Dave Quinn reflects on the life of Richard Whiteley
As supposedly the most watched man on British television, having made more than 10,000 appearances, Richard Whiteley didn’t exactly need to raise his profile.
That’s why it’s surprising that the genial uncle of teatime telly made time in the autumn of 1999 to be interviewed by me, a fresh-faced journalist on the now-defunct Liverpool Student newspaper.
The assignment is something of a cliché – the editor, like many before him, wanted a slightly quirky piece on Whiteley’s student appeal. But it proved truly valuable to me as the main reason I got my first “proper” job in journalism.
Having joined the audience for the recording of Countdown at Yorkshire TV’s studios in Leeds, I was ushered backstage to Whiteley’s dressing room.
Before the interview could begin, Whiteley – taller and fatter than I expected - nipped into a sort of en suite cubicle, similar to the bathrooms found in caravans. My defining memory is of this giant man loudly pissing while I sat petrified on the other side of a paper-thin door.
Business over (ahem), we talked for over an hour about how he ended up hosting Channel Four’s longest-running programme (apart from the news). Whiteley spoke about his time editing Cambridge’s student paper in the 1960s, how he moved to ITN and then to Yorkshire TV. He was nothing but charming.
We then moved on to the inevitable conversation about why students love Countdown, and how the make-up of the studio audience varies between rowdy busloads of twenty-year-olds and half-dead coach-loads of grannies.
I asked him about the infamous puns. He shocked me by saying the producers wrote them and he just read them out.
When I applied for my first job as a trainee journalist on a business magazine in London, my degree counted for absolutely nothing. Instead, all my editor was interested in was Richard Whiteley. At my interview I was asked: “What was he like?”That’s why I was strangely touched by Whiteley’s death. T
To an extent, I owe a little of my career to this bright, friendly bloke I once met at a TV studio in Leeds.
Richard Whiteley, born December 28 1943, died June 26 2005.