The Game Still Goes On

Graham Kibble-White on Wanted

First published October 2001

On 23 October 1996 the game began. Runners were released from a television studio in West London, with Trackers in hot pursuit. Seven days later, at 8.30pm, the first episode of Wanted went live on Channel 4 with a confident and unflappable Richard Littlejohn welcoming us to the “Wanted Organisation’s” bunker, and an hour of cat and mouse.

Wanted set three teams of two runners out in mainland Britain where they were charged with fulfilling a daily task in order to amass a pot of prize money. This they would then play for during a live broadcast on Wednesday night. In order to prove that they had successfully completed the task the Runners were armed with cameras to record their movements and complete a video diary whilst on the run. Trying to stop each team was a Tracker appointed by the “Wanted Organisation”. Their task was simply to capture the Runners on film, with the Runners being docked that day’s prize money if the Tracker was successful. The Wednesday night play-off had the Runners confined to a phone box within a specified 10km square. The Tracker then had the duration of the episode to locate that phone box. If the Runners were found, the game was over and they would not be allowed to collect the money; however if the Tracker was unsuccessful the Runners would win that week’s pot and run for another week (with a different task to fulfil).

At first glance Wanted appeared to be a successor to Treasure Hunt (1983 – 89), The Interceptor (1989 – 90) and The Crystal Maze (1990 – 95). Certainly it drew heavily from this trio of Chatsworth/Thames productions in format, even referencing the helicopter iconography from Treasure Hunt and The Interceptor in its opening credits. However, the production company behind Wanted were Hewland International who in the mid-’90s were synonymous with game shows built around the then burgeoning video games console market (Games Master for Channel 4, and Games World for Sky One).

Whilst they were considering Hewland’s submission Channel 4 received another very similar pitch for a “Running Man” style series. Chatsworth had submitted a format wherein it would be up to the public to catch the runners within a certain town. C4, however, ultimately went with Wanted and in a highly unusual move commissioned two series from the off.

There is some controversy surrounding the actual creation of the Wanted format. OTT tracked down radio presenter/producer Bern Leckie who in 1993 had just completed a university degree in which he’d discovered a passion for the media far stronger than his chosen degree subject (Chemistry). Leckie was on the jobs market – but he had a big idea …

Bern Leckie: “Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to bring a game show out of a boring old studio and make it interactive with the audience, and get the most out of a contestant by putting them in a stressful situation and seeing what they did? Desperate to think of a hook that would work with this I drifted into the Odeon Leicester Square to see the latest big film, The Fugitive, and had the ‘eureka’ moment.

“Shortly afterwards an interview came up with Hewland for a production trainee job. I knew very little about video games (unfortunate as they were producing Games Master at the time) and figured the best way to get into the company was to go ahead and pitch the Fugitive-based game show. My interviewer (a former Network 7 presenter) seemed very interested – we even talked about production cycles and how long it takes to turn ideas into telly. I thought it was looking great. So I was happy and waited for the call.

“The actual pitch I made was twofold – firstly it was a plea to make game shows more interesting by getting in some real tension and jeopardy – bring them out of the studio and get audience interaction to make them compelling. Second was the Fugitive idea as a way to do it – though I originally envisaged putting the contestants into the field at the start, and letting them work out what they had to do by following clues as they went.

“I didn’t get any contact from Hewland at all after the interview, so I chased it up about a week later. I was told they’d call back, and they didn’t. I chased again the next week and got ‘lost’ on hold. The week after that I was told there wasn’t anyone who could give me any info or feedback about my interview, and the job had gone to someone else. By then I was pretty pissed off and was thinking that I wouldn’t want to work for a company that treated people like that, so I just forgot about Hewland.

“I think it was three years later when this game show started that looked very interesting, a lot like my old idea. When the final frame of the programme appeared with the production credit my jaw dropped. Hewland! Then the phone rang – my brother calling to see if I’d seen ‘my’ show. Straight after the episode I wrote a 10-point list of things they’d screwed up and ought to fix. I sent the email to Jane Hewland’s personal address and offered to trade the fixes for a credit. I had my 1993 diary handy with my notes, date/time of interview and everything, so I pointed this out in passing. But I’d come to realise then that ideas aren’t protected by copyright law, so I figured I could make them want to hire me to generate more of the same. They didn’t. I received no reply at all.

