"Welcome watchers of illusion to my castle of confusion"
Knightmare was a children's fantasy game show that ran from 1987 to 1994 on CITV and is still repeated on Sky's Challenge?. The brainchild of Tim Child, Knightmare was a program like no other. In order to complete a quest, and in the earlier series, earn the silver spurs of squiredom, teams of three children would attempt to guide a forth through a three level 'Cromakey' (blue screen) dungeon designed by the artist David Rowe. Along the way, they would encounter numerous traps and puzzles of varying difficulty, but unlike most children's game shows, players nearly always went home empty handed. The game was so hard that of the sixty-nine teams that played only eight successfully completed their adventure. Combining this unpatronising format with a cast of reasonably proficient stage actors and a creepy medieval atmosphere gave the show a cult following.
At its peak, Knightmare pulled in an audience of five million, which for a children's program is incredible. I have clear memories of autumns of the early nineties being defined by Knightmare being on on Friday evenings. By the time it ended in 1994, Knightmare had become an obsession of my friends, dominating our playtime games and our lunchtime conversations. It was, in my opinion, a truly excellent show.
The action takes place in Knightmare Castle, it's dungeon, and the surrounding countryside. Knightmare castle is owned by Treguard, a bearded medieval man who appears to be a low level wizard, a dungeon master (literally) and a warrior of some sort, perhaps a knight. In the earlier series, Treguard would transport teams of contestants seeking knighthood to his castle and pit them against his construction, a dungeon of illusions. Should they succeed, he would award them with the silver spurs of squiredom. In later series, Treguard's dungeon was taken over by the forces of the opposition, a band of evildoers whoes objective seemed to be to hinder Treguard and his ilk at every turn. In these series, the contestants would attempt to conquer the dungeon in order to fight for the side of good, and often to rescue someone on their side. Treguard would summon teams to his castle by striking his Staff of Power on the ground and crying "Enter stranger!"
Teams would be made up of four children, aged roughly between seven and fifteen, upon entering, they would be asked who they were and where they came from. In the earlier series, this took the form of a short ritual:
Treguard: Who challenges my dungeon?
Dungeoneer: David Campbell
Treguard: You have some small previous experience of dungeoneering I hope
Dungeoneer: Yes I have. -Note: this reffered to the fact that contestants were auditioned by means of roleplaying, and would often be D&D players.
Treguard: Very well. And what reward do you seek?
Dungeoneer: I seek knighthood
Treguard: That will not be possible. Only the first step of Knighthood can be taken here. The Squiredom is the reward for surviving the dungeon, for silver proceeds gold, and the Silver Spurs of a Squire will be yours, if you survive. Now, you know that you may have three advisers to aid you on your quest. Call them to us please.
One of the team members would be the Dungeoneer, as the name suggests, this was the person who would venture into the dungeons. Before they entered, the rules would be explained to them and they would be given their knapsack and in later series the eye-shield. Onto their head would be placed the Helm of Justice. This helmet was equipped with an earpiece and a microphone so that when in the dungeon they could communicate with their team and since, as Treguard would say, "justice is blind," the helmet would cover their eyes, only allowing them to see what was directly underneath their feet. Later on, there would be a screen inside the helmet that through use of the Eyeshield would allow the Dungeoneer to see where they were going.
There were two helmets used in the course of the show, the first and by far the more popular was used from series one to series six and took the form of a large Viking-esque model with large horns coming out of either side. The second, used over the last two series was a more traditional looking knight's helmet, this one could be used in conjunction with the eyeshield, but is generally considered by fans to be inferior to the original.
The three remaining team members would be the advisors. Once the Dungeoneer had entered the dungeon, they would be responsible for guiding him or her in the their quest. They would watch the Dungeoneer by means of a magic mirror or in later series a magic pool. In actual fact these were blue screen panels with television monitors inside (and according to one advisor, dropped pencils). As the quest progressed, the advisors would direct the Dungeoneer, a typical example of this would be "make one small step to the left… no! left!" From series five, the advisors were provided with an item known as the Spy Glass. This device would allow them to check on the Opposition, Lord Fear and his sort, generally allowing the plot to become clearer, but sometimes providing valuable clues.
