Her snake-hipped boyfriend from Strictly, the saucy words that reduce her to giggles and that online abuse about her looks… it all adds up to a top-scoring interview with Rachel Riley and her Countdown co-stars
In the lounge of a north London townhouse studio, blonde Countdown presenter Rachel Riley is swinging on a Sixties-style chair and thinking naughty thoughts. ‘Some of the words that pop up on the show have had terrible connotations,’ she smiles. ‘But that’s the beauty of Countdown.’
Riley rattles through a quick list of choice expressions that have quickened the pulse of the daytime programme’s producers and tickled the studio audience to the point of tears. She’s right: they’re rude.
Last November, Rachel Riley clocked up 2,000 episodes of Countdown. For such an apparently relaxed show, she tells Event, it can be physically draining
It is fair to say that the Oxford-educated Essex girl with an upper-second-class honours degree in mathematics and, lest we forget, winner of 2017’s Rear Of The Year, doesn’t mind a little risqué humour.
She regularly corpses on Channel 4’s Countdown when, in a swirl of vowels and consonants, a contestant innocently arrives at an X-rated word, or worse, when a colleague allows a double-entendre to slip out.
Riley’s Countdown co-presenter, former adviser to Lord Sugar on The Apprentice, Nick Hewer, 73, is a repeat, albeit often unknowing, offender.
One of Hewer’s finer moments, when he observed that Riley was finding the sums too rudimentary, was a classic TV clanger.
‘As soon as Nick said, “Poor old Rachel, she’s sitting over there, gagging for a hard one,” it was like, what do you do with that?’ Riley grimaces.
‘Susie [Dent] offered a brilliant slang word that was short for blowfish, completely innocently,’ she hoots. ‘She knows every single word and phrase in the English language, except if it’s got a remotely rude connotation. I don’t know how she knows so much and so little at the same time.’
Since 1992, Dent, 53, has reigned over Dictionary Corner with a shy smile and a ferocious etymological intellect.
She is, by trade, a lexicographer, or as the friskier faction of her following would have it, a ‘sexicographer’.
‘My job title is hard enough to pronounce, so any variation is very welcome,’ she says. ‘Besides, it’s a lot better than “Boozy Susie.”’
The biggest misconception about her profession, Dent asserts, is ‘that we’re “harmless drudges”, as Samuel Johnson famously defined us, and that we sit over dusty volumes in dark libraries.
Rachel Riley with her dance partner – and now boyfriend – Pasha Kovalev on 2013’s Strictly Come Dancing
‘The truth is that today’s dictionary compilers sit in hi-tech offices studying vast digital databases of language. Not only that, but our daily debates are a lot of fun: which swear word has the juiciest history, or how “trumpery” came to mean “superficial nonsense.”’
Riley has helped to ensure that Countdown’s team aren’t ever mistaken for drudges, as her own life has thrown up plenty of racy words. In 2013, she enrolled on Strictly Come Dancing, and did the paso doble, and other complex manoeuvres, with Siberian dancer Pasha Kovalev.
The burgeoning Russian romance burned with the passion of a smouldering rumba, and coincided with the break-up of Riley’s short marriage. Prior to meeting Pasha, she was married to Jamie Gilbert, who she met at university when she was 19. They separated in 2013, having been married for 16 months.
Riley and Kovalev now co-habit in west London, while she remains ‘good friends’ with Gilbert. Pasha, she says revealingly, is ‘different, really different’.
‘I was used to Essex boys growing up. Russian boys are a lot more gentlemanly and thoughtful. They will express their emotions a bit more. Even though you picture Russians as stoic, their language is really poetic.’
During her own Strictly stint, Riley underwent cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for her chronic nerves and discovered that she had a psychological issue with ‘perfection’
She doesn’t think there is a ‘Strictly curse’, where participants’ personal relationships disintegrate once they are in a professional dancer’s arms. She believes ‘it serves as a magnifying glass that shows up pre-existing fault lines’.
Her relationship with the Russian developed slowly after the couple were beaten in the Week Six dance-off by Abbey Clancy, who went on to win overall. ‘Whenever we’re away or get the opportunity, Pasha takes me salsa dancing,’ she says. ‘We’ve been in Brazil, Colombia and France.’
Riley has been learning Russian for three years and is hoping to visit his homeland this year. She also has a dash of Ukrainian blood.
Kovalev was ‘obviously disappointed’ to leave this year’s Strictly so early with actress Chizzy Akudolu. ‘I don’t think anyone really expected them to go out first,’ Riley sighs. ‘He thought their dancing was better.’
During her own Strictly stint, Riley underwent cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for her chronic nerves and discovered that she had a psychological issue with ‘perfection’.
‘I didn’t realise until I did CBT that I was a perfectionist,’ she elaborates. ‘Whenever you do anything there are always going to be things that go wrong, it’s never going to be 100 per cent perfect. Because of how I was, I’d focus on those bits and always see the negative in anything.
‘CBT really helped me and I would recommend it to anyone.’
Countdown remains her ‘comfort zone’ as the TV institution celebrates 35 years and over 6,500 episodes and heads towards its 80th series. To put it in a historical context, the Great British TV institution is exactly the same age as Prince William, and holding up just as heroically. The acclaimed game show first aired on November 1982 in the week that Motorola announced the first commercially available mobile phone, weighing in at a mighty 2lb, and Culture Club’s Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? was at No 1 in the charts.
Riley wasn’t born when Countdown started, but she fondly remembers the programme in its previous 4.30pm slot
Eighties dads would look at Boy George and wonder ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ but there were no such queries about Richard Whiteley.
