“Stop the Clock!”

Ian Jones revisits Treasure Hunt

First published September 2002

“A good man in a hole. I put him there.” Jeremy Isaacs’ description of Cecil Korer, the first Channel 4 commissioning editor for Light Entertainment, is typically waspish, but pretty accurate. Brought in from the cloisters of BBC Television Centre with a distinguished career in variety behind him (including It’s A Knockout), Korer’s appointment was seen by many – including the rest of the C4 editorial staff – as a complete anachronism. They noted his grounding in thoroughly conventional entertainment, mocked his rather conservative old-fashioned values, observed he had been blessed with a tiny budget – and concluded it was virtually impossible Korer could have any lasting influence on a channel specialising in alternative, minority and innovative programming. He was largely ignored, and left to muddle through as best he could.

With hindsight, Korer was one of the most crucial appointments Isaacs made. His experience alone singled him out from the rest of the staff, who between them had scant firsthand knowledge of working in broadcasting. Faced with tea chests stacked full of proposals from eager independent production companies, Korer decided to apply himself to securing shows that could, in their modest way, at least be sure of delivering the fledgling station a few more viewers than Eastern Eye or 20/20 Vision. He set to work.

“If everyone’s ready …”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his somewhat aloof manner, combined with a hard-nosed individualism, condemned Korer to part company with C4 within a couple of years. But not before ensuring himself a somewhat spectacular legacy: one high-class import (Cheers), one humiliating flop (Mini Pops), and Channel 4′s two consistently highest rating shows of the 1980s: Countdown, and Treasure Hunt.

Significantly, both were adaptations of formats originated and popularised in France. But while Countdown was a simple – and timeless – premise, imported pretty much wholesale, Treasure Hunt had a more complex history. It was based on a show created by Jacques Antoine (later to devise Ford Boyard) titled La Chasse Aux Trèsors which began on French TV channel Antenne 2 in 1980. Key differences to the UK version were that here the contestants were presented with one very long clue at the start of each programme (rather than five sequential riddles), which required the location of several treasures (opposed to the pink clue paper trail and rolling cash prize), and the helicopter-bound “skyrunner” was male.

A couple of producers, Peter Holmans and Malcolm Heyworth, had observed how the show was a hit in its home country; but also how there were obvious areas for refinement – ways in which more tension could be contrived, the presentation streamlined, and the relationship between skyrunner and studio-bound host enlivened. The pair decided to pitch a reworked, British version of the programme to Cecil Korer, believing it to be the perfect opportunity to move their company, Chatsworth Television, from making corporate and educational films into networked TV – besides exploiting the openings C4 provided for independent producers like themselves. Korer greenlighted a pilot in early 1982, and Treasure Hunt was born.

“… Let’s start the clock”

The transformation Holmes and Heyworth engineered upon La Chasse aux Trèsors was masterful. Antoine’s format mutated into a thoroughly Anglicised product replete with a homely upholstered drawing room set, flickering fire and comfy armchairs. The perfect host was cast: chipper ex-BBC newsreader Kenneth Kendall. Combining him with “skyrunner” (and existing kids presenter) Anneka Rice was genius – Kenneth was unflappable, dapper, fusty; Annie excitable, extrovert and dashing. One of the enduring strengths of the series would be the unique relationship between the two: deference combined with cheekiness. Coupled with the excitement of a race against time, the devilish clues and the all-important helicopter (supplying memorable, often breathtaking views), their twin personalities made Treasure Hunt not just entertaining but addictive, and would help turn an ostensibly niche novelty double act into a mainstream hit.

But proceedings didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts. The pilot show was planned for, of all places, Luxor. No doubt envisaging a dazzling premiere, and with an eye on foreign sales, Chatsworth neglected to clear all the necessary technological and bureaucratic requirements with the Egyptian authorities beforehand. Sure enough the shoot had to be cancelled after failing to resolve problems concerning the helicopters carrying aerials and landing near famous landmarks. The more sedentary environment of Greenwich was chosen instead, with much more success. So it was that at 8.30pm on Tuesday 28 December 1982, Zack Lawrence’s strident, majestic title music – always one of the show’s greatest qualities – was heard for the first time on British screens, building to a dramatic crescendo before being followed, as it always and forever would be, by a slightly awkward, overlong pause and Kenneth Kendall’s resolutely downbeat, noncommittal “Hello”.

