Kay Burley: ‘Celebrity Hunted was terrifying and exhausting – but ultimately exhilarating’

Sky presenter Kay Burley gives her personal account of the ups and downs of trying to survive two weeks as a fugitive – while evading capture by a tenacious former police officer – in the adrenaline-soaked new series of Celebrity Hunted

Image: Nathan Pask

Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, even Ned Kelly – I’ve always had a secret yearning to be a fugitive. It’s a romantic, Hollywood-style notion of running, hiding, staying one step ahead of the law – an underdog who lives on their wits. So when I was given the opportunity to take part in Celebrity Hunted, a charity version of the Bafta-nominated Channel 4 series in which a group of ‘fugitives’ are pursued by a team of crack security and intelligence officers, I was straight out of the traps.

Of course, the reality was totally different. No Bolivian landscapes or high-speed car chases in a 1934 Ford Deluxe. Instead, I found myself hiding in dark corners, sleeping fitfully on a cliff face and taking part in a slow-speed motorway chase in a bread van, while higher-octane escapades included a London Fire Brigade boat trip down the Thames. Oh, and clambering up a rocky peninsula before cantering across a manicured croquet lawn, and hiding under a bed in a luxury hotel to avoid a heat-seeking drone…

But not another word – I don’t want to spoil any of the programme’s adrenaline-fuelled surprises. Safe to say, the whole experience of being hunted was nerve-jangling, terrifying at Cashmoretimes, and exhausting. Ultimately, it was also exhilarating, especially when my ‘hunter’ was as ridiculously handsome as former Met robbery squad cop Paul Cashmore. Although when he leapt panther-like from a blacked-out Volvo estate and shouted, ‘Stay where you are!’, I burst into tears before dashing in the opposite direction.

My journey began at a Central London location with the other seven fugitives – including writer and comedian Dom Joly and Olympic gymnast Louis Smith. We’d been woken early, then corralled together and each given £50 in cash plus a credit card with access to a further £50. We knew that if we used the card while on the run, Hunted HQ would be alerted to our exact position and the ground crews would be on us immediately – a calculation we would need to make further into our journey.

As the clock ticked down, we checked our rucksacks and wished each other well, hoping we’d meet again two weeks later at the designated extraction point. I’d packed and re-packed my belongings a dozen times. A tent, sleeping bag, ground sheet, minimal clothing and only essential toiletries. No phones – too easy for the hunters to track – so no Google Maps; instead just a compass and a road map of the UK . With a few seconds to go, nerves overwhelmed me and I almost bolted, but at that moment we were given the signal to run. Too late now to change my mind.

From the get-go, I had loaded the dice by asking MP and former commando Johnny Mercer to be my fellow fugitive. Johnny was an army captain who served three tours of Afghanistan before becoming MP for Plymouth. His knowledge would serve us well while hiding in plain sight from the pesky hunters – who include former police, counter terrorism and intelligence officers as well as analysts, profilers and cyber security bods. There’s even a former army sniper!

OK, so how scary can a TV game of cops and robbers really be? Sounds pretty straightforward. Hide in the cupboard at a friend’s house or, if you’re super-cautious, maybe live in a cave for a fortnight. Allow the hunters to run themselves ragged around 60 million acres of British countryside. Then, once they’ve given up the chase, emerge smug and victorious at the agreed point when the fortnight is up.

If only it were that simple. But we won’t know the location of that final meeting point until day 13. And in the meantime, the hunter task force – 30 or so of them, based at Hunted HQ and bolstered by the sinister black-clad ground team – can search our homes, interrogate our friends and re-create the surveillance techniques employed by the state. Of which there are alarmingly many.

Celebrity Hunted may be a grown-up version of hide and seek, but it does also prompt questions about the balance between security and everyday freedom. Ever since the first CCTV system was developed in 1942 in Nazi Germany and later used to observe the launch of V2 rockets, the demand for state-monitored observation has exploded.

Did you know that Big Brother Britain has around seven million CCTV cameras in operation, some with biometric and facial recognition? The average Londoner is caught on camera more than 300 times a day. Most surveilled is King’s Cross St Pancras station, with around 400 cameras monitoring more than 80 million people a year. Only Beijing has more cameras than London.

The hunters can also re-create AN PR – automatic number plate recognition – one of the largest non-military databases in the country. Nine thousand cameras capture between 25 and 40 million pieces of data per day, so if the hunters think you may be evading capture in a vehicle, they immediately search for your number plate. Don’t even get me started on Telematics, the black box built into all new cars, with technology that means security services can remotely bring a vehicle to a stop – yes, really.

Image: Nathan Pask

There’s more. The state can be granted, on request, powers to access all your web history for the past year and all your phone records. Then there’s social media. Just think about how much of your personal life you share on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. The hunters can re-create access and surveillance for all of the above, with fugitives scattering in every direction to avoid capture and desperately calculating whether a car, boat, train or even a light aeroplane is the best getaway vehicle. The truth is they all have their pros and cons – CCTV can give you away at train stations and ferry ports. Every major road or motorway has AN PR monitoring. Waiting to board an aircraft uses up valuable minutes.

