Four of the original six episodes of The Adventure Game are now finally available to buy at the BBC Store.
Take three 80s TV stars, a generous dash of Dungeons & Dragons and a healthy sprinkling of brain-numbing tasks and you have a game show recipe that left guests mystified, mortified and all-too-often vaporised, thanks to transmorphic dragons, green cheese rolls and the Vortex. Yep, we’ve finally got around to talking about The Adventure Game.
It’s funny how you never seemed to question TV concepts when you were little, especially if it was the BBC. That’s why, from mid-way through 1980 up until 1986, no one asked why the likes of Keith Chegwin, Sarah Greene, and Noel Edmonds would suddenly become celebrity time travellers, heading ‘many light years away to the far side of the galaxy’ to pay an unwelcome visit to the dragon-like Argons, the polite but mischievous inhabitants of the planet Arg.
Irritated by the constant invasion of B-list celebs, the Argons would steal the vital crystal time lock from the time machine the travellers arrived on. Not before courteously changing into human (or aspidistra – more on that later) form so not to alarm their guests, of course. Only after completing a series of mental tasks would the celebs win back the crystal and be able to speed their way home on their ship, or else begin the long walk home back to Earth.
The Adventure Game began life in May 1980 and ran for a mere 22 episodes until the lights went down on Arg for the final time in February 1986. It was one of those rare TV phenomena that not only attracted a healthy audience of kids but also won a huge adult following. This meant that the whole family would sit down and enjoy watching a mix of kids’ TV presenters, weather presenters and world Rubik’s Cube champions stumble their way through a series of puzzles, tasks and catastrophes in order to win the coveted crystal and the means to get back home.
The series was devised by Patrick Dowling, a 25-year veteran of the BBC who had worked his way up to Senior Producer in the children’s TV department. This was the man who brought us classic teatime telly such as Vision On, Take Hart and Why Don’t You?
Dowling needed an educational programme for kids to replace Vision On, a show which he had been working on for the previous ten years. The birth of The Adventure Game was the result of a mix of popular cultural elements that were prominent during the late 70s and early 80s.
In 1977, Dowling had been impressed by a computer game called Adventure, which was one of the first text adventure games for main frame computers (you know the sort: > You’re in a room. There is a chest > Open the chest > The chest is empty! > $@%*!).
In the computer game players progressed through different areas by solving tasks and deciphering clues. This was to be a huge influence to the dynamics (and seemingly the name) of The Adventure Game. At the time Dowling was also a Dungeons & Dragons player, and this obviously had a bearing on the show. Another big influence was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show, created by Douglas Adams. Dowling had heard Hitchhiker’s and was amazed by it. So much so that he even approached Adams with the basic idea for The Adventure Game in the hope that he would write it.
Unfortunately, although liking the idea, Adams had just agreed to write the TV version of Hitchhiker’s for the BBC and was unable to do it. Dowling decided to write it himself, combining all the elements described. In a nutshell The Adventure Game was devised by a computer-gaming D&D player who liked to listen to HitchHiker’s… Patrick Dowling is, ladies and gentlemen, a fifth Dan geek.
The concept for the show was simple; drop three celebrity contestants into a surreal set of situations with mind-boggling puzzles to solve, and let them figure their way out. Helping (and often hindering) them on their way was a series of regular Argon characters, each with their own larger than life quirks and mannerisms. And, as quick witted viewers soon pointed out, with a name that was an anagram of Dragon.
There was Gandor the Butler, who played Chris Leaver in the show (the dragons were credited as playing humans in the end scroll). You may remember he used an ear trumpet to help him see, and wore glasses to help him hear. Gandor would referee many of the games, as well as give the contestant helpful little prods in the right direction when flummoxed celebs were eating into valuable filming time.
