Out of Time

Graham Kibble-White on the return of Treasure Hunt

First published September 2003

In 1989 Chatsworth Television, a company which at the start of the decade made only corporate and educational films, decided to stop production on one of Channel 4′s most successful programmes, Treasure Hunt. The reason they gave was the “the stunts required of the presenter [by the programme's format] became potentially too dangerous despite rigid safety rules laid down by the pilot.”

Cut to July 2001 when rumours were beginning to circulate that a new series of the show was on its way back to terrestrial television. By this point the original was becoming something of a mainstay on digital and satellite television, being given a repeat run by both Challenge TV and Sky Travel. Alongside this, thanks to a certain element of continuity in Chatsworth’s productions through the 1990s (with The Crystal Maze and Interceptor echoing aspects of Treasure Hunt‘s format) and other production companies producing their own Treasure Hunt variants (most notably, Hewland’s Wanted) it seemed as though the Treasure Hunt fan base had never really gone away.

Earlier that year, Chatsworth itself indicated that Treasure Hunt could perhaps take to the skies again. In reply to a fan’s query about the possibility of the show being revived Jocelyne Alderman (PA to the company’s Managing Director Malcolm Heyworth) wrote: “There have been talks of a possible return of the programme although nothing definite yet. However, if it does return, I’m afraid it would not be with Anneka Rice (or Wincey Willis at that!) as the skyrunner.”

David J Bodycombe, soon to be a clue-setter on the new run of Treasure Hunt remembers when he first heard whispers of a new series: “Being the webmaster to and its associated Yahoo group, I’m not short of Deep Throats. In fact, a revival of the show had been on the cards for about two years beforehand. Malcolm Heyworth (who, as far as I’m aware, is the only person to work on the old and new series other than Keith the pilot), was the main thrust behind the remake, in partnership with Jane Lush at the BBC.”

That the series was going to appear on the BBC was the first surprise, that its return was actually hastened by Channel 4, the second. On 20 February 2002, Channel 4 outbid the BBC for the rights to show The Simpsons, reportedly upping the price of an episode from £100,000 to £700,000. The loss of the show left a hole in BBC2′s schedule at 6pm, and as such Channel Controller Jane Root began looking around for a programme that could plug the gap.

“BBC2 wanted to do something different with the 6pm weekday slot,” reveals Nick Heyworth (son of Malcolm) who would become Production Manager on Treasure Hunt, “They felt that a slightly older audience (and the family audience) wasn’t really catered for around that time as there was either the news or kids/teenage shows on. They felt a revised Treasure Hunt would fill this gap.”

In August Chatsworth began to advertise for contestants to appear on the show:

The 80s TV series Treasure Hunt – featuring Anneka Rice hopping out of a helicopter and dashing around the British countryside following clues – is being resurrected.

And Chatsworth Television is looking for contestants to pit their wits against the clock in return for a prize on the new show on BBC2.

The TV company is looking for teams of two people aged 20 – 65 who are keen to take up the challenge. It doesn’t matter if you are work colleagues, a couple, mother and son or friends – as long as you work well as a team, are outgoing, can think on your feet and are good at problem solving.

By 4 September the story had broken in the press, with The Guardian reporting: “BBC2 bosses are going back to the future by dusting off the cobwebs from 1980s Channel 4 game show, Treasure Hunt.” At this stage, speculation centred around who would be taking on the skyrunner role with the paper reporting: “Suzi Perry, host of BBC2′s Superbikes, Amanda Byram, the former Big Breakfast presenter, and RI:SE star Liz Bonnin are said to be in the running to present the show.”

