People of Yorkshire Volume 22 – Richard Whiteley

Bradfordian journalist and TV presenter John Richard Whitely was one of the most recognisable faces in Yorkshire. In a career stretching from 1965 until his untimely death in 2005 he presented local news programme, “Calendar,” and was the front man of Channel 4’s hit quiz show, “Countdown.” His appearance on both programmes, normally broadcast within hours of each other earned him the nickname, “Twice Nightly Whiteley.”

He was born on December 28th 1943 in wartime Baildon and is the son of a local mill owner. He was privately educated at Giggleswick School and excelled in his exams. This cleared a path to Cambridge University, where he achieved a third class degree, but had success in editing the college’s magazine, “Varsity.” This led him to gain work experience at the Yorkshire Evening Post on his return home during the holidays.

His first TV appearance came in the unlikely studios of Anglia TV, when he was asked to talk about an innovative colour front cover he was publishing for Varsity. While on set he talked to a producer who told him that ITN were taking on trainees. He applied and joined them in 1965, dealing primarily with football results and traffic news.

However, Whiteley never forgot his roots and when a new channel known as Yorkshire TV was being launched in Leeds, Whiteley jumped at the chance to return home. He was 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 controversial politician to be, Jonathan Aitken, who was the first front man of Calendar from 1968-70 – now there’s a pointless answer!

Eventually Richard Whiteley worked his way up to be put in front of camera on the show in the mid-1970s. He was at the centre of one of the most famous TV bloopers in 1977 during an interview with a ferret owner on Calendar. During the transmission he held the creature, which took rather a dislike to him and bit his finger for one and a half minutes. Cut! A nurse rushed on and asked Whiteley to drop his trousers so she could give him a tetanus injection, off camera of course!

Arguably that was not Whiteley’s most famous moment, although it runs pretty close. In 1982 a fourth terrestrial channel was born, otherwise known as “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,” (numbers and letters). The show had run since 1965 and was a popular daytime staple across the English Channel. The producers decided that a UK version of this show would make a nice gentle opener to their schedules on launch day.

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

Countdown (as if I need to spell it out) is a words and numbers game where contestants have to choose nine letters made up of vowels and consonants. They then have thirty seconds to make the longest word possible, which is verified by a resident lexicographer with a dictionary.

Whiteley also introduced us to C.E.C.I.L, which stood 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 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, something she did until 1987.

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

Coupled with his natural intelligence Richard Whiteley was known for his eccentricities, loud dress sense and excruciating puns. His wardrobe 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 is claimed that he had a total of 528 ties and 186 jackets, some of which were made for him by viewers.

Along with recording Countdown at the Yorkshire TV studios on Kirkstall Road in Leeds he would also front the early evening “Calendar” show up until 1995. During his career Whiteley proved he could also do serious journalism too. Back in 1984 as a working reporter he was covering the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton when an IRA bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel, where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was staying. Whiteley, who was unhurt and in the hotel bar at the time, was the first person to interview her after the incident.

Apart from Countdown and Calendar, Richard Whiteley made other TV appearances. In 1996, 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 respectable ratings this 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.

In 1998 he became the Mayor of Wetwang after numerous jokes from him about the East Yorkshire village.

Five years later he appeared on the “Star in the Reasonably Priced Car,” feature during an episode of Top Gear entertaining both viewers and a slightly bemused Jeremy Clarkson by doing the slowest ever lap time of 2 minutes 6 seconds. The following year he was given an OBE in the Queen’s honours list.

Sadly another year later, Richard Whiteley was in hospital battling pneumonia, an infection he would never recover from. He died on 26th June 2005 and for many marked the end of a TV era.

Posthumously Whiteley has left an indelible mark on local journalism and TV presenting. A tearful Carol Vorderman, someone who he worked with for twenty-five years, led the tributes and Countdown even ceased broadcasting for four months, both in honour of him and while another presenter was found. Contestants on the show now compete for the Richard Whiteley Memorial Trophy, while at Giggleswick School a theatre was built and named in his honour.

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