Series one had no overt objective, other than to get through the dungeon as Treguard had claimed to. It did, however, introduce the rough formula that would be followed over the next eight series. Generally teams would be given the following rules and guidelines before they began:
- A sprite of magic would travel with them to indicate their life force. In series one to five, it took the form of a head encased in a helmet displayed in the corner of the screen. In series six and seven, it took the form of an animated walking knight, and in series eight, it took the form of a pie (which looked a lot like a cake).
- Their life force would decrease as they progressed. The head moved from green, to amber, to red, with the face becoming more and more skeletal, the Knight's armour dropped off, revealing a skeleton, and the pie disappeared, piece by piece. Some mistakes could cause them to lose an entire "life force level" going past the final stage killed them, and "this is no game of multiple lives."
- They could eat any item of food at any time which would restore their Life Force to the highest level. It could not go higher than this
- They could carry up to two objects at a time. If they found an item that they wanted but already had two, they had to discard one. After the first series, objects could not pass from level to level.
- Sometimes a spell would be discovered. This could be cast at any time, but only three spells were allowed per quest, unless there were special circumstances. Spells could be cast by spelling the name of the spell. For instance "Spellcasting: F-I-R-E-B-A-L-L"
- Sometimes teams were told that they must be chivalrous at all times, honour, courtesy, protecting the weak, being courageous in the face of adversity etc. They were also told, usually as an addition to this that the right hand path was often the way to go.
From series two onwards, the quests had an objective, generally speaking it was to retrieve an item such as a crown, a sword, a shield or a cup, the team would choose which of these they wished to pursue. Sometimes, however, the quest would change. Merlin, or Hordriss, powerful forces for good would be captured and the team would have to rescue them, or Knightmare castle would be threatened by a troll, and the team would have to find a way to stop it.
Once the rules had been explained, a quest chosen and the Dungeoneer helmeted, Treguard would lead him or her to the portal and into the dungeon. The portal, as I remember it, took the form of a vaulted doorway with pink lines of magic or electricity flowing horizontally across it. Once their Dungeoneer was through, the advisors would crowd around either the magic mirror or pool and decide how to proceed.
Typically, the Dungeoneer would find themselves in a room with a puzzle to solve. The room would in real life be a basic set covered with bluescreen. This allowed the artist to create different surroundings without the production team having to create a new set each time. It also allowed the dungeon to be given an extra layer of fantasy and atmosphere. Looking down on the room, the advisors would note down what was in it and direct the Dungeoneer. Here was where the game really started, the shouted commands would often get confused, and there were many moments when a team lost due to a combination of a large cliff and their Dungeoneer not knowing left from right.
Progressing from room to room the Dungeoneer would face many hazards, a major one of these was the constant need to replenish their life force with food. As the life force ticked down to nothing, the team would become more and more panicked and the shouted instructions would become less and less clear, often leading to the Dungeoneer's untimely demise. For instance, a team enters a room and there are fireballs coming out of the walls. The safest thing to do would be to tell their Dungeoneer to move forward one step at a time, saying "now" whenever the coast was clear. However, whilst the door is on the top right there is food on the top left. One member of the team doesn't notice it and, trying to get through the room and into the next before their life runs out, attempts to guide the Dungeoneer to the right. The other two try to guide the Dungeoneer to the left. The Advisors argue, and the Dungeoneer, not knowing what to do stands still and is killed by a fireball.
If a team successfully made it through all three levels, they would generally have one final challenge to complete before they can complete their quest. Normally by this stage, the audience at home are on the edge of their seats, and the team are somewhat hyper. It also seems to be the case that a team that makes it this far will have gelled and will be able to work together effectively and overcome the final challenge, almost on adrenaline alone. Taking the object, or person they required, they would then run back to Knightmare Castle, normally perused by all manner of evil. If they successfully return they are rewarded. In the first series, the prize was the Silver Spurs of Squiredom, but after series four, the prize was a Fright Knight Trophy. Which is cooler is debateable. All teams also received the honour of having their faces displayed in the hall of fame, which would be scrolled past at the end of a winning episode.
