John Richard Whiteley OBE DL (28 December 1943 – 26 June 2005) was an English presenter, and journalist, best known for his twenty-three years as host of the game show Countdown. Countdown was the launch programme for Channel 4 at 4:45 pm on 2 November 1982, and Whiteley was the first person to be seen on the channel (not counting a programme montage). Despite his intelligence, Whiteley enjoyed projecting the image of an absent-minded eccentric. His trademarks were his jolly, avuncular manner, his fondness for puns, and his bold, sometimes garish wardrobe.
Thanks to over twenty years' worth of nightly instalments of Countdown as well as his work on the Yorkshire magazine programme Calendar and various other television projects, at the time of his death Whiteley was believed to have clocked more hours on British television screens—and more than 10,000 appearances—than anyone else alive, apart from Carole Hersee, the young girl who appeared on the BBC's Test Card F.
John Richard Whiteley was born 28 December 1943 in Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire, and spent his childhood in Baildon: his family owned a long-established textile mill, Thomas Whiteley and Co of Eccleshill, which went out of business in the 1960s. At 13, he won a scholarship to Giggleswick School, Yorkshire, where his English teacher was Russell Harty. He later became a governor of the school. Leaving school with seven O-levels and three A-levels, from 1962 he read English at Christ's College, Cambridge. In 2001, Whiteley stood as rector for University of Dundee.
Whiteley was notoriously bitten by a ferret on an edition of Calendar in 1977. The animal remained clamped to his finger for half a minute before its indifferent owner, Brian Plummer, finally prised it free. The clip is often repeated on programmes showing television out-takes. In an example of his famous self-deprecating humour, Whiteley once joked that when he died, the headlines would read, "Ferret man dies", which was the headline of the Yorkshire regional newspaper when he did die, in his honour. He said, "It's made a lot of people laugh and it's been shown all over the world. It's 30-odd years since it happened and I think I've been a great PR man for the ferret industry. Ferrets have a lot to be grateful for, to me, you see they've become acceptable because one of them bit me."
In 1982, Yorkshire Television began to produce Countdown, copying a French quiz show format, Des chiffres et des lettres. Whiteley was chosen as host, and continued with the show when Jeremy Isaacs brought it to Channel 4 as the first programme broadcast by the new station. After a successful first broadcast, with an audience of over 3.5 million viewers, the programme lost 3 million viewers for its second show.
However, it gradually rebuilt its audience over the following weeks, and it was as the host of Countdown that Whiteley became known to a wider audience in the United Kingdom outside the Yorkshire region. He was nicknamed "Twice Nightly Whiteley", in reference to the time when he would present the Calendar news programme and Countdown in the same evening, from 1982 to 1995. (In a self-deprecating joke, he often countered this with "Once Yearly, Nearly".)
As the presenter of Countdown, Whiteley developed a reputation for wearing garish suits and ties, and it was common for Carol Vorderman to comment on this. Whiteley also told many anecdotes and puns, which were often met by groans from other presenters and members of the audience. He was granted the honorary title of "Mayor of Wetwang" in 1998, and was known for his amusement at the village's name. The "Mayor of Wetwang" joke reached its head in 2000 when a contestant, Les Noble, was the brother-in-law of the Mayor of Sunderland, on which Whiteley commented, "I know how it feels."
Countdown was not intended to be a long-lasting format, but it quickly became a durable programme for Channel 4, at its peak enjoying a sizable afternoon audience of almost five million. At the time of Whiteley's death, it still regularly attracted over a million viewers.
Whiteley had a cameo appearance role as himself, presenting Countdown, in the film About a Boy. From series 54, broadcast in 2006, the series champion has received the "Richard Whiteley Memorial Trophy" in his honour. Following his death, Whiteley was replaced by Des Lynam.
Whiteley also had his own chatshow, Richard Whiteley Unbriefed, on the BBC. This was a chatshow with a twist—before he could interview his guests, he had to guess who they were.
In May 2005, Whiteley was taken into hospital with pneumonia. He made a slow recovery from the illness, but doctors discovered problems with his heart and carried out an emergency operation for endocarditis on 24 June. This operation was not successful, and two days later on 26 June, Whiteley died at Leeds General Infirmary. He was buried at St John the Evangelist Church at East Witton.
He had suffered from asthma since he was very young, and was a diabetic. The edition of Countdown due to be broadcast on 27 June was postponed as a mark of respect. Carol Vorderman gave an emotional tribute to him on 28 June when Countdown returned the following day stating that "The clock stopped too soon". A number of shows had already been recorded when he went into hospital and his final show was broadcast on 1 July 2005 which was the grand final of the 53rd series. Two standalone episodes featuring former contestants, and recorded in 2003 to be broadcast whenever Channel 4's cricket coverage finishes early, also remained in the vaults to be screened at a later date. As Channel 4 no longer covers cricket they may remain in the archives indefinitely; however, one game's details have been leaked onto the internet.
On 10 November 2005, five months after his death, thousands of friends and admirers gathered at York Minster for a memorial service to celebrate Whiteley's life. Guests included Vorderman, who paid tribute to him, saying, "If he were here he would have welcomed you one-by-one, greeting every one of you by the hand and would have wanted a photograph taken".
He was described by Countdown regular Gyles Brandreth as "a love god ... but he was the most innocent love god you could imagine. He was like a ray of sunshine, and like sunshine we all warmed to him".
In 2007, Channel 4 announced its creation of the Richard Whiteley Memorial Bursary, a nine-month work experience placement at Yorkshire Television, working with True North Productions.
Three pairs of Whiteley's spectacles were donated by Kathryn Apanowicz, his longtime partner, to optical charity Vision Aid Overseas (VAO). Sent with a team of optical professionals to Ethiopia, the VAO team found three Ethiopians whose eyes fitted Whiteley's prescription. The BBC followed this story on their Inside Out programme which was broadcast on 19 September 2007.
In 2008, three years after Whiteley's death, Giggleswick School announced its plans to raise £1.3m to build a theatre in his honour. The 288-seat theatre has been built at the school where Whiteley was a pupil and governor, and provides a resource for the whole local community. Work on the second phase of the theatre was completed in autumn 2010. The theatre now hosts a range of public performances.