Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For our first edition of the feature, John Teti reviews the current slate of British game shows. The first entry introduced the series with a review of Pointless, and last week came The Chase. This week: Countdown.
Countdown is the most pleasant game show on television. It might also be the most British. It’s a prim game of letters and numbers in which the winners receive not cash but a porcelain teapot. A hideous porcelain teapot.
When Britain’s Channel 4 launched in 1982, Countdown was the first show it aired, and the show remains a throwback to a previous era when the public-service aspect of broadcasting was expected to play a significant role in programming decisions. That principle has eroded over time in the U.K., and of course it’s even more archaic here in the States, where the market interests of television networks are considered paramount as a matter of fact.
Played by two contestants, a Countdown match comprises 11 rounds of the “letters game,” three rounds of the “numbers game,” and a “Countdown Conundrum”—each of which is played with a 30-second time limit.
In a letters round, players are given an assortment of nine letters and asked to make an English word; whoever can make the longer word earns a point for each letter. (Ties score for both players, and a nine-letter word scores double.)
The numbers round presents players with a set of six numbers and a three-digit target sum—the contestants must reach the target by adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing among the given numbers. For example, can you reach the target of 538 using any or all of the numbers 100, 7, 6, 4, 4, and 3? (The answer is at the bottom of the article.) Whichever contestant can come closest to the target earns the points for the round, and the closer you get, the more points you earn, up to 10.
The final round, the Countdown Conundrum, is simply a nine-letter anagram worth 10 points. The anagram typically has the ring of an actual word, like the Conundrum “RACETYRES,” whose solution is “SECRETARY.” More often than not, one player has a lead greater than 10 points heading into this round, which means that in terms of the score, the Conundrum is usually something of an anticlimax.
But that’s the rub: Countdown is not afraid to be boring, which I mean as a compliment. The show aims to entertain, of course, but it also aims to educate, in its mild way, and to provide companionship. Despite existing in a genre known for its noise and flash, Countdown is less of a glitzy showman than an unassuming houseguest, helping its viewers pass time with a quaint parlor game that stimulates the mind. And because Countdown doesn’t strive to be exciting at every turn, it likewise relieves the viewer from the obligation of being constantly entertained.
And yet, as an American watching this British program, I do find myself entertained by its driest, primmest elements. Host Nick Hewer opens a recent Monday episode with a brief monologue/chat session in which he observes that Scout Community Week is getting underway. Hewer proceeds to give a brief history of the name of Scout Community Week: “It used to be known as Bob-A-Job week, but that’s been scrapped. Scrapped 20 years ago!”
He sounds like an English Grampa Simpson; you almost expect him to start expounding on the tradition of Scouts wearing onions on their belt. But the real purpose of this monologue, as with many Countdown openers, is to pay tribute to the quiet glory of prosaic British life (a life that, presumably, involves watching Countdown at 3:15 each afternoon). “Young scouts have got to volunteer, no cash involved, at community centers and hospitals,” Hewer says. After a second, he adds: “Quite right, too.”
Once he’s praised the quite-rightness of Scout Community Week, Hewer turns to another member of the Countdown cast, Rachel Riley, the winsome math whiz who fills the Vanna White role. She also provides solutions to numbers games when the contestants fall short. Hewer asks Riley if she has ever been involved in the scouting movement, and she says that she was indeed in the Scouts, rather than the Guides or the Brownies, which are apparently female-only alternatives. “Sounds like gender confusion to me,” harrumphs Hewer.
That hilariously fuddy-duddy response that is par for the course on Countdown. Other regularly scheduled chatty interludes include a segment at “Dictionary Corner” with the show’s resident lexicographer, Susie Dent, in which she discusses a bit of etymology. In this episode, she speaks on the topic of new internet words, a lecture that Hewer endures slumped in his chair with a pained expression, uttering the occasional groan. The word “sofalizing”—socializing over the internet from one’s couch—is condemned by Dent, presumably because its newness threatens to crumble the very foundation of British society. Dent concludes the segment with, honest to God, a mention of “planking.” Asks Riley, “That’s dangerous, isn’t it?”
Each show also features a celebrity guest, which in this instance is newspaper columnist Janet Street-Porter. She writes for the Independent On Sunday newspaper and The Daily Mail, a conservative paper whose primary purpose is to provide old white people with a daily supply of things that will make them angry. During an interview segment with Hewer, Street-Porter says, “I’m most cross about language at the moment,” suggesting, quite plausibly, that she has a running list of things about which she is cross.
The British-ness of Countdown comes through most vividly, though, in the quirks that pervade every element of the game. The show holds its idiosyncrasies dearly, as if they were the very fabric of the thing, and maybe they are, because they turn a straightforward exercise of language and mathematics into a ritual—they transform a game into a tradition.
Nothing embodies this tradition more than the huge Countdown clock, which has the apparent capacity to run a full minute despite the fact that every round on the show lasts only 30 seconds. The left half of the clock therefore has a purely ceremonial purpose—it is the royal family to the right half’s Parliament—but without it, Countdown wouldn’t be Countdown.
Despite the fact that anagram software has existed for quite a while now, the words on the show are verified only by Susie Dent and her hardbound dictionary. (Likewise, Riley comes up with the solutions for a numbers round in her head, on the fly.) Such is the show’s commitment to the analog approach that when Dent finds a particularly interesting word during a letters round, the production doesn’t use a fancy graphics package to display it to the home audience. Instead, Dent points a handheld camera—which looks like an oversized lipstick tube taped to a Bic pen, with a long cable snaking out of it—at the dictionary on her desk, and the control room cuts to a somewhat blurry freeze frame of the word in question. Print media lives!
Other touches of tradition abound. When one player has come up with the same word as her opponent in a letters, she must lean across the table and show that she has the word written down on scratch paper. This serves as proof that she’s not just saying, “Yes, I got that one, too!” Twice per show, Hewer offers an eight-letter anagram for the viewers to ponder during a commercial break; this is deemed the “Teatime Teaser,” which is just adorable.
But my favorite ritual of Countdown is both one of its smallest and one of its strangest. A contestant constructs the letter bank for a letters round by asking co-hostess Riley to draw letters, one at a time, from two stacks of face-down tiles—one containing vowels, the other consonants. Riley draws the tile, places it on the board, and says the letter. Then between each draw, as she waits for the contestant’s next choice, she does the weirdest thing. She turns her head around and offers a small, vapid smile to the camera.
This in itself wouldn’t be so odd, except that she does it every single time. There are 11 letters rounds per episode, nine letters per round, which means on each show, Riley performs 88 turn-and-smiles, each one practically indistinguishable from the last. And I find myself mesmerized by this. It’s the dullest motion, made more meaningful—and soothing, in a way—by its repetition.
That’s the tao of Countdown. The game is so simple and unimaginative that its novelty wore off back in 1982, within days of its first broadcast. Because novelty isn’t the point; familiarity is. Countdown is the digestive biscuit of game shows, served every day with tea, a confection that seems dull on the first bite yet provides an essential comfort once you acquire a taste for it. And it’s proof that there is room in the worlds of both gaming and television for a game that’s merely, delightfully pleasant.
(Sample numbers round solution: 100 – 4 – 7 = 89; 89 × 6 = 534; 534 + 4 = 538. Check the series introduction for tips on watching Countdown if you’re not in the U.K.)