Revisiting 80s UK game show Interceptor

"I like it!" Remember the short-lived 1980s helicopter-based game show Interceptor? Er, Jamie does...

When I used to look back on my childhood – in the days before the internet’s all-seeing taint – there were three things that I always assumed were as much a constant of my young life as excessive sugar intake and making up innumerable excuses for having torn my trousers.

The first was Bertha (lovely Bertha), the stop motion-animated kids TV show helmed by Ivor Wood about a sentient factory machine – the titular Bertha – whose exploits helped trick a generation of British children into thinking that factory life was a non-stop cavalcade of japery, typified by super-advanced AI, funny wee robots and, most unrealistically of all, smiling faces. Ivor Wood must’ve been laughing all the way to the Illuminati seminar: “Enjoy your life of low-wage labour in the iron clutch of Thatcher’s fist, kids! Spoiler alert: you’re the robots.” I was shocked to discover that only 13 episodes were made, all transmitted between 1985 and 1986, meaning that my brain is a rotten, stinking liar. The show was a flash in the pan; I probably spent more time staring listlessly at my own legs than watching Bertha.

The second thing was Stefan Dennis’s pop career, which I learned to my astonishment consists of a mere two singles released in the late 1980s. Really? The nightmare seemed significantly longer. (Stefan’s most famous song asked us, Don’t It Make You Feel Good? To which we all replied, no. No, Stefan. It don’t make us feel good; and furthermore you’ve really upset Lynne Truss).

The third member of this holy trinity of late 80s cultural icons was, of course, Interceptor: the light-entertainment game show that pitted two plucky contestants against a helicoptered Scottish maniac (the Interceptor of the title).

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Although it felt like Interceptor dominated my childhood, in reality only eight episodes were ever broadcast, all airing between July 1989 and New Year’s Day 1990. Eight measly hours, including adverts. Until the internet gut-punched me with the horrible truth of the show’s meagre existence, I had always regarded it as ancient, ever-present and eternal, like God, or repeats of Friends. Those eight hours swelled to engulf my entire youth, taking up space in my adult recollections out of all proportion to reality.

I’m not indulging in craven hyperbole when I say that Interceptor collided with my childhood like a rocket scudding a cathedral’s bell. It struck such a deep, resonating chord within my nine-year-old soul that something of an existential crisis followed. I didn’t want to be me or Peter Venkman anymore: I wanted to be the Interceptor. ‘Busting’, I thought to myself, ‘just don’t make me feel good now’ (shakes fist in the air at Stefan Dennis). I hung up my plastic proton pack, and badgered mum to get me a Laser Tag set; a gun and sensor combo that I could use to emulate my dark-clad hero, a kinsman of my country! Although my request was granted, subsequent pleas for a helicopter fell upon deaf ears.

Unfortunately, there were two snags with the Laser Tag set: one, the gun had to be literally pressed against the sensor to trigger it; and two, I didn’t have any friends. Never matter. I ditched the set and whiled away the days and nights running around my garden shooting people who weren’t there with my invisible wrist-mounted zapper-cannon, much to the consternation of my child psychologist.

My memory may have exaggerated Interceptor’s presence and influence, but it’s quality that counts, right? After all, there are only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers, and it’s rightly celebrated as a classic. Maybe eight is just right. A few weeks ago, to find out if the show still lived up to my memory of it, I scoured YouTube for footage. (I say ‘scoured’. I pretty much typed ‘Interceptor’ into a search box and the episodes popped up on screen, but somehow that didn’t feel questy enough, so let’s just pretend that I scoured) I wanted to feel the unspoiled joy of childhood flooding through my veins again. Oh, hubris, thy foul wretch!

