Sunday 13 November 2016


We've all committed a bit of light fingered theft, right? I know I have, but please, before you get on the phone to the rozzers, I must stress that this amounts to little more than "liberating" the complimentary biscuits from first class train carriages as I stomp through to cattle class.

I certainly don't burgle houses or endorse this heinous act in anyway whatsoever, but, believe it or not, ITV - the most miscreantic of all the channels - actively celebrated this crime in the early 1990s. Now, I know that it was an era of poll taxes and rising unemployment, but it's no excuse for inciting the sort of behaviour seen in Steal.

Genre: Game Show
Channel: ITV

Transmission: 1990 - 1992

Hosted by cabaret entertainer Mark Walker - yes, that's right, the son of Roy Walker - Steal saw two teams of two contestants using their memory power to select squares from a 4x4 board. Now, it may sound rather simplistic and I suppose it was, but there was actually a lot more to it than being an infantile game of "remember the card".

The two teams (who were stacked on top of each other) were first shown a board filled in various icons related to burglary. There was a swag bag, an eye mask, Jools the cat burglar, cash prizes and, finally, Jools the cat behind bars to really help give a naturalistic and real account of burglary - funnily enough, they failed to include an icon of a head smashed in with a lead pipe.

The teams were given 10 seconds to memorise the board, but in a further twist, this was then rotated to confound the contestants' memory skills, see I told you it was much more than that memory game you played as a kid with your mum where the grand prize was a sherbet lemon and immense praise. Moving on, each team had to reveal a square at a time and two rounds of this game followed with the consequences of the squares being:

  • Swag bag - won you a glittering prize such as a pocket translator or a worthless booby prize e.g. a set of coat hangers.
  • Eye mask - allowed you to steal a prize from the other team
  • Green pound sign - a cash prize which was determined by a contestant using their buzzer to stop a fluctuating cash amount on screen
  • Red pound sign - in the second round, a red pound sign lost you money
  • Jools behind bars - revealing the jailbird Jools lost players all their money
  • Jools - contestants who revealed a strutting Jools entered a mini-game

And the mini games acted as an opportunity to win more cash. Jools the cat burglar came to the fore in these sections where contestants were handed a joystick and tasked with playing computer games such as Buried Booty (stealing treasure), Open and Shut Cases (stealing objects out of windows) and Laundered Lolly (grabbing money out of the sky and pegging it on a washing line).

After these two rounds, the team with the most cash would go through to the final round. Again, there was a 4x4 square filled full of icons, but this time only one of the team members would get to flex their memory muscles. And they only had five seconds to memorise the squares. And the 12 external squares would rotate 180 degrees one way whilst the 4 internal squares would rotate in the opposite direction. The contestant then had 8 moves within a minute to reveal five specific symbols e.g. a safe, a vault, an alarm, a bank and a key to win the main prize, whilst other squares revealed cash prizes or time penalties.

The main prize available was between £1,000 - £3,000 over the course of Steal's three series.

Planning the Steal

Steal was the brainchild of Ian Messiter and his 14 year old grandson James Beaumont. Messiter, of course, had worked on radio game show Twenty Questions and, in fact, devised One Minute Please which later morphed into the long running Just a Minute, so came with plenty of game show savvy. The show was originally demoed to Central TV on a BBC Micro Model B.

Three series each consisting of twenty episodes were produced by Central and aired on Saturday evenings during the early 90s. A non-broadcast pilot episode featuring Wayne Dobson in the Mark Walker role was also recorded, but purely used to show the series to ITV. Episodes were later repeated on the West Midlands digital station Big Centre TV

Stealing my Memories

For years I could remember a game show which featured some sort of grid, some computer graphics and some vague burglary theme going on. However, no one else on the planet could remember it, so I suspected it was going to be yet another of those shows which felt within reach of my memory, but not close enough to discover more about. And, believe me, I spend long, long nights weeping about such TV shows whilst beating myself with archive editions of the TV Times.

Anyway, that's enough about my retro self-flagellation and, besides, one day I typed "ITV Game Show 1990" into Google and, sure enough, found a link to the first ever episode of Steal on YouTube. Which was nice.

Now, the graphics were the thing that really hooked me back in the day, so let's take a look at them first. Obviously, they're dated to our 21st century eyes, but back then they looked out of this world compared to the blocky, 8-bit attempts proffered by my Amstrad CPC 464. They're probably no more amazing than the graphics on offer from the Amiga at the time, but I didn't know a single person with an Amiga at the time so my tiny, eight year old brain was well and truly blown.

And it's the interstitial games which employ these graphics - designed by The Electronic Pencil Company - that really give Steal a unique edge. I can't think of any other game shows at the time which required contestants to pick up a joystick and GamesMaster was still well over a year away. It makes a nice change from the sub games of, for example, The Generation Game where contestants would have to glue bats to a shop dummy, or something.

The main rounds of the game which require the fantastic memory skills are certainly taxing, albeit housed within a ridiculously simple premise. Messiter's devised a decent game show here, but again, to my 21st century eyes, it looks a little bit too clean and simple to stand a chance these days. As with all the best game shows, there's a bit of fun for the audience to join in with and scream at the screen, but I couldn't help think that a few general knowledge questions along the way would have helped raise the engagement stakes for viewers.

Oh, and what about Mark Walker? How does he shape up when compared to his father on the all conquering Catchphrase?

Well, first off, mullet aside, he's the absolute spit of Roy, but a very different beast given the age differences we're looking at. He's a lot more active (nowhere near as magnificently as Barrymore at his peak though), but he's inherited his Dad's propensity for comedy and frequently drops gags although they're not quite as sharp or well delivered as Roy's. However, Mark's an affable host and his bright, cheery charms help to calm the contestants and propel the show through its more repetitive sections.

Final Thoughts

Steal certainly isn't up there with the best ever British game shows, but it's got a likeable, simplistic charm that underlines why it managed three series in a prestigious slot. The graphics, of course, are what hooked me in originally and they probably remain the most appealing section thanks to the unique use of a computer game and joystick on screen.

And I'd probably watch a few more episodes if they turned up, but I shan't be launching any major crime activity to lay my hands on any. And, no, I am NOT available to steal biscuits for you, so nick them yourselves

1 comment:

  1. I have a very, very vague recollection of this. I must have watched it, being such a big Catchphrase fan. It's on at the right time for me to have caught it too. It was a good premise, in parts, but there were certain rules that just weren't explained and it was pretty repetitive. I can see how middle-aged folks "waggling their joysticks" would have been unique enough to make it a curiosity at the very least. Also, you're right, Mark has inherited his father's "gift" for comedy... *ahem*