A word game ties young Andy Bodle to his grandmother—and a chance at TV quiz show greatness on Countdown.
When I was a little boy, twice a year, we’d go to visit my dad’s parents in Surrey. They would cook me roast dinner, buy me toy cars—Corgi, never Dinky—and give me three different puddings: trifle, Arctic Roll, and jelly and ice cream.
Best of all, my nan would play a game with me called words out of words. Basically, we would pick a long word out of the dictionary, like GRANDMOTHER, then we both had a minute to rearrange the letters to make as many smaller words as we could. So out of GRANDMOTHER you could make TONE, HARDEN, ANOTHER, and so on. She beat me almost every time. It made me mad, but I always wanted to play again.
My other nan, my mum’s mum, lived in the same village as us. Every Friday, she would walk up the road to play cards—gin rummy, contract whist. She used to take me to the shops and give me 50p to buy a copy of 2000AD, crisps and sweets. She made a mean Yorkshire pudding. And because she lived nearby, sometimes, after school, I would go round to her house, and we’d sit and watch Countdown together.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Countdown is Channel 4’s daily teatime quiz show. It’s a friendly, good-natured words and numbers game, running since 1982, and was, until recently, presented by Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman. I guess the closest American equivalent would be Jeopardy. It’s one of the few truly democratic quiz shows on TV: the sort of game where an eight-year-old can go up against a 90-year-old, and either can win.
There are three kinds of round: letters games, where the contestants try to make the longest word possible out of a selection of nine letters—a bit like the game I played with my other nan; numbers games, where you try to reach a larger figure by adding and multiplying six smaller ones; and the conundrum, a nine-letter word that’s been jumbled up.
This nan wasn’t quite as good with words, but she loved playing along, and so did I. And after a few years of this, I started getting pretty good at it.
When I was 16, my dad’s mum got cancer. She was a strong woman, but not strong enough, so in late 1987, I visited her for the last time. I took my girlfriend to meet her—my first serious girlfriend—and told her the news that I’d just got into Oxford university. Even though she was suffering horribly, I could tell she was chuffed to bits. She died a week later.
When I left university five years later, the country was in the middle of what was then the worst recession since the Great Depression. In spite of having a good degree from a good university, I applied for 147 jobs, and didn’t get so much as an interview. Six months after graduating, I was living with my parents, and working in a pub to pay off my student debt.
Every day my routine was the same. I’d get up, go to the gym, work the lunchtime shift, then come back, put the kettle on, turn on the telly. Just in time, as it turned out, for Countdown.
After a few weeks I realised that, more often than not, I was beating both the contestants. Not every time, but often enough to put an idea into my head. I was quite good at this game. I wanted to be on the telly. And getting time off work wasn’t a problem. So, I applied to go on. And much to my surprise, after an audition in a freezing hotel in Oxford on Christmas Eve, they invited me to be a contestant.
Three months later, I drove up to Yorkshire to make my TV debut. I was nervous as hell. The production staff tried to put me at ease, and Richard Whiteley was friendly, but as the lights went down for my first game, my opponent, a seemingly kindly lady in her 50s, leaned over to me and whispered, “I beat Dictionary Corner in my last game.” In other words, she’d come up with a better word than the experts. So much for the friendly, good-natured parlour game.
And it was a close-run thing. Going into the final round, I was 3 points behind. Then the conundrum came up, LIFEGROWN. Both our fingers went to the buzzers immediately, but I beat her by a split second. FLOWERING, for 10 points, saw me through to the next round.
After my shaky start, I started to relax. I won the next game by 31 points, and the one after by 27. Then I started getting cocky, showing off with bizarre words like AMBROSIA and APOLUNES. I got the conundrums faster every time. I even started to banter with Richard and Carol.
So when I lost the next game, I was devastated. But the producer assured me that my scores had been high enough that I would probably just squeak into the finals.
Now by this stage in my life I’d started to notice a pattern. Liden community Silver Jubilee Sports Day. Second. Five Star sports awards, 1986. Second. Swindon Battle of the Bands contest, 1987. Second. Degree: second. And it was all my fault: I’d spent my life doing enough to get by, and never really going for it. But this time I sensed a chance of going one better. I wanted to win this thing. For the glory, for the undoubted sexual opportunities, but mostly for my nans.
I had three months to get in shape.
Cue Rocky theme tune and training montage.
I stopped working in the pub, I stopped applying for jobs, and instead, religiously played, and replayed, every episode of Countdown. I bought the latest Countdown puzzle magazine, and all the back issues, and completed every last one. I bought an anagram finder and read through the nine-letter anagrams. All 6,000 of them. I read the dictionary on the tube. The weakest part of my game was the numbers round, so I got my techie friend Danny to write a computer program that simulated it, and played it 50 times a day.
Three months later, I was as ready as I could be. (Although I had only got up to R in the dictionary.) I was seeded seventh out of eight. This meant that, if I was going to win, I would probably have to beat, in order, the second, third and first seeds. Gulp.
But my training had paid off. I was on fire. I won the quarter-final against the second seed by 21 points. The semi-final, against the third seed, was a bit closer, but I ran out a comfortable winner.
Before the semifinal started, I asked Richard for a favour. Could I take a few seconds before the game started to thank someone? He said of course, so, after he’d introduced me, I gave a short speech about how it was my two nans who got me into word games, and how I would never have got there without them.
Now you would have thought that the nation would be rooting for me in the final. A passably handsome young man—I was 23—who used fancy long words, made amiable efforts at banter, the gallant underdog… Alas, it was not to be, because my opponent in the final, the number one seed, was… an even handsomer and younger man. His name was Andrew Perry, from Faringdon in Oxfordshire, he was 11 years old. A junior national Scrabble champion, he was undefeated, and had steamrollered all his previous opponents. What’s more, he was pleasant, well mannered and had tufts of curly blond hair sticking out all round his angelic little face.
I was in a no-win situation. If I lost, I’d be a laughing stock for the rest of my life. If I won, he’d probably cry, and people would say, [sarcasm] “Congratulations on beating that 11-year-old!” Still, I knew which of the two outcomes I preferred.
In the event, it wasn’t much of a contest. I think the poor kid’s nerves got to him. After round four I was 22 points ahead, and he never really caught up. As I was leaving the studio, I could hear him whining plaintively: “Dad, what does ‘pleurisy’ mean?”
After I won, I called my parents to tell them the news. Then I called my nan. “I’ve won, Nan,” I said. “Yes, I know you won. You’re going to be in the finals.” “No, Nan, I mean I’ve won the finals.” “Don’t be silly, dear, they’re not on for two months,” she said, and put the phone down. I didn’t have the heart to call back and explain.
When the programme did go out, my nan, of course, tuned in. The next day, she was the village celebrity. She spent most of the day “up the street”—in the village shopping centre—boasting to all her friends, and anyone else who would listen, about how her grandson had won Countdown. She called me that evening—“How did you know you were going to win?”—and said it was the proudest day of her life.
And that night, in her sleep, suddenly and peacefully, she died.
The funeral was a few days later. In the garden of remembrance, after the service, my mum took me to one side. “What’s your nan’s name?” she said.
I looked at her blankly. “Rose Martin.”
“And what was the last conundrum in your Countdown final?”
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed at the time. The last conundrum in the Countdown final was RAINSTORM. But they’d rearranged the letters to spell out MARTINROS.
Image credit: Abby Lanes/Flickr