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I now realise that I should’ve heeded Fred Gwynne’s warning in Pet Sematary that sometimes dead is better, and left Interceptor to live on unsullied in my memories alongside Pat Sharpe’s mullet and Rolf’s Cartoon Club. Oh, time, time, thou unspeakably cruel mistress! Immediately after watching the first full episode I was moved to make a phone call to my own past using an imaginary telephone I’d borrowed from the wee robot in Bertha:

‘Hello, is that Venkman? Oh, Peter, Peter, thanks for taking my call. Listen, about 1989… em, I was in a bad place then, and… I… …I… I’ve still got my proton pack, and I… I wonder if it isn’t too late? I never should have said that busting don’t make me feel good.’

I may have returned from my trip to the past ever-so-slightly jaded, but it’s my duty faithfully to report my experience of viewing Interceptor through adult eyes, and lovingly recreate some of its terrible splendour for your entertainment. Here goes.

What happens in Interceptor

Two contestants are taken to a countryside location somewhere in Britain, each being asked to choose one of two backpacks – bulky metal things adorned with sensors – which they must wear for the duration of the game. One of these backpacks contains a thousand pounds, the other contains a worthless lump of plastic, and they won’t know which is which until the game is over. The contestants are then blindfolded and flown by helicopter to locations seven miles apart. Once their blindfolds are removed they stagger around saying things like: ‘Gosh, I’m in a field, how exciting,’ and ‘Trees? Cor blimey, as I live and breathe.’ The contestants then have forty minutes in which to traverse the countryside; their mission to beat the clock, reunite with their team-mate and hopefully unlock the money-filled backpack. However, time isn’t their only enemy. There’s also…

THE INTERCEPTOR! (Boooo! Hisssss!) The contestants’ nemesis is a tall, blonde, blue-eyed Scotsman who wears a long, black leather coat, and has a laser gun strapped to his wrist. He looks like an SS Officer unthawed in the year 2257 who’s been sent back in time to avenge the fuhrer. His helicopter is piloted by a guy called Mikey, whom the Interceptor berates ceaselessly. Their snarky, passive-aggressive banter evokes the spirit of two deeply unhappy people slowly suffocating inside a loveless marriage. The Interceptor spends his time ping-ponging between the contestants in his helicopter attempting to shoot the sensors on their back-packs with his wrist-mounted military-grade TV remote. The special effects here are incredible, but only if you happen to be able to perceive infrared in the daylight with your naked eye. For the rest of us, what we see is pretty much a man angrily pointing his arm out of a window.

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If the Interceptor scores a direct hit on one of the contestants’ backpacks it will automatically lock, potentially sealing off their thousand pound prize money. To prevent this from happening, the contestants have to spend the majority of the game shuffling around like crabs or waddling backwards in slo-mo, Twin Peaks-style.

The Interceptor has two main gimmicks. The first is his bizarre habit of raising his arms aloft and shrieking like a fish-eagle at random moments, and, yes, that’s absolutely as hilarious as it sounds. Sean O’Kane, the actor who ‘plays’ the Interceptor, apparently told an interviewer that his fish-eagle obsession began in childhood. He honed his technique on the football fields, where he would lie in wait to swoop on any errant balls that happened to be kicked his way. I guess the other kids must’ve loved him for that. His other gimmick is his inimitable catchphrase, ‘I LIKE IT!’ which, as catchphrases go, is actually less a catchphrase and more just something that someone might occasionally say whenever they like something.

Throughout the show, host – and ex-tennis ace – Annabel Croft sits in a centrally-located plush market town with a map spread out in front of her, communicating with the contestants via headset and guiding them through the game. Her first task is to ascertain where they are on her map. ‘You’re in a field, are you?’ ‘That’s right. I’m pretty sure this green stuff is grass, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.’ ‘OK, are there any other helpful landmarks that you can see?’ ‘Em… yes, I think so? Sheep?’ Sometimes Annabel will ask: ‘Is there a signpost anywhere?’ just to demonstrate that she’s the zen master of orienteering. She also has her own catchphrase of sorts, which is ‘Now listen to me’, which she delivers sternly, in the style of a young Anne Widdecombe annoyed that she isn’t getting enough attention at someone else’s birthday party.

