"I BET THEY SAY 'FERRET MAN DIES'" was the title of the Yorkshire Post's obituary column - a waspish reference to the one incident Richard Whiteley, premier quizmaster, sublime conversationalist, confidante to eight Prime Ministers and honorary Lord Mayor of Wetwang, feared would be his sole legacy to the nation. Fittingly, he couldn't have been more wrong. Right from the Post's effusive tribute and Yorkshire TV's readiness to devote an entire edition of Calendar to commemorating the man, to the testimony from a remarkable pot pourri of the great and the good (Jeremy Isaacs and Gyles Brandreth trading anecdotes on the Today programme), the supposedly ubiquitous gangly polecat barely received a look in. By way of an appropriately sanguine and sartorial salute to the only man deserving of having the flag atop Yorkshire TV's HQ fly at half mast, here's a nonet of some of the Giggleswick graduate's greatest moments, inevitably titled:
1) It could all have been so different. Forget the Spice Girls in a customised taxi cab handing over to Julia Bradbury and Tim Vine in an airing cupboard. The grand opening of Channel Five on Sunday 30 March 1997 might, were it not for the crotchetiness of its Director of Programmes, have been blessed with the felicitous features of Richard Whiteley instead. Keen to repeat the trick of being the first face on the country's newest network television service, the man decided to graciously offer his services to Dawn Airey. After all, holding the honour of launching both Channels 4 and 5 would not only garner reams of publicity for the fledgling station but be "a unique double for me," he beamed. "Tell him," the future scheduler of European Blue Review and Sex And Shopping petulantly replied, "that not only is he not opening it, but he will never, ever even appear on it."
2) In 2004 Richard ostensibly came close to staking a place in the Guinness Book of Records alongside that person who can sing the highest note you've ever heard and that person who can score 99,000 runs, thanks to saying the word "OK" 51 times in a single 45-minute programme.
3) Be it controversies of vegetable, animal or mineral, Richard was never very far from being able to rustle up the most underwhelming of understatements to cap the most contentious of calamities. In 1996 the winner of Countdown's grand final, one David Acton, caught everyone in the studio off guard by refusing to accept his prize of the traditionally leather-bound and highly expensive 20-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary. Mr Acton, a vegan, instead declared his wish to take home a more ethically correct version of the titular lexicon. While scarlet-faced staff had to rummage around for that complimentary CD-ROM version they'd got through the post the other week, Richard caught the mood of heightened chaos expertly by noting how the victor had "looked a little uncomfortable even standing behind the leather dictionaries."
4) Most of us knew little of Richard's activities as commanding helmsman of Yorkshire TV's Calendar until the 1995 Channel 4 series Deadline, a fly-on-the-wall six-part account of the making of the enduring nightly news programme. The series depicted a somewhat compulsive environment that was half 1950s public school half bawdy bacchanalia where everyone seemed to be on strike all the time. Nonetheless it gave us a glimpse of Richard sporting the unfamiliar mantle of troubleshooting newscaster striding selflessly through the ego-saturated hospitality suites of Yorkshire Television studios, referring to co-presenter Charlotte Milligan as "Miss Whiplash" and - most memorably - encountering a pissed Lynne Perrie lolling on a chair in her dressing room and concluding she might be a "little worse for the drink."
5) Countdown, of course, had Gallic origins, so it was fitting that eighteen months into the show's life on C4 its French forefathers issued an invitation to their British cousins to pop over to Monte Carlo to watch how to really do a grand final. Richard was dead excited, so much so that on paying a visit to his superior's office to collect some travelling expenses, he spied a tersely written analysis of Countdown's poor ratings on the man's desk which ended with the question 'New Presenter??' and naturally concluded it was referring to Carol. Rich then jetted over to the French Riviera to be greeted at the airport by a chauffeur bearing a card marked MONSIEUR TWATLY. Obviously he felt no compunction about going over and introducing himself. "Etes vous Monsieur Twatly?" the driver asked, nonplussed. An equally stoic Richard replied, casually, "Oui. Je suis Monsieur Twatly." So the cavalcade of misunderstanding and mirth continued unabated, with Rich's producer John Meade forever wondering when to break the news that his colleague was about to be dumped, until a fax arrived from Paul Fox - titled, inevitably, 'Massage for Monsieur Mid' - calling a halt to the prospective sacking with word that Countdown had just made the C4 top ten. "Poor Carol," Richard sighed, having her job put on the line like that...
