Celebrating Knightmare

British TV has thrown up few more inspired programmes than ITV's Knightmare. Surely this is one show ripe for revival?

“Enter, stranger.” So began another episode of Knightmare, as the sepulchral tones of the dungeon master Treguard echoed through the castle antechamber. One lucky child was going on an adventure, with three friends guiding him or her through the tasks ahead, and it was going to be tough…

Knightmare was the ultimate kids’ TV game show. Perfectly capturing the contemporary crazes of the late 80s, the programme took its influences from the embryonic computer games scene and the immense popularity of pencil-and-paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, added a few fresh ideas of its own and turned it all into one of the most watchable contestant-participation events ever.

Leading a team of four children aged around 11 to 16, the ‘dungeoneer’ explored a fantasy dungeon created from a mixture of hand-drawn artistry and computer-generated scenery. To produce the images as seen by the viewers at home, the show used a technique known as bluescreen chromakey, so although in reality the dungeoneer was in a plain blue room, the dungeon details were added for the benefit of the viewer and his teammates. Not that the dungeoneer saw much of that room – he wore ‘The Helmet of Justice’, which dungeon owner Treguard of Dunshelm (the host, Hugo Myatt) said was to protect him from the horrors which lay ahead. In actual fact, it stopped him seeing anything except the floor immediately in front of him. It was up to his teammates to guide their pal around the dungeon, leading him through the rooms to the puzzles, monsters and objects such as food which he stored in his knapsack and ate to restore his ‘Life Force’, the equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons’ hit points or a computer game’s energy bar.

The dungeon was a dark and dangerous place, but not without the odd friendly face or two. The dungeoneer might meet a wizard, a maid or other such character who helped him on his way with a password, a handy hint or timely and sage advice. Other characters and creatures he might meet could be conspiring against the team, like monsters and human enemies who tried to kill the dungeoneer. Some simply demanded a spell, a password or an object found within the dungeon before they allowed our intrepid explorer to pass, a game dynamic which will be familiar to fans of computer adventure games.Knightmare was a game of brains as well as brawn. In fact, it was almost totally a game of brains, with clear thinking and a spirit of co-operation between the teammates proving essential skills.

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The ‘floor tiles’ puzzle was a favourite task. Between the dungeoneer and his goal was a series of tiles marked with letters, numbers or symbols. To get from A to B, the hapless adventurer had to tread on the correct markers – put a foot wrong and it’s instant death. Solving the puzzle and working out which tiles could be stepped on with impunity usually involved a mathematical puzzle or a riddle. These were straightforward affairs on the first of the dungeon’s three levels, but by the time the team made it to Level Three, they’d need all their wits about them to get through unscathed. Other cunning hazards included rooms where timing was of the essence, with the dungeoneer guided through spikes, bombs or other such hazards by his teammates, who had to call out an instruction at exactly the right time to help him dodge the danger or move him very quickly to avoid impending doom. And remember, even if he avoided these instant deaths, the counter was ticking down on his Life Force too…

Indeed, one of the main things which made Knightmare stand out from similar game shows such as The Crystal Maze was its tough-as-nails difficulty level. This was no wussy challenge that gave you a prize for falling flat on your face. Despite running for eight seasons, a mere eight teams in total succeeded in conquering the dungeon, only two of which did so in the show’s Eighties heyday. There wasn’t a single victorious squad in the entire first series either. Can you imagine a show that taxed its contestants to this degree today?

Although the basic schematic of Knightmare remained the same throughout its eight-year run, the show developed and added some new features along the way. In the first of Knightmare’s eight series, broadcast in 1987, the aim of the game was simply to escape from the dungeon’s three levels. For Series Two in 1988, the team embarked on a quest to retrieve one of four items, namely the Sword of Justice (later Freedom), The Shield of Liberty (later Justice), The Cup that Heals and The Crowning Glory.

And through it all, the irrepressible Treguard of Dunshelm was at hand to motivate and inspire the team, his floating head appearing above the dungeoneer at opportune moments. Not that the dungeoneer could see it, of course – this particular effect was added in post-production. But the team could certainly hear him, dispensing clues, nudging them in the right direction and making fun of any particularly silly errors. Our host and master wasn’t above a little sarcasm, that’s for sure. As master of ceremonies, he held the whole show together and provided the perfect backdrop for the action as the team explored the dungeon and interacted with the colourful characters therein.

Perhaps this is the key to what made Knightmare such compulsive viewing. As well as being brilliantly scripted, the characters who inhabited the dungeon delivered their speeches as if they really believed in the part. Like the best Dungeons & Dragons scenarios and computer games, Knightmare gave you a real feeling of being there, something absent in, say, Richard O’Brien’s otherwise-excellent The Crystal Maze, which offered a fascinating framework for its games and puzzles but without feeling like an organic, living game world. Perhaps that’s why Knightmare is so fondly remembered two decades on, outliving the constraints of that most disposable TV format the game show, and becoming a television classic in its own right.

Did you Know?

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Knightmare was the first TV game show with interaction between humans and computer-generated surroundings.

• After the first series, quest items were added to the show’s format, with the teams looking for one of four objects. No team ever retrieved The Cup that Heals.

• At its peak, Knightmare attracted over five million viewers an episode.

• A sequel series, Knightmare VR, was piloted in 2004, but the project was eventually shelved. The new show would’ve used virtual reality technology, hence the title.

• Reacting to sensationalist press reports, clean-up campaigner Mary Whitehouse criticised the fact that the dungeoneer could get killed in the show. She later apologised after watching it, seeing there was no on-screen violence and Treguard made it clear deceased dungeoneers were not killed in the real world.

• Spells were cast by literally spelling out the name of the incantation in question; a play on the word ‘spell’. A team in Series Two was frustrated by consistently bad spelling, despite the best efforts of Treguard to help them along.

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• For the first five series, a dungeoneer’s Life Force was represented by a helmeted head which decayed to a bare head, a skull and finally a pair of dismembered eyes which rolled off the screen, indicating death. This was replaced by a knight whose armour and then flesh decayed, and in the child-friendly Series Eight, a pie which diminished slice by slice.

• The show spawned several choose-your-own-adventure books, two computer games and a boardgame.