What's it like to be a contestant on Countdown? Former player reveals all

Countdown is one of the UK’s most beloved and prestigious quiz shows, but actually appearing on the Channel 4 programme sounds like quite the conundrum in itself.

Letters and numbers are just part of everyday life for most of us, but for those who decide to apply for Countdown, they quickly become all-consuming. 

Having run since 1982 and with over 7,000 episodes having broadcast so far, it’s clear it still has a huge draw for many. 

Long-term fans will remember the original line-up consisting of presenter Richard Whiteley and maths whizz and all-around legend Carol Vorderman brought on to check the figures all matched up.

Things haven’t changed too much since then, with lexicographer Susie Dent joining the team permanently back in 2004 and Rachel Riley taking over from Vorders in 2009.

Current presenter Anne Robinson revealed she would be stepping down after just a year, meaning someone else will soon be in the hot seat to observe all the goings-on of the incredibly competitive series.

To find out just how things work behind the scenes, Metro.co.uk chatted with former contestant Jen Steadman, who was an octochamp on series 69 of Countdown, broadcast back in 2013.

She’s got quite the record, in fact, and is statistically the greatest female octochamp (a contestant who wins all eight of their heat games), in Countdown’s history, and the highest-scoring woman ever, amongst a long list of other Countdown accomplishments.

Jen was also invited back to the Countdown studio as a contestant in the spin-off series, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, to assist the late great comedian Sean Lock and Jason Manford to victory over Sarah Millican, Jonathan Ross and Roisin Conaty.

We thought we’d get all the gossip from one of the show’s best-ever players to give us a deep dive into how the magic happens.

A former contestant created a website where budding players can practice

Explaining how she first came to the game, Jen shared how a ‘tough time at university’ led her to get into watching Countdown in 2010. 

She shared: ‘About 6 months later, I shamefully googled a series winner who was quite attractive at the time and discovered Apterous – an unaffiliated website created by a former contestant which allowed you to play the game online. 

‘It turned out that all the best players had honed their craft on there: if you’ve seen the Countdown episode of The IT Crowd, it’s essentially an online version of that.’

Unfortunately, Tnetennba is still not an acceptable word. 

If you’re getting mostly 7 letter words in your audition, you’re doing pretty well

Jen detailed the application process for us, which involves downloading a form from Channel 4, filling it in, and then being called up by the team for a phone audition. 

This requires potential contestants to play Countdown over the phone: ‘My audition consisted of five letters rounds, two numbers rounds and two conundrums. I found the audition pretty stressful and missed some words I knew, but still passed. 

‘If you’re getting mostly 7s in the letters rounds and you solve at least one numbers [round] and one conundrum, you’ll probably get on the show.’ 

Some people put off applying for a series if they know a ‘talented’ player already has

The wider Countdown community involves what Jen dubbed ‘a game of Chinese whispers’, where participants from the site try to work out who’s looking to take part in an upcoming series. 

‘Sometimes, prospective applicants wait for the next series if they know a top player is applying,’ she revealed. ‘A talented player had already applied for the series and was very unhappy that I’d also applied. But I knew I could hold my own against him if it came to it. 

‘I hate losing, but I’d rather compete against the best. Also, as if I was going to pass up the opportunity to appear on Series 69.’

Filming is extremely speedy

Like many other game shows, Countdown is filmed in blocks, with several episodes being filmed each day. 

‘There are two filming blocks in a day: these are usually morning and afternoon, although there are occasionally afternoon and evening sessions. That typically allows for five episodes to be recorded in a day.

‘For my octorun, I filmed three episodes in an afternoon on the first day, and then five episodes on the second day, all back-to-back,’ she told us. 

The Countdown dictionary isn’t the same as the Scrabble dictionary

This is something we didn’t expect, but the list of words kept in check by Dictionary Corner host Susie is in a league of its own, differing from similar concepts. 

Jen revealed: ‘The Scrabble and Countdown dictionaries are totally different, which is really annoying. It means lots of words aren’t valid in one but are valid in another. 

She went on to give us an incredible example, sharing: ‘“Blowjob” is valid in Scrabble but not Countdown, and “Handjob” is valid in Countdown but not Scrabble.’ Who knew?

People take it very, very seriously

We’re not surprised, but it sounds like some players aren’t so gracious in their defeats, with the octochamp recalling an incident that didn’t make it to screen. 

She admitted: ‘A lot of the context around my games was off-screen. One opponent, an older man, seemed quite superior in the Green Room and didn’t take kindly to me beating him by 90 points. He threw down his pen in annoyance during one round, which did make it to screen.

‘After the episode, his wife approached me in the queue for the toilets and told me that I’d made him lose his confidence.’

It’s less nerve-wracking to film in the morning

Jen told us she’s ‘not a morning person’ but much preferred filming earlier on in the day as it meant she got it out the way. 

‘My favourite games to film were the two that were recorded first thing,’ she said. ‘On the other hand, the one evening episode I filmed – my first game in Champion of Champions – was agony. I was a nervous wreck anyway, but it was exacerbated by watching other episodes, with some of my incredible peers throwing out words I’d never heard of, and all the waiting around. 

‘This translated to screen meant I had all the joie de vivre of a widowed Queen Victoria in that episode!’

Fan mail can be madness

Okay, this is something we weren’t expecting, but after Jen impressed viewers with her amazing run on the programme, she received her fair share of wild fan mail. 

She recalled: ‘There was hilariously explicit fan mail from middle-aged men, and women saying that I’d inspired them to apply for the show – but also a man threatening to stamp on my head because I was bobbing it in time to the music, and a woman criticising the bow I wore in my hair. 

‘I definitely learned that you can’t please everyone and that some people have no taste in headwear.’

The hosts are always happy to chat backstage

Nick Hewer hosted while Jen competed, and it sounds like he had a whale of a time getting to know the contestants. 

‘Nick was the host when I was on, and I had a brilliant time filming with him. He has a very dry sense of humour which is great fun, but he was also friendly and engaged with contestants in my personal experience, chatting to contestants before filming commenced and sometimes getting so engrossed in conversation that the crew had to remind him there was a show to film,’ she teased. 

She dubbed co-hosts Susie and Rachel ‘so friendly’ and added: ‘They were always happy to chat during and after filming. After the final episode of my octorun, Rachel came to the Green Room to give me a hug, which was pretty cool.’

Countdown airs weekdays from 2.15pm on Channel 4. 

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