Knightmare: It’s 35 Years Since a Show About a Kid with a Bucket on His Head Blew the Minds of a Generation

CITV’s Knightmare used virtual reality to bring video games to life and give 'conquestants' the chance to play for real. 35 years since it first aired, we still adore it.

Knightmare screengrab
Photo: CITV

Kids today are their own TV schedulers. They have the power to tailor the world’s colossal programming output to their own tastes at the touch of a button, whenever they want. Back in the 1980s, UK kids had barely four channels to rub together, and the child-centric output was infrequent and heavily rationed. Treats for the geeks – in those cold, dark days in exile from the mainstream – were few and far between.

But then, on the 7th of September 1987, like lightning in the dark, came CITV’s Knightmare.

Enter, Stranger…

Knightmare was a four-player, live-action, D&D-inspired, CGI, VR, RPG for kids – not to mention a boon for acronym enthusiasts everywhere. It ran for eight seasons from 1987 to 1994, garnering millions of viewers, and exciting children’s imaginations in ways that few other shows had succeeded.

The concept was straightforward: a team of four kids worked together either to escape a dungeon (earlier seasons), or embark on a quest for a sacred object across a mythical landscape (later seasons). Only one of the four contestants entered the virtual world to do the actual questing, while the other three talked with them and guided their movements – often down to the very inch – by way of a ‘magical’ view-screen back in the ‘real world’ of the dungeon master’s antechamber. The VR environment – of castles and caverns and kitchens – was rendered exclusively for the benefit of the guides and the viewers at home, as the questers themselves could see only the claustrophobic confines of the horned Helmet of Justice that sat over their heads like a glorified waste-paper basket.

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Those of us who were children in the late 80s and early 90s often wondered at the logistics of the VR technology. We knew the questing contestant, or conquestant if you like, wasn’t really standing in a world of hobgoblins, dragons, and talking walls. Most of us assumed they were roaming through a vast, labyrinthine warehouse. The more devilish among us wondered if they’d been dropped off in a Tesco car-park and were about to play a real-life, blind version of the 8-bit classic Bullfrog. “Spell-casting: R – E – V – E – R – S – E ! Look out, Brian, that orc is actually a Ford Fiesta reversing towards you!”

The reality is a little more disappointing, as is often the case with reality. For the entire duration of an adventure the conquestant stood in a blue room that used chroma key technology (the same technique they used to put weathercasters in front of a cloud-covered map of the UK). One room. Not a warehouse. Not a mansion. One single room that was used as a stand-in for every single location. Sometimes all four kids had to wait around for an hour or so between ‘rooms’ while the production team re-dressed the set. Sometimes during these hiatuses a team would grow so bored and restless that upon resumption of their quest they’d intentionally kill the conquestant just for a laugh. This is why kids aren’t allowed to vote or drive.

Oooooooh, Nasty

Many thousands of teams applied to be on the show over its lifespan. Only 70 were selected, and of those, only eight ever managed to win. This is because Knightmare‘s difficulty level and learning curve was of Shadow of the Beast 2 proportions. But also because kids are idiots.

Some of the game rooms featured giant ACME-style bombs with terrifyingly short fuses, or spikes that shot from the wall. Others forced the conquestants to navigate narrow bridges over chasms, or teeter over paths composed of free-floating stepping stones that dropped to oblivion in increments, so precision and team-work were key. Doubtless this was exciting for the participants, but were you to close your eyes during such crucial moments the game would sound less like a high-stakes, life-or-death juggernaut, and more like a bunch of middle-aged people trying to shift a sofa. “Left a bit… no, no, your left, not mine. Side-step a bit to the left again. Slowly! More slowly than that! Okay, take a few more half-steps to the right…” Admittedly, there are very few examples of real-life furniture removal that end with the words: “Oh, bugger. We’ve killed them.” 

