Countdown (game show)

Countdown is a British game show involving word and number tasks. It is broadcast on Channel 4 and is currently presented by Nick Hewer, assisted by Rachel Riley, with regular lexicographer Susie Dent. It was the first programme to be aired on Channel 4, and 81 series have been broadcast since its debut on 2 November 1982. With over 7,000 episodes, Countdown is one of the longest-running game shows in the world, along with the original French version, Des chiffres et des lettres (Numbers & Letters), which has been running on French television continuously since 1965. Countdown was initially recorded at The Leeds Studios for 27 years, before moving to Manchester-based Granada Studios in 2009. Following the development of MediaCityUK, Countdown moved again in 2013 to the new purpose-built studios at Dock10, Greater Manchester.

GenreGame show
Created byArmand Jammot
Based onDes chiffres et des lettres
Presented byNick Hewer
Jeff Stelling
Des O'Connor
Des Lynam
Richard Whiteley
StarringRachel Riley
Carol Vorderman
Susie Dent
Theme music composerAlan Hawkshaw
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original language(s)English
No. of series81 (Regular)
2 (Masters)
2 (Celebrity)
81 (overall)
No. of episodes7,207 (as of 18 November 2019) (inc. 42 specials)
104 (Masters)
8 (Celebrity)
Production location(s)The Leeds Studios, Leeds (1982–2009)
Granada Studios, Manchester (2009–12)
dock10, MediaCityUK, City of Salford (2013–present)
Camera setupMultiple-camera setup
Running time36 mins (excluding adverts)
45 mins (including adverts, 2001–present)
24 mins (excluding adverts)
30 mins (including adverts, 1982–2001)
Production company(s)Yorkshire Television (1982–2004)
Granada Productions (2004–09)
ITV Studios (2009–)
DistributorITV Studios
Original networkChannel 4
S4C (1982–2010) (Wales only)
More4 (2nd celebrity series)
Picture formatHD 1080i (2013–)
16:9 (1999–)
4:3 (1982–99)
Original release2 November 1982 (1982-11-02) 
Related shows8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown
Celebrity Countdown
External links

The programme was presented by Richard Whiteley for over 20 years, until his death in June 2005. It was then presented by Des Lynam until the end of 2006, Des O'Connor until the end of 2008, and Jeff Stelling until the end of 2011; Nick Hewer has presented the show since 2012.[1] Carol Vorderman, the show's co-host, who had been on the programme since it began, left the show in December 2008, at the same time as Des O'Connor. She was replaced by Rachel Riley. Cathy Hytner originally placed letters on the board for the letters games, before this was taken over by Vorderman.

A celebrity guest features in every programme (usually for five consecutive programmes) and provides an anecdote midway between the two advertisement breaks. The two contestants in each episode compete in three disciplines: ten letters rounds, in which the contestants attempt to make the longest word possible from nine randomly chosen letters; four numbers rounds, in which the contestants must use arithmetic to reach a random target number from six other numbers; and the conundrum, a buzzer round in which the contestants compete to solve a nine-letter anagram. During the series heats, the winning contestant returns the next day until they either lose or retire with eight wins as an undefeated "Octochamp". The best eight contestants are invited back for the series finals, which are decided in knockout format. Contestants of exceptional skill have received national media coverage and the programme, as a whole, is widely recognised and parodied within British culture.



Countdown is based on the French game show Des chiffres et des lettres (Numbers and Letters), created by Armand Jammot. The format was brought to Britain by Marcel Stellman, a Belgian record executive, who had watched the French show and believed it could be popular overseas. Yorkshire Television purchased the format and commissioned a series of eight shows under the title Calendar Countdown, which was to be a spin-off of their regional news programme Calendar. As the presenter of Calendar, Richard Whiteley was the natural choice to present Calendar Countdown with his daily appearances on both shows earning him the nickname "Twice Nightly Whiteley".[2] These shows were only broadcast in the Yorkshire area.[3]

An additional pilot episode was made, with a refined format, although it was never broadcast.[4] A new British television channel, Channel 4, was due to launch in November 1982, and bought the newly renamed Countdown on the strength of this additional episode.[4] Countdown was the first programme to be broadcast on the new channel.[5]

Richard Whiteley introducing the first Channel 4 episode of Countdown.[6]

Junior Countdown

Channel 4 originally planned a parallel Junior Countdown in which the contestants were children. The pilot episode was filmed on 26 November 1982, less than a month after the first adult version was broadcast.[7] The presenter was Gyles Brandreth, with Ted Moult in Dictionary Corner. The format mirrored that of the adult version. No further episodes were filmed, and the pilot episode was never broadcast. Brandreth, speaking on Countdown in November 2012, stated that the concept had proved disastrous, and was abandoned.


Calendar Countdown was presented by Richard Whiteley, with Cathy Hytner and Denise McFarland-Cruickshanks managing the numbers and letters rounds respectively.[8] When Countdown was commissioned for Channel 4, the number of hostesses expanded further: Cathy Hytner and Beverley Isherwood selected the letters and numbers tiles respectively, and calculations in the numbers rounds were checked by Linda Barrett or Carol Vorderman.[9] Vorderman, a Cambridge graduate and member of Mensa,[10] was appointed as one of the numbers experts after responding to an advertisement in a national newspaper which asked for a young woman who would like to become a game show hostess. Unlike almost any other game show hostess of the time, however, the advertisement also made it clear that an applicant's appearance would be less important than their talent as a mathematician.[11] Gradually the tasks performed by the extra presenters were taken over by Carol Vorderman, whose role within the show essentially became that of co-presenter.[12]

Whiteley fell ill with septicaemia in 2005, and as a result he was no longer able to record Countdown. Despite slowly making a recovery from his illness, he died on 26 June 2005, after a failed operation to correct a problem that had been detected in his heart. Channel 4 took the following show off the air as a mark of respect, and the next programme was preceded by a tearful tribute from Carol Vorderman. The final five shows Whiteley had filmed (the conclusion of Series 53) were aired, after which the show was placed on hiatus before returning in October 2005, with Des Lynam (who had featured on Celebrity Countdown in 1998) as the main presenter.[13] On 30 September 2006, Lynam said that he had decided to leave the programme after Christmas 2006.[14]

