Richard Whiteley – Life, Career & Death

Richard Whiteley was a journalist and TV Presenter who was one of the most recognisable faces in Yorkshire. His career stretched from 1965 until his untimely death in 2005.

This Yorkshire lad presented local news programme “Calendar” and was the frontman of Channel 4’s hit quiz show “Countdown”. Richard’s appearances on both programmes were usually broadcast within hours of each other earning him the nickname “Twice Nightly Whiteley”.

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Growing Up

On the 28th of December 1943, John Richard Whiteley was born in wartime Baildon, Bradford to the son of a local mill owner. Richard was privately educated at Giggleswick School and excelled in all of his exams.

As he did so well at school, this cleared a path to Cambridge University where he achieved a third class degree. During his time there he had success in editing the college’s magazine “Varsity” which led him to gain work experience at the Yorkshire Evening Post on his return home during the holidays.


First TV Appearance

Richard’s first TV appearance came in the unlikely studios of Anglia TV. He was asked to talk about an innovative colour front cover that he was publishing for “Varsity” magazine.

While Richard was on set, he talked to a producer who then told him that ITN were taking on trainees. Richard applied and officially joined them in 1965 where he dealt primarily with football results and traffic news.


Richard Whiteley never forgot his roots so when a new channel known as Yorkshire TV was being launched in Leeds, Richard jumped at the chance to return home. He was then taken on as part of the Calendar Team by Donald Baverstock and has never looked back since.

Blocking his way to the presenter’s chair was the unlikely figure of the controversial politician to be Jonathan Aitken. Jonathan was the first front man of Calendar from 1968 to 1970.

Famous TV Blooper

Eventually Richard Whiteley worked his way up to be in front of the camera on the show Calendar in the mid 1970’s. He was at the centre of one of the most famous TV bloopers in 1997 during an interview with a ferret owner on Calendar.

During the transmission, Richard held the creature which took a dislike to him and bit his finger for one and a half minutes. Off camera, a nurse rushed on and asked Whiteley to drop his trousers so she could give him a tetanus injection. 


In 1982 a fourth terrestrial channel was born called Channel 4. The new producers of this alternative, more niche-based channel had bought the rights to a little known French TV show called “les chiffres et de lettres” meaning “numbers and letters”.

The show had a run since 1965 and was a popular daytime staple across the English Channel. As a result of its popularity, the producers decided that a UK version of this show would make a nice gentle opener to their schedules on launch day.

Richard Whiteley was the first face to appear on the new channel. During his opening speech, he famously quipped, “As a countdown to a brand new channel ends, a brand new Countdown begins.”

The TV show “Countdown” is a words and numbers game where contestants have to choose nine letters made up of vowels and consonants. The contestants then have thirty seconds to make the longest word possible which is then verified by a resident lexicographer with a dictionary.

Richard also introduced us to C.E.C.I.L which stands for “Countdown’s Electronic Calculator In Leeds”. This was the random number generator that picked a number between 100 and 999.

Contestants had to make this total using six chosen digits that were revealed on cards. In the first episode this round was done by mathematician Carol Vorderman while another presenter, Cathy Hynter, took charge of the letters round which was something she did until 1987.

Together Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman, who took on both roles in 1989, co-presented the show right up until the host’s death in 2005.

Richard Whiteley’s Character

Coupled with his natural intelligence, Richard Whiteley was known for his eccentricities, loud dress sense and excruciating puns. Richard’s wardrobe was starting to become noticed.

Richard’s clothing was full of loud ties, jackets and suits which dazzled the millions of afternoon viewers he pulled in during Countdown’s heyday. At the last count, it’s claimed that he had a total of 528 ties and 186 jackets, some of which were made for him by viewers.

Serious Journalism

Along with recording Countdown at the Yorkshire TV studios on Kirkstall Road in Leeds, Richard would also front the early evening “Calendar” show up until 1995. During his career, Whiteley proved that he could do serious journalism too.

Back in 1984 as a working reporter, Richard was covering the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton when an IRA bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was staying. Richard, who was unhurt and in the hotel bar at the time, was the first person to interview her after the incident.

Other TV Appearances

Apart from Countdown and Calendar, Richard Whiteley also made other TV appearances. In 1966, after his departure from local news, a new chat show was planned called “The Richard Whiteley Show”.

This was followed by another in 1999 called “Richard Whiteley Unbriefed” where the host had to guess the person he was interviewing. Despite the respectable ratings of the show, it was pulled after only one series.

Yorkshire TV studios on Kirkstall Road in Leeds which became Richard Whiteley’s second home through his broadcasting career. Picture credit: Rich tea geograph creative commons.

A year before in 1998, Richard became the Mayor of Wetwang. He’d made numerous jokes about the East Yorkshire village which resulted in him becoming mayor.

Five years later, Richard Whiteley appeared on the “Star in the Reasonably Priced Car” feature during an episode of Top Gear. He entertained both viewers and Jeremy Clarkson by doing the slowest ever lap time of 2 minutes and 6 seconds.

Despite becoming Mayor, Richard also received recognition. The year after his appearance on Top Gear, the Yorkshire lad was given an OBE in the Queen’s honours list.

The Death of Richard Whiteley

Sadly, a year later Richard Whiteley was in hospital battling pneumonia which proved to be an infection he would never recover from. On the 26th of June in 2005, John Richard Whiteley died marking the end of a TV era for many.

Richard Whiteley’s Legacy

Richard has left an indelible mark on local journalism and TV presenting. A tearful Carol Voderman, who he had worked with for 25 years, led the tributes and Countdown ceased broadcasting for four months.

Now, contestants on the show compete for the Richard Whiteley Memorial Trophy. Giggleswick School built a theatre and named it in his honour.

The unmistakable face and character of Richard “Twice Nightly” Whiteley was a feature of afternoon and early evening television for many Yorkshire folk and people nationwide. Apart from telly testcard Carole Hersee, Richard holds the record for the most broadcasted face in British Television history and is a truly unmistakable Yorkshire figure.