6) Another insight into Richard and Carol's unique relationship was garnered by the recent revelation that the wall separating the two presenters' adjoining dressing rooms once sported a hole that was big enough to look right through. "I was going to have it blocked up," Richard reflected sagely. "And then I thought, 'Hell, no. Let her look!'"
7) Away from the Countdown studio, Richard was always one who knew his place. In fact, he couldn't help be constantly reminded of it courtesy of the pecking order that runs rampant on the after-dinner circuit. As one particular engagement for a charity-based club was drawing to a close, Richard was so moved by the tales of humanity he'd heard all through the meal he decided to decline his usual salary. When word of this reached the club secretary, she immediately called the diners to attention to pass on the exciting news. "Mr Whiteley has generously waived his fee," she declared eagerly, "so you know what that means Madam Treasurer. Next year we will be able to afford David Jacobs."
8) Like all the best, and most natural, TV faces, Richard was obsessed with anything to do with the small screen from a ridiculously early age. Even the mere sight of a BBC Outside Broadcast van in the street sent the short-trousered putative newscaster into seventh heaven ("My son's very keen on television and anything to do with the BBC," Old Man Whiteley patiently explained to the van driver. "It gets him very excited. Can he have look?") Best of all, this obsession continued into adulthood, to the extent that when Richard started at ITN he was so irked by the fact the organisation didn't have stickers you could put inside your car windscreen ("to identify me to all concerned as a pretty sharp guy working for a pretty trendy outfit") he made his own by cutting up a bit of stationery and fastening it to the window with Sellotape.
9) Andrew Collins writes: "In 1993, myself and Stuart Maconie managed to convince the fledgling Radio Five (long before it went Live) to commission a six-part comedy drama series called Fantastic Voyage. You may remember it. The thrust was: a parody of yoof TV and Saturday Morning Kids TV combined, presented by two ex-hospital radio DJs called, hey, Andrew and Stuart and with rock star guests of the calibre of Suede, Blur and Billy Bragg. Each week - and here's the surreal bit the contents of the show would be microscopically reduced and injected into the bloodstream of a celebrity and broadcast from there, whizzing past their pancreas, going in and out of aortas etc. At the end of the show, we would be flushed out of their body and restored to normal size. The idea being: nobody had done that before on yoof TV, had they? For episode one, we would be injected into the bloodstream of Richard Whiteley. He didn't appear in the show, but the show appeared in him, if you see what I mean. However, our producer, a young Turk called John Yorke (now Head of Drama at the BBC), suggested we contact Mr Whiteley to get his blessing for the use of his name and bloodstream. Because Stuart and I were journalists at the time, John left this piece of diplomacy to us. So, one day, I plucked up the courage and phoned Yorkshire TV.
"Can you put me through to Countdown?" I asked, hopefully.
"One moment," replied the receptionist.
"Hello, Countdown?" said a new voice.
"Hi, I wonder if you can help me. I'm from the BBC," I said, aiming for some authority. "I'd like to speak to Richard Whiteley."
"Hang on," said the voice. So I did. This was becoming surreal.
"Hello, Richard Whiteley here," said Richard Whiteley.
Shocked to be in the presence of the great man with so little red tape or ceremony I stuttered a bit as I carefully explained what we wanted to do with his body. He listened patiently, chuckled and gave me his blessing, saying it sounded very funny. There was no demand to see a script or for my people to talk to his people. I thanked him kindly and he wished us both good luck with the programme. And then off he went to prepare for that day's Countdown. That is the full extent of my dealing with Richard Whiteley, but I think it shows not just what a good sport he was, but also, how bloody accessible!"