile! For good measure I solved the conundrum in 4 seconds, unscrambling BETTYFURL into BUTTERFLY to emerge the winner by 110 to 87.
I couldn't stop smiling as Marion came to congratulate me as I walked off the set. Apparently Tony wasn't too happy to lose and left quickly without his prizes, whether intentionally or not nobody knew. I began to understand why once I had had a few games of my own in the champion's chair it starts to get very comfortable!
Flushed with success, I was due back on set soon afterwards to play Gill. While we were sitting in our chairs waiting for Des and Carol, she told me that she didn't think I'd have much trouble beating her. That was music to my ears as I was keen for a straightforward game after the struggle to overcome Tony. No such luck! Gill matched and sometimes bettered me in the letters rounds, and only my superiority at the numbers enabled me to fend off her challenge. She embarrassed me early on by beating me with ENDIVES, which Dictionary Corner had come up with in the game with Tony and which I failed to spot in this game. I was behind for much of the game and breathed a huge sigh of relief when she had BAITERS disallowed as it would have put her more than 10 points ahead with only 2 rounds left. I was feeling comfortable in that champion's chair and didn't want to give it up yet! I sneaked ahead for the first time by beating her on the last numbers round, which meant the dreaded Crucial Conundrum. As Gill was partially sighted and took a few seconds to focus on the letters, the studio staff gave her the conundrum written on a piece of card a couple of seconds before it came up on screen. However when the clock started ticking and it still hadn't come up on my screen I frantically gesticulated at Des, fearing someone had forgotten to turn it over. Unfortunately the cameras picked that up. When it was finally revealed I quickly realised that FEDDARROW unscrambled as FORWARDED and pressed my buzzer to win 91-75. Another huge sigh of relief. I spoke to Gill just afterwards and saw her again the following morning while having breakfast in the hotel before she travelled back to Southampton, and she kept giving me friendly reminders that I had denied her a teapot to which I sincerely apologised. If you're reading this Gill - I felt more remorse over that win than any of the others! I'm glad I won but I wish Gill could have had the teapot she wanted.
Angus McGregor was next, and by now I was flowing. I was starting to see the letters as though they were footballs (if that makes sense) and saw my first 9 FACULTIES which I was very pleased about. I felt sorry for Angus because he was a really nice guy, and I knew I would have felt devastated if someone had hit me with a 9 in my first game. But the chance to say "nine" comes along only rarely.
I fell 5 points behind against Sandra Gray early in the next game when she spotted CREEL (which I had never heard of) to beat my REEL, but I recovered to win 105-60 and then defeated Matt Wate. When I saw Matt in the Green Room beforehand I was worried because he looked a bit of a whizz-kid, and he also proved more adept than me at getting the tea and coffee machine to work. However, I edged ahead at the end of part one with TOILETED for 8, after which Matt went wrong on the numbers, and as the game wore on he seemed to get a bit disheartened. In contrast I was on a roll by now and hit top form with several eights to win 101-25. Matt took it sportingly and said he hoped I went all the way and became an octochamp.
That game finished just after 9pm and I was on a high and feeling like Roger Federer, walking through the crowds with everyone congratulating me. I met my next opponent, Richard Wilson, who had been in the audience watching, as I came off the set. Kate Horton saw me in the Green Room and told me I had a good chance now of making the quarter-finals, as did series producer Damian Eadie who said he would be updating the leader board. Marion and I returned to the hotel and, being due back at the studios for 9.30am the following day, I knew it would be important to get a good night's sleep. Unfortunately the adrenalin flowing through my body made this impossible and I was still awake at 2.30am before dozing off.
The next morning I said my goodbyes to Gill and her husband in the hotel breakfast area and headed for the studios, hoping I could last out for another three games. I saw Richard Wilson in the waiting area, as well as Nigel Davies and Chris Smith who were respectively the next two in line to play. Richard was a nice chap whom I had a good laugh with. I went to the loo while he made me a cup of tea and on my return I joked that I hoped he hadn't put anything untoward in it.
Once we were on set Des and Lisa Radford were panicking about how to distinguish between two Richards and eventually decided to call me 'Richard' and him 'Rich'. When play began Richard seemed very nervous and made a few mistakes. It took several rounds for him to score, and although I wanted to win I was pleased for him when he finally got on the board. I started to fear a comeback when he successfully risked TOADISH to beat my 6, but eventually I ran out a 98-20 winner. Octochamp status was getting tantalisingly close and I was starting to feel the pressure a little bit but hoped I could hang on.
