Looking back at The Crystal Maze

News Mark Pickavance
7 Sep 2010 - 04:13

Mark celebrates Channel 4's The Crystal Maze, and hopes that rumours of a new version don't come to fruition...

I was recently fortunate enough to catch a repeat of Channel 4's 90s game show The Crystal Maze, an experience that so profoundly affected me that I was forced to put words to web.

For those who don't remember The Crystal Maze, there follows a brief explanation. Under the sardonic gaze of presenter Richard O'Brien, The Crystal Maze related the weekly tribulations of six tracksuit-clad contestants, whose task was to solve a series of physical and mental challenges. These challenges ranged from crawling around a maze like a lab rat, or shuffling along a slippery pole suspended above water, to slotting together oversized pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. All of these were tackled against a ticking clock.

Successfully completing a challenge earned the contestant a crystal, and each one could be exchanged at the end of a show for a few seconds in the Crystal Dome, where the team, by then exhausted and usually soaking wet, had to frantically grab gold tokens in a vain effort to win the star prize.

Part of what made such a big impact on me was that the episode I caught featured what must have been one of the worst performances by any team in the show's history. They got to the Crystal Maze with just one crystal, equating to five seconds of time.

But this type of ineptitude wasn't the only highlight of the show. No, instead it was watching people out of their element (i.e. in a TV set) confronted with mostly simple tests, and entirely failing to understand them. What's more, they were encouraged by their team members with shouts of "you have plenty of time", just seconds before they got locked in.

I recall on first viewing that I watched most of the proceedings through my fingers, not actually believing that some contestants could either be so stupid or clumsy, or both. But then I wasn't there. I wasn't having the general condescending pep talk by Richard O'Brien, before being thrust into some fiendishly convoluted puzzle that looked remarkably easy from the viewer's perspective.

It did make me scream at the TV in frustration at times, but it was a national angst that between four and six million Brits took part in, making it the biggest audience that Channel 4 had at the time.

Part of me desperately wanted the show's producers to pull a sneaky one with a crack team of game players, who'd win every crystal going. They'd then get to the Crystal Dome with plenty of time, and have contact lenses that allowed them to easily identify gold from silver pieces of foil, trouncing the test entirely. But that never happened.

I've also thought it might have been cool if Ricky Gervais had used the format as an episode of The Office, where David Brent drags his unwilling colleagues along only to spend the entire show locked in the first challenge. But, alas, he never did.

The closest anyone actually got was a spoof moment in the inspired Maid Marian And Her Merry Men, though most adults might have missed this excellent satire.

In the end, poor ratings apparently did the maze in, as people grew tired of what could be an analysis of failure, poor ratings apparently did the maze in, and the somewhat less charismatic second host of the show, Ed Tudor-Pole.

After two seasons with Tudor-Pole at the helm, and six seasons in total, the show was cancelled, presumably left locked in the mental challenge of how to make people watch others do badly. A test that the BBC seems eager to confront again with Hole In The Wall, it appears.

But in writing this piece I did some research about the show that put it in an entirely new perspective, and actually confronted my general opinion that the contestants invariably failed.

Statistically, a whole bunch of challenges were played five times and were always won, although also two tests got taken six times and were never beaten. Of all the games, 29 failed to stop a single contestant, while 46 games were never actually solved on-screen.

Many games only got played once, so that does slightly skew those numbers. A total of 74 people got themselves locked in, 40 were women and 34 were men, and nobody managed to get locked in twice, amazingly. The gold medal-winning performance was by contestant Mark Wynn, who completed the ‘walk the beam' challenge in just 18 of the allotted 120 seconds.

An even greater understanding of the show came from a website created by one of the contestants, Bob Lishman. He details the shooting of the show from his perspective, and how what went on wasn't remotely like it was presented. For starters, the picking of the personnel and challenge was entirely scripted, because if it involved running between zones, the cameras needed to be placed for where they'd go.

Furthermore, when they went into a challenge, it was actually the second time they'd been in there, because the production only had two cameras and they used both of them outside for the establishing shots. A team member was let into the appropriate puzzle room then dragged back out so that one of the cameras could be taken inside, before they got let in a second time. For exactly the same reasons, they came out twice too.

That didn't really explain how unhelpful the comments of the other team members were while others played, but it did detail that the entire exercise was run on a shoestring and copious amounts of Danish pastries.

I was especially amused by Bob's description of the Ocean Zone, which had been built the season before his Maze experience. When it was made they'd dressed the set with real seaweed, which had since rotted, giving the location a genuine aroma of the ocean floor. Wonderful.

For those curious, all the sets for The Crystal Maze were inside a massive hangar at a small airfield on the edge of Epping Forest. The maze entirely occupied most of the building, so the canteen was a double decker bus parked outside.

Bob's description of being on the show gives an entirely new insight into the insanity that pervaded the production, the quirkiness of which occasionally made it to the small screen.

Another reason for me writing this piece was the recent news that the format might well be resurrected fifteen years on by ITV bosses determined to get more than the blue-rinse generation watching their channel.

The most disturbing part of this story is that they've already blessed Amanda Holden with the honour of hosting the new take on The Crystal Maze. The fact they chose her, that the contestants will be 'celebrities' this time, and that it isn't even Channel 4 working on the project any more, hints that should this new take on the Maze reach the screen, it might not surpass the original. Or even a Mr & Mrs re-run, come to think of it.

For all the head-slapping infuriation that it generated, there was something magical about the show, especially the Richard O'Brien era, and I can rationalise why TV bosses might be lured by its enduring charm. After all, confronted with shows where the objective is to open boxes sequentially, The Crystal Maze harks back to a substantially more imaginative era.

Finally, how could we resist this vintage clip from The Mary Whitehouse Experience, which spoofs The Crystal Maze beautifully...

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