Reaction was initially somewhat muted. Ratings for the first series peaked at a distinctly disappointing 900,000, and the show seemed to get lost amidst the welter of “Channel Swore”-style hatchet jobs the press had enjoyed splashing on an almost daily basis since C4′s launch two months earlier. Moreover, the programme’s unique selling points – cumbersome, stubbornly modern technology in the shape of helicopters and communication linkups, plus the comforting parlour-game feel exuded by Kenneth and the highbrow, literary clues – wasn’t as immediately evident, or cunningly infectious, as both Chatsworth and C4 expected.

In retrospect it was inevitable the show would take a little while to settle down, but the first series was, to all intents, utterly bizarre. Kenneth was completely alone in a cavernous, muddy-looking studio with just the contestants (usually a pair of reassuringly middle class bookworms) for company. After a long and tortuous introduction, the question setter Anne Evans would very self-consciously walk into view from the side of the screen and hand Kenneth not the first but all five clues in one go. There would then be some acutely awkward banter between them, Kenneth attempting to exaggerate Anne’s deviousness by labelling her “a dragon” or quipping “we’ll get a saucer of milk for her later”, before we’d go over to Anneka on location, who’d make a great deal about “revealing” where she was this week, even though a specially annotated map of Great Britain on the wall behind Kenneth had already done so. As the show unfolded, it was up to Kenneth to mark Anneka’s progress, wielding a patented World War II operations room “stick” to prod a tiny plastic helicopter across a giant-sized Ordnance Survey map. It was all a little bit embarrassing.

A bigger problem, however, was the sound quality. It was simply appalling on the OB, at times almost inaudible, while the feed for viewers alternated between everything that Kenneth and co heard in the studio, or everything that Anneka heard down her headphones: there was no editing between the two to create a proper mix. Things regularly went wrong out in the field. During a hunt on the island of Mull one of the clues blew away and Kenneth had to stop the clock to let the crew find out where it had gone, and such was the barren, bleak environment in which Anneka had been sent she only met one other person during the entire show. Furthermore there was no sense of mounting excitement as the seconds ticked by; Kenneth occasionally glanced at an off-camera clock and muttered “Hello, there’s 13 minutes left”, while Anneka had to go by her own digital watch.

The format itself seemed to change week to week. Sometimes there were five clues, sometimes four, on other occasions none at all. The pilot show involved Anneka hunting for “numbers” which made up the combination to unlock a miniature treasure chest in the studio, while the island of Mull hunt turned up a tie-pin and antique medal, and a search in the Lake District involved locating a tatty dog collar and a dirty sea shell. On top of all that, the course might be completed as much as seven minutes early – and a “bonus clue” hastily unveiled – or time run out with only three of the five clues solved.

“We’ll take a short break”

As much as this amateurism had certain charms, changes were clearly necessary. Pretty much everything was overhauled for the second series (1984). The sound quality improved, there was bit more discipline to the hunts, but most significant of all an “adjudicator” was added to the studio in the shape of Annette Lynton. The thinking here was clear: play up the race-against-time aspects, help Kenneth when he was struggling to fill another patch of dead air, and generally liven up the studio with an impression of bustle. Trouble was, Lynton came over on screen as, frankly, rather dowdy and unpleasant. Though she executed her duties professionally – doling out the clues, giving timechecks – she also had to wear a fake air hostess uniform, tap meaninglessly at a computer, and draw the progress of Anneka’s helicopter on her map with a cheap marker pen. She also had a tendency to force Kenneth to read out random “facts” on pre-prepared index cards just as the show was reaching a particularly tense moment. Overall she ended up sucking energy and excitement out of the show, and wisely her services weren’t retained.

Elsewhere, though, the second series of Treasure Hunt found a far more relaxed and convivial Kenneth and Anneka, both completely settled into their respective roles and confident within the show’s format. A hunt in Cornwall flew over Kenneth’s house and ended with Anneka having to jump into a pool of seals; in North Wales a clue was buried deep underground in a tin mine; and while in Kent Anneka had to drive a Land Rover round Brands Hatch before completing the hunt with just five second to spare. These ultra-close finishes would always make for real edge-of-the-seat television and demonstrate the show at its very best; in contrast, there would always be a sense of anticlimax when it became clear there wouldn’t be enough time for the last clue, and this was a problem the show was never able to solve. Indeed, roughly half of the programmes in each series ended with the contestants only solving four of the five clues – sometimes even less.

The clues themselves were always fiendishly complex, full of anagrams, puns, similes and obscure historical references. Anne Evans was unrepentant. “I like to have a sort of thread running through the clues, mainly to please myself,” she sniffed. “Although the connections can be tenuous, they’re never misleading. I mustn’t hand it to competitors on a plate, but I have to be sure I’ve provided enough information for them.” She did seem a little contemptuous of the contestants, concluding, “People flap about so. And mostly never think of possible alternatives.” But she did have a point; too often there were prolonged scenes of contestants thinking they knew everything, bossing Anneka about, and most fatally of all, ignoring Kenneth and his gentle prompts.

