At the risk of sounding insufferably smug, I have to admit that lockdown, spent with my partner Catherine at our farmhouse in rural Northamptonshire, was a pleasure.
I enjoyed the pottering, the leisurely breakfasts; the sense that there was nothing pressing in my diary to propel me out of bed before the civilised hour of 9 am.
Actually, although Catherine may demur, it was a pleasure to see more of her.
I also started to think about the future, about encroaching old age — when you’re 76, it’s a slow descent through twinges and aches until things start dropping off — and about what I really wanted to do.
So that’s why I have announced my retirement. I’m stepping down from my role as host of the record-breaking Channel 4 show Countdown.
For those of you who’ve been in a medically induced coma for the past 38 years and haven’t seen it, it’s basically live Scrabble with a teapot as the grand prize. (And how coveted those Countdown teapots are! You can’t buy them at any price, you know.)
Lockdown, spent with my partner Catherine at our farmhouse in rural Northamptonshire, was a pleasure. I enjoyed the pottering, the leisurely breakfasts; the sense that there was nothing pressing in my diary to propel me out of bed before the civilised hour of 9 am. Pictured, Rachel Riley, Nick Hewer and Susie Dent
I suppose the clincher was Catherine’s suggestion that I get a dog. Now a labrador puppy is earmarked. She’ll be mine in February and daily tramps through the countryside in wintry sunshine await. I also intend to keep bees, for the simple reason that everyone says I should.
Much as I’ve had a wonderful time hosting a truly great show, lately I haven’t looked forward to the intensity of the filming. Countdown’s a tough gig for an old’ un: 250 shows a year with five shows recorded every day in three-day blocks and I’ve now been doing it for nearly a decade.
I’ve travelled up to the Granada studios in Manchester — and more recently to the glamorous Media City in Salford — so often that I know the route blindfold. And it feels like I haven’t spent more than a couple of nights a week sleeping in my own bed for the past ten years.
It looks likely that my 77th birthday in February will coincide with the final block of filming. Then I’ll say goodbye to Susie Dent in Dictionary Corner, Rachel Riley handling the letters and numbers board, to the vast production team and to Damian Eadie the producer.
I’d like to think by then we’ll all be able to have a valedictory drink, because I’ll miss them, professional and kindly as all of them are.
Damian is head boy (a one-time Countdown champion himself): he looks like a punk rocker and he’s brilliant, funny and menacing at the same time.
For each collection of contestants’ letters on the board, he can spew out at least ten words, many of them obscene (and all delivered through my earpiece).
He’s famous for his lewd jokes; so much so that we often joke that Ofcom (the broadcasting complaints body) is waiting for him at the stage door.
I’m not nearly so adept at thinking up words. In the early days, I was so excited to have worked out the word ‘conifers’ from the jumble of vowels and consonants on the board — a creditable score of eight — I shouted it out.
When the clock had finished its sweep, with the director’s rebuke ringing in my earpiece, I asked the competitors for their word and, unsurprisingly, each one had ‘conifers’. To my embarrassment, we had to film the whole thing all over again.
Susie, on the other hand, is a mistress of self-control and I never cease to be amazed by her professionalism and extraordinary ability as she delivers, over each three-day block of programmes, 15 perfectly crafted and executed little essays on her different chosen themes.
Her daily tweet giving the origin of another obscure word is eagerly awaited by her 630,000 followers. Susie is fast becoming a true national treasure, though her modesty will not thank me for saying so.
And Rachel, an Oxford maths graduate, blazes her way through the trickiest numerical challenges without a moment’s hesitation. And it’s not just maths with Rachel, either. She has become a fearless and effective activist on a number of important political issues.
For me, the success of a show depends on the chemistry I have with the Dictionary Corner guest. Over the years, I’ve very much enjoyed the company of Jo Brand and Gyles Brandreth, as well as Jon Culshaw, Richard Madeley, Rufus Hound and my chum Michael Whitehall, to name but a few.
Boxer Barry McGuigan proved an unexpected delight. It gave me great pleasure to tell him my mother, born in Northern Ireland, adored him and that when she watched him fight on television she would plead with his assailant, ‘Don’t you hurt my Barry!’ I was surprised, too, when my sister Annabelle told me Mum was a daily Countdown viewer, slipping away with a cigarette, a cup of tea, pad and pencil, to watch Richard Whiteley (who presented the show from 1982 until his death in 2005) every afternoon.
And she was good, too; good enough to finish off the Daily Telegraph crossword before breakfast every day.
Princess Margaret also revealed in an interview that her sister, the Queen, was a Countdown fan, but she failed to say whether Her Majesty played along.
I’m delighted that during my tenure I’ve had more bouquets than brickbats. I’ve never been trolled. In fact, I was touched by the kind messages on social media when I announced my retirement.
Occasionally, I’ve even found myself opening risque fan mail. Two such items made me gasp: the first a pair of red nylon knickers of the crotchless variety, from a woman in Swindon, my home town; the other an envelope full of confetti with a card, on which had been written (many times): ‘Marry me, marry me,’ along with a phone number.
Princess Margaret also revealed in an interview that her sister, the Queen, was a Countdown fan, but she failed to say whether Her Majesty played along. Pictured, Nick Hewer on The Apprentice with Karren Brady and Lord Sugar
I was quite unsettled. I gave away the knickers and feared a stalker might be behind the marriage proposal, but I didn’t hear from my amorous would-be fiancée again.
My late-blossoming TV career would never have happened if it hadn’t been for Alan Sugar, now Lord Sugar, and the BBC reality show The Apprentice.
My relationship with Alan began in 1983 when I ran my own public relations company and I took a call summoning me to the HQ of his electronics firm Amstrad. The company was moving into home computers: their bargain PC blew the opposition out of the market.
