Carol Vorderman: Love, loss and missing Richard Whiteley

Being dumped by her father at only three weeks old played a crucial part in Carol Vorderman's success. She opens up to Sheena Hastings.

AT around seven years old, little Carol Vorderman was sent to the local shops in Prestatyn with a 10 bob note (around 50 pence today) to buy a few items of tinned food for the family's tea. When she fished around in her pocket for the crumpled brown note, it wasn't there.

Retracing her steps, examining every inch of pavement and roadway between the shops and her home, there was no sign of the money. Her mum Jean went back with Carol and searched everywhere. Only after they got home with no cash and no food did Jean break down.

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It was a bitter lesson in how big a deal 10 shillings was to a single mother with three children and nothing more coming in until the end of the week. A neighbour later knocked at the door and said he'd found the money, but the children were convinced he'd simply heard the story and taken pity on them.

Jean Vorderman, a North Wales farmer's daughter who had fallen for and married a handsome Dutchman, a soldier posted to Wales after the liberation of Holland, found herself back in Prestatyn, looking after her three children (Carol, her brother Anton, who was seven years older, and sister Trixie, who was nine when her little sister was born) and a young niece, crammed into a tiny flat after her husband had delivered the blow that ended their marriage when his youngest child was only three weeks old.

"Mum was in bed next to my dad, Tony, when he said he had some news. And then, in three short phrases, he tore her life, and our lives, apart. 'I've met someone. I love her and want to be with her'." The affair had begun when Jean was pregnant with Carol, and his lover was 16 to his 40.

Jean rang her parents in Wales and asked if she could go back. Two days later, mother and children left their home in Bedford, and were dumped at the train station. In subsequent years, Tony turned up occasionally to see Trixie and Anton, but never took little Carol out for the day. Carol was reconciled with Tony only in her early 40s, a few years before his death.

Carol Vorderman, best known for her 23 years' service as Richard Whiteley's on-screen "wife" on Channel 4's Countdown but also a columnist, maths guru, businesswoman and lately an adviser to the Conservative Party on maths education, puts her own drive down to this early abandonment. At one point, she says, she drove herself so hard that she had only 12 days off in a year.

In her autobiography, published tomorrow, she makes no bones about the force that drove her on. While Jean was so distressed that she could not bring herself to mention the break-up for 15 years, Carol realised as early as five years old the pain of rejection, particularly when she saw her friends with their dads.

"My father's total rejection of me, which continued for decades, has had an impact throughout my life... it has driven me to try to prove myself time after time, to be better, to do more, to work harder, to give my mum back the self-respect she felt she had lost. Mum and I have lived together all my life; she is a huge part of my everyday, and I would do anything for her."

Since that day terrible day in 1961, Carol and Jean have indeed lived together more or less constantly – give or take the three years when the maths-obsessed 17-year-old comprehensive girl went off to study engineering at Cambridge.

Carol, twice divorced, with an 18-year-old daughter, Katie, and 13-year-old son Cameron by second husband Paddy King, has been able to rely on her mum through thick and thin.

Jean has been hugely instrumental in bringing up her grandchildren, especially in the early years when Carol was the Queen of Countdown and seemed to be forever smiling from the screen in various other guises, too – decorating viewers' homes, advertising a financial product, presenting programmes about gadgets or spooky goings on, and even fronting Tomorrow's World. TV execs had to have the Vorderman factor and Carol made hay.

"Yes, those were fruitful years..." she says. "I knew I I had to create my own security, both financial and in creating a home. I like change and have moved around a lot, but I have to make a solid home and be in control."

After Cambridge, Carol was a management trainee and moved into the computer business. This brought her to live in Leeds, with Jean, who had married a second time to a warm, fun-loving but glad-eyed Italian builder named Gabriel. After a dozen years together and several previous break-ups, his wife left for good. Carol scraped together a deposit on a house and their joint earnings just about covered the mortgage.

It was at this point that Jean Vorderman, fiercely proud of her clever daughter, forged Carol's signature on a job application to Yorkshire Television, after seeing an ad in the Yorkshire Evening Post which said producers were seeking someone who was very sharp with numbers to co-present a quiz show.

Carol landed the job doing quickfire maths calculations on Countdown, the first programme shown on Channel 4. 'Vorders' and 'Whiters' (the late Richard Whiteley) became one of telly's legendary couples: the affable, light-hearted and somewhat bumptious Whiteley, with dress sense bordering on the ludicrous, and the brainy, bubbly Vorderman, who quickly got the knack of pricking her co-presenter's occasional bouts of pompousness. Their genuinely loving friendship showed and the show became a huge hit.

They, their 30-second clock and countless 'Countdowners' worked together for 23 years, despite Richard's early predictions that "it'll never last". The news of Whiteley's death in 2005 left her numb for months.

"...I didn't quite realise how bad I still felt until I came to writing the parts of the book about Richard. He had a great capacity to love people. He knew he was loved but didn't realise quite how much... I

would tell him every day, especially when he was being pompous." Carol is still a close friend of Whiteley's partner Kathryn Apanowicz.

When Carol Vorderman left Countdown two years ago, the story made front page headlines for a week. She and the team had begun recording a block of programmes when her agent rang to report on contract renewal negotiations. He said that while ITV productions wanted her to stay for two more years, they also wanted her to take a 90 per cent pay cut. She

had two days to agree. Carol was told by a Channel 4 executive it was felt that the programme could survive without her as it had without Richard.

Carol knew it was the end for her. "I was saying goodbye to Richard all over again, saying goodbye to something I loved, and I was broken." She never watches Countdown.

In the last couple of years, Carol, 49, has cut back on TV commitments, enjoying more time with her children and the slower pace of life in Bristol. She moved from London a few years ago for her children's sake. Two new presenting roles are in the pipeline, though, and this weekend she will co-present the Vigil for the Pope at Hyde Park for Sky TV. Her online MathsFactor educational website has been launched, and she is still part of panel looking into problems with maths teaching.

Always busy, but trying to be more relaxed, Carol Vorderman still

counts on her 82-year-old mum, who lives in a flat down the road. "She's a very special person, the best. We've had a blast together, loads of laughs. I've had a happy and funny life, and would never want to sound like a moaner. Mum has never moaned."

It All Counts by Carol Vorderman is published by Headline, 20. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk. Postage costs 2.75.