Here was one of the great mysteries of Treasure Hunt: just how much did Kenneth know in advance? As the series’ continued, a psychological battle of wits unfolded between the host and an ever-suspicious viewing public. Time and again Kenneth eyed the camera and recited, “You know, a lot of people think I know all the answers – but I don’t,” followed by a slight “so don’t ruin our fun” look. Eventually these mock-confessions wore a little thin, giving way to an impression of protesting too much. Yet Kenneth was telling the truth – almost. For the most part the show was scrupulously fair, with the routes planned and timed by car and helicopter several times in advance to ensure a close result. This itself was problematic; for instance, as much of the flying as possible had to be done from south to north to that the sun was always behind the camera. No retakes were done either. If the contestants made a mistake, sending Anneka the wrong way and wasting 10 minutes, then that was that. But if the contestants were stuck on a particular clue, a bit of assistance could be given via a word from the producers in Kenneth’s earpiece, directing him to one of the many reference materials which lined the walls of the drawing room set, and hence leading to another “Oh, look what I’ve found here” moment. Pure class.

“You’ve now won £50!”

With the third series (1985) Treasure Hunt really hit its stride. TV-am weathergirl Wincey Willis was brought on board as a new “adjudicator”, immediately adding charm and a big dose of sarcasm to proceedings, cracking jokes about Kenneth’s age, and lambasting Anneka’s fondness for rugby teams and her appalling singing. Once again the format was tightened up, with a slicker set and Wincey given adhesive arrows to stick on her map instead of a pen. The hunts were becoming increasingly more imaginative, testing technological possibilities to the limit while simultaneously allotting Anneka ever more challenging feats of endurance.

In Ayrshire the final clue demanded, and not for the last time, that Anneka jump from her helicopter into the sea; though exciting at first, you did start to wonder what she’d done to deserve such repeated, decidedly unsympathetic treatment. In Derbyshire she had to ride atop a tram and in a cable car; and at Hickstead she was almost run over by a horse. This was followed a few editions later by an unusually pokerfaced Kenneth pretending to read out viewers “letters” (impossible, seeing as each series was always filmed six months before transmission) asking after Anneka’s well-being, and a long spiel detailing how she’d carried on filming but gone to hospital later in the day, and how he and Wincey had got terribly concerned. Another edition saw Anneka split her trousers climbing over a fence and having to get Graham Berry, her cameraman, to sew a big patch of black felt over the tear.

This was another area in which Treasure Hunt broke new ground: shamelessly laying bare the mechanics of television but still being hugely enjoyable in the process. The chemistry between Anneka and her OB team – Graham Berry, Frank Meyburgh the video recordist, and Keith Thompson the helicopter pilot – was a joy to watch. Individual quirks in particular were enthusiastically played up: Keith’s stuffiness (“I actually heard Keith use a swearword yesterday!”), Frank’s gruff, silent demeanour, and Graham’s irascibility (“No Graham – over here – oh, honestly!”)

The trust and affection evident between them, and with Kenneth and Wincey back in the studio, was rooted in the amount of time and effort demanded to turn out each series year in year out. The logistics were impressive. Treasure Hunt was produced “as live” during six weeks each summer for transmission the following winter. Several days’ rehearsal was followed by one day’s shooting at each location. Communications relied on BT lines from the studio to the Telecom Tower and then through local exchanges to an OB vehicle on location, on to the secondary helicopter (which would always make a cameo in each episode, and was flown by Michael Malric-Smith – “Mikey” in The Interceptor), and finally to Anneka’s headphones via a pack she had to wear round her neck. At first this weighed around seven pounds, but improved technology got this down to just the one by later series.

Nigel Tilbury was the man responsible for holding much of the OB together through communications equipment much of which he personally designed and owned, and which at the time was worth roughly £45,000. Anneka’s headset contained two mikes, one for her commentary, the second for ambient sound. To ensure as good quality communications as possible the show was always allocated its own radio frequency by whichever ITV company was in the area of the shoot – but weather, air temperature and natural obstacles forever dogged Chatsworth’s finely made plans, leading to the many comical misunderstandings between Anneka and the studio. On another occasion Anneka found herself in conversation not with Kenneth and Wincey but a local taxi driver; and there were numerous moments when Anneka would just turn despairingly to camera and sigh, “No – it’s no good, I can’t hear a thing.”