Lynam's departure was owing to travel requirements for the demanding filming schedule; the show was recorded in Leeds, while he lived 250 miles (400 km) away in Worthing, West Sussex. Channel 4 had tried an extra programme on Saturday in early 2006 which Lynam had agreed to, subject to part of the filming schedule being moved nearer to his home. However, viewers reacted angrily to the idea of the show leaving Leeds,[14] and when Lynam found out that a move would cause considerable disruption for many of the programme's camera crew, he decided to leave.[15] On 7 November 2006, it was announced that Des O'Connor would succeed Lynam as host.[16] Lynam's final show as Countdown presenter was broadcast on 22 December 2006. O'Connor first presented the show on 2 January 2007.

The other studio mainstay is Dictionary Corner, which houses a lexicographer and that week's celebrity guest (referred to as "Guardian of the Dictionaries" or "GoD"). Initially, farmer and broadcaster Ted Moult was on hand for verification. The role of the lexicographer is to verify the words offered by the contestants (see Letters round rules) and point out any longer or otherwise interesting words available. The lexicographer is aided in finding these words by the show's producers, Michael Wylie (until his death in November 2008) and Damian Eadie.[17] The production team is insistent that no computer program is used in this role, and that the words suggested in Dictionary Corner have been found manually.

The lexicographer role used to rotate and many lexicographers have appeared over the years, including Richard Samson and Alison Heard. However, since her debut in 1992, Susie Dent has become synonymous with the role, and has made over three thousand appearances,[18] becoming the permanent lexicographer in 2003. The celebrity guest, sometimes known as the "Dictionary Dweller", also contributes words, thus providing an entertaining and light-hearted parallel with the efforts of the contestants, and also provides a short interlude halfway through the second section of the show. These guests have included Nigel Rees, Jo Brand, Martin Jarvis, Richard Digance, Geoffrey Durham, Ken Bruce, Magnus Magnusson, Pam Ayres, Paul Zenon and John Sergeant, and, most regularly, Gyles Brandreth, providing poems, anecdotes, puzzles and magic tricks.[19] Whilst Susie Dent was on maternity leave over the winter of 2007–08, Alison Heard replaced her on the programme; Dent returned to the series on 6 February 2008.

It was announced in July 2008 that Des O'Connor would be stepping down as host that December. In the same month, Carol Vorderman announced that she would also leave the show at the same time.[20]

On 21 November 2008, Jeff Stelling was confirmed as the new host, with Oxford maths graduate Rachel Riley taking Vorderman's former role.[21] It was announced on 24 May 2011 that Stelling would reluctantly be leaving the programme, due to his football commitments with Sky Sports, and he presented his final show on 16 December 2011.[22]

On 16 November 2011, it was announced that Nick Hewer would be taking over as host, with his first show broadcast on 9 January 2012.[1]


Countdown quickly established cult status within British television[23] – an image which it maintains today,[24] despite numerous changes of rules and personnel. The programme's audience comprises mainly students, homemakers and pensioners,[23] owing to the "teatime" broadcast slot and inclusive appeal of its format and presentation.[24] Countdown has been one of Channel 4's most-watched programs for over twenty years, but has never won a major television award.[25] When Des Lynam became the new presenter after Whiteley's death in 2005, the show regularly drew an average 1.7 million viewers every day—which was around half a million more than in the last few years of Richard Whiteley presenting[26]—and the Series 54 final, on 26 May 2006, attracted 2.5 million viewers.[27] From 3–4 million viewers had watched the show daily in its previous 16:15 slot. The drop in viewers following the scheduling change, coupled with the show's perceived educational benefits, even caused Labour MP Jonathan Shaw to table a motion in the UK Parliament, requesting that the show be returned to its later time.[28] Minor scheduling changes have subsequently seen the show move from 15:15 to 15:30, to 15:45 to 15:25, and 15:10. As of 2018, it is broadcast at 14:10.

On each episode, the prize for defeating the reigning champion is a teapot that is styled to resemble the 30-second time clock used in each round. Introduced in December 1998, the pot is custom-made and can only be obtained by winning a game on the programme.[29] Defeated contestants receive an assortment of Countdown-themed merchandise as a parting gift.

At first, the prize for the series winner was a leather-bound copy of the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary, worth over £4,000. Since 2011, the prize consists of ordinary hardback twenty-one-volume dictionaries, a laptop computer and a lifetime subscription to Oxford Online (replaced by a Bookpro laptop computer by series 68). David Acton, winner of Series 31, opted for a CD-ROM version of the dictionaries, not wanting to accept leather-bound books owing to his strict veganism, and he donated the monetary difference to charity.[30]

Since 2006, the series champion also receives the Richard Whiteley Memorial Trophy, in memory of the show's original presenter.

Though the style and colour scheme of the set have changed many times (and the show itself moved to Manchester, after more than 25 years in Leeds) the clock has always provided the centrepiece and, like the clock music composed by Alan Hawkshaw, is an enduring and well-recognised feature of Countdown. Executive producer John Meade once commissioned Hawkshaw to revise the music for extra intensity; after hundreds of complaints from viewers, the old tune was reinstated.[31] The original clock featured until September 2013, when it was replaced.

Panorama of the 2017 set


The first episode of Countdown was repeated on 1 October 2007, on More4, and also on 2 November 2007, on Channel 4, as part of Channel 4 at 25, a season of celebratory Channel 4 programmes, as it celebrated its 25th birthday.

On 2 November 2007 Countdown celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary and aired a special 'birthday episode'. The two players were 2006 winner Conor Travers and 2002 winner Chris Wills. However, for the rounds, VIP guests selected the letters and numbers.[32] Guests included Gordon Brown, Amir Khan and Richard Attenborough. A statement from the French TV network France Télévisions was read out on air by Carol Vorderman to commend Channel 4 on its success of Countdown.

