Richard Whiteley: I'll bet they'll report 'ferret man dies'

TV has lost one of its much-loved faces. James Reed and Lizzie Murphy look back on Richard Whiteley's career

A SIMPLE quiz show based on nine letters and six numbers turned a face familiar to thousands in Yorkshire into a national favourite watched daily by millions.

Richard Whiteley, who died yesterday aged 61, was an accomplished newscaster and television presenter long before the new Channel 4 came knocking but it will be as the presenter of Countdown for which he will be remembered the most.

Countdown was the first programme to be aired on the fledgling channel on November 2, 1982, and continued with Mr Whiteley at the helm until his death.

He had originally told producers he was going on holiday to Portugal but had a change of heart, a decision, he said, which changed his life.

His genial style, awful puns, often garish attire and formidable on-screen partnership with Carol Vorderman proved an irresistible formula. Its 21st anniversary was marked with a House of Commons reception.

Speaking before his retirement from YTV, in 2003, he said: "I'm not a natural quiz show host. If I had to apply for my own job today, I wouldn't get it."

That was a reflection of Richard Whiteley's self-deprecating humour. Of his own death, he once joked that the headline on his obituary would be "Ferret Man Dies"- a reference to the unforgettable and much-repeated clip of a ferret clamping its jaws around his finger and refusing to let go.

The humour was not artificial. Richard Whiteley was a genial and kindly man, beloved of colleagues as well as the viewing public, and underpinning his character was a fierce pride in being a Yorkshireman.

He was born in Bradford and spent his childhood in Baildon. His family owned a long-established textile mill, Thomas Whiteley and Co of Eccleshill, which went out of business in the 1960s.

He claimed to have known what his career would be from the moment he saw an outside broadcast van on Baildon Moor when aged nine.

At 13, he won a scholarship to Giggleswick School, an ancient, fee-paying establishment on the edge of the Dales, where his English teacher was Russell Harty, the late chat-show host.

He later became a governor of the school.

Mr Whiteley went on to study English at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he came out with a third class degree.

"I regard it as a badge of honour," said Whiteley in a past interview. "I was lucky to get it. I was editor of the magazine Varsity and that was like a full-time job. But even though it got me into ITN as a trainee, no one has ever asked me about it since."

Mr Whiteley left Cambridge in 1968 and joined Yorkshire Television at the age of 23.

He was married, briefly, in his 20s, to Candy Watson, and later had a relationship with a journalist which produced a son, James, 17, who lives in London with his mother. For the past 10 years he has shared his life with actress Kathryn Apanowicz.

He kept two Yorkshire homes – one in Wensleydale, the other on Ilkley Moor.

He was the first face on YTV although a technical fault transformed his face into the image of a ghostly figure.

As the anchorman of the nightly news programme Calendar he worked alongside the likes of Austin Mitchell, who would later become an MP.

Mr Whiteley was said to have harboured political ambitions of his own having once been interviewed by William Whitelaw for a post with the Conservative Party and was rumoured to have his eye on contesting the Shipley seat – something the man himself always played down insisting he had voted for all the major parties.

Despite his countless appearances and journalistic achievements on Calendar, the oft-shown clip of him being bitten by a ferret stuck with him for the rest of his career.

In an interview earlier this month, he said: "When I die I know that the Yorkshire Post will report 'Ferret Man Dies'."

"It's made a lot of people laugh and it's been shown all over the world. It's 30-odd years since it happened and I think I've been a great PR man for the ferret industry. Ferrets have a lot to be grateful for, to me, you see they've become acceptable because one of them bit me."

His success at the helm of Calendar always raised questions about why he never made the transition to national television news but he always insisted the call to London never came.

But despite this he was said to be the all-time most-seen face on British television, after Carole Hersee, the testcard girl.

At the last count he was reported to own 528 ties and 186 jackets, but while many ties were sent to him from viewers, he only wore silk ones.

A proud Yorkshireman he lived in the county all his life and devoted himself to countless local causes, a contribution recognised when he was awarded the title Yorkshire Man of the Year in 2003.

He worked hard to maintain his personal life as just that. His book Himoff barely mentioned his long-standing girlfriend, Kathryn Apanowicz and his failed marriage.

His mother died in November 2001.

During his long career he received countless plaudits and awards including an OBE last year which he described as the most exciting two vowels and a consonant of his career.

Among his more unusual honours was being made the honourary mayor of Wetwang.

Mr Whiteley described his own career high point as the YTV's charity telethon in 1988 when he worked for 27 hours straight before being carried out of the studio shoulder high.

But it will be as the much-loved presenter of a simple but addictive quiz show that millions will fondly remember him.