But things were moving fast and by October that year production had begun on a pilot run of five episodes based in Kent, with Suzi Perry ensconced as the skyrunner whilst newsreader Dermot Murnaghan helmed events back in the studio. Although the essential Treasure Hunt format remained intact, some changes had been made. Nick Heyland and David Bodycombe explain:

In the new shows we decided to lose the “adjudicator” role (Wincey Willis in the original series). With Dermot in the presenter’s role and trying out new GPS and mapping technology another ‘presenter’ was unnecessary. – NH

Another reason for dropping “Wincey” was that there was much less time (45 minutes of game clock). If you listen to the show, you’ll find it hard to pick up on more than five seconds of dead air. – DB

We also decided to make the ending more dramatic by putting the fourth and fifth (final) clue in the same vicinity. By not having to get back into the helicopter it made the last few minutes of the programme extremely dramatic as Suzi would make a mad dash to the last clue location. – NH

The resources the contestants had access to in the studio were updated. The encyclopaedia CD-ROM is a boon because you can use a much larger breadth of knowledge without having 25 clunking great books on the shelves to search through. CD-ROMs work better than books because word searches will take you to what you want even if it doesn’t happen to be in a book’s index. And in composing the clues, you can use a much more lateral approach (such as the River Camel example, see below). – DB

In addition we made sure that unravelling the clues was easier to follow from your armchair at home. We divided the clue into three parts (the direction, location, and specific hiding spot) and would highlight each area of the clue as it was solved for the viewer at home. We also made sure the clues were not too difficult! – NH

In many ways, it would have been tempting to have gone further with the changes – maybe allow the contestants to search the internet, even put pictures of Suzi up on the screen behind them. That they modernised the show as much as they did is fairly brave, although I did think that we could have gone a bit further on the Bond-esque set elements like they did with the original series. – DB

The new series of Treasure Hunt debuted on BBC2 on Monday 16 December, 2002. While some sections of the press sought to put a negative interpretation on its ratings (the first show garnered 2.4 million viewers, less than Treasure Hunt had achieved over a decade earlier on Channel 4 in a primetime slot) the BBC were pleased enough with the show’s performance to request a second series to run in the new year.

Watching from home was recent Cambridge graduate Michael Hall who had fond memories of the original ’80s series: “I used to love the whole idea of the show. I had no idea about solving the clues at that age, but I regularly jumped up and down on the sofa as the time ticked down”. He felt equally enthusiastic about this new run: “I loved the episodes shown in Kent, and shared some of my thoughts with the people at the Interceptor forum. I said I now felt I could answer the clues, and that I’d always wanted to be a contestant, so someone suggested I emailed Chatsworth. I got a reply back from Hester Davies saying that she’d contact me if another series was made.”

Before that there were to be more changes as Treasure Hunt departed mainland Britain and took Suzi Perry overseas.

“The 2003 international shows (10 in all) were an attempt to bring in a younger and even wider audience to Treasure Hunt“, explains Nick Heyworth, “by producing something from spectacular locations around the world (Mexico through to New Zealand) which on a darker night in March/April the viewer might love.” With the overseas locations came new headaches. “Communications was our biggest task for the international series” says Heyworth. “The show is recorded as live – what happens, happens. Suzi has to hear the contestants in the studio wherever she is, otherwise the show fails. We break twice whilst recording to reposition and check over tapes, but there is no going back. This made sending sound from the presenter (say in Mexico) to London (live) extremely complex when dealing with international frequency authorities. You have to get licences to transmit sound signals from a helicopter otherwise you can interrupt air traffic control and even early warning systems. BBC Comms were in charge and managed to achieve this, although setting it up was a struggle. The sound travels from the presenter to a second helicopter where it is boosted and sent to a local receive site. The sound is then transmitted across the world by an ISDN. We did occasionally have problems, but overall it worked pretty well.”

So how were the new clues constructed for this series? David Bodycombe relives the process:

I receive notes from the location team via email which look something like this:

“Alice Springs – Location 1
Frontier Camel Farm

This farm functions as a tourist attraction with camel safaris being the main source of income. The star camel is Bazzer who has won the Camel Cup several times in a row. The camels are obtained from the wild camel population which is now believed to number more than 250,000 or from camel breeding farms. The camels are broken in at the farm so that people can ride them safely.