Should the team fail, however, their Dungeoneer died, normally to the booming chime of gong. Treguard always seemed to enjoy witnessing the horrible demise of young children, responding with what became one of the catchphrases of the show, "Oooh! Nasty!" It is interesting to note that the fact that the Dungeoneers died, rather than merely loosing, prompted that bastion of morality, Mary Whitehouse, to condemn the show. She did apologise when she actually watched it, but it left a lasting mark on the program, in that Treguard would always say something to the effect of "...will our Dungeoneer come to a sticky end, and if so, why should you care, for here nothing is real, and everything surely is an illusion." And even after the hapless Dungeoneer "died", he or she would always be shown leaving alive and well, with Treguard commenting "...although he perished in the dungeon, he has survived in what you call your time."
Finally, if the Dungeoneer should still be alive at the end of the show, a "temporal disruption" would occur, which meant that everyone would have to take a "time out" until the next week. In some series, a gong, or a portcullis dropping in front of the Dungeoneer announced this. The exceptions were the ends of the series when the Dungeon would "temporally reform" itself. In this event, the "Great Bells of Marblehead" would chime, announcing the end of the questing season. Rather than leaving the Dungeoneer in the dungeon where he or she would surely perish, Treguard would come of with a method of getting them out. The last Dungeoneer ever escaped on the back of the friendly Dragon, Smirkenoff.
There were a huge variety of rooms that the team might face, but they can be broken down into three different categories. Each of these contained dozens of individual rooms, some of the most memorable examples of which are described below:
The table room was the simplest of the rooms, quite simply, the Dungeoneer would walk into a room and find themselves confronted with a table, on which are placed a variety of objects. Treguard would sometimes give advice as to what the Dungeoneer should pick, there again, if he didn't feel like it, he wouldn't. From series four onwards, the table might be a barrel in a tavern, or a stump in a woodland glade. Nevertheless, what the team decided to pick could profoundly alter the quest. For instance the first team ever's Dungeoneer died in the "dark dark room" when they failed to pick up the lamp. Another example of the use of the clues would be when a team found some mint humbugs, and used them to bribe the Dragon Smirkenoff into giving them a ride into the next level. Sometimes there would also be a potion on the table, amusingly one team died because they didn't take it. They reason they didn't take it? They misread it as "poison."
Taverns and People
The second way to get information of course was to talk to people. Occasionally a Dungeoneer would find themselves in a tavern or alehouse and have to talk to people. Some quite memorable characters turned up in these scenes, and would often be seen in more than one episode or series. When a Dungeoneer talked to a character, they would sometimes offer clues or spells up straight away. If not, they often wanted a little compensation. There were a few cases of quests ending because a Dungeoneer attempted to offer a character a bribe or gift that they found insulting, an example of this is when one team attempted to give Lillith, a guardian of a pit, an empty jar of Humbugs. Upset, she pushed the Dungeoneer into the pit, ending the quest.
A favourite of the first three series, this room was deceptively simple. Essentially the Dungeoneer would walk in, and there would be a bomb in the top right hand corner of the screen, the fuse, slowly burning down. The only objective was to get the Dungeoneer out of the room without the bomb exploding. Occasionally there was some food in the room, and teams might decide to get that first, before going out. Now, this should have been pretty simple to get out of, all that the team would have to do is say "take two steps right," "run forward," unfortunately, teams often didn't realise this and panicked, sometimes attempting to defuse the bomb, or debating what to do so long it exploded! This room saw the end of many a quest.
What would a fantasy game be without fireballs? Throughout the eight series of Knightmare, there were always rooms that featured fireballs of some description or purpose. In a series eight incarnation, one of these took the form of a tiled room in which fireballs shot down from the ceiling destroying the tiles and leaving a pit. Naturally, this caused teams to panic, and one team's confused Dungeoneer misheard a command and sidestepped neatly into a large hole in the floor.
