Countdown’s iconic presenter Richard Whiteley has died just days after undergoing heart surgery.
The 61-year-old was thought to be on the road to recovery after suffering for some time with pneumonia.
He had undergone a heart operation two days ago at Leeds General Infirmary and was said to be doing well. Friends and loved ones received the shocking news last night that he had died.
His Channel 4 Countdown co-presenter Carol Vorderman, who presented the hit quiz with him for 23 years, was “absolutely devastated” by his death.
Her agent, John Miles, said he had spoken to her yesterday morning and Whiteley was fine. He then received a second call from her in the evening bearing the bad news.
“Carol is absolutely devastated, she is so devastated,” he said. “He was such a good friend whom she loved dearly – they had 23 years of making programmes together, that’s about 4,000 programmes. He was very special to Carol.”
Whiteley, known for his loud ties and stripy jackets, became an afternoon television icon, while maths boffin Vorderman groaned on cue to his dreadful jokes.
Mr Miles said Vorderman was so upset because of the suddenness of his death. “We never, ever expected it to happen,” he said.
“As far as we knew he had had a heart operation a couple of days ago and was making good progress.
“It was hoped that at the end of the summer he would be back making Countdown programmes again. Carol is having great difficulty in coming to terms with what has happened.”
Whiteley had presented Countdown since the quiz was the first aired on Channel 4 when the station was launched in 1982.
The show was originally supposed to run for five weeks but now has regular viewing figures of four million and enjoys cult status.
Whiteley never missed an episode in 23 years until he fell ill from pneumonia in May this year.
He was rushed to intensive care in Bradford before being transferred to Leeds a few days ago.
Whiteley leaves behind his partner of 11 years, Kathryn Apanowicz.
His bosses at Channel 4 immediately expressed their sympathy: “We are shocked and stunned to hear of Richard’s death. Our thoughts are with Kathryn and Richard’s family and friends.”
A decision was due to be taken overnight on whether or not to broadcast today’s edition of Countdown, which would have featured Whiteley.
He has appeared on screen for the past few weeks as the shows were pre-recorded and this coming week was to have been the last to feature the presenter.
From next Monday, the programme was to have been hosted by a number of celebrity guest presenters – all of whom have already appeared on the show.
Gyles Brandreth, Esther Rantzen, Jennie Bond, Emma Forbes and Ann Widdecombe all appeared in Dictionary Corner.
Paying tribute to Whiteley, Rantzen said: “He was just one of those people who made you smile. It was always a pleasure to meet him.
“He was genuinely self-deprecating. His autobiography was characteristically charming in that way.
“It is easy to underestimate his strength on screen. It is very difficult always to be welcome on screen and he never outstayed his welcome. They won’t be able to replace him. He will be hugely missed.”
Brandreth told BBC News 24 that Whiteley was a “highly intelligent person, a mixture of the sophisticated and the relaxed”.
Whiteley’s first foray into television began as a journalist on the local news programme Calendar on Yorkshire Television in July 1968.
Presenting the news for Calendar as well as Countdown, he earned the cheeky nickname Twice Nightly Whiteley.
He hung up his microphone in 1995 after a record 27 years as the news anchorman at Calendar.
In 1984 he was one of the first journalists at the scene of the Brighton bombing as he was at the seaside town’s Grand Hotel at the time it happened.
Another claim to fame was the feat of interviewing every British Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan.
But he will always be associated with Countdown and his domination of the afternoon airwaves.