The show’s original host was nicknamed ‘Twice Nightly’ Whiteley on account of presenting Countdown in addition to the Yorkshire magazine news programme Calendar later that same evening.
Decked out in a garish blazer and amusing necktie, he set the Countdown juggernaut in motion with a twinkle in his eye and his redoubtable lieutenant Carol Vorderman at his side for almost quarter of a century.
Whiteley died suddenly from pneumonia – which fans affectionately noted was a nine-letter word that used all the vowels – in 2005 aged 61.
Vorderman quit Countdown after a contractual disagreement in 2008. She has since pursued an interest in aviation and intends to fly solo around the world.
Des Lynam, Des O’Connor, Jeff Stelling and now Hewer followed in Whiteley’s wake, but none captured the charming essence of Countdown quite like him.
The show’s winning formula of ‘letters and numbers’ gradually became a cult success in post-Falklands, pre-teatime Britain.
‘We have people in who have watched it since day one,’ Riley says. ‘They come in to celebrate their 90th birthday.’
Riley wasn’t born when Countdown started, but she fondly remembers the programme in its previous 4.30pm slot. ‘I’d come home from school and play against my little brother. That’s the good thing about Countdown, you can play at any level, any age.’
The Countdown team: Susie Dent, Nick Hewer and Rachel Riley
The show now has a little brother of its own, the more mischievous Eight Out Of Ten Cats Does Countdown, helmed by comic Jimmy Carr for the past five years. ‘That’s the side of you that you’d show your mates,’ smirks Riley. ‘Whereas Countdown is the side of you you’d show your family. You certainly get more grief on Eight Out Of Ten, but I like a bit of banter.
Riley’s television job, she accepts, is primarily visual, yet she routinely experiences online abuse about her dress sense and body shape.
‘You can have your opinions and you can share them with your friends,’ she acknowledges evenly, ‘but why would you go online to tell a stranger something random about their appearance? I don’t get that.
‘I just ignore it,’ she shrugs. ‘No one will say that in real life and if they did I wouldn’t have much respect for them as a person.’
While she has never been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace, she feels that many women, including herself, ‘aren’t trained in how to deal with it properly.
‘I’m quite British about things and tend to shy away. But that’s not solving the problem.’
Veteran anchor Anne Robinson recently suggested that women in TV were too ‘fragile’ in dealing with inappropriate behaviour at work and needed to be more ‘robust’.
‘I don’t think anyone should make a wide-ranging comment like that about everyone who works in TV,’ Riley argues. ‘It’s different generations and what’s considered appropriate. Thankfully, it’s changing.’
Riley turned 32 last week, although she hasn’t, as yet, planned to have children.
‘All my friends are getting pregnant at the moment.’ she says. ‘That’s good for them, but it’s currently not on my radar. I don’t know about the future.’
Riley regularly corpses on Channel 4’s Countdown when, in a swirl of vowels and consonants, a contestant innocently arrives at an X-rated word
Last November, Riley clocked up 2,000 episodes of Countdown. For such an apparently relaxed show, it can be physically draining.
‘We film 15 shows every couple of weeks,’ she explains. ‘So smiling for three days straight, your jaws ache.
‘But the contestants are so lovely. I’d said I like Marmite at one stage and this one contestant came on and brought me this jar of Marmite he’d kept from the Queen’s Jubilee.’
So raise a cuppa to Countdown’s 35 years of mid-afternoon magnificence – just don’t mention the M-word. Famously, Susie Dent has a profound problem with the word ‘moist’.
‘Apparently a fifth of the nation hate this word,’ Dent points out, studiously avoiding its use. ‘And it’s all about our psychological reactions to the thought of bodily functions. I can’t even bring myself to use it for cake.’
‘People on the show now apologise to Susie when those letters come up,’ says Hewer. ‘They say, “I’m sorry, Susie, but I’ve got moist.” ’
Upon hearing this, Riley rocks so violently that she all but falls out of her swinging seat onto the bare stone floor.
‘Could have died laughing there,’ the ‘maths geek’ grins, having doubtless calculated the velocity at which she would have fallen. ‘That’s how blonde I am.’
‘Countdown’ is at 2.10pm, weekdays on Channel 4
What’s the secret of Countdown’s enduring appeal?
NICK ‘It’s very honest and worthy, and it’s not hyper – some high-energy shows can get exhausting after a while. This isn’t the slightest bit like those.’
RACHEL ‘And it’s something that children, parents and grandparents can all play along to together.’
Which Countdown contestant do you remember most fondly?
SUSIE ‘It seems unfair to choose just one as we’ve had so many memorable players, but if I had to it would be Conor Travers, our youngest ever champion, who won aged 14.’
What are your absolute favourite words?
SUSIE ‘Scurryfunge, which is that manic cleaning you do just before guests arrive, and thunderplump, which is a sudden and drenching downpour of rain.’
RACHEL ‘Panacea, meaning a cure-all – it’s a lovely-sounding word. I just wish it existed.’
And your least?
SUSIE ‘Moist, gusset and scrofulous.’
NICK ‘Well, gobs***e came up once. I’m surprised I got it – it’s in the dictionary though.’
Who has been the best guest in Dictionary Corner with Susie Dent?
SUSIE ‘Arsène Wenger, without a doubt. Or Robbie Coltrane, just to hear him recreate the glorious Blackadder Samuel Johnson scene.’
RACHEL ‘Rufus Hound, who wrote the most entertaining, clever and poignant poems. They were brilliant! And Jimmy Osmond, whose stories about being a young kid around Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson were always fascinating.’