The Crystal Maze is back. Following the success of last October’s Stand Up To Cancer special, the first batch of episodes in a new series will begin airing on Friday the 23rd of June at 9pm on Channel 4.
The revived 90s gameshow received over 30,000 applications from the public, from which 15 teams were selected. That lot join five celebrity teams tackling 41 new games in an initial series of 20 hour-long episodes.
Unlike the Stephen Merchant-presented charity episode, which was filmed at the popular London Crystal Maze Experience, the new instalments were recorded in a purpose-built 32,500 square foot maze created by original maze designer James Dillon.
Den Of Geek visited Bristol’s Bottle Yard Studios to tour the set and find out from executive producer Neale Simpson what’s changed between the original and new series…
Richard Ayoade is the Maze Master
Filming the new series of The Crystal Maze, presenter Richard Ayoade keeps breaking his hand. Seeing as it’s made of plaster and protrudes from a long wooden stick, that’s no cause for medical concern, but it has meant the props department have had to make around thirty replacements.
It’s all the gesturing, you see. Ayoade’s hand-stick is part of his slightly stand-offish Maze Master persona, we’re told. “A bit like Richard O’Brien, you can tell he’s warm and cares about the contestants but at the same time portrays this sort of distanced character,” explains executive producer Neale Simpson. “The hand-stick is so that they never touch him, he uses it to shake their hands and do high fives. He also uses it to accentuate movement, holding it up really high when he’s running from zone to zone,” hence the frequent breakages.
Actor, director and presenter Ayoade is following in the stead of Richard O’Brien, Ed Tudor Pole and Stephen Merchant as the Maze Master. How does he compare to his predecessors? “When you see Richard’s take on it, it’s the same sort of knowing, acerbic thing you had from Richard O’Brien but with a slightly different way of coming at it,” says Neale.
“It’s still very much him,” Neale continues. “Richard O’Brien brought his own jacket when he did the original series and he wasn’t playing a character, he was being himself but a kind of exaggerated form of himself. Our Richard doesn’t want to play a character, he’s just an exaggerated version of himself, slightly offish and officious. He has a clipboard so instead of doing that soft presenter chat you get, he treats it like it’s a job interview when they’re going through the zones, but he’s clearly on their side.”
Don’t expect to see Ayoade in a leggings and a leopard print coat, either, there’s a whole new look for him. Five Savile Row suits have been designed for him “in very flamboyant corduroy”, we learn. “He has these ludicrous shirt and tie combinations. He’s got gold lame boots and all variety of lunatic shoes,” says Neale.
The teams are slightly smaller
Instead of randomly composed groups of six who meet mere hours before they’re bellowing techniques for shooting bags of sand with a catapult at each other, the teams are now made up of five people who apply as a group. Each team takes home a commemorative crystal, and competes inside the Crystal Dome for tokens that add up to activity days out, as it ever was.
In the original show, Neale explains, contestants “would meet for the first time the night before the show and have a dinner to get to know each other”. Casting teams instead of individuals has allowed “some really interesting characters to come through,” says Neale.
Some really interesting characters have come through
Seeing as all of the previous contestants on The Crystal Maze were actuarial assistants from Kettering who wore glasses like this…
…it’s hard to remember many stand-outs. Next to the obvious glamour and pizzazz of Richard O’Brien, the original bunch all tended to form a single, faceless, jog-suit-wearing lump. Not any longer, we’re assured. “We want to care about a team and get to know them a bit more than you used to in the old shows when we watched them back,” Neale tells us.
That means that in addition to the celebrity specials, we can expect to see an AC/DC tribute band from Newcastle take on the maze (sporting their on-stage hats). There’s a team of karate instructors featuring a player who appeared on the original series in her early twenties and is now in her fifties. There are also five people “who became really good friends by sitting on a jury for six months, one in her sixties, another is eighteen, so there’s a real range of anges” says Neale. There’s an RAF cadet team, an all-female football team, an all-deaf team, and lots of families.
Do the family teams ever fall out? “We did have one argument recently,” says Neale. “A woman made her husband do a game she didn’t want to do, then when he got locked in, didn’t buy him out for about three games. That was awkward.”
There’s a new take on Mumsie
“Are we going to upset people if we do Mumsie? Are we going to upset people if we don’t do Mumsie?” Neale Simpson is recounting the deliberations over how to approach The Crystal Maze’s long-standing live-action character. Should they revive the maze’s fortune-teller character, or go for something entirely new?
Something entirely new was the answer. “We wanted to have the spirit of Mumsie but have a fresh take,” Neale explains, “Richard [O’Brien] came up with the backstory for Mumsie so we’re worked with Richard Ayoade on trying to bring in some new cameos with his own flavour.”
