It's the end of a TV era this afternoon, as Countdown presenter Nick Hewer presses the button to start that iconic 30-second clock one last time. After a nine-year stint in the host's chair, he now hands over to Anne Robinson on the Channel 4 daytime fixture.
"I did shed a little tear, actually," Hewer tells us, reflecting on his final episode. "My voice caught in my throat during my leaving speech. We couldn't have a proper party due to social distancing but I got lots of presents and gave some. I wrote an individual letter to each of the crew, with a little bottle of champagne. It was a very generous farewell but fairly dry-eyed apart from me. Nobody sobbing, as far as I could see. That was disappointing."
What was in Hewer's gift haul? "A box of Galaxy Ripples, which are my sweet treat while filming. I go through two or three per day. Delicious. Susie [Dent, resident lexicographer] gave me a lovely thesaurus. And I got a Bonsai conifer from Rachel [Riley, the show's maths expert]. That was a sweet nod to my first day, when I was still getting to grips with the rules. When the letters went up on the board, I shouted out 'Conifers!' The producer said in my earpiece, 'Actually, that's for the contestants to do.' We had to scrap that round and start again."
Having helmed more than 2,000 episodes across 18 series, Hewer becomes the afternoon quiz's second longest-serving host after original incumbent Richard Whiteley. Did he ever expect to stay that long? "I didn't expect to stay 10 minutes after my conifers gaffe," he smiles sheepishly. "I was holding on for grim death most of the time. I'm not a trained TV presenter, so I had no idea what I was doing. But I got away with it, ploughed on and somehow the years crept up on me."
Modest to a fault, Hewer insists he was never a natural fit for the words-and-numbers game: "I'm not one of those people who can look at a jumble of letters and dig out a long word. I was always much better at the numbers. Although by the time I finished, I'd improved at the letters too."
Did he ever get a conundrum? "No, don't be silly. I still can't hum the theme music either. I know it goes 'dumpety dumpety dump' at the end but can't do the rest."
Forget the quiz itself. Hewer says his main priority was looking after the contestants. "My role was pastoral really, like a vicar," he explains. "I had to save them from having a nervous breakdown. They all think they're brilliant at home, then they turn up and it's bloody terrifying. Suddenly there's a studio audience, lights, people running around with headsets and stepladders. Some genuinely start shaking in their boots, so I tried to put them at their ease. I remember one chap, a senior type from the City, was so scared that he stormed off set, saying, 'No, no, I have my professional reputation to consider'. We had to settle him down with a wet towel. He came back in the end."
Occasionally, he admits, quizzers were tricky to like. "Most were great but I remember one awfully arrogant young man. I asked what he hoped to do for a career and he wanted to join the diplomatic corps. I said 'Well, let's hope it's a far, far distant posting for you.'" Hewer gives a wry chuckle. "He asked for that to be edited out but they wouldn't do it."
Who were his favourite Dictionary Corner guests? "That chap from Springwatch, Chris Packham, was the most informative. He's a genuinely brilliant communicator. I could listen to him all day. Dr Phil Hammond was wonderful. Michael Whitehall used to make me hoot. And Jo Brand because she'd just take the mickey out of the whole thing."
And his least favourite? "After Ann Widdecombe came on, I prayed every night that she'd never come back. And she never did, so who says prayer doesn't work?"
It's always a titter-inducing treat for viewers but did our inscrutable host also get the giggles at rude words? "We used to rejoice when 'wanker' came up," he deadpans. "'Areola' was always a pleasure, even though nobody knew how to pronounce it except Susie. 'Orgasm' or 'aroused' would always get an 'Ooh!'. And 'panties', of course. I'd always make a point of repeating it. 'Panties, you say?"
Hewer was first approached about the Countdown gig while still serving as Lord Sugar's advisor on The Apprentice. "I remember Sugar drifting into my dressing room to help himself to my fruitbowl. I said, 'I've just been offered a job to host Countdown.' He said, 'Wassat? Never heard of it. How much they paying you?' I told him and he said, 'Do it.' Then he wandered out, unpeeling a banana as he went. It wasn't so much advice as an instruction. But it was sound advice."
