Richard Priest's Experience - Page 2

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Richard returned for the thirteeth Championship of Champions, broadcast at the start of 2009, and was immediately faced with the prospect of a match against Series 59 'wonderkid' Kai Laddiman. Sadly for Richard, his campaign ended prematurely when he blobbed on a crucial conundrum, leaving the 12-year-old semi-finalist to take his place in the quarter-finals. Nevertheless, Rich's tale is an interesting one, so who better than he to tell it to us...

About a month after the finals had been aired, Des [O'Connor] announced that he was quitting the show, with Carol following suit within a few days. Naturally, all the quips were forthcoming – "since you’ve been on that show it’s all gone to pot etc. etc..." or words to that effect. I applied for Carol’s job, but more in hope than expectation, being nearly 40, overweight and no better than average at numbers games. I never heard anything...

After filming the finals it was nice to be able to just sit back and relax and watch the show without having to practise intensely for any impending appearances. I still kept my hand in, however, and competed in an online tournament organised by Jon O’Neill where I won two games before losing to Julian Fell in the quarter-finals. I also attended my first two Countdown events in Nottingham and Leicester, held in July and August respectively. Both were good fun to attend, and I enjoyed meeting several ex-contestants especially the legendary Joyce Cansfield. The competition was very tough and I didn’t do as well as I would have liked, finishing in the lower half of the standings each time. One ex-contestant who beat me at both events was called Mike Brown, and that guy better watch out next time because I don’t like to lose...

I knew that as a series runner-up there was a good chance of me being invited back for the 13th Champion of Champions event, to be held after the series following mine, and that I would need to get back into training fairly quickly if I was to have a chance of doing well. At the Leicester event I met one of the most successful contestants of all time, Mark Tournoff, and bought a copy of his book "Crucial - a Champion’s Tale", feeling that there was probably nobody better to learn useful hints and tips from. Mark had gone right through the Oxford Dictionary of English 2nd edition as part of his preparation, so I decided to follow his example. I was lucky to see a copy going for half-price in a newsagent's in Skegness whilst on holiday there in September, so I bought it and started trawling through it for new words.

At the beginning of October I was in the pub one night with two of the friends who had accompanied me to the filming of the finals. One of them was reading a national newspaper and saw an article in it about one Kai Laddiman, who at the age of 11 had won seven televised shows and was on his way to becoming the youngest octochamp for several years. He said to me "you might have to play him"...

Towards the end of October came the phone call I had been waiting and hoping for – from Damian Eadie, asking me if I wanted to be included in the next Champion of Champions series. Absolutely! He told me that filming was planned for the last week of November. My preparations continued, as I combined watching the show daily with searching systematically through the dictionary and playing Countdown online. My goal was to win CoC and carve my name on the list of great champions. I knew it was a long shot with so many quality contestants in the field, but why bother turning up at all if you’re not going to try and go all-out for the big one?

Soon afterwards, Damian posted the 1st round draw for CoC on the Countdown Internet forum. There were three names in particular that I hadn’t wanted to be drawn against, namely Beevers, O’Donnell and Laddiman. In the event, one of the feared threesome, Craig Beevers, declined his invitation, which I thought might improve my chances of doing well. I resolved not to look at the draw until I went up to Leeds, preferring instead to focus just on practising and not worrying about my opponent. However, a couple of days after the draw was posted, I received an email through the forum from Kai Laddiman, and without even reading it I knew it could mean only one thing. My worst nightmare had come true – the 13th CoC was to be very unlucky for me...

I believed I could beat Kai, having beaten him seven times out of eight from home, but I really didn’t want the pressure of playing a 12-year-old. However, that was the draw, and I just had to get on with it. One good thing was that it motivated me to practise harder.

November came, and we had yet to receive confirmation of the recording dates. Things were still up in the air, as a new host had not yet been confirmed. I emailed Damian to ask him if the recordings were still planned for the last week of November, and he replied to say that they were not, and would probably now be in the middle of December. Alexander Armstrong had been tipped as the new host but had turned the job down at the 11th hour. This was, I felt, a bonus as it would give me a few more weeks in which to practise. Then, towards the end of November, I received a phone call from Sarah Foulkes, associate producer, to tell me that filming would be taking place from 7th to 9th December. My stress levels soared.

