Preceded by: red wings set
Succeeded by: orange wings set
The blue wings set was the second of three instalments in Countdown's decade-long 'wings' era, and was in production between January 1996 and December 1999 (Series 31 to 41). It was the fourth refresh given to the show, and a new title sequence, theme tune and clock music were launched in conjunction with it.
These titles began with the opening of an eyelid. Excerpts of letters and numbers selections being generated could be seen in the centre of the eye, as well as the start of the clock sequence and Carol writing down solutions to the numbers. An overlay played over these, which featured a scrolling transition of a page from the Oxford English Dictionary. The eye then blinked and the camera zoomed out to portray the figure's full head against a sky blue background, before rotating to show its side profile. Meanwhile, a series of revolving metronomes ticked in sync with the tempo of the music whilst sliding across the screen. The brain section of the head then filled with spinning cogs to signal that the person was working out solutions to the puzzles. During this, the camera slowly zoomed into the cogs and the head faded out to reveal the 'co' segment of the Countdown logo. Finally, this unfolded into a triangular shape to unveil the remaining letters of the word 'count', before a yellow infill entered the shot to complete the triangle with the word 'DOWN', written in red text.
Apart from the obvious difference in colours, there weren't any immediate set changes made when the blue theme was introduced; this even applied to the dominant 'COUNTDOWN' sign above the wings, which retained the 1991 "Pac-Man" logo for the first few recording sessions. The update to the sign, now showing the triangular logo in a flipped form, was the first noticeable difference.
Along with the aforementioned new title sequence for 1996, a new theme tune was released for the first time since Series 18. Furthermore, a remixed clock theme was composed for "extra intensity": three dramatic notes playing during the 4–7-second, 12–15-second, and 19–22-second intervals. After a mere twelve episodes in use, the producers reverted to the previous version that is still in use today, after millions of viewers complained that they couldn't think properly. A mechanical improvement was made to the clock, whereby its hand was reprogrammed to whizz around the left side of the face when resetting. Prior to this, it took an 18–20-second cycle to complete, which sometimes caused delays to filming.
Adjudication changes at the beginning of Series 31 saw the introduction of the more up-to-date 9th edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, replacing the 8th edition that had been used since Series 20.
In August 1997, the blue wings style underwent some slight modifications. These were given to the desk, which was completely rebuilt; the 'arms' around the clock; and the backdrop behind the boards. The chairs were also replaced with red fabric, matching the new top surface of the desk. Shortly after these changes were made, the logo sign above the clock was taken down after surviving only eighteen months.
The episode transmitted on New Year's Eve 1998 was the first to include the acclaimed Countdown teapot, which winners of at least one game have received ever since. The teapot's shape is modelled on the wings set, given it was the design in use at the time, with the upper three wings acting as the lid. Its design has remained the same since its inception, thereby paying continuous homage to this popular era of the show. Colour wise, it's primarily blue, and fades into green at the top. It features a motif of the clock (with the hand positioned at the 23.5-second mark), which is embellished on the front and rear faces. Underneath the clock face are arched banners reading 'Countdown Winner'. The teapot has since been released in a gold edition, albeit only for two exceptional circumstances: to celebrate producer Damian Eadie's 25th anniversary with the programme, and ahead of presenter Nick Hewer's retirement after almost a decade.
Midway through the blue wings era, a Celebrity Countdown series took place, which pitted famous contestants against each other. Eight episodes were filmed, broadcast on Thursday evenings between April and July 1998. For these specials, a separate set of opening titles and theme tune were used, and a purple colour scheme was implemented onto various set pieces and the letter and number tiles. A number of abstract shapes were projected onto the walls, while the characters in the tiles were displayed in the thinner Futura Light font. Unlike the daytime show, which was using the standard (at the time) 9-round format, the celebrity specials had a shortened, 7-round version to cater for extra padding.
It was during this part of the programme's history that it embarked on its 2000th episode, a milestone which was celebrated with its own retrospective show, titled Countdown: The 2000th Edition. The episode was recorded at the Greenwood Theatre in London, and was hosted by original Fifteen to One presenter William G. Stewart. It took place on a replica of the Countdown set, with the clock painted on a set of doors that guests walked through. The show featured people associated with the programme coming on to discuss its beginnings and various loved attributes, as well as appearances of some series champions and legendary contestants. The audience was made up of past contestants, Dictionary Corner guests and music composer Alan Hawkshaw.
On 25th December 1997, a special episode was broadcast to celebrate Christmas. Another edition presented by William G. Stewart, it saw Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman go head-to-head in a 7-round match, with now-resident lexicographer Susie Dent filling Carol's role.
After just under four years in production, the blue wings set was seen for the last time on the grand final of Series 41 on Christmas Day 1999. For the following episode, it transitioned into the third and final variant of the wings set (orange) for the start of Championship of Champions X onwards.