It’s seven a.m. and Neale Simpson is pushing a Henry Hoover around the reception of The Crystal Maze Experience in Islington. He and his team have been at work for over thirty-six hours, during which time he’s overseen the installation and removal of a television production crew in a space emphatically not designed for shooting TV. He is, by his own admission, “feeling delirious through a heady combination of lack of sleep and our having managed to film the show.”
The show they’ve just filmed is the 2016 The Crystal Maze Stand Up To Cancer Special, hosted by Stephen Merchant (head shaved for his role in Logan, he’s channelling some of original host Richard O’Brien’s pizazz). Five celebrities have gamely taken on the maze in the popular live event venue to raise money for charity.
Looking back at the shoot months later, “it was a very weird, very intensive time.” Neale remembers. “It was complicated because the live experience sold out the whole year within four weeks of opening and had one day in which we could shoot. It was open to the public until eleven p.m. the night before, and again at two p.m. the day after we wrapped. We had to bring in an entire production crew, rig cables, lighting, adapt games and set up a mobile gallery in the road to record the show in ten hours before de-rigging and clearing out the entire site by twelve p.m. the next day so they could let people in through the doors.”
Finalised for broadcast at three a.m. the day before it was due to air, the Special went out on a Sunday night in October. “The response,” says Neale, “was unbelievable.” While it aired, social media quickly filled with calls for Channel 4 to bring The Crystal Maze back for a full run.
When the ratings came in the next day, Neale was sitting in a Richmond café. “I just sobbed,” he says. The Special had won over three million live viewers and earned the highest audience share aged 16-34 of the night. “Then Channel 4 called up and went ‘obviously, we’re going to do a series’.”
Neale had been waiting seven years for that phone call. He’d dreamed of reviving The Crystal Maze—or as he refers to it “the greatest entertainment show of all time”—since joining RDF Television in 2011.
“I’ve always been slightly obsessed about the show,” he tells us. “In January 2011, I was tasked, just like every other telly wanker, with trying to come up with ‘the next big thing’. I remember coming up with an idea I got quite excited about and then instantly realised it was an obvious and vastly inferior take on The Crystal Maze. Here was I trying to cobble together a lame knock-off of my favourite show of all time.”
Instead of pursuing a lame knock-off, Neale set his sights on a revival and went on the hunt for the UK rights. “I discovered that our parent company had recently merged with another international group and by chance a French production company they owned called ALP held the rights to The Crystal Maze. At that point I secured the rights for the UK and in April 2011 I started what turned out to be a seven year quest.”
With the rights secured, what was the next hurdle? “The big problem was always the huge set-up costs,” Neale tells us. “In 1990 [when the original series began] there were four main terrestrial channels, only two of them were commercial and BSkyB was still finding its feet. With such little competition broadcasters could experiment more with the luxury of huge audience numbers to offset the hits and misses. The pressure for channels now is completely different. If you spend big on an entertainment show you have to know it will land or it’s a very costly misfire.”
However much enthusiasm was out there for a revival, says Neale, “the one big factor holding us back was always that a broadcaster would have to commit to invest a massive sum of money to building a set and games – and the only way to make that work was to spread the cost across a lot of episodes. No matter how I tried to spin it, a broadcaster would always have to commit to a big series order upfront without being able to test the water first.”
Enter charity fundraisers Stand Up To Cancer. In the early 2016, they were in talks with Channel 4 about that year’s TV telethon. Coincidentally, Little Lion Entertainment had just launched The Crystal Maze Live Experience in London, following a successful crowd-funding campaign that reached its £500,000 total in just eight days. “Little Lion take all the credit for the live experience,” says Neale. “Their story from a crazy idea in a pub to two sell-out live experiences in less than two years is a remarkable one.”
And Neale? Where was he in the spring of 2016?
“I was back in at Channel 4 in my bi-annual plea to try and bring the show back. There’s a commissioner at Channel 4, Tom Beck, who I’d been talking to about The Crystal Maze for a couple of years. He’s been a huge supporter and we’d been talking about all sorts of crazy plans to try and make it happen.”
“In the end it was all down to perfect timing,” Neale says. “We all combined forces to see if we could film a special episode of the show using the live experience as a set. It was a huge collaborative effort from our team, Channel 4, Stand Up To Cancer and Little Lion Entertainment to make the Special happen.
Hence Neale ending up doing the delirious seven a.m. Henry Hoover act.
Having been able to test the water, Channel 4 was convinced enough to order a twenty episode series including five further celebrity specials, the first of which airs tonight, Friday the 23rd of June.
The thirst has always been there for a revival, Neale says. “I remember reading a Metro poll a couple of years ago which said that The Crystal Maze was the No. 1 thing people wanted to bring back from the 90s.” His response, of course, was to immediately get out the folder “containing [his] many questionable pitches” and take the show around again, “cleverly hiding the fact that No. 2 on the list was shell suits – no mention of Global Hypercolor t-shirts, which was disappointing.”
“I’m sure that every time I rolled out a pitch they’d understandably groan, as there wasn’t much to say apart from me repeating hysterically, ‘it’s the greatest entertainment show of all-time and you have to bring it back!’”.
It sounds emotional? “Oh, there have been tears!” he says.
Ever since he received that phone call last October, the pressure has been on to deliver to fans old and new. “It’s about ‘can we do it justice, can we do it the right way?’” says Neale. “We wanted to get the balance right between keeping hold of the things that people loved, but trying to push the show forward. There are things we’ve obsessed over.”
Tonight’s broadcast then, is the result of seven years of tenacity, love and obsession. “Genuinely, everyone loves this show so much, we want to do it the right way,” says Neale. “We’ve not cut corners on anything. We’ve gone at it in the hope that this show comes back and stays around as long as the original did.”
The Crystal Maze airs tonight on Channel 4 at 9pm.