Conundrums, Consonants and Crushes; Why I Love Countdown

                So, my first year of university is over, and for my troubles I got a nice 2:1 as a reward. It’s not really a surprise when you consider that I’ve spent the year improving my word skills and vocabulary. Except that these improvements haven’t come through the bleary-eyed 9am lectures, or from frantically leafing through thousand-page bricks trying to understand postmodernism. In fact, they’re not really anything to do with my degree at all. Instead, they’ve come from a 7-month obsession with Channel 4’s long-running daytime show Countdown, now in its 29th year. I may still be baffled by postmodernism, and I can’t talk about the ‘Penelope’ chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses without frothing at the mouth, but if you want to find GODETIAS, GIAOURS or ASTROIDS, I’m your go-to girl.

                …well, alright then. In all honesty, that’s a huge overstatement of my anagram-unscrambling activities. While it’s true that I’ve seen ASTROIDS recently (nothing to do with their similarly-spelt space counterparts, apparently), I’m often befuddled by the conundrums and somehow always manage to miss words ending in ‘-ATION’ in the selection. But it can’t be denied that if, like me, you become addicted to this simple yet brilliant show, your knowledge of the 75-times-table will improve exponentially (unless, of course, you’re already a maths genius) and your vocabulary will begin, slowly but surely, to widen. You’ll forget the meanings immediately, but who needs meanings when you can chuck ‘ARBORISTS’ into conversation with that desperately attractive man/woman at the bar? The other person will be so awestruck by your nine-letter skills that they’ll be jumping into bed with you before you can say ‘18 points’.*

Of course, as with any daytime TV show, Countdown comes with its own perils. With Jeremy Kyle, you run the risk of losing brain cells; with Deal Or No Deal you’re in danger of losing all your friends (if you had any in the first place). Countdown’s imminent threats are mostly to your health: your blood pressure is sure to rise when the incumbent champion only spots a five-letter word when there’s a bloody obvious eight in there. The shouting at the television that follows is likely to convince your friends, family and flatmates that you’re barking mad, possibly resulting in you being committed to an institution. Ah, well. As long as you’re near a TV, you’ll at least be able to continue to mock the contestants who didn’t see that blatantly obvious way of making 138 with two tens, a three and an eight.

Imagine my dismay on discovering that, contrary to the myth, not all students are obsessed with the show. In fact, I’m the only student I know who watches it. For my money, it’s far better than the other required student viewing (discounting Jeremy Kyle), University Challenge. Aside from the fact that I’m absolutely useless at Uni Challenge and my sheer incompetence makes me think I’m better suited to a career flipping burgers at McDonald’s than spending several years chewing the academic fat, Countdown isn’t usually stuffed full of pretentious, smug-looking nerds. Certainly Countdown is less elitist – the winner of a programme could ply their trade as a dustman or a burger-flipper, and the format itself isn’t impossible to all but the most fervent Wiki-trawlers. The notion of a Scouse street-sweeper potentially becoming a daytime hero courtesy of his impressive vocabulary is far more romantic than a university student knowing the name of a particular French obstetrician.  Essentially, Countdown is just a whole lot more inclusive than UC, from format down to host (Jeff Stelling also hosts my other daytime television favourite, Gillette Soccer Saturday, the show to which I attribute my conversion from nominal Chelsea fan as a toddler to vidiprinter-obsessed child). And, on a classically shallow Jen note, there are some distressingly attractive series winners amongst the chaff – not to be sneered at, considering the show’s considerable pensioner fanbase. Obviously there’s the occasional non-deformed, rather good-looking contestant on UC, but night-time TV listings are packed with alternative totty-fests. Three o’clock in the afternoon, on the other hand, is not the most fecund period for televisual ogling.

Yes, there’s a sense of joy when you get an answer right on UC – the same sense of joy you get when watching Countdown if you get a nine, or beat Rachel Riley on the numbers round. But the austerity of UC and Paxman’s tiringly withering glare makes it far less fun than the occasional banter between Countdown contestants and the amusing Dictionary Corner guests (my mother and I are most fond of Dr Phil Hammond, a hilarious if perverted doctor-turned-comedian). Even if Stelling’s opening gambits are often hackneyed and/or predictable, it adds a delightful cheesiness to proceedings; a necessary pick-me-up in the mid-afternoon when you’re exhausted after a particularly grinding seminar or in need of some respite from a brutal essay about post-structuralism. It’s also got the element of luck. Choosing a vowel as your last letter instead of a consonant could be the difference between the eighteen points from JUDGESHIP and a feeble six from JUDGES.

And so that’s my paean to my daily 45 minutes of words, numbers and occasional babes. At the end of the day, though, I’m glad I’m not doing a degree in Countdown aptitude – because if an octochamp automatically qualifies for a First, I’d be scraping a Third. Until I’ve improved enough to spot SHMEARING when I see it, I’m not going to be applying to sit in the challenger’s seat. So don’t expect to see me up there any time soon.

* This is pure hyperbole on my part, so please don’t get angry if your conundrum-inspired chat-up lines fail to impress/get you laid. There’s a reason why ‘REJECTION’ is also nine letters.

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