I continued to practise hard, and on Saturday 6th December I woke up early and watched the recording of the previous day’s show, the quarter-final between Martin Bishop and Lee Simmonds. I played well from my armchair, beating both contestants, and just hoped I could maintain that form against Kai. After finishing my shift at work I headed up to Leeds again with my aunt Marion. We arrived at the hotel, and in the bar that evening I met up with Charlie Reams, Junaid Mubeen, David O’Donnell, Tony Warren and Jon Corby and his father and sister. We sat around talking for a bit, and it was here I learned that Junaid was the new series champion, having beaten Charlie in the final. I was asked if I was feeling confident, and I replied that I didn’t think I would feel any worse if I was going to the electric chair.

I went to bed early, having been up since about 5.30am. The morning I had been dreading then arrived. Because we weren’t due at the studios until 12.30pm Marion and I took the bus into Leeds and did some shopping. When the time came we made our way to the studios and met up with some familiar faces again, and I chatted with Peter Davies and Jonathan Coles who had been involved in the same series finals as me. Danielle, the same unit assistant who had been on duty for the series 58 finals, came and took us through into the Green Room. We were given a briefing from Kate Horton about the new set and the new presenters, and were given strict instructions to go easy on Rachel Riley with it being her first time on national TV. Jay (aka Jonathan Yardley), who had been the unit assistant when I first appeared on the show, had now been promoted to floor manager. My game against Kai was scheduled to be the fourth of the day, to take place at around 7pm, so I sat in the audience to watch David O’Donnell narrowly beat James Hurrell in a very close first game and then Junaid Mubeen defeat Tony Warren in a more straightforward encounter.

I had some lunch in the canteen and returned for a group photograph with 14 of the other contestants – Debbi Flack having not yet arrived at the studios, while Anita Freeland, who had arrived, was also missing from the photo for whatever reason. After this a coin was tossed to decide between Kai and myself who would go in which chair. I sorted out the shirt I would be wearing for the game, went into make-up, had my contestant introduction checked by Sarah Foulkes and then sat in the Green Room with several other contestants to watch Jon Corby beat Richard Brittain. There was considerable amusement when Richard buzzed on the non-crucial conundrum ANDIESEGG and offered GANDISEEG – full marks for originality!

There was still about an hour to go before my game, so I had an evening meal in the canteen where I sat chatting to Junaid and his friends. I also saw Jon and congratulated him on his win. Finally, the moment of truth came and I returned to the Green Room from where Kai and I were called to the studio to do battle. At this point I felt petrified and really didn’t want to be there. I was so desperate to do well, but also terrified of playing a very good 12-year-old in a televised game. However, it was far too late to back out. We assumed our chairs, Kai in the champion’s and me in the challenger’s, we met Jeff and Rachel, the opening title music played and proceedings were under way.

The first five rounds were neck-and-neck, and the first half ended with us tied at 31-apiece. The good news was that at least I wasn’t losing. However, I was becoming increasingly frustrated at missing opportunities to build up an early lead by failing to spot words such as LACERATE and ALIQUOT. In round 6 I pulled ahead of Kai with OPPOSE to his PIPES and settled down a little, though I still didn’t feel entirely comfortable. I hoped to forge further ahead, thinking he might start to panic as he was used to being ahead.

In round 9, I could only see a 6 – DANCED. Instinct told me that something longer was there but I just couldn’t see it, my mind had gone blank. My worst fears were confirmed when Kai declared an 8 – DECLINED. To hear it felt like a knife through the heart. Similarly, in round 11 I could only see a 5 – TEXTS – but knew there was something better, and sure enough Kai declared a 6 – SETTEE. I was playing catch-up. Again, I was frustrated by the way I was missing easy words. I looked up into the audience and saw Jon Corby, Ben Wilson and Kirk Bevins, and I thought "those guys must be wiping the floor with me here".

