Weaver's Week 2005-07-03

Weaver's Week Index

Richard Whiteley - a national treasure - 3 July 2005

"I was the first face, seen in November 82.
I appeared on a calendar for many years.
My famous out-take involved a little nipper.
Did Eliza get her dresses from me?"
- X Marks The Spot, 18 February 2004.

There is only one item to cover this week, the sad death last Sunday of Richard Whiteley, a national treasure in every sense of the word.

Born in Bradford on 28 December 1943, Richard Whiteley was intrigued by the magical world of television. Well, there was journalism in general, and cricket, but television was his first love. The son of a mill-owner (though not the one featured in the film My Fair Lady), Richard was educated at Giggleswick School, where he was taught and inspired by Russell Harty. The paths of the two would cross many times in the future, not least when Mr Harty was booked for Countdown, and both men would regress thirty years to their youth.

"His television career brought him into many people's lives, and his untimely death saddened millions - friends he never, ever, dared to think he had"
- Richard on Russell, from his autobiography "Himoff."

Richard went to Christ's College Cambridge, where he became the editor of the Varsity newspaper, and took lectures from C S Lewis. After graduating with a third-class honours degree, Richard joined ITN as a trainee reporter. Two and a half years later, he moved to the nascent Yorkshire television, and would host their nightly Calendar news programme.

"Whiteley's law of the workplace is quite simple. Be nice to people on their first day at work because they always remember, and it could do you a lot of good in the future."

The Calendar team - including Sid Waddell, Liz Fox, future MPs Austin Mitchell and Jonathan Aitken, and Bob Warman - had a very simple motto. Treat every night as though it's their first night. In time, Calendar became must-see television, something that bound together the disparate strands of the Yorkshire region. "Did you see Arthur Scargill chewing out Denis Healey last night?" So strong was the Calendar brand that it was able to sustain an experimental breakfast television service during the late 1970s.

It was on Calendar that the arms of soundman Alan Stormont, Brian Plummer, and an un-named rodent brought one of the most memorable television moments. Anyone who has seen it will recognise it from the dialogue:

BP: "Keep still, it won't hurt you."
RW: "Ow, it is hurting me."
BP: "Hold these for a moment."
RW: "Ow, ow, ow."
BP: "Don't worry, it's playing with you. If it had meant business, it would have bitten through to the bone."

It was twenty-three years ago next Wednesday, the 6th of July 1982, that the Calendar programme gained a spin-off. Calendar Countdown was a British version of the French numbers-and-letters show, The Numbers And The Letters (Des Chiffres Et Des Lettres). We'd recognise very little about the show - there were but eight letters in the frame, the clock ticked for 40 seconds, and while Ted Moult would return on the national series, neither the lexicographer from Leeds nor the vital statistician would return. In spite of all the technical flaws, and the troubled execution, people took Calendar Countdown seriously. When Dr Linda said of one numbers game "I can't do it, and I bet no-one at home can, either," the office was flooded with letters contradicting her. People at home were playing along, and cared.

"As the countdown to a new channel ends, a new Countdown begins."

A new version of Countdown was the programme chosen to launch the new Channel 4 on 2 November 1982. Host Richard Whiteley was the first person to appear in shot, and over the next year or so, Countdown gained many of the accoutrements that have gone down in legend. The Guardian of the Dictionary - in those days, almost always Kenneth Williams or Gyles Brandreth, the bad puns, and banter between the host and Carol Vorderman, now permanently installed as the maths genius. Ratings for the early series were low, and it looked like radical changes were required. Richard was taken to an industry jolly in Monaco, where he was due to be relieved of the programme, but not before inventing the "Countdowner" - a cocktail of campari, orange juice, ice, and soda. Then a telegram came through, confirming that two episodes of Countdown had made the Channel 4 top ten programmes. The sacking turned into a bottle of champagne, and no-one ever questioned Richard's place again.

"It would have been very easy indeed to have axed Countdown after the first series. The lesson of Countdown for subsequent television bosses is 'Keep the faith'. Shows do take time to develop and win the affection of the public."
- Richard Whiteley, in "Himoff."

Where the Yorkshire television staff had failed, the IRA nearly succeeded, for Richard was in the lobby of the Grand Hotel when it was blown up in a terrorist outrage. Mercifully, he survived the initial blast, and was able to report on the unfolding drama to ITN headquarters, including a brief chat with prime minister Margaret Thatcher. He had interviewed each of the national leaders from Harold Wilson to Tony Blair, and gained the first television interview with another bright young Yorkshire thing, William Hague, after his speech to the 1977 conference.

Richard was a regular at charity functions, and was appointed the honorary mayor of Wetwang, a small Yorkshire village, in 1999. Richard devoted a chapter of his autobiography to the strange rituals of ladies' luncheons. All such gatherings had to end around three o'clock, otherwise his audience would risk missing their daily fix of Countdown, and that just wouldn't do. They, like the quarter of a million people who had been in a Countdown audience, had come to love Richard Whiteley. Carol Vorderman said this week,

"I adored him and I always will. I'm privileged to have known him, to have been so close to him and to have been supported and loved by him. He never let us down. He never disappointed. He loved Countdown. He was Countdown and Countdown was him.
"We have had thousands of messages from our Countdown family. We have even had a message saying Mass is being said for him in Ireland today. He was loved by millions, as every day he filled the screen and made us laugh. Every time we were in the studio he made us roll around with laughter.
"The Countdown crew loved him, the contestants loved him, the viewers loved him and I loved him. Countdown is a very special programme and we are a family. Both of our producers were contestants originally and most of us have worked on it since the beginning.
"He was the star. Many times the audience was full of students - all younger than Countdown itself - and they came to pay homage to their favourite uncle. They had T-shirts made with his face on. They raided their dads' wardrobes for the worst jacket and tie they could find and they had their hair cut like Richard's.
"They loved him. He was the best company you could ever have. He got us all into trouble. He charmed our older viewers. They travelled at their own expense from Cornwall, Kent, Scotland, Ireland and Wales to see him and he never let them down."

His Channel 4 colleague, Jon Snow, wrote, "He was effortlessly charming, easy with everyone, generous in spirit and very funny. Loads of us - from lazy students to the Queen - will miss him."

Over the years, we came to know Richard's on-screen persona very well - this week marked the 3,959th regular edition of Countdown, plus four hundred or so Countdown Masters shows, editions of Calendar, and other television work. He was a particular favourite amongst students, as well as the elderly. This column remembers how Birmingham University's students used Richard and Carol as the pictoral figure-heads for their "Carnival" charity appeal. That year's theme was some fairly rubbish puns about the concept of Countdown. By chance, Channel 4 was filming a behind-the-scenes documentary at Calendar at the time, and we'll never forget the clear joy on his face as he saw the publicity material.

Some have suggested that Richard's been on screen more often than anyone except Carol Hersee, the girl in the test card. Richard always came across as a bit of a bumbler, someone who didn't quite know what was happening around him, nor how to control it. This was, at least in part, an act - very occasionally, we'd see flashes of his sharp mind, as Richard would give a longer word than the guest or Susie Dent in dictionary corner, or solve a particularly tricky numbers puzzle. He described himself as,

"A wig-wearing, numerical incompetent, incapable of matching a tie with a jacket, certainly incapable of pronouncing contestant's names correctly, and not altogether sure what planet I am on."

We describe him as a national treasure, and will always remember him as such.

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