On 26 March 2010 Queen Elizabeth II congratulated Countdown for amassing 5,000 episodes. On 5 September 2014 the programme received a Guinness World Record at the end of its 6,000th show for the longest-running television programme of its kind during the course of its 71st series.

Departures of Vorderman and O'Connor

On 23 July 2008 it was announced that O'Connor would be leaving the show at the end of the 59th series, in December 2008, to concentrate on other projects.[33]

ITV Studios announced, on 25 July 2008, that Carol Vorderman would also be leaving at the end of the same series.[20]

Vorderman had been willing to accept a 33% salary decrease, in line with a 33% budget cut being imposed on the show, but felt she was 'forced' to leave after being asked to accept a 90% pay cut. Her agent, John Miles, stated Vorderman had been told the show had survived the death of host Richard Whiteley in 2005 and could "easily survive without you."[34]

Rory Bremner, the early favourite in the betting to replace Des O'Connor, ruled himself out. Later reports suggested Alexander Armstrong[35] and Jeff Stelling[36] as potential hosts, but Armstrong later said he had refused the job.[37] Anthea Turner, Ulrika Jonsson, and Myleene Klass were all linked with Vorderman's job;[38] however, Channel 4 then began to search for a previously unknown male or female arithmetician with "charm and charisma". Eventually, on 21 November 2008, after O'Connor and Vorderman had finished filming, it was confirmed that Oxford maths graduate Rachel Riley would join the show, alongside Stelling,[39] with Susie Dent continuing as resident lexicographer.


Countdown has occupied a tea-time broadcast slot since its inception, originally in a 30 minute format. Currently an episode lasts around 45 minutes including advertising breaks. During the normal series, the winner of each game returns for the next day's show. A player who wins eight games is declared an "octochamp" and retires until the series finals. At the end of the series, the eight players with most wins (or the highest total score in the event of a tie) are invited back to compete in the series finals. They are seeded in a knockout tournament, with the first seed playing the eighth seed, the second playing the seventh, and so on. The winner of this knockout, which culminates in the Grand Final, becomes the series champion. Each series lasts around six months, with about 125 episodes.[40]

Approximately every four series, a Champion of Champions tournament takes place. For this, sixteen of the best players to have appeared since the previous Championship are invited back for another knockout tournament. The producer, former contestant Damian Eadie, decides which players to include, but typically the tournament includes the series winners and other noteworthy contestants.[41] Series 33 was designated a "Supreme Championship", in which 56 of the best contestants from all the previous series returned for another knockout tournament. Series 10 champion Harvey Freeman was declared Supreme Champion after beating Allan Saldanha in the final.[42] There are also occasional special episodes, in which past contestants return for themed matches. For example, David Acton and Kenneth Michie returned for a rematch of their Series 31 final, while brothers and former contestants Sanjay and Sandeep Mazumder played off against each other on 20 December 2004.[43]

Since the change to 45 minute episodes, the game has been split into three sections, separated by advertising breaks. The first section contains two letters rounds and a numbers round, the second has two letters rounds and a numbers round followed by the anecdote from the Dictionary Corner guest and then a further two letters rounds and a numbers round, while the last section has two letters rounds, Susie Dent's "Origins of Words" item, two further letters rounds, a numbers round and a final "Conundrum" puzzle. With the exception of the Conundrum, the contestants swap control after every round so that each of them has control for five letters rounds and two numbers rounds.

At the end of the first two sections, Hewer poses a Teatime Teaser for the viewers, giving a set of short words and a cryptic clue to a single word that can be anagrammed from them. The solution is revealed at the start of the next section. (Example: Given the words SAD MOODY and the clue "We'll all be sad and moody when this arrives," the solution would be DOOMSDAY.) When the Teatime Teaser was first introduced, the anagrams were seven letters long; they were later extended to eight, and then to nine in late 2016.

Letters round

The contestant in control chooses between two stacks of letter tiles, one containing vowels and the other consonants, and the assistant reveals the top tile from that stack and places it on the board. This is done nine times, and the final grouping must contain at least three vowels and four consonants.[44] The contestants then have 30 seconds to form the longest single word they can, using the nine revealed letters; no letter may be used more often than it appears in the selection.[44] The frequencies of the letters within each stack are weighted according to their frequency in natural English, in the same manner as Scrabble. For example, there are many Ns and Rs in the consonant stack, but only one Q. The letter frequencies are altered by the producers from time to time, so any published list does not necessarily reflect the letters used in any particular programme.[45] The two stacks of tiles are not replenished between rounds.

Both contestants write down the words they form, in case they select the same one. After time runs out, the host asks the contestants to declare their word lengths, starting with the contestant who chose the letters. The host then asks the discovered words, starting with the shorter declared length. If one contestant has not written their word down in time, they must state this fact; if both then declare the same length, that contestant must give their word first to prevent cheating. The contestant with the longer valid word scores one point per letter, or 18 points if they have used all nine. If the words are identical or of the same length, both contestants score. In the former case, the contestants must show their written words to each other as proof that they are the same. Each round ends with Dictionary Corner revealing the longest words and/or any unusual ones that can be formed from the available letters, aided by the production team.[46]

Any word which appears in the Oxford Dictionary of English is valid,[47] as well as accepted forms of them that may not be explicitly listed. Examples include:

  • Common nouns and their plurals
  • Verbs and their inflections (e.g. "escape", "escaped", "escaping")
  • Comparative and superlative forms of adjectives (if the adjective is more than one syllable, the form must be explicitly listed)[48]
  • Plurals of foods specified as mass nouns that may be ordered in restaurants (e.g. "pastas", as in "I'll have two pastas")

Words that are not allowed include:

  • Terms which are always capitalised, including proper nouns (e.g. "Jane" or "London")
  • Hyphenated terms
  • Words that are never used alone (e.g. "gefilte"; only used as part of "gefilte fish")
  • American spellings of words (e.g. "flavour" and "signalled" are allowed, but "flavor" and "signaled" are not) even though they were allowed in earlier series.[44]
Contestant One chooses five consonants, then three vowels, then another consonant.
Selection is:
Contestant One declares 7, while Contestant Two declares 8.
Contestant One reveals younger, but Contestant Two reveals hydrogen and scores 8 points. Contestant One does not score.
Dictionary Corner notes greyhound, which would have scored 18 points for using all nine letters.

