Treasure Hunt

Friday, December 20, 2002 by

A short-lived pre-Christmas treat graced the schedules this week. The five-night revival of Treasure Hunt, dumped rather disingenuously in the 6pm slot ordinarily the preserve of The Simpsons, sneaked onto screens almost unnoticed – but has ended up a candidate for one of the best entertainment programmes of the year. No mean achievement, really, for a show with such a formidable amount of baggage – not least the legacy of Kenneth Kendall and Anneka Rice, plus a very long period off air prompted by a decidedly messy demise.

Nonetheless, and perhaps somewhat against all odds, the new Treasure Hunt has delivered. Dermot Murnaghan for one has proved to be a consummate host. He settled so easily into the role it felt he had already served time learning and perfecting the arts of swapping avuncular banter with an unseen person down the end of an earpiece, and of making members of the public feel completely at ease in front of the camera. He also seemed particularly well versed in the subtle – and not so subtle – craft of dropping hints and conveniently stumbling upon answers just when it looked like all hope was lost.

Of course, the issue of just how much the host of Treasure Hunt knows about the clues in advance has always been a contentious one, but on this occasion the gentle nudges and “sudden” uncovering of vital information appeared less smooth and far more obvious than in Kenneth Kendall’s day. Maybe it was because there was less time on the clock and therefore less room to allow even the tiniest errors or a protracted bout of dithering. After all, with a limit of 40 minutes instead of 45, no commercial breaks, but five clues still to be solved, the format necessarily had to be tighter than before – hence no space for jovial misunderstandings or airy discussions of imponderables.

Indeed, the contestants certainly needed to be up to speed to crack all clues in the time available. When they were committed, enthusiastic and willing to get involved, Dermot’s role appeared to be a lot easier than when they were serial ditherers or, worse, disinclined to say anything whatsoever. The fourth of the five programmes had the misfortune to be blessed with a hopelessly tongue-tied and disengaged pair, meaning Dermot had to virtually helm the entire hunt himself. It made for a rather disheartening experience – the levels of artifice being laid so bare and so often – but even in other episodes, where the contestants were remarkably astute and engaging, Dermot’s tendency towards the overstated tip-off rather than the discreet intimation robbed the show of a little of its enduring charm. Still, at least he never went in for any of the slightly undignified “you might think I know the clues in advance – well, I don’t” patter of his predecessor.

Given how Wincey Willis’ role had been swapped for that of a freestanding electronic map – or “satellite tracker” as Dermot endearingly persisted in calling it – the mood in the studio relied wholly on the relationship Dermot was able to strike up with his contestants. Here he was almost always lucky in landing people who were not only very dedicated but also amiable and spirited as well – like himself.

As the week wore on, it became clear that stock of very bookish, plucky and a little excitable personnel that turned up week in week out during Treasure Hunt‘s original run had not diminished with the passing years. Finding just as many software programmers, budding cartographers and particularly historical enactment enthusiasts (a pastime, they were at pains to point out, which was most definitely “educational” as well as “fun”) in evidence as there were during the original run was a welcome discovery. Moreover, to see them behind the map table and grappling with the reference books – and, in another gesture to the 21st century, a CD-ROM – was wholly reassuring and went a big way in ensuring the revival’s success.

The most crucial element of all, however, was the identity and personality of the skyrunner. To think that among the names originally mooted were, supposedly, the hapless ex-Big Breakfast host Amanda Byram, or the equally wooden RI:SE presenter Liz Bonnin. After all five of this week’s shows, it’s now almost impossible to see how it could ever have been anyone other than Suzi Perry. Just as with Dermot, she seemed to find her feet right from the off. Totally at ease with her role and responsibilities, plus the esteemed reputation of her long-serving predecessor, Suzi proved to be a masterstroke of casting.

For connoisseurs of the original, her tendency for talking at the same time as those in the studio, or for holding up proceedings due to problems hearing what she was being told, was extremely nostalgic. But she also demonstrated a marvellously easy rapport with people she had to meet out and about, and a fine line in rakish wit with Dermot. Then there was her persistence in wanting to know where she should go and what she should do: something of a departure from the Anneka Rice approach of letting the team in the studio set their own pace, and one that was, for the most part, quite effective and invigorating.

Another link with the past lurked out on location. Suzi struck up a close bond with her crew in the field, but none more so – and it was a really great touch to have him back again – than veteran Treasure Hunt helicopter pilot Keith Thompson. One motif from the original that was sorely missed, however, was the superlative title theme music of Zack Lawrence. Instead, a wholly unsatisfactory effort turned up, written by someone obviously trying to emulate Lawrence’s original, but failing, and forgetting to come up with any sort of recognisable tune in the process.

Noting its return to screens, The Guardian this week chose to put a decidedly negative spin on Treasure Hunt‘s ratings, regarding 2.5m viewers as some kind of failure and comparing it with the 7m it averaged in the mid-’80s. Hopefully the BBC will ignore this and any similar carping; for Treasure Hunt, on this evidence at any rate, remains as tense and compelling a show as it ever was. Moreover it’s proved itself able to stand the test of time, and evolve a character and attitude that feels both fresh and familiar at once. It deserves to be recommissioned and return to TV as soon as possible.


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