Later, they developed a word processor which killed the electric typewriter stone dead. Alan was a multimillionaire at the age of 33. And when I sold up my PR business in 1998, he asked me if I’d keep him on as a client, which I did.
Then when I got to 60 I planned to retire, and Alan organised an extravagant secret party for me at the Dorchester Hotel in London.
A month later, he was summoning me to a meeting. ‘There’s this TV programme called The Apprentice,’ he said, ‘and it’s an entertainment show about business … ‘
Alan — or ‘Suralan’ as we came to call him when was knighted in 2000 — got the gig as the central figure in the BBC show and I was persuaded to be his male adviser.
And what about my female counterpart? She was the highly unlikely figure of Margaret Mountford, a Graeco-Roman scholar with a first-class degree in law from Girton College, Cambridge.
‘She’s going to do a vulgar reality TV show?’ I asked, incredulous. Well, she did and there was something wonderful about her: generous, funny, obstinate and fiercely competitive, she also had an endearing capacity to laugh at herself.
Sitting in the boardroom during one day’s filming with her and Suralan, she barked out: ‘I will not carry on until that blinding light up there is extinguished!’
A hushed voice came back: ‘We’re sorry Margaret but, if we turn it off, we’ll be filming you in darkness.’ Back came the stentorian bellow: ‘Perfect! That’s absolutely fine by me.’
The three of us waited in silence until Margaret softened: ‘Perhaps you could turn it down a bit and it might make it tolerable.’
Without making any adjustment at all, the lighting supervisor said: ‘Right, is that better now Margaret?’
To which she replied crisply, ‘Yes, I think I can manage that now.’
Dear Margaret. Her temper was as fiery as her heart was huge. Once, asked to stand on a patch of damp grass for a photoshoot, she declared imperiously: ‘Grass? I never stand on grass. I have my feet to consider.’
‘Margaret,’ I murmured, ‘Calm down. You sounded like Mussolini just then.’
‘I did?’ She sounded hurt. And we both dutifully resumed our places.
Later, she’d often call me after a day’s filming and admit, ‘I had another little Mussolini moment today’. That’s what made her special. She was a veritable tornado of emotions, but she never took herself too seriously. We’re still in touch.
Aficionados of the show will remember the all-nighters: forms of torture designed to test the stamina of the twentysomething contestants, which, as a senior citizen, I felt most keenly, staggering around in the dark from one venue to another.
I vaguely remember one task involving making sausages at Smithfield Market in London into the small hours, then traipsing after the competitors as they set up stalls at dawn to sell their wares to City workers en route to the office.
I trailed round in the wake of half a dozen ego-crazed wannabes day after day, writing everything down until it became a bit nightmarish. At least for this old chap.
I remember going off into a reverie in the boardroom once and Suralan kicking me under the table: ‘What do you think about that Nick?’ he asked, and I had to confess I’d been daydreaming. It was the faltering stamina that did it for me. Which was why I packed it in, after ten years, because I’d had enough. And frankly so had Catherine, who’d started to fret about me never being home during the lengthy shoot.
But after 15 years, the show’s still running and I’m proud of it. So many of the winners turned out to be bright, astute, successful business people.
Suralan never gets it wrong. We’re still friends — of course we are — and I’m also in contact with some of the contestants.
Aficionados of the show will remember the all-nighters: forms of torture designed to test the stamina of the twentysomething contestants, which, as a senior citizen, I felt most keenly, staggering around in the dark from one venue to another
Saira Khan (a runner-up in 2005) and I travelled overland from Turkey to Kazakhstan for Children In Need together. Originally I’d asked Alan if he’d like to join me. ‘Are you mad? I’ve got a perfectly serviceable private aircraft. Why would I want to go with you across a desert?’ he asked testily.
Alan Sugar. Sharp as a scalpel, gloriously impatient, loyal to a fault. I’ll be forever grateful to him.
It’s been quite a ride, all told. Along the way I’ve met the great, the good, the bad and the ugly — including quite a few members of the Royal Family.
I found Prince Andrew, to whom I was introduced at a reception in St James’s Palace, booming, boorish and puffed up with his own self-importance. He was no more interested in me than I in him.
Princess Anne, on the other hand, was wonderful. Years ago, I went to Buckingham Palace to show her one of the new Amstrad laptops she was thinking of getting for her father. She strode into a room overlooking the Mall, exquisitely dressed in green with, much to my bafflement, a large piece of stone under her arm.
‘It’s to wedge against the plug sockets because they’re very old and the plugs keep falling out of them,’ she explained.
Every story I’ve heard about her confirms, similarly, she is no-nonsense and a thoroughly good sport.
So as I trundle off into a semi-retirement of dog walking, bee-keeping and (Covid permitting) gentle perambulations between my homes in Northamptonshire and southwest France, I’ll have much to reflect on.
I hope there will be more visits, when it’s safe, from my five grandchildren — from James and Katie, the children of my first marriage — while Catherine is now totally absorbed by her little granddaughter Sophia.
As a joke, some time ago, I bought Catherine a kimono, asking her to serve me tea in bed at 8am while wearing it. I’ll idle round until 9 am, when she staggers in with coffee, by which time I’ll be seething with guilt because she’s an early riser and slithers out of bed at 5.30 am to do who knows what on her iPad.
I do worry a bit that I’ll get under her feet. Better that, I suppose, than under her thumb. And hopefully I will have more time to help promote the charities I support as a patron and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, where I’m honoured to be president.
And if the right TV project comes up — perhaps a travel programme that might be amusing and won’t exhaust me — of course I’ll be first in the queue to accept.
- Nick is a long-term patron of Street Child, where every donation made now is doubled. street-child.co.uk