In the first series Darong was played by actress Moira Stuart, who, of course, later became a BBC newsreader (being a transmorphic alien probably explains why she never seemed to age). Then there was Rongad (who played Bill Homewood). He could only communicate by talking backwards and could only understand contestants when they did the same. His cry of “Doogy rev!” when contestants got things right was a catchphrase for the show, and talking backwards was a big playground fad for a good while.
Lesley Judd, who was a contestant in the first series returned in series two onwards as The Mole. It was her job to infiltrate the team as another contestant but would be actually working against them. The first person the contestants would meet was Gnoard (series one to three), who was played Charmian Gradwell in the show. She would help contestants get underway, which usually meant herding them off to the Drogna Game
The Drogna Game was a floor puzzle task where contestants competed against the Red Salamander (an Argon who refused to take human form, obviously). The game featured a series of shaped and coloured tiles. Rules were set as to how contestants could move around the tiles (such as you could only move to an adjacent tile of the same shape or colour) and the goal was to reach the stolen crystal in the middle of the grid before the Salamander did.
The Drogna was also the currency of Arg. Its value was determined by multiplying the number of sides of the shape by the position of its colour in the rainbow (and you thought your holiday Euros were confusing). Drogna were needed to continue through to other games and not least to appease the Rangdo, the grand leader of Arg, referred to as Uncle by the other Argons. In series one he appeared in the human form of Ian Messiter, but in later series he became (amongst other things) an aspidistra plant, controlled by Kenny Baker, fresh from playing R2 D2 in Star Wars. It was Baker who would cause the Rangdo to shake angrily if the contestants upset him in some way, such as not using the socially correct greeting of Gronda, Gronda. Manners, eh?
As well as the Drogna game, contestants had to face other mind numbing tasks, winning Drognas, and in the case of ‘How many Argons around the pond?’ a green cheese roll, which was very useful for the final task, the Vortex. It’s the Vortex that everyone remembers about the show, even though it only appeared from the second series onwards.
This was the last task contestants had to face before they could get to their ship and head home. Each player had to make their way across a grid (complete with the best deep space blue-screen backdrop the BBC could muster) to get to the other side. It might look daft now, but at the time? It was different, exciting and surprisingly tense.
On the other side of the grid stood Gandor, who would control the movements of the invisible (to the contestants but not to viewers) vortex. If the player moved into the spot occupied by the Vortex, the player was evaporated. This was where the green cheese roll would come in handy, as players could use it to check to see if a stop was clear or not. Evaporation meant a long walk along the intergalactic highway back to Earth, with several smirking Argons waving you off.
Once upon a time, we spoke to one-time contestant Keith Chegwin about his time on the show. He told us that “It was a really, really odd show to do. It was ahead of its time. It was all done with colour separation overlay and effects, er, but yes, I remember going through nearly every maze I could think of, and trying to solve every problem there was, and not being very successful at all! It was one of those shows where I thought dammit, I wish I’d never done this because I look thick!”
The show ended in 1986 after only 22 episodes in the bag. And while it may well be over 20 years since the Argons blessed our screens, in the wise words of Rongad, it’s ‘enog tub ton nettogrof’
– Ian Oliver, who directed and later produced the series after Patrick Dowling retired, saw Bill Homewood (Rongad) sing a backwards version of Puff the Magic Dragon on the very first episode of Swap Shop and wanted him on the show.
– One of the final episodes of The Adventure Game had to be bumped back two weeks for coverage of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster on 28th January 1986
– In 1983 a game called Drogna, based on the game from the show, was released by Acornsoft for the BBC Micro computer.
– On the pilot episode, one of the tasks involved using salt water to conduct electricity. This was dropped as Patrick Dowling and Ian Oliver decided that it was not something they should probably do on a children’s programme.
– Because there was no script and contestants were free to do more or less anything they wanted, nearly two hours of footage was shot for each programme.
– Back in 2001, The Adventure Game reached number 39 in Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Kids’ TV Shows. We demand a recount.
– Out of all of the episodes made, four episodes no longer exist – two from the first season and two from the second season.
A version of this feature first appeared in March 2013.