Numbers round

The contestant in control chooses six of 24 shuffled face-down number tiles, arranged into two groups: 20 "small numbers" (two each of 1 through 10), and four "large numbers" of 25, 50, 75 and 100. Some special episodes replace the large numbers with 12, 37, 62 and 87. The contestant decides how many large numbers are to be used, from none to all four, after which the six tiles are randomly drawn and placed on the board. A random three-digit target number is then generated by an electronic machine, known as "CECIL" (which stands for Countdown's Electronic Calculator In Leeds).[49] The contestants have 30 seconds to work out a sequence of calculations with the numbers whose final result is as close to the target number as possible. They may use only the four basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division,[44] and do not have to use all six numbers. A number may not be used more times than it appears on the board. Fractions are not allowed, and only positive integers may be obtained as a result at any stage of the calculation.[44] As in the letters rounds, any contestant who does not write down their calculations in time must go first if both declare the same result, and both contestants must show their work to each other if their results and calculations are identical.

Only the contestant whose result is closer to the target number scores points: 10 for reaching it exactly, 7 for being 1–5 away, 5 for being 6–10 away. Contestants score no points for being more than 10 away, if their calculations are flawed, or if they take too long to give a solution after saying they have not written it down. Both score if they reach the same result, or if their results are the same distance away. Should neither contestant reach the target exactly, the assistant is called upon to attempt a solution, either immediately or at a later time during the episode.

Contestant One requests two large numbers and four small numbers.
Selection is:
75 50 2 3 8 7
Randomly generated target is:
Contestant One declares 813, while Contestant Two declares 815.
Contestant One is closer and so reveals: 75 + 50 – 8 = 117, and 117 × 7 – (3 × 2) = 813, which scores 7 points for being 1 away. Contestant Two does not score.
Assistant notes: 50 + 8 = 58, and 7 × 2 × 58 = 812, which would have scored 10 points.

In some games, there are many ways to reach the target exactly—the example target above could also be reached by 7 × (75 + 50 + 2 – 8 – 3) = 812. Not all games are solvable, and for a few selections it is impossible even to get within 10, most commonly when a contestant picks six small numbers and the target number is quite large.[50] There is a tactical element in selecting how many large numbers to include. One large and five small numbers is the most popular selection,[51] despite two large numbers giving the best chance of the game being solvable exactly.[52] Selections with zero or four large numbers are generally considered the hardest.[52]

The 24 tiles are laid out in four rows, the topmost of which contains only the four large numbers. The contestant may specify how many tiles to draw from each row, or simply state how many large and small numbers will be used; in the latter case, the assistant draws the tiles randomly. The numbers are usually placed on the board from right to left, starting with the small ones, but have occasionally been displayed in scrambled order. On rare occasions, the contestant has declined to make any choices, in which case the assistant selects the tiles. Unlike the letters round, the pool of tiles is fully replenished after each numbers round.

Contestant requests one from the top (large), two from the second row (small), and three more from the top (large).
Selection is (in disorder):
50 10 6 25 100 75

A special edition, broadcast on 15 March 2010, for two previous series champions, Kirk Bevins and Chris Davies, used instead of the usual four large numbers, the numbers 12, 37 and two numbers unrevealed for the duration of the show. In a further special broadcast on 16 August 2010 between the Series 59 finalists Charlie Reams and Junaid Mubeen, the other two numbers were revealed to be 62 and 87.


The final round of the game is the Countdown Conundrum, in which the contestants are shown a combination of two or three words with a total of nine letters. They have 30 seconds to form a single word using all the letters, and must buzz in to respond (a bell for the champion, a buzzer for the challenger). Each contestant is allowed only one guess, and the first to answer correctly scores 10 points. If a contestant buzzes-in and either responds incorrectly or fails to give any response, the remaining time is given to the opponent. If neither contestant can solve it, the presenter asks whether anyone in the audience knows the answer and, if so, chooses someone to call it out. (This practice was stopped temporarily in 2009 due to difficulties with camera angles after the studio layout was changed.) The Conundrum is designed to have only one solution, but on occasion more than one valid word is found by happenstance (e.g. REACH SORT can become both CARTHORSE and ORCHESTRA). If this happens, any of these results is accepted.[53]

If the contestants' scores are within 10 points of each other going into this round, it is referred to as a Crucial Countdown Conundrum. Since 10 points are at stake, the contestant who solves it will either win the game or force a tiebreaker. If the scores are tied after the Conundrum, additional Conundrums are played until the tie is broken.[54] There have been several instances in which two Conundrums were used to decide the winner, but only a handful of episodes have required three. (There have also been cases when even more Conundrums have been required to provide a winner, but not all have been included in the transmitted programme.)

Conundrum is revealed:
Contestant One buzzes-in and says launching. This answer is revealed to be correct, and Contestant One scores 10 points.