“I saw the programme had its problems, and it was frustrating that I couldn’t have a go at helping it become more of a mainstream hit. But the most bittersweet moment was finding out it won a Silver Rose at Montreux. Since then, I’ve been presenting and producing music radio stuff, which included the first nationally syndicated student radio music/comedy show. Then I got hired to help launch DAB digital radio in the UK – which I’m still doing. I’m also picking music and producing show for Core and The Storm – two great radio stations you can pick up on DAB digital radio or on Sky Digital. I am, however, still sitting on some killer game show ideas which I hope might pay my pension if I can hook up with the right people to make them.”

Despite Leckie’s claim to the concept, the creation of the show was ultimately credited to “Greg Forrest”. However rumour has it that the creator, as far as Hewland were concerned, was actually someone within the computer games industry (and the company certainly had a few links here) who didn’t want to be identified – thus the “Forrest” pseudonym was invented.

Wanted lined up a strong team of behind-the-scenes talent. The executive producers were William G Stewart and Jane Hewland. Hewland, of course, was the founder of the production company and had previously enjoyed a successful and lauded working relationship with Janet Street Porter in which she co-founded Network 7. Stewart – the man behind everything from The Price is Right to Fifteen to One – had recently had great success in bringing Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush up to scratch. The series producer was Ruth Wrigley from The Big Breakfast, whilst director Peter Orton had a bulging CV including credits for Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out and Hale and Pace.

The gestation of the programme proved to be rather chaotic, with a series of last-minute switches in personnel almost across the board. Most notable was a late change in presenter. Hewland’s original intention was for the programme to be hosted by Bob Mills, an artiste they already had a relationship with (Mills hosted early series of Games World). For reasons unknown this plan fell through and Richard Littlejohn was hastily drafted in. Born in Ilford, Essex, Littlejohn had risen to become one of Britain’s highest-paid and most controversial journalists, writing regularly for The Sun. Although on paper he was an unlikely choice to host the programme, in practice it transpired he was ably suited to the job: calm under pressure and genuinely intrigued and excited by the game.

Wanted then went on to lose two sets of contestants. As per the programme’s opening titles, the first episode of Wanted featured Drew Cain and Scott Burgess, David Angus and Andy Stewart and sisters Andrea and Lisa Gordon all on the run. However, when the episode proper began, it soon became apparent that there were only two teams still in the game. The Gordon sisters, after almost a full week being pursued by ex SAS Dave McBride, had been consumed by paranoia and ill health and decided to pull out. However, there was another team that didn’t even make it to the screen being dropped (again) for reasons unknown shortly before transmission. Interestingly, one of these Runners was John McMahon (who has been variously reported as Ant and Dec’s bodyguard, and bodyguard to Tracker Victoria Fay). He would later go on to appear in series two, in the role of a Tracker. There was a further knock-on effect from all these changes. As a publicity gimmick Channel 4/Hewland had mailed out special Wanted-themed maps of the UK, inviting the press to phone in sightings of the Runners, identifying which 10km square of the UK they’d been spotted in. Unfortunately, come transmission night only one of the three teams depicted on the map were still playing.

Amongst the flurry of changes, Wanted had to accommodate yet a further hiccup. When an intended co-host for Littlejohn turned up too late to participate, one of the programme’s producers, Tanya Fallon, had to jump in taking on the role of communications co-ordinator, relaying sightings to the Trackers and Littlejohn alike.