Hewer was soon getting all manner of fanmail. "I opened a rather sinister one where all this confetti fell onto my lap and it said "Marry me, marry me' over and over again in big round letters, then a phone number. I thought, 'My God, I'm holding onto this in case it's a stalker.' Soon after that I received – from Swindon, my hometown – a very unfortunate pair of red nylon crotchless knickers. I had no immediate need for them so I gave them to one of the girls in the production gallery. I've never been trolled, although I did get one letter that said, 'Get off the telly, you old git.'"
The 77-year-old says it wasn't a hard decision to step down: "I'd been thinking about it for a while because it's so tiring. At the end of the week, I'd get poured into a car and driven home. I was like an invertebrate, slopping into the backseat like an octopus.
"Lockdown sealed it for me. Even now, Salford [where Countdown is filmed at MediaCity] is in the middle of the Delta variant. I enjoyed being at home so much while I was shielding, I knew it was the right time. I've been working pretty non-stop since I was 22. Enough!"
He's looking forward to tuning into the new-look show next week from the comfort of his sofa. "Anne Robinson sent me a very nice message," he says. "Some people on Twitter have been pretty unkind about her but give her time. I think she'll be fun. I wouldn't presume to give her any advice. She knows what she's doing. She's a much better presenter than I am."
Might his suddenly empty diary mean he's tempted towards the Strictly glitterball? "No, although they've tried very hard. I refused to come in for a meeting in case they talked me into it. I'd be a disaster. The physicality is beyond me. I'd be exhausted by the third step of a paso doble. You can't have another John Sergeant, dragging some poor professional dancer across the floor."
If the ballroom doesn't appeal, how about the jungle? "I've never been approached for I'm A Celebrity but who in their right mind would want to be humiliated like that? Covered in gunk, with rats examining the inside of your nostrils. Absolutely not. I'm not going to make a fool out of myself." He grins. "Well, any more than I have already."
Happily, this is unlikely to be the last we see of Hewer on our TV screens. "There's a few things knocking about, so I'll keep myself busy without taking on any long commitments," he says. "It would need to be something a bit thoughtful. Not one of those screaming celeb things where everybody's trying to out-perform each other."
For today's farewell episode, Hewer's old friend, colleague and sparring partner Lord Sugar sent a video message telling him: "You're retired!" Might the pair work together again?
"Funnily enough, Alan's Rolls Royce nearly ran me over outside The Ritz the other day – mainly because I was in the middle of Piccadilly, trying to flag it down after spotting the AMS1 numberplate. He got out and we had a proper natter. He's in good shape. We're getting together soon for dinner."
With series 16 of The Apprentice due to start filming next month, does Hewer think the BBC business contest still has legs?
"Oh yes, it's still relevant," he insists. "Sure, some people apply for it because they want to be famous, like Love Island, but the winners are bright, hard-working people. Most are still in business with Sugar and doing very well. Susie Ma is making an absolute fortune with her Tropic Skincare range. She was an extraordinary kid. It's a great show and it's worthwhile. People might have been made redundant in the pandemic but now is the chance to be their own boss and start their own businesses. Lessons learnt from The Apprentice come into focus."
So what will the silver fox miss most about Countdown? "The cheque at the end of the month. Receiving that was always a pleasant occasion. But also the comradeship and the show itself. It's a wonderful institution, part of the fabric of British life. It's been on-air for 39 years and people have grown up watching it. We don't give away flashy holidays, camper vans or speedboats. They get a bloody teapot and they're delighted. They always say 'That's all I came for.' It's an amazing thing."
Happy retirement, Mr Hewer. Altogether now: "Dumpety dumpety dump."
Nick Hewer's final episode of Countdown airs on Friday, June 25 at 2.10pm on Channel 4. Anne Robinson takes over in the same slot from Monday, June 28.
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