The rules of Countdown are derived from those of Des chiffres et des lettres. Perhaps the biggest difference is the length of the round; DCedL's number rounds are each 45 seconds long to Countdown's 30. DCedL also feature "duels", in which players compete in short tasks such as mental arithmetic problems, extracting two themed words from another, or being asked to spell a word correctly. Other minor differences include a different numbers scoring system (9 points for an exact solution, or 6 points for the closest inexact solution in DCedL) and the proportion of letters to numbers rounds (10 to 4 in Countdown, 8 to 4 in DCedL).[55]

The pilot episode followed significantly different rules from the current ones. Most noticeably, only eight letters were selected for each letters round. If two contestants offered a word of the same length, or an equally close solution to a numbers game, then only the contestant who made the selection for that round was awarded points. Also, only five points were given for an exact numbers solution, three for a solution within 5, and one point for the closer solution, no matter how far away.[56]

The set design has changed over the years with the centrepiece of it always being the Countdown clock. The original set was used from its launch in 1982 until Series 17 in early 1989. A new upmarket brown set was introduced in Series 18 in July 1989 but only remained in use for less than 2 years. Series 22 from July 1991 saw the introduction of the familiar and long-lived "Wings" set which was used in its original form until 1995. Series 31 in January 1996 saw its colour scheme change to purple and changed again to tangerine at the end of 1999 alongside updated score displays. January 2003 saw the set updated to a new pink and purple striped theme with the letters and numbers boards now on separate islands rather than being integrated into the set. 6 years later in January 2009, the set received another redesign with a numerical blue theme and the letters and numbers boards mounted on opposite sides of a single display stand. New modern displays for the scores and the numbers round came in January 2013 while the set received a slight redesign in July 2017 while retaining the blue background which is currently in use.

Until the end of Series 21, if the two contestants had equal scores after the first conundrum, the match was considered a draw and they both returned for the next show.[57] A significant change in the format occurred in September 2001, when the show was expanded from nine rounds and 30 minutes to the current fifteen rounds and 45 minutes.[58] The older format was split into two halves, each having three letters and one numbers game, with the conundrum at the end of the second half. When the format was expanded to fifteen rounds, Richard Whiteley continued to refer jokingly to the three segments of the show as "halves". Under the old format, Grand Finals were specially extended shows of fourteen rounds,[59] but now all shows use a fifteen-round format.[60]

The rules regarding which words are permitted have changed with time. American spelling was allowed until 2002,[61] and more unspecified inflections were assumed to be valid.[62]

In September 2007, an "Origin of Words" feature was added to the show, in which Susie Dent explains the origin of a word or phrase she has been researching. This spot currently follows the eighth letters round, partway through the third section of each episode. The feature was omitted during the time that Dent was absent for maternity leave, and was reinstated upon her return.

When the 15-round format was first introduced in September 2001, the composition of the rounds was different from that used by the programme today. The three sections each had five rounds, four letters rounds and one numbers round in each of the first two sections, with three letters rounds, one numbers round and the conundrum in the third section. This meant that there was a slight imbalance, whereby one contestant made the letters sections for six rounds, but had the choice of the numbers selection just once, whereas the other contestant chose letters five times and numbers twice. The Dictionary Corner guest's spot was immediately before the first advertising break, and Susie Dent's Origin of Words spot preceded the second numbers game shortly before the second break. The change to the present format was made on 25 March 2013, three weeks into the second section of Series 68, to comply with Channel 4's decision to increase the amount of adverts and alter the times when they occur during the programme, therefore reducing Countdown's actual show length from 36 to 35 minutes.

Notable contestants

Since Countdown's debut in 1982, there have been over 7,000 televised games and 79 complete series. There have also been fifteen Champion of Champions tournaments, with the most recent held in January 2019.

Several of Countdown's most successful contestants have received national media coverage. Teenager Julian Fell set a record score of 146 in December 2002.[63] In 2006, 14-year-old Conor Travers became the youngest series champion in the show's history,[64][65][66] and 11-year-old Kai Laddiman became the youngest octochamp for 20 years. Conor Travers went on to win the 30th Anniversary Champion of Champions series in March 2013 with a record equalling top score of 146. On 17 January 2019, in the quarter-final of the 15th Champion of Champions tournament Zarte Siempre, who eventually won that tournament, set a new record score of 150. This record was beaten in May 2019 by Elliot Mellor's score of 152.

At eight years old, Tanmay Dixit was the youngest player ever to appear on the show, where he achieved two wins in March 2005.[67] He also received press attention for his offerings in the letters round, which included fannies and farted.[68]

On Christmas Day, 1987, Nic Brown set the highest score difference ever achieved in a standard 14-round game, beating Joel Salkin 108–36, a margin of 72 points.[69] Brown also went on to become one of the only two contestants to ever achieve an undefeated 'grand slam' – becoming an Octochamp, winning a series, and winning a Championship of Champions.[70]

In April 2013, Giles Hutchings, a student at Royal Grammar School, Guildford broke the record for the highest octochamp score, amassing 965 points over 8 games. He went on to win series 68.[71] The record was beaten by Dylan Taylor, who achieved an octochamp score of 974 in August 2013,[72] but he lost the Grand Final of that series. In 2019 the record was beaten by 87 points by teenager, Elliott Mellor, who became the first octochamp to break the 1000 point barrier, scoring a total of 1061 over his eight preliminary games.[73] Echoing Dylan's appearance, Mellor was pipped to the series title, finishing as runner up. Three former contestants have returned to Countdown as part of the production team: Michael Wylie, Mark Nyman (as producer, and occasional lexicographer in Dictionary Corner) and Damian Eadie (the current series producer).

In 1998, sixteen celebrities were invited to play Celebrity Countdown, a series of eight games broadcast every Thursday evening over the course of eight weeks.[74] The celebrities included Whiteley's successor Des Lynam, who beat Siân Lloyd.[75] The highest and lowest scores were posted in the same game when TV's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall beat wine critic Jilly Goolden 47–9.[75]

Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman competed in another special episode on Christmas Day 1997. For this game, the presenter's chair was taken by William G. Stewart, the host of fellow Channel 4 game show Fifteen to One. Susie Dent took over Vorderman's duties, and Mark Nyman occupied Dictionary Corner, accompanied by Magnus Magnusson.[75] The game was close-fought, and decided only by the crucial Countdown conundrum mistletoe which Vorderman solved in two seconds, after Whiteley had inadvertently buzzed after one second, because when he regularly hosted the show, he hit the button to reveal the conundrum and kept his old habit up.[76]

Contestants who have or had become notable for other reasons include Nuts magazine editor-at-large Pete Cashmore, rugby player Ayoola Erinle, footballers Neil MacKenzie, Clarke Carlisle and Matt Le Tissier, musicians Jon Marsh and Nick Saloman, comedian Alex Horne, and noted Irish playwright Peter Sheridan.