The programme that eventually made it to our screens in October was, against all odds, a slick and competent affair. More importantly, it was hugely enjoyable. Wanted threw technology at us with six separate video links going on a one time plus an attendant website. Helicopters were assigned to each Tracker to relay the pictures back to the studio, a set-up that resulted in Channel 4 receiving a large number of complaints from theatregoers in the West End of London where the programme’s live play-offs would often be situated. Naturally, things did go wrong from time to time but a link to a Tracker suddenly going down could not derail Wanted. Littlejohn surmounted the obstacles with glee (“heavy fog tonight is making it a nightmare for our Trackers!”) whilst the production team always succeeded in patching up some alternate means of communication. If it was a little ragged at times, that just added to the reality of a programme that would probably now be branded “reality TV”.

To up the stakes even further, a couple of unlikely big guns were drafted in as commentators in the studio alongside Littlejohn. Oleg Gordievsky was an ex-KGB agent who had defected from the USSR in 1985 after serving as a British agent inside Soviet intelligence for 11 years. Joining him on the programme was John O’Connor, former commander of The Flying Squad. Both contributed memorable commentary, Gordievsky in particular engaging with the game with great enthusiasm. With apparent awe he would comment on the Trackers and Runners “brilliance” and happily compare situations in the game to stratagem employed by the intelligence services. Gordievsky’s greatest moment probably came towards the end of the series when he compared Tracker Victoria Fay with Runner Tracy Patterson, commenting that both were “very beautiful ladies” but that Tracy “lacked charm”. Needless to say, Patterson was unimpressed by this appraisal, but the very fact that the contestants themselves were fair game for honest criticism separated Wanted from the rest of the pack.

Although a capable presenter, Littlejohn himself would sometimes rankle with the contestants and fellow members of the Wanted team alike, with the odd slip into tabloidese (“Never trust a Scouser!”). Natasha Loder, science and technology correspondent for The Economist, was watching the first episode and noted: “After stressing the wit, intelligence and resourcefulness of blue-eyed tracker Victoria Fay, Littlejohn turned to the overhead screen and asked about the extreme sports she pursues. What are they, asked Littlejohn, topless darts? The intelligent Ms Fay appeared, for a moment, to be having trouble with her earpiece.” Later on in the series Littlejohn visibly riled two female contestants by continually telling them to “stop giggling”. “We’re not!” they snapped, with some justification. His well-documented homophobic tendencies were also evident for a moment at the end of the penultimate episode, when the team of James McQueen and Gary Bond (more on them later) were assigned the role of taking on the guise of pantomime dames for the week. Littlejohn quipped that the mildly camp McQueen “shouldn’t have much trouble with that!” Aside from these unfortunate sidebars Littlejohn’s journalistic tendencies served the programme well. He ferreted out the stories of the week, often grilling contestants on their feelings for each other, or picking up on throwaway comments made during their video diaries and asking for further clarification.

Inevitably the actual mechanics of the programme were a little more complicated than they were portrayed on screen (although ex-Tracker Victoria Fay told OTT: “I think what was shown on screen was realistic to what we went through during the week”). Referencing the Runner’s Rulebook created by Hewland (and reproduced on the UK Game Show Page) we learn that the Runners were assigned a producer to whom they had to ring from a landline three times a day. The Runner producer would then return the call to verify the location and check the 10km grid square used. For the live programme there were a lot of additional factors that remained hidden from the viewers. On noon the day before transmission the Runners had to nominate the square they would be playing in the following night. The programme then had the right to request the Runners use a different square if their choice had already been picked by another team or was impractical for outside broadcast. If the new square foisted upon the Runners was far away, Wanted would supply them with transport.

Once in the square, there were further complications. The Runners would have to nominate two phone boxes (a first and second choice) from where they would potentially be playing the live game. It was their responsibility to check the phone was fully operational and to be in the final box 15 minutes before the start of the programme for sound and picture checks. A further caveat was perhaps the most interesting: “Requests from the public to use your phone should be handled by you where possible. We provide you with phone cards for this purpose. A security guard will be stationed at a discrete distance from the phone box in case of emergencies. Only in the event of personal danger must you leave the box.”