Mary Whitehouse – a high-profile campaigner for public decency on television, and the scourge of creatives everywhere – briefly railed against Knightmare for its violent content, but later apologised, and admitted that she hadn’t actually seen the show. Had Mrs Whitehouse seen the show’s life-force meter, however, she might have unsheathed her Sword of Censoriousness once more. Whenever a conquestant’s ‘health’ began to ebb, viewers at home were treated to a CG image of a man’s face being stripped away to the bone, eventually leaving only a skull with two eerily staring eyes tumbling out of it. Positively terrifying. 

In reality, whenever a conquestant ‘died’ the producers took great pains to show the whole quartet standing in a salubrious, sun-hewn CG landscape waving ridiculously at the audience, like they were in some kid-friendly version of the cyber-afterlife from Westworld.

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The Look of Lore

Knightmare was cutting edge for its time. And timely, too, tapping as it did into the explosion in home-computing, and the youth’s fascination with it. It’s perhaps no co-incidence that around the time of Knightmare‘s inception, Tim Child – the show’s creator and producer – had a sister who worked at Sinclair (the company that birthed the ZX Spectrum). David Rowe, the artist Child selected to bring the beautifully rendered world of Knightmare to life, began his commercial career as a video-game cover artist. Post-Knightmare, both went on to embark on lucrative careers in computer technology, encompassing VR and game design.

But while Knightmare looked lush and lavish, the show wouldn’t have endured for as long as it did on the basis of aesthetics alone: it needed a story; a history; heroes and villains, just as surely as the World Wrestling Federation needed a narrative spell to weave some magic around the purely functional and technical elements of its craft. To that end, Knightmare‘s human factor was provided by a motley crew of gloriously hammy thespians. Their function was to either guide or obstruct the children on their quests. Principal among them was dungeon master Treguard of Dunsmore (Hugo Myatt), famed for uttering his ‘Oooooh, nasty’ catchphrase following a child’s harrowing on-screen ‘death’.

While the conequestant routinely interacted with actors posing as friends or foes within the game itself, Hugo spent most of the first four years on the show being the sole omniscient link between the children and the game. He was later joined by other ‘real-world’ characters like Pickle the Elf (David Learner), and the gloriously pantomimish Lord Fear (Mark Knight).

In the Beginning…

The pace of Knightmare’s maiden episode, which debuted 35 years ago, is glacial by today’s standards. Some of this is down to the production still finding its feet, and probing around the edges of the format, but the bulk of it is probably attributable to the pace of kids’ TV having been generally slower and gentler in the Gen X and Y days (give or take Transformers). Producers of today pitch to a very specific demographic, namely kids who spend their days perched on mains-powered massage chairs eating seventy-eight bags of Maltesers in a row. The end results are shows that look and sound like somebody started a war in a school disco.

Looking back as an adult, Knightmare can sometimes feel like a human version of Crufts, boasting the unrivalled excitement of three kids trying to guide another kid round in a circle for three minutes at a time. Sometimes it can be like watching a kid playing a one-person version of Twister. But, really, that’s all part of the charm, and we at the time lapped it up.

Because Knightmare, for all of its cutting-edge look and feel, understood that kids didn’t need their adrenal glands provoked and prodded every ten seconds. Away from the bomb-rooms and the giant scorpions and the pursuing hobgoblins, the show wasn’t afraid to let the format, and the audience at home, breathe. Some of Treguard’s early speeches were positively Shakespearian in both content and length. Some of the riddles posed by the wall-monsters were florid and complex, and necessitated quiet, collaborative thought to solve.

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In later seasons, thanks to the introduction of the Eye Shield, the contestants in the antechamber and the audience at home were treated to VT footage of travails through old castles and verdant gardens, not to mention long, scenic rides on dragon-back. The growing cast of actors provided increasingly involved cut-scenes – sometimes sinister, sometimes funny – that wouldn’t have been out of place in a modern computer game. Sometimes it was fast and cruel, most of the time it was twee and gentle – and it doesn’t really get any more British than that.

Kids these days can simply strap on a VR headset and go anywhere they damn well please in the comfort of their own homes. Hence, Knightmare is unlikely to make a come-back. But for a brief spell of time thirty-odd years ago, the show’s unique magic and wizardry captivated a generation.