Unfortunately Nigel Davies had other ideas in the next game. I forged an early lead with GELCOATS in round one, but on the second numbers game I missed 435, getting 434 instead by going up to 450 and trying to work downwards. I should instead have followed Nigel's example of getting to 425 and working upwards. I also foolishly risked BLARIEST in one of the other letters rounds I was sure I had heard of it but Susie disallowed it. Annoyingly, Dictionary Corner came up with LIBRATES an anagram which had been on my list of words. With no disrespect to my last few opponents, I was getting nervous as I wasn't used to being pushed hard. Still, going into the conundrum I retained an eight-point lead. Up came GIVINRASH and I immediately spotted the ING and started desperately trying to work out what went before it, but before I could, Nigel buzzed and said RAVISHING, and I knew he was right. My face contorted in an outward expression of my inner anguish and frustration before I remembered my manners and turned and held out my hand to Nigel in congratulation. Being told by Des that I was currently number 5 seed for the finals was nice but still didn't ease the hurt as I knew I could have won that one.
After Jay came to me with my bags of prizes, I stayed for some lunch in the contestants' restaurant before sitting in the audience to watch Nigel beat Chris Smith and then saying my goodbyes to Richard Wilson, Jay and others. Marion and I collected our belongings from the hotel and set off home to Newcastle-under-Lyme, my narrow defeat still rankling. I emailed the Countdown team when I arrived home to thank them for a great experience and Damian and Kate replied, Damian sending me a copy of the leader board and saying he felt I had a good chance of making the quarters.
I hadn't told any of my friends or other family about going on Countdown in case I ended up making a fool of myself. I wanted to see how I went on first. But now I was faced with a different dilemma - I was worried that people would think I was showing off if I told them I was appearing on Countdown and that I did well. So I just told my closest friends and didn't bother telling anyone at work or my local church. The shows were to be aired from Monday 24th March onwards. I waited for the proverbial to hit the fan... and it did! I started getting texts along the lines of "you kept that quiet!" or "you didn't tell us you were famous!". I went in to work on the Tuesday morning and someone said "we've got a dark horse in here!". People at places I had previously worked recorded every show, people I knew stopped me in the street and said "you're doing very well!". If I had a pound for every time I was asked what Carol was like I'd be a rich man. My dad phoned the local paper, they interviewed me over the phone, came and took a picture of me with my teapot and I had a full-page spread as well as a little picture on the front page. It was a very heady week, but very enjoyable too, almost as though all of my birthdays had come at once.
For the next six weeks I had an anxious wait to see if I had made the finals. I knew that these days people with six wins tend to be low down in the seedings and was desperate for another chance. Kate kept in touch, phoning me with updates. Ben Hanks and Peter Davies both came and scored six wins but with fewer points than me. In mid-April Kate contacted me through the Countdown forum to tell me I was definitely through as there were no longer enough shows left in the series for me to be displaced from the top eight. The finals were to be recorded on May 28th and 29th (Wednesday and Thursday) so after work on the Tuesday evening Marion and I drove to Leeds again in readiness. When we arrived at the hotel we met Michael Macdonald-Cooper, the second seed, in the bar and had a drink with him. He told me he had heard that in the last couple of days the incumbent champion, Jonathan Coles, had become an octochamp, thus pushing me down to no.6. I had watched Jonathan's debut game on TV just before travelling to Leeds, and he had scored a highly impressive 124 points. We didn't know what his overall points total was so I worked out that I would be playing either him, Michael or Tim Reypert in the quarters.
All the finalists had to be at the studios for 12.30pm on Wednesday, so we arrived and sat in the waiting area with all these people I had seen on the TV recently and felt I knew so well even though I didn't. Two of the finalists had yet to arrive Barry Smith (who had only just come back from Russia) and Ben Hanks (who had taken an exam at university that morning). Jason Cullen and Matthew Coates, 9th and 10th seeds respectively, were present as reserves. The schedule for the day was for the last few heats of the series to be filmed followed by the first two quarter-finals neither of which I was involved in. I had chatted to Jonathan Coles in the waiting area and found out from him that he was no.4 seed, which meant that I was to play Tim Reypert, no.3 seed, in the morning.