Annabel, bless her, is a bad choice of host. She’s too posh, plummy and fawn-like to exist in the no-nonsense, high-octane world of Interceptor. Her presence in the show is proof that the programme makers weren’t quite sure what kind of show they wanted to make, and the kind of audience they wanted to attract. Did they want to appeal to the tweed-clad crowd who were nostalgic for the gentle, antiques-based caress of Treasure Hunt or did they want to appeal to little boys like me who wanted to see people hunted down by a terrifying airborne Scotsman? (I guess I’ve just described family programming.) The title sequence is a crystallisation of this confusion. An angry, synthesised rendition of Chopin plays over images of a crazy man backflipping over fences and shouting out of helicopters, all of which is jarringly intercut with mini-montages of Annabel Croft looking delicate and vaguely apologetic.

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The show operates on three tiers, which come together to form a delicious class-status cake. Posh Annabel is obviously at the top, always looking like she’d rather be out riding horses. The contestants are the middle-class filling, a medley of Trevors and Poppies. At the start of one of the episodes the contestants tell Annabel that they intend to spend their prize money on a new sofa. It doesn’t get any more middle-class than that, at least without the addition of a hypoallergenic Shih Tzu called Clarence. Watching Annabel guide the contestants through the game is like watching the Queen herding accountants. The base of this cake is the Interceptor: and what could be more terrifying for the middle-class contestants than the thought of being pursued by an angry working-class Scotsman from Cambuslang?

Before the contestants can reunite, they first have to travel to a bonus location and retrieve the key for the other’s backpack, which Annabel skilfully guides them towards on those rare occasions when the headsets actually work. Most of the contestants’ time is spent perching nervously on the back of milk floats screaming ‘Annabel?!’ into the void. Various vehicles await the contestants along their route, operated by normal members of the public who are in no way stooges, no siree. It’s fun to watch a succession of awkward, moon-faced members of the public trying their best to act surprised when a sweaty member of the middle-class runs up to them demanding a lift in their tractor. Especially when the stooges try to act coy: ‘Give you a lift? Now? But I’m really rather enjoying standing here nonchalantly leaning against a tree for no reason in the middle of fucking nowhere.’

I suppose the blatant staging is a necessary evil, as without access to transport the contestants would never be able to cover seven miles in forty minutes, certainly not without the help of nuclear-grade amphetamines and a hungry T-Rex snapping at their heels. The Interceptor often pursues his quarry over land, most of the time on foot, but sometimes on boats, bikes and behind the wheels of classic cars. None of it really makes the show any more exciting, although I’m sure it was fun for Sean O’Kane.

Fans will always tell you that the Interceptor’s tractor ambush is the show’s greatest moment. Sean tricks one of the contestants into believing he’s a harmless farmer, and in the process attempts an English accent which proves to the universe once and for all that Scottish people called Sean should always stick to their own guttural brogues. If that’s the greatest moment, then close second must be the time that one of the contestants uses an incredibly reluctant half-naked man as a human shield.  

Once both contestants have their keys – which they win by doing things like climbing ladders and half-heartedly jousting for seven seconds – Annabel guides them towards each other and the big, deeply ho-hum finale. The contestants can only win if they manage to touch hands within forty minutes, and, of course, if the pack containing the money hasn’t been zapped shut by the Interceptor. Most of the time, I’m happy to report, they fail, and the couch of their dreams is denied to them. And the Interceptor tells us that he likes it.    In retrospect, I think I would’ve preferred it had the Interceptor taken inspiration from Stefan Dennis and asked instead ‘Don’t it make me feel good?’ 

An old man’s coda

Thank you for coming with me on my chopper-based trip down memory lane. I’ve learned a lot about the child I was, and the man I now am: I’ve learned that I was a weird little kid who has now transformed into a woefully middle-aged and middle-class (in sentiment if not in cash) man. Instead of marvelling at Interceptor’s bevvy of helicopter hijinks and fast motors, I sat in my reclining chair with a hot mug of tea, muttering things like ‘Oooo, Faversham looks quaint and lovely’ and ‘I’ll bet they’ve got a really nice farmer’s market.’

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