Countdown is often referenced and parodied in British culture.

Assorted allusions

The Doctor Who episode "Bad Wolf" (2005) mentions a futuristic version of Countdown, in which the goal is to stop a bomb from exploding in 30 seconds. Countdown was referenced again in a later series in "Last of the Time Lords" (2007), where Professor Docherty expresses a keen fondness for the show and how it "hasn't been the same since Des took over—Both Deses".

In the 2002 film About a Boy, protagonist Will Freeman is a regular viewer of Countdown.[77]

Fairport Convention guitarist Simon Nicol named one of his solo records Consonant Please, Carol, echoing one of the show's catchphrases.


Countdown has also generated a number of widely-viewed outtakes, with the letters occasionally producing a word that was deemed unsuitable for the original broadcast. A round in which Dictionary Corner offered the word gobshite featured in TV's Finest Failures in 2001 (the actual episode aired on 10 January 2000),[78] and in one episode from 1991, contestants Gino Corr and Lawrence Pearse both declared the word wankers. This was edited out of the programme but has since appeared on many outtakes shows.[79][80] When contestant Charlie Reams declared "wankers" on 21 October 2008 edition, the declaration was kept in but the word itself was bleeped. Other incidents with only marginally rude words (including wanker, singular) have made it into the programme as they appeared, such as those with Tanmay Dixit referenced above, a clip from a 2001 episode in which the word fart appeared as the first four letters on the board (which also featured on 100 Greatest TV Moments from Hell),[81] and a round where an anagram of the word fucked appeared on the board in the string "A U O D F C K E G", although neither player chose to use the word, and Dictionary Corner was able to find two seven-letter words that could have been made from the board's offerings.[82] On 2 February 2017, the board for the letters round was "M T H I A E D H S", and with both players offering sevens, Dictionary Corner found the word "shithead", which was bleeped out in the audio and censored on-screen with the poo emoji.[83]


The programme is mentioned in an episode of Irish sitcom Father Ted entitled "The Old Grey Whistle Theft",[84] Still Game (in the episode "Wireless") and is also referenced in the very first episode of Little Britain from 2003.[85] BBC impression sketch show, Dead Ringers, parodies Countdown numerous times, and another television programme, The Big Breakfast, parodied Countdown in a feature called "Countdown Under".[86] In a sketch "Countdown to Hell" from the comedy show A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Stephen Fry lampooned Richard Whiteley's punning style and Hugh Laurie played one of the contestants, while Gyles Brandreth (played by Steve Steen), presented with the letters "bollocsk", got the (non-)word "sloblock" (supposedly meaning exactly the same as "bollocks").[87] The show also has a fleeting reference in British sitcom The Office when Chris 'Finchy' Finch attempts to insult temporary worker Ricky when he explains he had a job to pay for his studies. Finchy states that it probably was 'professor in charge of watching Countdown every day', commenting on its student audience, and referring to the fact anyone watching Countdown during its 'hometime' time slot cannot be out at work.

The format of the show has been parodied on Have I Got News for You. In 1999, when Whiteley was a guest, the numbers game was copied along with the clock music and at the end of the show was a conundrum, the conundrum was "PHANIOILS", to which the answer was IAN HISLOP. In 2004, when Vorderman was a guest, one of the usual rounds was replaced with a conundrum round based on the week's news. When Vorderman hosted Have I Got News in 2006, one of the rounds was the "Spinning Conundrum Numbers Round", altering the "Spinning Headlines" round, by adding a number to a picture relating to the week's news; then at the end of the round, the six numbers from the picture were used for a numbers game.

Richard Whiteley was the victim of a practical joke while presenting the show. The contestants and rounds had been planted as part of a "Gotcha!", a regular prank feature on the light entertainment show Noel's House Party. In the prank, both the two contestants and Dictionary Corner missed the word "something" from the letters OMETHINGS, and from another selection, both of the contestants declared "I've got diarrhoea" referring to the selection. In the numbers round that followed, the male contestant "answered" the puzzle by reading out the numbers. Whiteley did not uncover the joke until House Party presenter Noel Edmonds appeared on the set, having revealed the unusually short conundrum of HOGCAT to be "gotcha" at the end of the programme.[88]

In a 2003 episode of Top Gear, Richard Whiteley participated in the "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" segment. Before Whiteley's lap was shown, presenter Jeremy Clarkson played a game of Countdown with Whiteley, using words such as IMIN, SEXUL, NEVOR LARD, I MUSHI BITS, and PIANOS SHIAZU.

It was also referred to on Harry Hill's TV Burp twice. The first time it was referred to was when "Dev" (Coronation Street) made a sound like the countdown end of thirty seconds time. The second time was when the competition "Where Has The Knitted Character Been This Week?" had the answer: On Rachel Riley's chair.

On 2 July 2010, the game was featured in the episode "The Final Countdown" of The IT Crowd. Moss stuns everyone by declaring that the 9 letter string TNETENNBA is in fact a word. Later, Moss becomes an octochamp and is consequently invited into an underground club named "8+", where he competes in a game of "Street Countdown" as part of a spoof of Boogie Town. The episode featured a cameo from Gyles Brandreth, a regular contributor to Dictionary Corner.

British entertainer Stevie Riks has parodied the show in one of his many YouTube comedy videos.[89]

In an episode from spring 2011, the Blackpool supporting producer of the show arranged the conundrum PNECRISIS ("priciness"), poking fun at their local rivals Preston North End's relegation from the Championship in the 2010–11 season.[90]

Non-canon games

The game has also been played on a number of different programs, notably as the first challenge in "What's Next" on Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, featuring the pair versus one of the duo's old head teachers. In 2010, it was played as a shopping task on the final Channel 4 series of Celebrity Big Brother, with a team of housemates competing in the house against the-then current champion, Chris Davies, in the Countdown studio via satellite. The housemates failed this task.


