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"As the countdown to a brand-new channel ends, a brand-new Countdown begins."
Richard Whiteley's first words on the Countdown debut, alluding to the show's precursor Calendar Countdown (which aired as a brief regional series in 1981).

The thinking man's game show, and the face of Channel 4 in Britain, having been the first programme aired on the channel in 1982 and running ever since. Two contestants face off in a series of Letters and Numbers Games, each hoping to score more points than the other. Every round is timed to 30 seconds, with a big clock ticking down behind the contestants. It was a companion to Fifteen to One until that show's demise, and nowadays is with Deal or No Deal.

Countdown is based on a French game much more straightforwardly titled The Numbers And Letters.

The rounds are as follows, with the first two repeated several times:

  • Letters Game: Each player chooses nine random letters by saying whether a consonant or vowel is requested. In the current rules, at least three vowels and four consonants must be chosen. During the time, the players must make the longest word they can using those nine letters. Longest word wins the points.
  • Numbers Game: The player requests anywhere from zero to four large numbers (25, 50, 75, or 100) at random. The remaining numbers (up to six) are small numbers with two of every number from 1-10. The computer chooses a random three-digit number that the contestants must achieve using the basic principles of math (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). The player closer to the number wins the points, provided their method is without flaw.
  • Conundrum: Used to end each show. A nine-letter word is scrambled, and the first player to buzz-in and get it right gets 10 points. In the event that the Conundrum will determine the winner, it is known as a "Crucial Countdown Conundrum".

No relation to the American news show Countdown with Keith Olbermann, the Australian music show Countdown, or the weekly comic series that was later retitled Countdown to Final Crisis.

Game Show Tropes in use:

  • Home Game: Several, including a DVD version.
  • Personnel:
    • Game Show Host: Richard Whiteley is the most well-known. He was replaced after his passing by Des Lynam, then Des O'Connor. Jeff Stelling began hosting the show upon the departure of O'Connor. Stelling will be replaced in 2012 with Nick Hewer (yes, that Nick Hewer).
    • Lovely Assistant: Primarily Carol Vorderman and Rachel Riley, but the earlier seasons had more Vannas before Carol took over.
    • Studio Audience
    • Dictionary Corner, made up of a lexicographer (usually Susie Dent) and a guest who changes each week.
  • Think Music: As well known in the UK as Jeopardy!'s is in the USA. Have a listen.
  • Unexpectedly Obscure Answer: Some of the words brought up by Dictionary Corner.
Tropes used in Countdown include:
  • And Your Reward Is Books: The grand prize is a dictionary.
    • The winner of series 31, David Acton, refused to accept the leather-bound dictionary because of his strict veganism. He recieved the dictionary on CD instead.
  • Artificial Stupidity: The computer which generates the Numbers Game puzzles has a habit of throwing out ludicrously easy puzzles from time to time, usually by using just two of the six numbers selected. Here's an example. Note that sometimes contestants try to be clever by using all the numbers when the computer has only used two or three; 9 times out of 10 this backfires and hands the round to the other contestant, who just picks the obvious solution.
  • Badass Normal: James Martin, if only for this Numbers game.
  • Corpsing: Richard Whiteley loses it while telling a joke once; amazing how he can even make a bad joke funny.
  • Crossover: Being as iconic as it is, the game has appeared in other shows as part of some kind of task — notably to embarrass Ant and Dec on Saturday Night Takeaway, and as a shopping budget task on Big Brother.
  • Fun with Acronyms: CECIL is the Countdown Electronic Computer In Leeds.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: If the word is in the dictionary, it can be used.
    • Perhaps the most famous occasion: A pair of wankers. The word has been used by other contestants since.
    • True up to a point - if a really offensive word comes up, they'll redo it. (The "pair of wankers" clip was an out-take, for instance).
    • Or some of peoples' looks. The panelists during this exchange...

 Richard Whiteley: "And what's yours, Kate?"

Kate Ogilvie: "Erection."

Richard: "Erection.... Don't do this to me please, Kate. I don't want to be on any more late-night blooper shows!"

  • Long Runner: Compared to some, pretty short, but it's Channel4's longest-running show -- partly because it was the first thing ever shown on the channel.
  • Luck-Based Mission: Even with the Scrabble-like distribution of letters, forming long words can be tricky. Likewise, not all Numbers Game combinations are possible.
  • Pungeon Master: Richard Whiteley.
  • Serious Business: If the two players are within 10 points of each other for the final Conundrum, it becomes a Crucial Countdown Conundrum, and the lights dim to emphasize.
  • Ship Tease: Considering how much Richard and Carol seemed to get along on-air, this isn't surprising. To a lesser extent, Des O' and Carol.
  • Significant Anagram: The longer the word, the more points it is worth. Conundrum anagrams are worth 10. On the rare occasion that the 9 letters randomly drawn in a Letters Game can be rearranged to form a 9-letter word, it is worth a whopping 18 points to the contestant who spots it.
  • Take That: When Preston North End got relegated from the Championship, a producer who was a Blackpool fan assembled the Conundrum "PNECRISIS".
  • Timed Mission: All rounds last 30 seconds.