Map reference: C7 on the Red Centre Hema Map or G6 on the more detailed map of Alice town on the back. It is not marked on the larger main map.
Flying time: 3 minutes 42 seconds
Running time: 1 minute 20 seconds (including brief jog and lift on a camel)

Flying from Emily Gap to the frontier Camel farm you fly south of the Eastern MacDonnel Ranges and they are on the right hand side of the helicopter (not sure if we want to fly on the other side of the ridge, it will be slightly longer, but would be a more dramatic flight route). With the range on the right hand side you head south west towards the farm following the route of the highway and then cutting down to the Todd River named after Sir Charles Todd, the supervisor of the posts and telegraphs, and organiser of the construction of the overland telegraph line. Later on surveyors of the area named the river and many other places after Todd and the town itself is named after his wife Alice.

Route: Once we have landed on the river bed we will have several camels with saddles on and a rider who are being prepared for the start of a race, at the end of the race course is Eric Sultan a local man descended from the Afghan camel herders who lived in the area, he will have the clue on him – perhaps in his turban. Suzi will run towards the start of the race and ask where Eric is they will point him out and tell her to hop on for a lift. They will then race at a fast trot down to where Eric is waiting – she will be on a camel with an experienced camel rider. Eric can be in character if we wish – he often dresses up and plays the locally famous Afghan character Charlie Sadadeen, however we can take our pick of many other famous Afghan characters from the book Tin Mosques and Ghantowns.”

To help me get the location and geography correct, we use digital photographs and phone calls to ensure that the necessary word and directional hints are in the clues.

It’s important to get the helicopter moving in the right direction as quickly as possible so the first part of the clue has a fairly easy direction hint. For example, in this case the first location is on the main road to the west of the start point.

Doing a word search though an encyclopaedia, I note that there’s a River Camel in Padstow, which is a nice (if hard) piece of general knowledge to stick in there. UK references are good to put in where you can, since some people prefer UK stuff to international questions. The place is called the Frontier Camel Farm, so I could put in “frontier” into the clue as a really big confirmer in case they don’t twig the geography reference.

I quite like the absurdity of a bloke called Eric dressing up as a camel herder in Australia so let’s put that in there. It also gives something for Suzi to ask about when she lands. And she can’t run there, so we need to specify that she has to ride a camel (an Arabian, which is a type of dromedary).

However, all that has to fit into about 20 words, so this is what I ended up with:

“Travel the high way, by occident, to a frontier of Padstow’s watercourse. Race to Eric the Afghan by way of an Arabian.”

A clue can take between 30 minutes and three hours to construct, depending on how straightforward the words are. For example, try writing a clue for Ngongotaha!

As for how Bodycombe’s clues compared to those found in the original series: “Why not go to Martin Underwood’s fan page and see for yourself?” he suggests. “I certainly tried to up the cryptic and general knowledge references, because I think the viewers feel short changed if you can only solve the clues by using obscure leaflets.”

It was to be in this series of overseas episodes that contestant-to-be Michael Hall got his chance to join the show. “Nat Johnson (as a last-minute replacement co-contestant) and I got contacted by Willy Norton the Contestant Researcher once we’d filled in our forms,” he explains, “and we attended an audition in London. This involved both of us talking about ourselves (both off and on-camera) and solving a couple of clues, which David Bodycombe had written based around Miami and Papua New Guinea. At the end Willy and Rebecca Channon told us that they thought we’d done very well, and Nat and I giggled excitingly as we left the building. Then a couple of weeks later he rang us up, and we found that we were one of the lucky pairs who had been chosen to appear.”

Once in the studio Hall reveals that “the helicopter/Suzi bit was done in an afternoon, after lunch from about 3 to 4.30pm.” He continues: “I heard this was a lot less than some of the episodes which had had problems with weather (ours was the fourth of the 10 to be filmed). Then there was another hour of close-ups of our hands and Dermot’s hand double (that’s my hand in the opening titles pointing to a bend in the river!) We also had some practise with the first two clues from the Arizona episode on the set just to get used to the layout.”

As for Dermot Murnaghan himself Hall describes him as “the ultimate media professional – a very slick way of speaking, constantly in what Nat called his ‘TV voice’, but also very funny indeed, with a dry sense of humour.” Hall also recalls that “between clues one and two there was a lot of banter between him and Suzi: talk of Barry Sheene (who’d just died when we filmed the episode), and tales of award ceremonies (‘I went to leave and no one stopped me so I knew we hadn’t won’). One joke sticks in my mind: ‘I went to one ceremony in this hotel which had a panelled brown room. Opposite me I saw some white teeth and a pinstripe suit, and I thought: Hello, it’s David Dickinson’”.