Regular series

SeriesStart dateEnd dateEpisodesNotes
12 November 1982[91]16 December 1982[92]27[92]27[92]
25 April 1983[93]2 July 1983[94]53[94]80[94]
319 September 1983[95]15 December 1983[96]52[96]132[96]
42 April 1984[97]28 June 1984[98]52[98]184[98]
515 October 1984[99]21 December 1984[100]50[100]234[100]Champion of Champions I aired from 15[99] to 23 October.[101]
67 January 1985[102]21 March 1985[103]54[103]288[103]
714 October 1985[104]20 December 1985[105]50[105]338[105]
86 January 1986[106]27 March 1986[107]59[107]397[107]
931 March 1986[108]3 June 1986[109]47[109]444[109]Champion of Champions II aired from 31 March[108] to 8 April.[110]
1013 October 1986[111]19 December 1986[112]50[112]494[112]Champion of Champions I & II aired on 13 October.[111]
112 February 1987[113]10 April 1987[114]50[114]544[114]500th Show aired on 2 February.[113]
1213 April 1987[115]19 June 1987[116]50[116]594[116]
1322 June 1987[117]28 August 1987[118]50[118]644[118]Champion of Champions III aired from 22[117] to 30 June.[119]
145 October 1987[120]25 December 1987[121]63[121]707[121]
1511 April 1988[122]17 June 1988[123]50[123]757[123]
1620 June 1988[124]2 September 1988[125]55[125]812[125]
172 January 1989[126]17 March 1989[127]55[127]867[127]Champion of Champions IV aired from 2[126] to 10 January.[128]
1810 July 1989[129]13 October 1989[130]70[130]937[130]
191 January 1990[131]30 March 1990[132]65[132]1,002[132]
202 July 1990[133]28 September 1990[134]65[134]1,067[134]1,000th Show aired on 2 July.[133]
2131 December 1990[135]29 March 1991[136]65[136]1,132[136]Champion of Champions V aired from 31 December[135] to 8 January.[137]
221 July 1991[138]27 September 1991[139]65[139]1,197[139]First series to feature the "Wings" set.
2330 December 1991[140]27 March 1992[141]65[141]1,262[141]
2429 June 1992[142]25 September 1992[143]65[143]1,327[143]
254 January 1993[144]2 April 1993[145]65[145]1,392[145]Champion of Champions VI aired from 4[144] to 12 January.[146]
265 July 1993[147]1 October 1993[148]65[148]1,457[148]
273 January 1994[149]1 April 1994[150]65[150]1,522[150]
284 July 1994[151]30 September 1994[152]65[152]1,587[152]1,500th Show aired on 4 July.[151]
292 January 1995[153]31 March 1995[154]65[154]1,652[154]Champion of Champions VII aired from 2[153] to 10 January.[155]
303 July 1995[156]29 September 1995[157]65[157]1,717[157]
311 January 1996[158]29 March 1996[159]65[159]1,782[159]
321 July 1996[160]27 September 1996[161]65[161]1,847[161]
3330 September 1996[162]20 December 1996[163]60[163]1,907[163]Champion of Champions VIII aired from 30 September[162] to 8 October;[164] remainder of series was Supreme Championship.
3430 December 1996[165]28 March 1997[166]65[166]1,972[166]
3531 March 1997[167]27 June 1997[168]65[168]2,037[168]
3630 June 1997[169]26 September 1997[170]65[170]2,102[170]
3729 September 1997[171]19 December 1997[172]60[172]2,162[172]
3829 December 1997[173]26 June 19981302,292Champion of Champions IX aired from 29 December[173] to 16 January.[174]
3929 June 199825 December 19981302,422
4028 December 199825 June 19991302,552
4128 June 199925 December 19991212,673
4227 December 199923 June 20001242,797Champion of Champions X aired from 27 to 31 December.
4326 June 200025 December 20001142,91118th Birthday aired on 2 November.
4426 December 200029 June 20011313,0423,000th show aired on 27 April.
452 July 200121 September 2001433,085
4624 September 200125 December 2001673,152First series to use the 15-round-format.
4726 December 200128 June 20021273,279Junior Championship aired from 12 to 14 March.
481 July 200220 December 20021103,389Last series to feature the "Wings" set.
496 January 200327 June 20031223,511Champion of Champions XI aired from 6 to 24 January and Ladies' Championship aired from 11 to 13 March.
5030 June 200319 December 20031033,614
515 January 200425 June 20041143,728
5228 June 200417 December 20041123,840
534 January 20051 July 20051193,959Last series to be hosted by Richard Whiteley due to his death in June 2005.
5431 October 200526 May 20061534,112First series to be hosted by Des Lynam. 4,000th show aired on 4 January.
5529 May 200622 December 20061504,262Champion of Champions XII aired from 29 May to 16 June; last series to be hosted by Des Lynam.
562 January 200722 June 20071204,382First series to be hosted by Des O'Connor.
5725 June 200721 December 20071264,50825th Birthday aired on 2 November.
582 January 200820 June 20081194,627
5923 June 200812 December 20081054,732Last series to be hosted by Des O'Connor and Carol Vorderman.
6012 January 200919 June 20091114,843Champion of Champions XIII aired from 12 to 30 January; first series to be hosted by Jeff Stelling and Rachel Riley.
6122 June 200918 December 20091104,953
6211 January 201018 June 20101105,0635,000th show aired on 26 March.
6321 June 201017 December 20101155,178
6410 January 20113 June 20111005,278
656 June 201116 December 20111205,398Last series to be hosted by Jeff Stelling
669 January 201229 June 20121195,517First series to be hosted by Nick Hewer
672 July 201221 December 2012975,614
687 January 201328 June 20131075,72130th Birthday Championship aired from 7 January to 1 March.
691 July 201320 December 20131185,839
706 January 201427 June 20141075,946
7130 June 201419 December 20141106,0566,000th show aired on 29 September.
725 January 201512 June 20151006,156
7315 June 201523 December 20151216,277
744 January 201624 June 20161076,384Champion of Champions XIV aired from 4 to 22 January.
7527 June 201623 December 20161096,493
763 January 201730 June 20171216,614
773 July 201722 December 20171226,736
782 January 201822 June 20181176,853
7925 June 201821 December 20181266,979
802 January 201928 June 20191287,107Champion of Champions XV aired from 2 to 22 January. 7,000th show aired on 30 January.
811 July 201920 December 20191247,231
822 January 2020June 2020TBATBA