Generally, the programme did well to keep these complications off screen; however they did indicate one of the weaknesses of Wanted‘s format – the high level of artifice required to keep the programme ticking over. There has been some suggestion that in the occasional episode the Tracker had succeeded in locating the chosen phone box before the live transmission began, thus having to stall for the majority of the programme before making the capture. OTT put this point to Victoria Fay. “I certainly never knew where the Runners were before we went live,” she revealed, “however I once accidentally found my Runners in the first three minutes. I was told to hold back because all the other Trackers had also found their Runners. But that was the only time.”

Additionally many were of the opinion that the phone box finale was something of an anticlimax. Bern Leckie, again: “How boring was that? They tried their very best to make a GPS blip on a map look sexy, but who bought it? You’d really get involved with some of the best contestants, really wanted to see them doing something exciting, but they just had to stand still, cowering in a payphone. Oh, I know there were logistics to worry about, but this idea simply didn’t work. It’s a bit like a movie – you know who the heroes are, and they should look and act like heroes, especially at the climax. In Wanted they didn’t and the audience drifted off. End of story.”

Leckie, however, is also keen point to one of Wanted‘s main strengths: “I thought the video diary element was very nice. Wanted was probably the first game show that made space for the contestants to record their thoughts and tell a good story. It’s been much imitated since, hasn’t it?”

Mid-series, Jane Hewland had a fairly major panic about the tone of the programme. She felt that Wanted had become too dark. There was certainly some justification for this. Although never presented intrinsically as “baddies” the Trackers were shown to be relentless – on one memorable occasion Victoria Fay staked out a hotel room all night where the Runners had gone to ground; and the image of hulky Dave McBride pursuing retired social workers Beryl and June was somewhat menacing (even if the elderly duo actually succeeded in running rings around him). Littlejohn, too, could be abrasive, for instance lambasting the Gordon sisters for pulling out in episode one (“they’ve bottled it”). Many would say that this dark tone was actually one of the series’ strengths, and it’s arguable that if Wanted was being made today this aspect would be played up substantially. However Hewland remained concerned. Changes were afoot for series two.

Before that, series one was to find itself with a memorable – albeit unplanned – climax. It started in the penultimate episode when Tracker Paul Denchfield (who’d previously been in the production team for Games World and another Hewland production The Geeks, along with Victoria Fay) commented that Runners James McQueen and Gary Bond were “not playing within the spirit of the game.” With Dave McBride pursuing them, McQueen and Bond had bucked the rules several times, and Denchfield accused them of phoning in false information to the Runner Producer regarding their location. Littlejohn put this to them, McQueen responding that this was a game of chance and cunning and they were playing within that spirit.

The final episode of series one mirrored the first, in that only two teams were actually in the game when the programme began. It quickly became apparent that McQueen and Bond were missing. With some small glee Littlejohn revealed that during the week, McQueen and Bond had contacted Dave McBride offering him a cash inducement not to catch them. Where other programmes would have swept this development under the carpet, Wanted (to its credit) turned its cameras upon it. Littlejohn cued in film of McBride on the phone to McQueen, and the programme televised the bribery attempt – McQueen telling McBride that he and Bond had spent a lot of money being on the show, and couldn’t afford to lose their pot. He offered Dave a couple of thousand to be handed over in a pub toilet. Of course, the Runners were disqualified but not before they were offered the chance to give their side of the story on film. McQueen’s assertion that it had all been a “joke” on their part appeared less than convincing, but of course we’ll never really know. Certainly the pair’s pledge to donate the prize-money they’d received the previous week to charity meant that at least some good came out of the whole affair. For Wanted it meant series one went on an intriguing note.

Wanted‘s ratings weren’t as good as could have been expected. This series averaged 1.6m, whereas Treasure Hunt had averaged over 5m, and The Crystal Maze 3m. The show then returned to our screens relatively quickly, transmission starting Sunday 4 May 4 1997. The reason for this was partly that the winter schedule had resulted in the Trackers driving around in darkness during the live programmes and that made for unexciting television. Now set on a bright Sunday teatime the second series was going to be a rather different beast from series one.

