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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 June, 2005, 20:48 GMT 21:48 UK
Obituary: Richard Whiteley
Richard Whiteley
Richard Whiteley: Charming, laid-back broadcaster
Richard Whiteley, who has died aged 61, endeared himself to millions of television viewers as the avuncular host of Countdown, the cult word game show whose fans include the Queen. A veteran TV journalist, he was once savaged, live and on-air, by a ferret.

The first programme to be shown on Channel 4 when it launched in November 1982, Countdown outlasted every one of the station's other programmes, bar the news.

The 45-minute show was only meant to have a limited shelf life, but 23 years later it is still going strong.

Its genial, punning and bumbling host is believed to have clocked-up more hours on television screens - and more than 10,000 appearances - than anyone else alive, apart from the girl on the test card.

She's got two consonants and a vowel, I've got two vowels and a consonant, but vowels are more useful
Richard Whiteley, speaking about Carol Vorderman

Born in December 1943 in Bradford, Yorkshire, the son of a mill-owner, Whiteley was educated at Giggleswick public school, where he was taught English by another celebrity, Russell Harty.

"With Russell, lessons were a theatrical performance and he was a wonderful teacher," Whiteley recalled.

Setting his sights on a career in television, Whiteley took, as he later admitted, "a crappy Third" in English at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he also edited Varsity, the university newspaper.

In 1965 he was recruited into the ITN graduate scheme, joining Yorkshire Television (YTV) as a news reporter.

He later became anchorman on the early evening regional news magazine programme, Calendar.

He was present on the show's opening night in 1968, a TV disaster of legendary proportions.

Recorded in advance, so cast and crew could watch it at a swanky party in Leeds, the programme was a shambles, one highlight being Whiteley's piece to camera, which was broadcast in negative, showing him with a black face and white hair.

Russell Harty
Masterful influence: Russell Harty taught Richard Whiteley English
But there were notable triumphs, too. A polished and incisive political reporter with a good nose for a scoop, Whiteley was the first journalist to interview the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, after the Brighton bombing in 1984.

However, all of this paled into insignificance beside a 1977 Calendar appearance alongside a ferret.

Unconvinced by Whiteley's charms, the beast sunk its needle-like teeth into his finger and held him there, in increasing agony, until being prised off by its owner.

Such was the popularity of Whiteley's televisual calvary that it became a ubiquitous fixture in out-take shows around the world.

But it was Countdown - originally Calendar Countdown - first broadcast on YTV in the summer of 1982, that turned Whiteley from a regionally-known figure into a household name.

The show was originally screened in France, where it was called Des Chiffres et Des Lettres, and it was brought to the UK by a YTV producer who had seen it during a visit to the country.

Natty dresser

The simple, yet compelling, nature of the game, in which contestants attempt to make words out of nine random vowels or consonants and solve number puzzles, proved an instant hit among early evening viewers, who ranged from pensioners to university students.

Whiteley's glamorous co-star, Carol Vorderman, wowed audiences with her mathematical skills and eventually became a celebrity in her own right.

Dictionary Corner featured luminaries from Gyles Brandreth and Richard Stilgoe to Joan Bakewell and Jo Brand.

Carol Vorderman
Head for figures: Countdown gave Carol Vorderman her big break
But it was Whiteley, resplendent in one of his 200-odd vivid jackets or 500-plus loud ties, who held it all together.

Self-deprecating, with an outrageous ability to make a pun out of almost nothing, he was a relaxed alternative to the driven characters who usually preside over such fare.

Countdown's many fans, who included the Queen and Hollywood star George Clooney, could be obsessive in their passion for what Whiteley once proudly called a "low-tech parlour game".

And in 2002 one of the show's fans was cremated to the strains of the 30-second version of the Countdown signature tune that accompanies the daily "conundrum" round.

Whiteley had been married, briefly, during the 1960s. More recently, his long-term girlfriend was Kathryn Apanowicz, the radio presenter and actress who played Dirty Den's mistress, Mags, in EastEnders.

But the man nicknamed Twice Nightly Whiteley - not for his amatory skills but because he often appeared on both Countdown and Calendar on the same day - was revealed in the tabloids to have had a number of other girlfriends, including one with whom he had a son during the 1980s.

In June 2004, Whiteley was honoured by the Queen with an OBE.

Vorderman had received an MBE four years earlier and Whiteley joked: "She's got two consonants and a vowel, I've got two vowels and a consonant, but vowels are more useful."

Gyles Brandreth fondly remembers a friend and colleague

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