Carol Vorderman announced last night she is to step down from Countdown, after 26 years as a presenter on the Channel 4 programme.
The maths expert, who has appeared on almost 5,000 episodes of the show since it first aired in 1982, was said to be "extremely sad" about her departure, which is scheduled to take place at the end of the year. Her decision came two days after the programme's current host, Des O'Connor, also announced he was quitting.
Vorderman, 47, became the first woman ever to appear on Channel 4 when the programme, which challenges contestants to solve word puzzles and maths problems, first aired a quarter of a century ago. She soon gained a reputation as a brainy yet charming mathematician, thanks to her unerring ability to solve number problems in a matter of seconds, coupled with an unflappable presenting style.
Her co-presenter for 23 years was Richard Whiteley, who died of septicaemia in 2005. The pair had become close friends during their time on the show, delighting millions of viewers with their witty – and sometimes rather cheeky – verbal jousting. Whiteley was eventually replaced by Des Lynam, who was then succeeded by Des O'Connor at the beginning of last year.
The presenter's manager, John Miles, revealed that his client had considered leaving the programme after Whiteley's death, before deciding to continue alongside Lynam. Although some commentators suggested last night that a pay dispute between Vorderman and the programme's producers, Granada, was the main cause of her sudden departure, the difficult challenge of bonding with yet another presenter influenced her decision.
"She didn't think she could go through that process again. She just feels that it is time to leave," Mr Miles said. "It was a difficult decision because she loves Countdown dearly and always has. The contestants, viewers and crew are like family to her. They have, with Carol, been through decades of joy and also tremendous pain when Richard [Whiteley] died.
"She wants to thank all of the crew, the thousands of contestants who have played the game and the millions of Countdown viewers, for whom she has the greatest respect. She is extremely sad."
One of Vorderman's colleagues on the programme, lexicographer Susie Dent, said the news was "devastating" for the show.
"It's the end of an era for Countdown, and it's the end of an era for me – Carol has been my colleague, my mentor, and my friend for more than 15 years. She and Richard together made one of the strongest and enduring shows television has ever seen, and also built one of the closest teams," she said.
After studying engineering at Cambridge, Vorderman was recruited by the show aged just 21 after her mother persuaded her to respond to a newspaper advert asking for a woman who was good at maths to appear on a television quiz. She was soon regarded as the antithesis of the traditional "glamorous female assistant" role favoured by most game shows of the time – although that didn't prevent her from becoming a sex symbol among Countdown's male fans.
As well as being one of the highest-paid British women on television, Vorderman has also carved out a career as a newspaper columnist and has written several books on detox dieting, one of which has sold more than a million copies.
Kevin Lygo, Channel 4's director of television and content, said: "We are extremely sorry to see Carol leave. She was the first woman on Channel 4 and has made an enormous contribution to the success of Countdown over the past 25 years. We hope to work with her again on other projects."