R. Paul Wilson On: The Real Hustle
For 11 seasons, I wrote and executed hundreds of scams for the BBC show, The Real Hustle.
At the height of its success, it was one of the BBC’s most successful reality shows with a huge following and was syndicated around the world. Several countries bought the format and attempted to make their own versions without success.
It was a difficult show to make because it required a genuine understanding of how and why scams worked and how to translate those scams into something we could film.
Other versions failed because all they had was the format points of the show, without the necessary knowledge to adapt to unpredictable reactions or situations.
I was (and am) often asked about how the show was made. Here are the questions I’m asked most often:
- “Weren’t you just teaching people how to pull scams?”
- “Where did the scams come from?”
- “Was it all set-up for the cameras?”
- “Why didn’t people recognise you?”
- “Will there be more series?”
Let’s start at the top:
Were we teaching people how to be con artists?
Con games have been around as long as human beings and every con game ever conceived relied on one important factor for the scam to work: that the victim never recognised it as a scam!
Allow me to share my favorite quote on the subject:
“Experience has demonstrated that the ignorance of the public with regard to the capabilities of trickery is the principle factor in all problems connected with every kind of deception. If the public only knew a little more in this respect, the thousand and one quackeries which flourish in our midst could not exist.” John Nevil Maskelyne, February 1894
Put simply: if the public is made aware of a con or a scam, that scam ceases to be as valuable or effective to the con artist. As the old saying goes, “never wise up a mark.”
The Real Hustle entertained its viewers with real scams played on real people, for real stakes.
The result was an increasingly popular TV show that was shown around the world. Every person who watched the show was, by osmosis, learning how to identify these scams before falling for them.
People reported scams to the authorities stating that they only knew it was a con because they saw it on our show!
Of the millions of people who watched each show, the vast majority were honest people – potential victims of con artists; exactly who scammers didn’t want us to educate.
As a result, a con man’s pool of potential victims was greatly reduced and the chances of him being caught, increased.
Informing the public was our purpose. Con artists already knew how to con people.
Where do the scams come from?
New scams are being created every day.
Thanks to the media, scams are exposed quickly and new versions appear frequently. One hundred years ago, con men could work the same scam for decades by moving on to the next town when people got wise.
Now, they need to re-invent con games to counter public knowledge. Like a virus adapting to resist new treatments, the problem doesn’t go away, it simply changes.
I constantly monitored the media for any new scam or twist on an old con. I’d then write the scam as a Real Hustle item and pass it to the producers and the BBC for approval.
When getting ready for a new series, we sat down and collated all the material we’d built up during and since the last season. My sources included: books, internet sites, newspapers and associates “in the business”. Some of these scams were very old, others were cutting edge; some common and others extremely rare – but all based on cons from the real world.
The BBC insisted on this. When presenting ideas to the network, they wanted to know exactly where they came from.
We were never in the business of making up scams on The Real Hustle but we tried to frame them in a way that was both interesting and memorable, making the con games easier to identify if the same thing happened to a viewer in the real world.
Was it all a set-up?
In a word: NO.
This was a common question. Many people liked to tweet or blog that the show was “obviously faked”. They were plain wrong.
To some degree you’ll have to take my word for it, but let me point out a couple facts:
First off, people can’t act.
When you saw those reactions on our show, they were real. And reactions were the most important part of the show.
The only way we could ensure a genuine response was to make the scam genuine for those people. Whatever else happened, the mark had to believe they genuinely got scammed, otherwise their reaction would never work because people simply can’t fake that moment.
From day one, Alex, myself and our execs insisted on taking the difficult path. It was the whole point of the show and, in my opinion, the reason for its success.
There are many elements that you never saw on the show. Scams within the scams to make sure our marks were in the right place at the right time and the “marks” were never random people.
We had a team of researchers who did their homework on all potential contributors. It was a tough process, but the rewards were on the screen.
The mark never knew they were being filmed by The Real Hustle and they had no idea it was a scam until the walls came tumbling down.
This was clearly stated at the top of every show, but people still doubted it.
A few years ago, after the Queen was misrepresented by not-so-clever editing on a BBC promo, shows like ours were closely monitored to make sure we complied with the BBC’s strict rules.
Our show seemed to enjoy special interest in this matter but our producers were able to clearly prove that everything complied with our opening statement.
Had we been faking things, The Real Hustle would have been off the air years before.
Why didn’t people recognise us?
Our research team spent most of their time trying to find people who never watched the show and had no idea who we were.
There are millions of people who watched The Real Hustle and millions more who did not. Our team invested a lot of time in identifying viable subjects before attempting the frustrating process of getting them to the right place at the right time.
It must have been one of the toughest jobs in television.
Over the years we came up with several methods to identify the best marks and the best strategies for getting them to our party on time. I’m not about to reveal those methods or they might cease to be viable but they were simple, clever and highly effective.
Even with our arsenal of tricks, we sometimes came unstuck.
All too often someone would walk into a scam and recognise us before we could say a word. It was a numbers game but when it happened, we simply reset everything and waited for the next mark.
For every scam we devised we had several potential victims on the line and could simply wait until the next mark arrived and hope they had never seen the show.
Eventually we had to resort to simple disguises.
This was not for benefit of the mark who would soon see through our hats, wigs and glasses if they had watched the show. Instead, we were trying to avoid being recognised by people around us!
Many times, while filming secretly in public, someone walked into a live scam to tell us how much they loved the show.
That’s the one factor we could never predict but were always prepared for.
Will there be more series?
Never say never.
That being said, all of us have moved on to other projects and pursuits.
While I am still deeply involved in deception, magic, cons and scams; Alex and Jess have concentrated on their acting and presenting careers. Alex is a travel show presenter and Jess has starred in several feature films.
I’ve spent the last eight years working on my own film career from behind the camera but have also produced, written, directed and consulted-for many scam-related TV projects.
I think a new series of The Real Hustle might be feasible but it has to be said that the show got lucky when it cast three people who could actually do these scams. We tried many times to bring other people onto the show but no one had the natural grift sense that Alex, Jess and I developed over those 11 seasons.
When re-made around the world, the show failed because they never had the combination of talents we three brought to the show, so to make another series with new hustlers seems like a long shot.
Perhaps a couple of specials might be feasible but it’s been a long time since the show originally aired and we are still all being recognized.
For now, the show has been reloaded onto BBC iPlayer and is available online via The Real Hustle’s official YouTube channel.