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'Lockdown was a reminder of the pleasure of just staying at home'

Nick Hewer is returning to Countdown on Channel 4 after a long break due to Covid. Kerri-Ann Roper and Laura Harding report


Nick Hewer with Rachel Riley and Susie Dent

Nick Hewer with Rachel Riley and Susie Dent

Press Association Images

Nick Hewer

Nick Hewer

Nick Hewer with Rachel Riley and Susie Dent

Nick Hewer has been whipping up eggs and bacon for breakfast while away from home, filming the latest series of Countdown. But, the 76-year-old jokes, it's not something he's voiced too loudly, because: "I don't want to tell anybody at home, lest I'm called upon to do it here!"

The Channel 4 programme resumed filming recently after production was paused because of the coronavirus pandemic. As with every production, though, there are new measures in place on set for everyone to adhere to in order to keep in line with Government guidelines for returning to work.

"We do about 245 shows a year and we were steaming away, then coronavirus came sweeping in like a great dark cloud," explains Hewer (76), who has been presenting the popular game show programme since 2012, taking over the vocabulary reins from Jeff Stelling.

Now after months of lockdown, the team - including Rachel Riley and Susie Dent - are back at work to film new episodes.

"Obviously, one is slightly apprehensive, but when we got back the precautions that had been put in really alleviated any anxieties I'd had," says Hewer, whose previous TV roles have included being one of Sir Alan Sugar's advisers on The Apprentice for several years.

"They really put in some extraordinary protocols and, because I'm an old bloke, they wrote me telling me all they were doing and asked me to go and see my doctor to agree essentially that was enough to protect me, which I thought was all pretty thorough stuff actually.

"So, we went back and, true enough, I mean it was all a bit odd: no audience, everyone is sitting very far apart, there's a route through the studio, a one-way system, and I do my own make-up and my own sound stuff."

Hewer is full of praise for the Channel 4 team behind the scenes, although he's light-hearted about the "at a distance" make-up lessons he's receiving.

"There's a make-up artist with a screen like somebody attending a nuclear explosion and they stand two metres away and say, 'A little bit more foundation please on the nose' - it's very big and very shiny. Everything comes in a sealed container and they give me a brush to do my eyebrows with."

The atmosphere at work is "cordial and friendly" and there is a real family element to it all, he explains.

"Rachel brings her baby up, so we all coo over the baby. There's quite a family feeling, actually. It is lovely, it normalises it somehow," the TV star says.

"But we all eat in our dressing rooms as normal and we all stay in. Because the hotels are not open, they've rented me an apartment, which is fine, so I'm cooking fish pie for myself. Well, I'm not, I'm heating it up, actually.

"I am cooking it in the oven, but it's all prepared. I had to ring home to find out why the oven wouldn't heat and Catherine (his partner) said, 'Have you put it on the fan?' and I said, 'Fan, what's a fan?' Apparently I've got a fan oven."

You can almost detect a cheeky smile over the phone line as he adds: "But I know how to open a bottle of wine."

Asked about Countdown and the impact it's had on his life, the bespectacled star says: "It is tiring (they film up to five shows a day), but it's wonderful really, because what else would I be doing?

"I've recently rediscovered during lockdown the pleasure of just staying at home, something that has escaped me for however long it is I've been an adult.

"I was always rushing off, working or whatever, but there I was, forced to stay at home. I thought, 'This is going to be tricky', but actually it was lovely, very pleasant."

He reflects on what has been keeping him busy during his at-home sojourn and it's a far cry from consonants and conundrums - instead, think chickens, lawn-mowers and workshops.

"We are spoilt and blessed, because we have lots of room, so I was fiddling around; we've got chickens here so I can feed the chickens and slide my hand under a broody hen to see how many eggs she's covering up without getting pecked - that's quite a challenge," he says.

"And then I've got a tractor, so I go off into the wood and mow all the stinging nettles, so I've had lots to do. I've built a workshop. I'm not good at making or mending anything, it's all very haphazard, but it's very much a bloke thing to open the door, go in, close it, turn the lights on and there are workbenches, power tools, and mowers and old cars and stuff and it's great, I love it.

"So, to go back and leave this idyll was slightly difficult, but to go back and be doing something I've been doing for about nine years, was great."

Having first been broadcast in 1982, Countdown is an afternoon staple and, with more than 80 series filmed in its lifespan, it's a firm favourite with Channel 4 audiences.

"What's so good about it, it's not silly, there are no flashy prizes. So much TV these days, everybody is shouting and having extravagant characters, which is so boring and so unnatural.

"Things like Love Island and all of these things, everybody is shouting at everybody else and showing off and being greedy with camera time. God bless, on Countdown, in series 82, everybody is normal. I'm not laughing hysterically at bad jokes somebody else is telling extravagantly; it's very English and I like it."

There's an eight-letter word that sums up Hewer and Countdown perfectly: f-a-b-u-l-o-u-s.

Countdown, Channel 4, 2.10pm daily

Belfast Telegraph