One of the most threatening rooms in the Dungeon, and surprisingly, the least dangerous. Never actually claiming a Dungeoneer, these rooms contained a troll, which in Knightmare was a giant of some kind that liked to stomp around and eat children. All that the team needed to do here was convince their Dungeoneer to run for it. They succeeded every time. The bad thing was that the Troll would follow the Dungeoneer through the remainder of the level, its footsteps always booming in the background, forcing them to move faster. Something to note, is that one quest in series seven took an interesting turn when the team discovered that Lord Fear had set loose a troll and it was marching towards Knightmare Castle. Upon finding their quest object, the shield, they discovered they had a choice, they could either take the shield, or they could take a Troll Hammer, a weapon that would send the troll back into the dungeon. Naturally they chose the latter, getting it back to the Castle in time for Treguard to bash the troll over the head with it.
A reasonably common room in the series, this chamber would contain a creature, normally a dragon or overgrown scorpion or some such beast. The Dungeoneer would have to attempt to get past it without disturbing it. The danger usually came from the fact that there was some all-important food placed very near it, and so stealth was required. A notable exception to this was Smirkenoff, a friendly green dragon who owed his allegiance to Treguard. Smirky would never hurt a Dungeoneer, but he was pretty lazy and in order to help them, he would normally need paying, or perhaps entertaining.
In the first few seasons the levels were very obviously stacked on top of each-other, and so in order to get through them, the Dungeoneer would have to move down. The normal method of doing so would be to discover a room with a well or trapdoor in it and do descend to the next level. Sometimes the room would appear to be blank and a spell would have to be cast, or a puzzle solved before the trapdoor or well would be revealed.
When Dungeoneer approached the end of a level, the would come into a large blank room with a door at the far end. Before they could walk as far as the door, the room would tremble and the far wall would shoot forward, blocking the door. Then, in the wall, would appear a large and fearsome looking face. This was a blocker. The blocker would ask the Dungeoneer for a password that they should have come across in one of the clue rooms. If they correctly guessed the password, the Blocker would retreat, however, should they get it wrong, the Blocker would advance and eat the Dungeoneer, killing them and ending the quest.
From the fifth season onwards, Causeways were used as crossings between levels. They took the form of hexagonal floor tiles, often of different colours, with numbers or letters painted on them. The Team, if they had successful gained the correct clues, would guide their Dungeoneer onto the correct tiles in the correct order. Generally, if they got it wrong, the tile would drop, taking the Dungeoneer with it and ending the quest. In series six, a silhouette of a Fright Knight would appear on the screen, its sword slowly lowering towards a red dot. When it reached the red dot, some tiles would fall away, forcing the team to work faster, or risk their Dungeoneer plummeting to their doom.
Corridor of Blades
The dreaded Corridor of Blades first appeared in series four and made an appearance in each of the remaining series. A vaulted doorway over which a rotating blade was suspended marked its entrance. Once inside, the Dungeoneer would find themselves on a moving platform. Coming towards them through slits cut into the ceiling and walls were circular blades. If a team could keep its head, they could instruct their Dungeoneer to move left, or right, or duck and avoid the blades. Unfortunately, the corridor often caused teams to panic; shouted conflicting commands often confused the Dungeoneer, leading them to sidestep into the oncoming blades. When a blade hit, the screen would be filled with red, normally to the sound of Treguard declaring, "ooh! Nasty!"
In 1985, computer-games were just becoming popular in the mainstream. Before the days of superbly detailed games which take hundreds of coders thousands of hours to develop, it seemed that any child of reasonable intelligence could create one. Noticing this, a Journalist working for Anglia Television named Tim Child had an idea. He wanted to create a virtual reality game, combining the fantasy that computers offered with the interaction of the television game show. Ironically, after experimenting with the disappointingly crude four or eight colour graphics available at the time, Tim decided that what he really wanted to use was the atmospheric art that decorated the boxes the games came in.
As luck would have it, Tim's sister worked for Spectrum, and she put him in contact with the artist for many game covers, David Rowe. Rowe was interested in the idea and agreed to set about designing Tim's dungeon. Tim's plan was to project Rowe's designs onto a set covered in bluescreen, this would mean that someone watching the proceedings on TV could see the same set many times, and believe it to be somewhere completely different. Of course the problem was that those exploring the dungeon could not see their environment, the solution Tim suggested, was to have them blindfolded, and guided by a team of people who could. Tim's way of working was very fluid, he would see a problem, suggest a solution, then see what problems were generated by that solution, and suggest further solutions, and so on, until he had eliminated as many problems as he could.