But as the technology improved, so did the ratings – spiralling up from one to seven million by the mid-1980s. The show won a devoted following, and its fair share of obsessive fans. One viewer went to his public library to stock up on relevant texts as soon as the next location was announced in TV Times. Another played along at home by spreading maps and books on their living floor and sitting with their back to the TV, preferring to be on a par with the studio contestants. The fact that Kenneth and company could “only hear, not see Anneka” was always a source of confusion, and for all the reminders there was always a look in the contestants eyes that within seconds they’d start addressing a point somewhere up on the studio ceiling where they thought the helicopter was located. Meanwhile because it was brains that mattered, Treasure Hunt was one of those shows – like Countdown – that refused to care how its competitors looked; as such everyone from the tongue-tied to the boisterous, the gawky teenager to the doddering pensioner, found a place by Kenneth’s hearth.

“You’re a minute and a half behind schedule”

The third series had ended with an ambitious celebrity “special” for charity, assigning Kenneth and Anneka the role of contestants and employing three special “skyrunners” to anchor each leg of a London-based course. Gemma Craven, Wayne Sleep and Kenny Lynch had the dubious honour of finding the clues, and were pretty hopeless – Gemma ignoring everything said in the studio, Wayne getting lost, and Kenny constantly swearing (“I just want to get out of this bloody helicopter”) – but it made for a suitable finale, and ended with them all arriving, fittingly, at the Treasure Hunt studio itself.

Subsequent series were just as high-profile and audacious. Anneka was sent on ever more adventurous tasks, and was soon received like minor royalty wherever she went. The fourth series (1986) involved a bike ride through Oxford and an encounter with Cliff Michelmore on a golf course; the fifth (1987) a pancake race, surfing in the English Channel, a mountain rescue, a glider, and a Harrier Jump Jet; the sixth (1988) a clue buried at the bottom of the sea, on a water ride at Alton Towers, and aboard a Royal Navy frigate. The show also became wonderfully self-referential, full of in-jokes and deprecating remarks (“Funny how there’s always a ladder lying about …”, “Keith’s just handed me a lifejacket – again!”) The international hunts, however, never really worked. These remained an integral part of the programme throughout, from Singapore in 1983 to New South Wales in 1988, and were hugely successful in terms of international sales, but somehow didn’t feel right on British screens. The foreign places were simply too foreign, none of the locals knew who Anneka was, we were without the familiar “team” of pilot and camera crew, and the technology always packed up.

The last hunt of the 1988 series ended with Anneka being slapped in the face with a beer-soaked rag. It turned out to be as undignified a farewell to the programme as could be imagined. Soon afterwards Anneka announced she was pregnant, and a stand-in host – tennis player Annabelle Croft – arranged for the next series. This proved to be an epic error of judgement. Annabelle had no rapport whatsoever with the studio, little personality on screen, and spent most of the time falling over and being shouted at by passers-by demanding to know “Where’s Anneka?” But the ratings kept up and C4 boss Michael Grade wanted more. Chatsworth, however, decided that after seven years they’d had enough, and were interested in developing new projects.

“Stop the clock”

Consequently, with indecent haste and clumsy indecision, Treasure Hunt disappeared. The official reason given was that “the stunts required of the presenter became potentially too dangerous despite rigid safety rules laid down by the pilot.” An even lamer excuse was that they’d run out of parts of the country to visit, which was simply untrue. Anneka jumped ship to the BBC, fronting several series of “the Challenge programme” as she irritatingly referred to it; while Chatsworth contrived to re-heat various aspects of Treasure Hunt and come up with seminal short-lived runaround The Interceptor for ITV in 1989, before returning to C4 for long-running action show The Crystal Maze (1990-95).

It was a criminally messy end for one of the best shows of the 1980s, and for one of Channel 4′s most startlingly successful and reliable hits. Its creation and evolution summed up the essence of the station in its earliest days, especially the way it reached the screen through a combination of imagination and persistence (from producers Peter Holmans and Malcolm Heyworth), and patronage of the most unlikely sort (the long-toothed foresight of Cecil Korer). Since its demise the format has been rumoured for revival many a time, though it’s doubtful how successful the results could be unless the absolute core element of the show – the relationship between skyrunner, host and viewer – is right.

Searching for one, definitive programme to sum up C4 in its 20th birthday year, it’s tempting to settle for Anneka, Kenneth and the familiar cry of “stop the clock!” After all, typically for Channel 4, Treasure Hunt entertained and innovated at the same time. And, also typically, it all went horribly wrong at the end.