The kindness of strangers tends to be more reliable – until, that is, the frustrated hunter
chief, back at Hunted HQ, decides to launch a social-media campaign to track you down. Then the handful of hunters swells to potentially 60 million UK citizens. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone supports the underdog, especially when they are a journalist and a member of parliament, two of the least-liked professions in the country, as Johnny and I discovered.

I was aware of none of the above when I first became hooked on Hunted, now in its fourth series. I was delighted when the producers approached me to take part. Not only would I be running around the countryside in the glorious summer sunshine, I would also be raising awareness for Stand Up To Cancer.

Cancer has left a scar on my life. It has claimed some of the people most dear to me – my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, numerous friends – and I’ve had my own cancer scares, too. It will affect one in two of us in the UK . There can’t be a single family that hasn’t been touched by it. While on the run I had a lot of time to think about the pain and loss this wretched disease causes. I remember becoming overwhelmed, one day while hiding out, with the grief of losing three girlfriends in the six weeks before we filmed the show. The hunters hadn’t caught up with me but the fury of what cancer leaves behind had.

Last year, more than £15 million was raised by Channel 4 viewers for the Stand Up To Cancer campaign. Celebrity Hunted viewers contributed cash by texting donations during the show’s four episodes. We’re hoping that the figure will be even greater this year.

While on the run, we met so many wonderful people who were willing to help because they, too, had their heartbreaking stories of loss through cancer. We were offered comfortable beds, had amazing meals cooked for us and acquired a fabulous box of Argentinian red wine, which we kept safely stored away until we knew the hunters couldn’t reach us for the night.

Even more important to us was our ‘brew bag’, which consisted of a tiny camp stove, Calor gas, coffee, tea bags, sachets of sugar and two ‘cups’ Johnny made by cutting the bottom off Evian water bottles with his army penknife. Less was more, as we had to carry everything with us.

With limited funds and resources, I learned to appreciate the little things that make everyday life easier and more bearable, while coping without home comforts such as crisp, clean sheets or a G&T – and my family and friends, who it was too risky to contact while on the run.

Instead, Johnny and I chatted about how important family is. The dynamic between us worked brilliantly. I was front of house, making initial contact with strangers and blagging what we could, while Johnny was behind the scenes, unfailingly calm and keeping us safe.

But I also used the long hours of enforced solitude to learn more about myself and
others. Ordinarily, I am always chasing my tail, reading newspapers for work, checking headlines, preparing for my live TV show or hurtling around trying to tick off a multitude of chores in double-quick time. The pace of life on the run is necessarily slower, so I had the chance to read or just stare out to sea. And I discovered that it really isn’t that hard to live without my smartphone.

I also learned some invaluable survival techniques from Johnny, including how to try to evade capture using fish hooks and dog legs (if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you). Not skills I’ve needed since I returned to the newsroom, so far!

Some of my most lasting memories, though, will be the overriding kindness of others. We hear so much about how social media has made us bad-tempered and antisocial, but Johnny and I found that although some of the people we met were initially unsure and reserved – in a very British way – soon almost everyone wanted to know more about our challenge and do everything they could to help us evade capture. Smiling and saying hello to a stranger can be rewarding in so many ways.

So how far did we get? Did we beat the hunters? Well, I’m certainly not about to spoil it for you. I can tell you that even now I’m back on civvy street I still catch my breath when I hear a plane or a helicopter. And if a car comes closer to me than I was expecting, I wonder whether to run or hide.

Nevertheless, it was a spectacular experience. Even Paul the hunter enjoyed it – he told us this is the best series yet!

Celebrity Hunted for Stand Up To Cancer will be shown on Channel 4 in October. To make a donation to Stand Up To Cancer, visit channel4.com/su2c

Meet the hunter

Paul Cashmore, 43, is a bodyguard and former robbery squad officer with the Met

Image: Nathan Pask

‘Filming the Hunted series is one of the most intense projects I have ever been involved in and I’m blessed to work with such a talented team. I love the thrill of the chase, and grilling the fugitives’ associates to try to find their Achilles heel. We are all creatures of habit, and habits can give you away if you’re trying to evade capture. Would Kay contact her son as she usually did every Friday?

‘Being on the show is exhilarating – nothing is going to halt my pursuit of the fugitives. In this series I was partnered with the wonderful Zoe Spinner, another former police officer, whose day job is in covert intelligence. I never thought Kay and Johnny would give Zoe and me such a tough job. I thought I’d catch everyone quickly, and that fugitives with children were more likely to come up for air and use a network familiar to them. I underestimated Kay’s determination.

‘It was hands down my favourite hunt, with so many close calls. It involves planes, boats, vehicle pursuits, bugging houses, intense questioning and major decoys. There’s probably enough footage to fill a series about them alone. It was clear from the start that Kay was going to push boundaries. At one location she left us a note, and I said to Zoe, ‘I bet she is watching us.’ She was. In retrospect, what I should have done was sit on the verandah, open a bottle of champagne and raise a glass to her. There is always tomorrow, Kay, and I’m still coming for you.’