Susie Dent, Richard Whiteley, The Queen, and me
I am very grateful to the Channel 4 show, Countdown. Because of it, more than twenty years ago, I met one of my favourite people: the lexicographer, self-confessed word nerd and logophile, Susie Dent.
Today - this very day, Tuesday 2 April 2019 - Susie and I have launched our first podcast. It’s been produced by Paul Smith, Russell Finch, Steve Ackerman and the talented creative team at Somethin’ Else. and it’s simply a celebration of words and language.
We are calling it Something Rhymes With Purple because I thought NOTHING rhymed with purple (like nothing rhymes with orange - or silver), but I was wrong: SOMETHING does rhyme with purple - and Susie knows what it is. She knows a lot. About words. And life. On our podcast we chunter on about both. I learn a lot from Susie in the course of each podcast, and I think you might, too. You can find the podcast wherever you find your podcasts - at Acast or on Spotify or here: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/something-rhymes-with-purple/id1456772823?mt=2 I hope you’ll listen in over the next few weeks and see what you make of our musings. And of the three unexpected words Susie introduces me to in each episode.
If you’ve never seen Countdown, give it a try sometime, too. it happens to be the most successful game show in television history.
Why? It’s a show without obvious razzmatazz, big money prizes or hysterical contestants. What’s going on? On the screen, not much. All that happens is that two members of the public are given paper, pencil and thirty seconds in which to arrange nine randomly selected letters of the alphabet into the longest word they can think of. That’s it. Oh, yes, there’s an arithmetical round as well, involving addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And an anagram race, where you have to turn PROCEDURE into REPRODUCE against the clock. (Or EDUCATION into AUCTIONED. You get the idea.) That really is it. And if you win the game, you get a teapot. If you win the series, you get a trophy and a leather-bound edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Each year thousands write in wanting to take part in the programme and millions sit glued to their TV sets watching the show as though it were a sunrise over Mount Kilimonjaro. What makes this cosy tea-time TV so compelling? As one of the guests who has sat in Countdown’s Dictionary Corner (in fact the guest who has sat there most often), I have been involved in the show since it began in and I can tell you. It’s got nothing to do with the charm of the presenters or the hypnotic beat of the Countdown clock. It’s simply that this is the one show on television that involves viewer participation from start to finish.
When the crossword puzzle first appeared in the New York World in 1913 it quickly became a craze that swept the planet. Today there is not a newspaper on earth that does not carry a crossword. The word game on Countdown is the TV equivalent of the crossword and the numbers game is the goggle-box Soduko. For forty-five minutes each afternoon, viewers sit down, with paper and pencil in hand, forget the world outside, exercise their little grey cells and play the game. It’s a habit, a relaxation and a fix.
The words and numbers puzzles in the show are variations of the sorts of parlour entertainment our Victorian forebears enjoyed. The Countdown format itself was invented by a French TV producer, Armand Jammot, in the mid-1960s. It was brought to Britain by a Belgian record producer, Marcel Stellman, whose other claim to fame was writing the English lyrics for the song, ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’. Stellman sold it to Yorkshire TV in Leeds who initially aired it as a local programme featuring Yorkshire farmers as contestants, with a celebrity farmer, Ted Moult, sitting in Dictionary Corner.
In November 1982, when Channel 4 took to the airwaves, they picked up the show and broadcast it as their opening programme, with Yorkshire’s regional news anchorman, Richard Whiteley, as the host. Until then Richard’s only moment of national notoriety had been the time he was attacked in the studio by a ferret. Thanks to Countdown, Richard (5 ft 9ins, 14 and a half stone), with his trademark loud jackets, louder ties, and appalling puns, became one of the nation’s unlikeliest cult figures, profiled in a raft of men’s magazines (FHM, Maxim, Loaded), honoured by The Oldie (‘Most Inexplicable Survivor’), given a macho make-over by Woman’s Own and inducted into The Lady’s Hall of Fame.
We were good friends and I loved him for the way he loved his own programme’s success. As well as appearing on it, he watched it every day – with a cup of tea and a KitKat. ‘Bliss,’ he’d say. ‘Students watch Countdown,’ he told me. ‘Grannies watch Countdown. When I met Princess Margaret she said, “I do believe my sister watches it after the racing.” I thought, “Who’s her sister?” Then I realised. She meant the Queen.’
Yes, the Queen enjoys Countdown – and ‘doing the crossword’. Her Majesty enjoys word play and, of course, by definition, she speaks the Queen’s English. I try to speak the Queen’s English, too. I am even patron of The Queen’s English Society. We are a group of oddballs who think good English matters. We are not purists: we love the variety and richness of the English language, but it upsets some of us when people say Febuary when they mean February and drawring when they mean drawing. We don’t like things done quicker: we prefer them done more quickly. And we like to receive an invitation rather than an invite.
At The Queen’s English Society we love the language, vagaries and all, and in our journal, Quest, we dare to ask those difficult linguistic questions to which no one yet seems to have come up with a satisfactory answer. Why is it that writers write, but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham, for example? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t beeth the plural of booth? It’s odd that you can make amends, but not one amend? And if you get rid of all but one of your odds and ends, what do you call what you are left with?
If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught? Why is a boxing ring square? Why do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Why do we have noses that run and feet that smell? It’s very confusing, isn’t it? A slim chance and a fat chance are the same thing really, but a wise man and a wise guy are opposites. When the stars are out, they are visible. When the lights are out, they are invisible. What’s up?
In fact, why do we use the word up as much as we do? What are we up to? We lock up the house, we speak up at the meeting, stir up trouble and then it’s up to the secretary to write up the report. We work up an appetite, we think up excuses. We open up the shop in the morning and then close it up at night. When it comes to up, we’re pretty mixed up. Okay, Gyles, we get the idea: time to shut up.
If you want to know more about The Queen’s English Society, look here: www.queens-english-society.org. If you want to join me and my brilliant friend Susie Dent on our weekly roller-coaster ride over the ups and downs of the English language, find our podcast: Something Rhymes with Purple. It really does.