While all this was going on, David Bodycombe had his own role to play. “I was in the gallery to ensure that there were no last-minute changes to the clues, to organise the envelopes, set up the CD-ROM computer, give Dermot a quick read-through of the clues beforehand (for pronunciation etc) and guide the director through what’s likely to happen en route (for example, I can try to warn them if I’m certain the contestants are about to win). I can also speak with the producer on location during the game to ensure we feel that the game was ‘fair’ (eg. if Suzi gets held up by a completely unpredictable event, we’d take a view on whether we need to compensate for that or not.)”

A contentious factor in both versions of Treasure Hunt has been the extent to which contestants were led towards specific conclusions when clue-finding. In Michael Hall’s case he says: “I think we were explicitly helped out twice, when we didn’t recognise instantly which song ‘wanna come too, too, too’ came from – and I had the feeling that 10 year olds up and down the land were shouting at us – and when I misread an encyclopaedia entry about Saint-Saens’ deathplace.” He does, however, go on to add: “Apart from that it was entirely us … Hence the three minute section at the beginning when we couldn’t work out a homophone clue.”

In all Hall and his companion won £500 each. “I’m glad that we were on it,” he says, “the last five minutes of the episode were very exciting, and it’s a shame we didn’t win the whole lot. But it was a lot more stressful to be on it than it is to watch. The clue-solving process was only smooth for clue four, and even then we didn’t give Suzi clear directions to the clue when she landed. The rest of the time it felt more like a process of attrition, and I’m amazed we came across as well as we did when the programme was broadcast.”

When Treasure Hunt returned to BBC2 in March 2003, ratings were unimpressive, the programme drawing just 1.5 million viewers with the first episode of its new series. An argument could be made that part of the reason for this relatively disappointing performance lay with the BBC itself. With little or no promotion given to the series, it seemed as if – despite commissioning the run – the Corporation just didn’t know what to do with it. Over the summer, Treasure Hunt was moved. Nick Hewland explains: “The BBC decided to try it out on Saturday night around 5pm. They felt the audience for Flog It (traditionally in this slot) would find Treasure Hunt very appealing, as it fitted the demographic well. In addition they felt each show should be more of a weekly ‘event’ rather than just an everyday show.” Alas Treasure Hunt didn’t prosper here either, with episodes being postponed thanks to overrunning Wimbledon coverage and the programme again cast adrift with almost no pre-publicity or promotion.

As such the net result has been that that appears to be the end of Treasure Hunt. Certainly, Suzi Perry has been advising fans that the show’s over, whilst when The Guardian profiled Jane Root for “The Media Guardian 100″ in July, Treasure Hunt was cited as her “failed” attempt at finding a hit show to replace The Simpsons. Thankfully, it’s not the end for Nick Heyworth and Chatsworth. “Chatsworth has a number of exciting shows at the moment including a brand new adventure entertainment show set in an amazing location and devised by the team that came up with The Crystal Maze. Watch this space.” Similarly, David Bodycombe continues to prosper. “I’m working on a new show in development with Talent Television,” he says, “with two interactive projects with the BBC, and on a new series of my Radio 4 panel game X Marks the Spot (where I cut my teeth as a clue writer). I’m also currently flogging my How to Devise a Game Show book which has been well received by ‘slebs’ including Jeremy Beadle and Bob Monkhouse.”

For fans of Treasure Hunt – both the new series and old – the programme’s brief return to television (just 15 episodes in all) proved to be a mixed bag. The series itself was easily as enjoyable as the ’80s version with both Suzi Perry and Dermot Murnaghan falling into their roles with aplomb, whilst the globe-trotting action and fiendish puzzles managed to provide both spectacle and stimulation. Alas, undermining all of this was a plain lack of confidence in the product from the BBC’s end. The show Chatsworth had produced was charming and fun, but scheduled poorly and smuggled onto our screens almost apologetically.

And that was a shame, because when the clock finally stopped on Treasure Hunt, the programme itself was still in great shape.