Masters series

SeriesStart dateEnd dateEpisodes
13 April 198930 March 199052
22 April 199029 March 199152

Celebrity series

SeriesStart dateEnd dateEpisodes
123 April 199818 June 19988
212 November 2019TBATBA


25 December 1997[175]Christmas Special[175]
26 May 2003Husband & Wife
25 July 2003Replayed Series 40 Final
4 August 2003High Scoring Losers
18 August 2003Maths Teachers
25 August 2003Solicitors
2 September 2003Clergymen
3 September 2003Scrabble Masters
8 September 2003Replayed Series 31 Final
9 September 2003Champions of Champions IX & X
10 September 2003Police Officers
11 September 2003High Scoring Losers II
12 September 2003Series 47 & 48 Champions
15 March 2004Publicans
19 March 2004Father & Daughter
14 June 2004Replayed Series 35 Final
26 July 2004Replayed Series 39 Final
2 August 2004Aficionados
13 August 2004Replayed Series 37 Final
23 August 2004Mother & Son
30 August 2004Starlets
20 December 2004Brothers
25 March 2005Cabaret Entertainers
30 May 2005Starlets
15 March 2010Series 60 & 61 Champions
26 July 2010High Scoring Losers III
2 August 2010Young Stars
16 August 2010Replayed Series 59 Final
14 March 2011Deciding Special
25 July 2011Female Finalists
12 March 2012Sister & Brother
30 July 2012Series 64 & 65 Champions
13 September 2012Female Winners
14 September 2012Husband & Wife
28 September 2012Male Finalists
2 July 2013Lovebirds
12 December 2014Battle of the Bobbys
22 December 2014Senior Females
23 December 2014Battle of the Mc's
6 April 2015Sisters
10 April 2015Law & Order
8 May 2015Veterans


Several boardgames, books and video games have been released under the franchise. Many boardgames have been developed to replicate the rules and game play of the television show. The boardgame will often consist of a board to place letters and number on, several scorecards, a selection of numbers and letters, a number generator and a timing device (older models use an hourglass whilst newer models contain a battery powered timer).

In the late 80s/early 90s, LexiBook released digital handheld version of Countdown. These contained LCD black and white displays and a variety of physical controls. Many of these often bore the official Countdown logo.

In 2006, University Games released a Countdown DVD game, which contained recorded clips specifically for the game. Gameplay is achieved via a DVD player and the remote control. The DVD was sold disk only, or as a bundle containing notepads and pencils.

In 2009, Mindscape released Countdown games for the Nintendo DS and the Wii. Gameplay is replicated as it is on the show. On the DS version, players can compete against each other via Download Play, using a single game card.

In 2015, Barnstorm Games released the app for smartphones and tablets in App Store, Google Play and Amazon Appstore. The player can practise on a specific round or compete in a quick 5-round or full 15-round game either alone, or against another player on the same device, or against CPU with 4 difficulty levels.


  • Countdown Masters was a regular spot within The Channel Four Daily from 1989 to 1992. It had the same hosts and rules as the standard game but was played in shorter chunks. It was abbreviated, for example the letters were chosen all in one go as "x vowels and y consonants".
  • 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown has comedian Jimmy Carr as host and Jon Richardson and Sean Lock as permanent contestants. Dent and Riley fill their normal roles. It uses similar rules to the standard game, but has a strong comedy element, a reduced number of rounds, and two-person teams. It began in 2012 and continues airing new episodes.
  • Celebrity Countdown has celebrities competing on the show without the cast of 8 Out of 10 Cats and with its usual presenters.

World record

In 2014, Countdown entered the Guinness World Records for the most series of a TV game show broadcast.[176]

See also


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  2. obituary for Richard Whiteley—Retrieved 24 June 2006.
  3. Countdown: Spreading the Word (Granada Media, 2001) p. 9–15.
  4. Countdown: Spreading the Word (Granada Media, 2001) p. 20.
  5. on Countdown trivia—Retrieved 20 June 2006.
  6. UK Game Shows on Countdown's first episode—Retrieved 26 June 2006.
  7. See this website at the section heading "Miscellaneous".
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  11. Scotland on Sunday on the advertisement to which Vorderman responded—Retrieved 6 July 2006.
  12. Archived 5 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine on viewer dissatisfaction with Vorderman's expanded role—Retrieved 20 June 2006.
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  14. on Lynam leaving the program—Retrieved 30 September 2006.
  15. The Sun; Countdown's Des quits show. Retrieved 30 September 2006
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  21. "Sky host Stelling joins Countdown". BBC News. 21 November 2008. Retrieved 2 January 2010.
  22. Cohen, Tamara; Revoir, Paul (25 May 2011). "Jeff Stelling quits Countdown after just two years". Daily Mail. London.
  23. on Countdown establishing cult status
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  42. Countdown: Spreading The Word (Granada Media, 2001), p. 220.
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  44. Countdown: Spreading the Word (Granada Media, 2001) p. 24.
  45. The Countdown Page: Letters—Retrieved 8 April 2010.
  46. UK Game Shows on production team aid—Retrieved 20 June 2006.
  47. The Countdown Page on dictionaries—Retrieved 20 June 2006.
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  49. UK Game Shows on game equipment—Retrieved 20 June 2006.
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  59. The Countdown Page showing a fourteen-round final—Retrieved 20 June 2006.
  60. The Countdown Page showing a fifteen-round final—Retrieved 20 June 2006.
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  174. "Countdown (Series 38, Episode 15)". ITN Source. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  175. "Countdown (Christmas Special)". ITN Source. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
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  • Countdown: Spreading the Word (Granada Media, 2001) ISBN 0-233-99976-0
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