When I heard that Channel 4 had commissioned a new series where people attempt to go “on the run” and outwit a crack team of trained hunters, I knew I’d have to watch. I’ve always been a sucker for these shows. Although not all quite the same, this follows in the footsteps of programmes such as Treasure Hunt, The Interceptor (not the recent BBC1 series), Wanted (with Richard Littlejohn), Mantracker (can you escape a Canadian cowboy?), Born Survivor, and Lost (not that one but the Channel 4 gameshow in which sometimes incredibly annoying contestants had to race to get back to London from somewhere in the world).
What all these shows have is the randomness of going anywhere in an artificially constrained grid, and a level of artifice that television demands. The show has to be a format, and it has to come in on budget and with a set number of episodes.
I think the aims of Hunted are quite lofty – explaining the level to which we have become a surveillance state with CCTV, automatic number plate recognition, and just ourselves essentially agreeing to being tracked by our mobile phone operators or the operating systems themselves.
The difficulty is that in reality, only the state truly has access to this kind of data. Sure, some tabloid reporters hacked some mobile phones, and I’ve no doubt “social engineering” has been used to find out who a car numberplate is registered to or whatever, but we know that when a TV show tries to replicate things, they have to basically make things up.
In Hunted, 14 contestants are spread across six episodes, either individually or in pairs. They go on the run at an hour’s notice, although they’ve obviously applied to be on the show and presumably don’t have employers expecting them in work when they’re told the starting gun has been fired. Instantly then, they’re in a rush, packing rucksacks with belongings and grabbing the provisions that they think they’ll need. They’re each accompanied by a camera operator, although additional camera teams do seem to be around to shoot different angles. Their “grid” is limited to the British Isles.
But we know there must be compromises. Their phones are supposedly monitored – but that must mean that information is volunteered when they’re called. We know that the production company doesn’t have CCTV access, so in the first episode the CCTV was simply replicated by a camera crew who obviously knew the contestants’ whereabouts. (The programme’s website notes that this is what they’ve done). Presumably too, the production team feed the team of hunters the locations of vehicles for number plate tracking. The website explains that a second ex-policeman sits between the production team and the hunters deciding what information they would have available. So it’s all a fiction really.
The hunters themselves are all supposedly world class experts. They’re introduced to sound very important with lots of them tangentially involved in things like the 7/7 bombings or Al Qaeda. I don’t doubt that they do have those skills, but it always feels like we’re being oversold on them. They’re available to make a TV series rather than track terrorists after all. Then there are the pick-up teams driving around completely inconspicuous black SUVs. They always seem to be remarkably close by even though there aren’t all that many of them and the country is quite big. I strongly suspect that editing makes some supposed close calls look a lot closer than they might be.
Contestants seem to have agreed to having their computers, tablets and social media hacked. But they don’t seem to use two factor authentication on their accounts, and end up leaving obvious clues in their search histories. Incognito browsing anybody? And in the first episode, everyone seemed to decide that going “up north” was the best thing to do, often going to places that they know even though surely anyone could work out if you’ve lived somewhere in the past. (I’m not saying I wouldn’t have headed north myself, but I’m aware you can get lost in a city too.)
They also seem to have agreed to having homes “broken into,” although I did wonder if I spotted a night-for-day shot, and I assume that in reality back doors were left open and they might as well have switched on the lights and let the intruders not mess around pretending people were sleeping upstairs.
There’s lots of pacing around and gruff “police talk” in the “undisclosed location” where everything is being handled from. I assume that the “undisclosed location” is either an office for hire, or a TV studio dressed to look like an office. I strongly suspect that it’s not in Gherkin as all the exterior shots led us to believe.
I’m probably being a little unfair on the series, as it entertained me enough. The trouble is that many of us understand how television works and its constructed. Even if we’ve not worked in it ourselves, the veil has been lifted. And in something like this, we need a real understanding of how it was produced. You can’t just claim that you’re tapping a phone just because you’re making a so-called factual TV series.
I do however like the fact that the kind of surveillance we live under every day is getting a public airing. At the start, the chief hunter, Brett Lovegrove, former Head of Counter Terrorism for the City of London Police, explained why the information authorities collected was essential. While the first contestant, a doctor, explained that he was doing this because he hated the surveillance state so much.
I’ll stick with the series, although I could do with less of Emily who keeps undermining her team-mate by making phone calls home that instantly mean they have to go on the move again.
And finally, did C4’s deputy head of documentaries really get credited as a “Bourne Specialist”?