I hung on until the conundrum, and knew I needed it to win. I also knew it would not be easy – in three previous games that day I had solved only one conundrum, the one in the Corby-Brittain game. I focused hard on the monitor, knowing I would probably have to be quick as Kai was renowned for being a fast conundrum spotter. The letters FIERCETEA came into view...

The scramble looked familiar very quickly, and in a split second I decided it was CAFETERIA and buzzed. When I uttered the word, Kai let out a little groan, suggesting he thought I was right. I waited for Jeff’s confirmation that I was right, but instead he said "it’s not right, Richard" with an almost apologetic look on his face. My first reaction was to think "well what is it then?" and then I thought that if it wasn’t CAFETERIA it must be very similar. I thought of CAFETIERE – looked at the letters, and realised that was what it was. I buried my head in my hands and listened helplessly as the clock ticked by, knowing my chance had gone. At the end, Jeff realised I had got it, and asked me what it was. It was indeed CAFETIERE – but sadly in this game we only get one bite at the conundrum cherry.

'Devastated' is the only way I can describe the way I felt, and it obviously showed. I hung my head in despair. Months of hard work had come to nothing. When the cameras had stopped rolling Jeff came and put his hands on my shoulders and said a few consolatory words, I forget exactly what they were. Susie called across to me, "are you alright, Richard?". I replied yes, unconvincingly. Kai told me he had never heard of CAFETIERE, and that he felt gutted for me. When all was finished I headed off the set, knowing I just had to get out of there. Just as I went into the dressing room to collect my belongings Steve Baines, who was about to play Nick Wainwright, came out of the Green Room and said "bad luck". As Marion and I headed out of the studios, Damian and Kate were coming back in, possibly after a cigarette break. Damian shook my hand. Kate told me she wanted to give me a big hug.

I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay any longer. I felt embarrassed to be around the top players having missed so many words, and thought that watching the rest of the games and not being involved would be too hard to swallow. Then the following morning, as I was getting dressed in my hotel room, I received a distressed phone call from a friend who told me his father had passed away suddenly the night before. This put my own feelings of despondency into perspective very quickly. I had breakfast, checked out of the hotel, said goodbye to some of the fellow contestants who were gathered in the lobby, and raced off home to be with my friend at his time of need.

It was such a shame that my Countdown adventure had to end that way. Five weeks later, when the show was aired on TV, all my initial feelings of agony and despair came back. A friend texted me to say she had just one word to say - SETTEE – and I have to confess that she was given short shrift by way of a reply. In my local supermarket I was approached by a man who said "what you doing letting that kid beat you?" – again, just what I didn’t need. On the whole, though, people were very supportive.

I never will be happy about what happened in the Kai game, but time helps such disappointments to fade away. I would love to have advanced further in Champion of Champions, but when I think back to when I first headed anxiously to the studios in March 2008, I would have been grateful then just to win one game, so I can’t feel too downhearted. When I watched Paul Gallen beat Mark Tournoff in the 12th Champion of Champions final, I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be competing in the next CoC. My record reads 8 wins and 3 defeats - and two of those three were on crucial conundrums. I still intend to watch the show and play Countdown online and at the two or three organised Countdown events that take place every year. I still attend the studios as an audience member every so often, watching others go through the wringer, and the team are very welcoming when they see me.

So - if anyone reading this is thinking of applying to go on the show but feels a little uncertain – do it! Obviously not everyone can be a series finalist, but if you enjoy watching the show at home you will love being there at the hub of it all and seeing it all unfold live. I doubt that anyone could have dithered more than I did about applying, but I’ve had a fantastic experience that I will treasure forever, met a lot of nice people and made some new friends. And more than anything, it has taught me a lesson for life - never to let what others might think put you off doing something you think you could do well at.

Richard Priest

[Part 1 of this article was written in June 2008 and updated in November 2009; Part 2 was written in March 2009]

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