From these humble beginnings, a pilot was produced and broadcast early in 1986, starring Tim's Nephew and nieces as the team, and a colleague's Husband, the bearded Hugo Myatt as Treguard. Originally entitled "Dungeon Doom," the pilot took much the same format as the first series, the only actual computer graphics at this stage however was the life force sprite, which had been developed using a Spaceward computer borrowed from the BBC. The pilot was shown to the ITV Children's committee a month after it was filmed. The committee had never seen anything like it before and since they were looking for some fresh new children's programs, they commissioned a first series of eight episodes.
The first series went to air in autumn 1987 and although there were no winners, it was an immediate hit. Unfortunately, it was hellish to film. Tim Child was writing the each quest as one narrative and if a team lost, the actors had to learn an entirely new script. The time this took lead to teams spending several days in the dungeon, or even on just one level. As soon as he found out a second series had been commissioned, Tim realised something had to change. Instead of making the dungeon one linear series of rooms and options, he hit on the idea of levels. Before each series, he would script a variety of easy level ones, intermediate level twos and challenging level threes. This meant that the actors had to learn much less, and for the next seven series, most quests were filmed in one day. The only downside was that no clues or objects could be taken from level to level.
The second and third series were as successful as the first, but by the end of the third once again a series which no-one won, the Children's committee were discussing whether the show was becoming slow. Most game shows at the time were fast frantic productions with lots of screaming children. Knightmare was slower, progressive, relying on atmosphere and mood to carry it. Tim Child recognised this and in order to get a fourth series commissioned for 1990, he decided that he would have to expand on the linear room-to-room format. In order to achieve this, he started scouting the country to find castles and outside locations to put the Dungeoneer into. He took stills of the area and had Rowe treat them so that reality would not jar with the fantastical dungeon world. This added the new dimension that committee were looking for and a new sixteen episode series was commissioned.
After series four went out, Tim decided that if the show was to continue, it would need stronger characters. Up until this point there had been a fairly shaky plot which dealt with the enmity between Merlin and Mogdred, but this had really been taken as far as it would go and it was generally considered to be somewhat contrived. Tim hit on the idea of having the dungeons controlled not by Treguard as they had been in the past, but by an opposition, headed up by an evil genius in the form of Lord Fear. The actor found to play him was the suitably named Mark Knight, fit the role perfectly, he was witty and along with some bumbling assistants added a creepy but comic element to the game. Series five aired in September 1991, audiences at this point were between three and five million, ITV had no hesitation in commissioning another series.
In 1992, everything was geared up for Knightmare to win the Royal Television Society's award for Best Children's Program, something that was almost always won by the BBC. Incredibly though, the program failed to get it. Despite the Radio Times deeming this a Travesty, it shook ITV, and when the sixth series went to air, Knightmare's future was once again in question. The program's future would ultimately be decided, not by a committee, but by the new controller, a woman with almost no programming experience named Dawn Airey. Dawn had decided to re-organise Children's ITV to appeal more to an age group of four to ten, rather than six to fifteen, she initially granted Knightmare a seventh series, but in 1993 audiences dropped significantly, and Tim Child was asked to think about ending the show.
Tim was not ready to give up the program though, and demanded at least on more series. Series eight went to air in 1994 to a much smaller audience than it had in the program's heyday and Tim's other project, a virtual reality program aimed at a younger audience, Virtually Impossible, in fact did better. Realising this, Tim decided that the program had come to the end of its run, and despite advertising for new teams at the end of series eight, ended the program. Virtually Impossible ran for one more series before it too was axed.
When Knightmare was axed, there was outcry amongst its still loyal fans and almost a immediately a campaign was started to attempt to bring it back. For nearly ten years fans nagged away in vain, the petition at bringbackknightmare.com grew huge. Then, on the twenty fifth of November 2002, Knightmare.com announced that the company Televirtual were going to re-make the program. The new format woukd have been be more CGI orientated, with the Dungeoneer being replaced with an advisor controlled avatar and the audience at home able to join in via a phone in system. However, in 2005 the projected was indefinitely shelved as Tim Child suggested it would be better to rely more heavily on the original format.