Danielle, who had replaced Jay as the unit assistant, came and took us through to the Green Room, where we were joined by Kate and Damian. On the TV in there was the show currently being recorded between Neil Sneddon and Tony Gilgun. Tim was in there with us and took about a second to unscramble the conundrum, which did nothing for my confidence levels ahead of playing him the next day.
Camaraderie among the contestants over the two days was very good. I chatted briefly to Jason and his dad in the studio canteen and felt a bit of good-natured teasing was in order over how Jason had been willing me to lose after three games so he wouldn't fall down the seedings! Peter Davies and Michael Macdonald-Cooper and their wives all got on well too, and when I saw them sat at a table together I made a point of approaching Peter, introducing myself and asking what it had been like filming with Jennie Bond, who I'm quite a big fan of. Matt Coates and I got on quite well too we had been at the same recording day in March, when he had come on in the last game and beaten Nigel Davies. Matt and I sat in the audience and watched Tony Gilgun beat Neil Sneddon in the last heat of the series, after which top seed David O'Donnell beat Ben Hanks. During this game Matt told me he reckoned David and I would be contesting the final, and I remember thinking "I wish I shared your optimism!".
In the final game of the day, 7th seed Peter Davies put friendship to one side to oust 2nd seed Michael Macdonald-Cooper. We returned to the hotel and I went to bed just after 9 in the hope of a good night's sleep (which I didn't really get!).
Back at the studios for 9.30a.m., and at 10.30a.m. I took to the set to play Tim. I was expecting a very tough match as he was an octochamp, and I was very nervous but I think he was too. When play started, however, I took an early lead with VETERAN to beat Tim's 6. Then in round 7, Tim had LIMBOES disallowed which I was quite surprised by (apparently it takes the OS ending), after which I pulled out a couple of good 8s, HEROINES and OXIDANTS. I was annoyed with myself for missing a relatively straightforward numbers solution in round 10, but when Tim unsuccessfully risked DECATONS in round 13 I knew I was going to win. I eventually triumphed 90-53 and was hugely relieved because four of my friends had come along to watch and I didn't want to let them down. After the recording I walked over to them and whimpered "Oh God, this is torture" to which they promptly ordered me to calm down. After a coffee break I returned to the audience to watch Jonathan beat Barry, then chilled out (or tried to) in the Green Room while David narrowly beat Jonathan in a gripping first semi.
With all due respect to Peter, I knew my semi against him was a great opportunity a final berth, guaranteed £1,000 prize even for losing, possible inclusion in the next Champion of Champions and I had beaten him from home when his heat shows were televised. He had played very well to beat Michael, but luckily he didn't play quite as well against me and I ran out a winner, spotting CHARITIES for 18 points in the last letters round for a bit of icing on the cake. Peter's strength throughout his run had been the numbers and his weakness the conundrums but I beat him on the second numbers round and he solved the conundrum in one second. It's a funny old game!!
And so on to the grand final against David, filmed from 5.30pm. I didn't have high hopes of winning as I had never managed to beat David at home when his heat shows were being broadcast, so I decided to just relax and enjoy the occasion. Sure enough, David proved superior, triumphing 91-61. I tried my best but sometimes you just have to say "too good". One of David's numbers solutions was unbelievable it even beat Carol. I had no regrets, I lost to a very worthy champion. I don't think many people would have beaten David that day.
It all seemed like a dream, standing having my photo taken with Des, Carol, Dr. Phil Hammond (the celebrity guest) and Susie. I wondered if I would wake up at any moment having dreamt I'd got to the Countdown grand final. My friends joined me at the end of series party immediately afterwards, enjoying the free bar and buffet, and made sure to cash in on my celebrity by cajoling me for autographs from Des, Carol and Dr. Phil. One of my friends had his photo taken standing next to Carol, and I have to say here that she, Des and Phil were all extremely obliging in this respect.
A bit more celebrity treatment in the couple of weeks afterwards two local radio interviews, during one of which I had to play three rounds of Countdown (one of each discipline) live on air against a member of the station staff and thankfully won. Another short piece in the local paper, and a photo in the newsletter for the NHS Trust I work for. I also started being approached by people I didn't know, all offering their congratulations.
Please continue to Page 2 for Richard's Championship of Champions Experience.