That flavour turns out to be Adam Buxton as the Futuristic Zone’s Jarhead—literally a head in a jar—and Jessica Hynes’ knight in the Medieval Zone. “She’s brilliant. She takes it all very seriously, which Richard doesn’t understand because it’s only a game show, that’s the patter they’ve got between them. Richard and Jarhead have such a great rapport. It’s a head in a jar, basically, and the conceit is that this head in a jar has got super mind powers that can turn these flasks to release liquid to create a crystal if the contestants answer two out of three riddles correctly.”
The Futuristic Zone is all new
No doubt because the future of 2017 looks very different to that of 1990, original Crystal Maze designer James Dillon has come up with an all-new Futuristic Zone for the revival. While the Medieval, Aztec and Industrial Zones look largely as you’ll remember them (respectively, like the sets of Meatloaf, Shakira, and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation music videos), this one’s had a makeover. Gone is the old metallic triangular motif, in its place is a gleaming white spaceship interior with Doctor Who-worthy corridors.
Showing us around it, Neale is like a kid showing off all the functions of his new hi-tech Christmas toy. Here’s where Richard Ayoade plugs in a unit to activate the computer voice, he points out. This bit all lights up and looks incredible, he says. Here’s the console platform that—wait for it—actually spins. “On camera, it’s all slightly disorientating and the whole spaceship seems like it’s much bigger than it really is. We’ve got some after-effects in the editing process so all the white pops, it’s really beautiful, it looks so clean.”
It is and it does. When it’s unveiled to the pack of journalists on our set visit, the oohs are audible. Everyone says it looks like Star Trek, but don’t seem to be able to hear me when I ask them to specify which particular Star Trek iteration they mean. The acoustics can’t be very good in the Futuristic Zone.
There’s no Ocean Zone
Really no loss there.
None of the games are exactly the same…
Don’t expect to see anyone rewiring an oversized plug on the new series, as all forty-one games are new. “We didn’t want to copy anything. None of the games that featured in the original six series feature in this one, so it’s all new but some of it has familiar nods,” says Neale.
Games have moved on, he explains. “Two and three-minute games twenty six years ago didn’t have to work as hard as they have to today. We’ve got multi-layered games. Our rooms are bigger.” It’s all about moving things forward, he says. “We want to do new things and have ownership of it ourselves, whilst not upsetting people. It’s a tricky balance. Some of the games have a nod to the past.”
That they do. Among the new developments are games not a million miles away from what we’re used to. You can still expect bags of sand, water rafts, hefty puzzles and don’t-touch-the-floor to all feature.
…but rest assured, there are still wet logs
“All our games are new but we could not not have a game that didn’t feature a wet log,” says Neale. Phew.
On the boggy beam surrounded by waist-deep water on which contestants exit the Medieval Zone, has anybody fallen in yet? “We’ve just had our first one,” Neale says, with satisfaction.
There are slightly fewer games played per episode
Each player is guaranteed two games each, making a total of ten games per episode as opposed to thirteen, and previous to that, fourteen to sixteen. Neale explains: “We really wanted to come out on an average of five to six crystals per show, so we play ten games in our episodes, and that’s not because we’ve stripped back the number of games per time, it’s that a commercial hour is shorter now for us to play with than it was back in the day. They started out with fifteen games per show, in later series went down to about thirteen and we can only fit in ten and the dome in time.”
The teams don’t nominate the game type any more
Maze master Richard Ayoade, helped by the team in his earpiece the gallery, selects which category of game the teams will play at any given time. The team then choose which member will tackle said category. Presumably, this speeds things up, ensures a good variety of game types and avoids unnecessary faffing.
The theme music has had a posh re-record
Zack Laurence wrote Force Field, The Crystal Maze’s iconic original theme music, which has been rerecorded with a symphony orchestra for the new series.
Another composer with whom Laurence likes to collaborate, Marc Sylvan, has also created atmospheric soundscapes for the individual zones. “Each zone has its own unique soundbeds and music now” says Neale, which “adds a real sense of drama. In the original, there was never any music under the games but to add a bit of jeopardy and excitement there’s unique music for every game.”
The Crystal Dome has had a makeover
“It’s very different”, says designer James Dillon. “The original dome was a ‘2 frequency dome’ and the new dome is a ‘3 frequency dome’. What that means is that it contains more triangular panels than the original and so is more complex in its structure. So it feels more like a giant version of the crystals that the contestants are playing for. The dome itself was built by Solardome Industries who were the company involved in building the original. They have also engineered the entrance so that it is now wheelchair accessible and the fan system is powerful enough to keep seven bouncy castle erect, should we ever need to!”
Because there’s more space this time around, the Dome is also housed in a dedicated studio of its own, which helps create a sense of spectacle, says Dillon. “It’s now this incredible lightshow,” says Neale. “The entire frame is covered in intelligent LEDs programmed to give very different light states.”
The moat and drawbridge have gone, but you won’t miss them. The new dome, with lighting designed by Gurdip Mahal, is a thing of beauty. Like everything about this new series, it’s been done with skill and love.
The Crystal Maze starts on Friday the 23rd of June at 9pm on Channel 4.