Most obviously, Littlejohn was no longer hosting the programme. Ray Cokes, best known for Most Wanted on MTV and once rumoured to be Chris Evans’ successor on Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, was now the man at the centre of the “Wanted Organisation”. With Cokes’ entertainment background his appointment was just the first in a sequence of innovations designed to make the second series of Wanted more light-hearted than the first.

Oleg Gordievsky and John O’Connor were gone too, as the amount of Trackers had increased to six. The format now dictated that there should be three Trackers out in the field, working in partnership with a Tracker each back in the studio. In addition this meant that Tanya Fallon was superfluous to requirements, and therefore also did not appear. Behind the scenes there’d been further exits, with William G Stewart, Ruth Wrigley and Peter Orton all leaving.

Amongst the newly increased squad of Trackers were John McMahon (mentioned above) and Andy Stewart. Liverpool cabbie Stewart had first appeared in series one as a Runner and had evaded capture for three weeks. In a nice nod to his achievement, he was paired with Paul Denchfield, the Tracker who’d chased him. Former model Sarah Odell also joined the ranks (and would reappear in 2001 as a contestant on ITV’s Survivor).

Upon joining the series Ray Cokes said: “I’ve always wanted to front a live show with loads of high technology at my command, and now I’ve got what I wanted – Wanted!” Fronting the show, however, he turned out to be woefully inadequate for the job, continually failing to find the right camera, being obviously prompted through his talkback and stumbling over his lines, as well as the occasional bit of set. In one episode, as he lurched across the studio, he moaned, “This is such a stressful show to do!” Where Littlejohn had savoured the challenges of this complicated programme, Cokes seemed overwhelmed. The Trackers based in the studio had difficulties too. Andy Stewart struggled the most (to Cokes’ glee, it seemed) and would often not be at his mark when the cameras cut to him. Despite that, he put in a likeable performance and acquitted himself well for a man with no previous presentation experience.

Series two also saw some amendments to the rules. Perhaps the most sensible addition was that viewers could now stand to win £1000 if they provided the lead that resulted in the Runners’ capture. In the first series there had never been an obvious reason for the viewers to shop the Runners, our natural inclination being to side with the contestants. The £1000 resolved this dilemma.

Another new rule was that the presenter of the programme could ask the Runners to supply additional details about the location of their phone box in return for more prize money. There was also a notion that the Runners could be commanded to undertake a “stunt” whilst in the box (“getting a pizza delivered to the phone box before the end of the programme” being one of the ideas) but this was never actually implemented.

Victoria Fay: “I think series one was better than series two. The producers changed and I think that was very much reflected in the programme. Ruth Wrigley is a very talented lady – it was a real shame she couldn’t do the second series. Series one was simpler – series two became like some jazzy game show which was not the original format of the show. It should have been more serious. In terms of presenters I think both Ray and Richard were great, but I do think Richard had a better angle on how to handle the programme.”

Series two’s ratings were down an average 35% on series one, often failing to attract even a million viewers. Such an ambitious programme could not justify its existence in the face of such meagre viewing figures, and thus with the close of the second series it was all over …

Or was it? In 1998, Bunim/Murray completed a $2m pilot of Wanted renamed Catch Me If You Can for ABC in the America. As well as featuring the Wanted format, Paul Denchfield returned to his role as Tracker for this effort. Unfortunately a full series failed to follow. There have been a few other versions made in other countries (Scandinavia for one) but in every case the programme only ever managed to secure a small audience.

In 2001 there’s word of a new series in the US entitled The Runner (created by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) that appears to be duplicating the Wanted format. Additionally there are rumours that the BBC are working on a brand new series called Runners which, internally, they admit is “almost exactly the same” as Wanted. Meanwhile, another pursuit programme, The Hunt, has won a Silver Rose for Variety at Montreux in 2001.

Wanted, it seems, was a format ahead of its time (certainly a view subscribed to by Victoria Fay) – one that almost certainly would be better realised and received today. With the current interest in staging a new “Running Man” style programme, it would appear that although the show may have ended, the game still goes on.