John Richard Whiteley (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'' 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 pun
s, 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
, where his English teacher was Russell Harty
. He later became a governor of the school. Leaving school with seven O-level
s and three A-level
s, from 1962 he read English at Christ's College, Cambridge
On leaving Cambridge in July 1965, Whiteley served three years as a trainee at ITN
but left to join the newly created Yorkshire Television
in July 1968.
In 1973 Whiteley and Woodrow Wyatt
presented the Anglia Television
documentary ''The Red Under the Bed'', about the trial of the Shrewsbury Two
and Ricky Tomlinson
), which was broadcast on the day that the trial jury retired to consider their verdict. The programme, which was heavily critical of the trade union movement, is now considered to have swayed jurors into returning a guilty verdict
and was later cited by the Criminal Cases Review Commission
as evidence that the verdicts were unsound. Warren and Tomlinson's convictions were overturned in 2021. Speaking in 2017 about the documentary, Tomlinson claimed to be in possession of confidential documents proving that it had been funded and written by British intelligence services and that Whiteley had been employed by MI5
at the time of broadcast.
Whiteley was bitten by a ferret
on an edition of ''Calendar'' in 1977. The animal bit his finger for half a minute before its owner, Brian Plummer
, prised it free. The clip is often repeated on programmes showing television out-takes. 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. Its first broadcast received an audience of over 3.5 million viewers, but 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 nickname
d "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
" in 1998, and was known for his amusement at the village's name.
''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. His guests were unknown to him beforehand, so before he could interview them, he had to guess who they were.
Whiteley was one of the first people to report on the 1984 Brighton hotel bombing
, as he was staying in the hotel at the time.
[ He was the subject of ''This Is Your Life'' in March 1997 when he was surprised by Michael Aspel on the set of the ITV soap opera, ''Emmerdale''.
In 2001, Whiteley stood as rector for University of Dundee.
On 15 June 2003, Whiteley appeared on the BBC show, ''Top Gear'' and set the slowest time in the Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car segment with a time of 2:06.
Illness and death
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 also had diabetes. The edition of ''Countdown'' that was 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, stating that "The clock stopped too soon". A number of shows had already been recorded before he went into hospital, and his final show was broadcast on 1 July 2005, which was the grand finale of the 53rd series.
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".
Richard Whiteley Memorial Bursary
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.
Vision Aid Overseas
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.
Honours and private life
Whiteley became a Deputy Lieutenant of West Yorkshire in 2003, and was appointed OBE in the June 2004 Queen's Birthday Honours List for services to broadcasting.
Books by Richard Whiteley
*''Letters Play!: a treasury of words and wordplay''. London: Robson
*Whiteley, Richard (2000) ''Himoff!: the memoirs of a TV matinee idle'' London: Orion Books
*Apanowicz, Kathryn (2006) ''Richard by Kathryn''. London: Virgin Books
* ''The Red Under the Bed'' (1973)
* ''Calendar'' (1968-1995)
* ''Countdown'' (1982–2005)
* ''Hallelujah!'' (1983)
* ''The Richard Whiteley Show'' (1995–1996)
* ''Richard Whiteley Unbriefed'' (1999)
* ''Have I Got News for You'' (Series 17, Episode 1, 1999)
* ''Holiday: You Call the Shots'' (2001–2002)
* ''The Big Breakfast'' (final episode, 29 March 2002)
* ''Top Gear'' (2003)
* ''My Family'' (2003)
* Footage of Whiteley appears in the 2014 film ''Pride'', where he reports on the end of the miners' strike.
(''The Daily Telegraph'', 28 June 2005)
"Thousands say farewell to 'Our Richard'"
BBC News, 10 November 2005)
(''The Guardian'', 28 June 2005)
UKGameshows: Richard Whiteley
Category:English game show hosts
Category:English television presenters
Category:English male journalists
Category:British reporters and correspondents
Category:Alumni of Christ's College, Cambridge
Category:Deputy Lieutenants of West Yorkshire
Category:People from Baildon
Category:Officers of the Order of the British Empire
Category:People educated at Giggleswick School
Category:Infectious disease deaths in England
Category:Mayors of places in Yorkshire and the Humber
Category:Deaths from endocarditis
Category:Countdown (game show)