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TV Review: Countdown


Nick Hewer, best known as Lord Sugar's aide on The Apprentice, is the new host of Countdown. Photo: Channel 4

Nick Hewer, best known as Lord Sugar's aide on The Apprentice, is the new host of Countdown. Photo: Channel 4

Nick Hewer, best known as Lord Sugar's aide on The Apprentice, is the new host of Countdown. Photo: Channel 4

Nick Hewer, Alan Sugar's aide on The Apprentice, has taken over as the host of Channel 4's Countdown.

It’s rarely that the Telegraph feels moved to review words-and-numbers quiz show Countdown (Channel 4).

Part of the TV furniture, it was the first show broadcast on Channel 4, has since clocked up 5,000 episodes and this year celebrates its 30th birthday.

However, this afternoon’s edition was a notable one, marking the debut in the hostly chair of Nick Hewer – better known, of course, as Alan Sugar’s squinting sidekick on The Apprentice. And what a triumphant debut it was.

The Countdown hot seat has seen rapid turnover recently. The much-loved Richard Whiteley fronted the programme for 23 years but since he sadly passed away, three presenters have come and gone in six years: silvery smoothie Des Lynam, teak entertainer Des O’Connor and likeable sports anchorman Jeff Stelling, who left before Christmas.

Hewer was a smart but surprise appointment. He has apparently never watched the show, nor been a TV presenter before.

He’s a PR man who grew into a cult hero over seven series of The Apprentice, with his lemon-sucking facial expressions and withering put-downs of the bungling, besuited candidates. At 67, could this late-blooming dog learn new tricks?

Well, to steal some of his memorable phrases from The Apprentice, Hewer was all over this new role like a tramp on chips. Definitely not all gong and no dinner.

Dressed as if for The Apprentice, sporting pinstriped suit and pink tie, his welcome remarks paid fitting tribute to Whiteley, before moving on to deploy his gentlemanly charm on his two female colleagues: assistant Rachel Riley and lexicographic mainstay Susie Dent. Hewer seemed understandably nervous during these opening exchanges (repeating “well done” was his vocal tic) but soon relaxed into the role. Before long, the hestitancy was gone and he was leaning back in his chair, being mischievously droll.

Alongside Dent in Dictionary Corner was magician Paul Zenon, who prevailed upon Hewer to assist him with a card trick. “You’re the sorcerer’s apprentice,” said Zenon, to which Hewer quipped back: “I know a bit about apprentices.”

Elsewhere, Hewer showed his erudite side with Latin and law references (we didn’t get that from Des O’Connor), told a wartime anecdote about a friend who cracked codes at Bletchley, admitted to goofy teeth in his youth and nearly resisted an opportunity for humour when the word “trannies” was found among the letters.

The contest itself was rather one-sided. Reigning champion was a Harry Potter-ish student, Jack Worsley, who romped to a 50-point victory over poor challenger Brian Touhey – whose sole point of interest was that he owns four sheds.

Hewer seemed much taken with bright Worsley, giving avuncular career advice and describing him as “a powerful young man”. When Worsley cracked the climactic conundrum in just one second, Hewer was visibly impressed. “Wow,” he murmured. “That takes my breath away.”

Did we see any of Hewer’s trademark disapproving grimaces? Yes, twice. When Dent informed him that the word “netizens” (meaning web users or “citizens of the internet”) had entered the dictionary, Hewer looked like he’d found something unsavoury on the sole of his smartest shoes.

“That’s a silly business,” he scowled. “A dud. Let’s get rid of it.” Hear, hear. He also looked like a disappointed headmaster when Touhey offered a four-letter word.

Overall, a commanding, charismatic performance. Hewer’s wit, wisdom and face-pulling should make venerable old Countdown worth watching again.

New quiz show host? You’re hired.