Every Friday afternoon was a race against time. I finished school at 4pm, and the bus home took up to half an hour. When the final bell rang, I was flat out from classroom to bus stop, then across the fields from the closest stop to my house. It was still a good five minutes at top speed for a twelve-year-old, but with a little luck I could be inside, sat down and ready for 4:45pm, so that the strains of the Knightmare theme on ITV could round off my working week in true style.
Let’s dial things back to September 1987 – the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Cold War finally warming up, and a perplexed Saxon knight watching three hapless children send their best mate face-first into a neck-high sawblade.
Knightmare combined a unique premise for a kids’ gameshow and inventive use of relatively basic technology. Foreboding dungeon master Treguard (stage veteran Hugo Myatt) welcomed four youngsters full of pluck into his dungeon’s antechamber, after which one would don the iconic Helmet of Justice, effectively blinding them to all dangers ahead. Their three companions would then guide the dungeoneer through the labyrinth by watching their progress on a large screen, acting as their eyes and providing advice as they encountered hazards within.
The maze itself was a series of rooms, a composite of live sets (and actors), hand-drawn chroma keyed backgrounds and occasional computer-generated images, through which the advisors had to steer the dungeoneer without them falling down holes, getting eaten by wall-mounted faces (should’ve answered all Granitas of Legend’s riddles) or generally meeting a grisly end in dozens of imaginative ways. It was divided into three ‘levels’ of increasing difficulty, with the goal in each to find their way down to the next before a final confrontation and, maybe, a prize at the end of it.
The advisors’ best method of helping the dungeoneer was to treat it like an 80’s text-based adventure game – “walk forward,” “hold out the mirror,” “tell the jester the answer is ‘a murder of crows,” and the infamous “Simon, sidestep to your left.” Spells collected along the way were used by simply spelling them aloud, although one team collectively decided a SHOVEL spell had to be cast S-P-A-D-E. Watching Treguard try to hide his amusement at their subsequent demise was all part of the fun.
Through all of this, the show tracked their ‘life force’ – initially a haunting CGI face that peeled away armour and even skin to reveal a bleached skull beneath, later a walking figure gradually reduced to a pile of bones (and in the last series a pie for some reason) – which ensured the team never lingered for long, or could survive the odd misstep that incurred damage. You restored life force by occasionally stuffing food items plundered along the way into a leather knapsack, because of course you did.
The dungeoneers would sometimes encounter enemies like goblin raiders or malevolent spirits, other times allies who would help them past a hazard. Or try to sell them into slavery if they felt like it, because the dungeon remained a morally questionable place.
Cedric the Mad Monk would usually help but would just as quickly lay them out with a blow from his trusty quarterstaff if they tried to sass him; Folly the Jester was a great source of riddles that often hinted at a covert ‘edutainment’ angle to the series, tasking the team with questions around English history, religion and even mathematics. The villainous Lillith loved dumping dungeoneers who offended her into a bottomless pit, and recurring character Merlin was always a great source of spells and sage wisdom – if the team could interpret the cryptic advice given.
Later seasons saw Treguard joined by an assistant – initially the irritating elf Pickle, later Majida the genie – and a more complex set of relationships between recurring dungeon inhabitants that observed continuity across seasons. Early antagonist Mogdred gave way to Lord Fear, a tongue in cheek villain cut from the Skeletor mindset of having fun with being evil, and while the game never tried to disguise what it really was, there was still a genuine chill in watching a hapless adventurer get dragged off into slavery by the treacherous Sylvester Hands, or get cornered by either reptilian toady Lissard or the remorseless CG Dreadnort with no hope of escape.
Death was never permanent in Knightmare – vanquished dungeoneers would be returned to the antechamber and the team sent on their way, as despite its old school fantasy atmosphere, the show never touched gore or violence. Kids have active enough imaginations that seeing a dungeoneer sidestep blindly into the path of a jet of fire was more than enough visual ammo to imagine the grisly consequences.
Treguard was a curiously ambiguous host, morally neutral even when acting as the overseer of each team’s quest. The challenge itself was notoriously difficult – it wasn’t until the fourth team in series two that the dungeon was finally beaten, and even after that only eight teams emerged victorious during the show’s eight seasons. And while each set of rooms had to be set up during breaks in filming, the seamless editing of the show gave the impression of the team actually battling through a vast, expansive environment that no 80’s TV budget would have been able to create.
What sold me as a youngling was the fact nothing else on TV looked like Knightmare. The digitised backdrops may look grainy today, but David Rowe’s visually evocative landscapes had dark atmosphere oozing from the screen. The frustration of watching three people tell another person how to do the thing you were currently screaming at the TV is a pleasure usually reserved for sports fans, and by the time the series started moving to outdoor locales for variety (filmed in medieval sites across the UK) it had already seen spinoffs in France and Spain, with ratings pushing 5 million viewers per episode by the later series.
The show boasted a tie-in video game that was hard as balls, but the video game roots of the series are obvious even to casual viewers. A suite of gamebooks accompanied the first few seasons – part novella expanding on Treguard’s backstory (never explored onscreen), part Fighting Fantasy style ‘choose your own adventure’. You could even grab a Knightmare board game in 1992, an intriguing mix of riddle-solving and Hero Quest style dungeon crawling.
Ultimately, a mixture of TV network politics, technology costs and the changing tastes of 90’s kids lead to the eighth season being the last, but Knightmare refused to go away. Repeats shown around the world continue to this day, with strong audience responses indicating the generation of kids who grew up with the show would happily sit and watch it again. Following the demise of shortlived sister show Virtually Impossible, series creator Tim Child’s attempted Knightmare VR reboot didn’t make it past the pilot stage, and for many years sporadic repeats and a dedicated mature fan community were all that kept the spirit alive.
That is, until a (low-budget but lovingly made) documentary in 2012 and one-off YouTube revival in 2013 were followed by an ingenious live show at the Edinburgh Fringe, that now tours up and down the UK and offers fans the chance to finally tread the dungeon that they could only wistfully watch others do almost thirty years ago.
There’s no doubt the show inspired both more traditional, adult-orientated game shows like The Crystal Maze, Fort Boyard and Scavengers (even if both the last two were beyond terrible), and kids shows like The Incredible Games, Raven and Jungle Run, mixing setpieces and action with hands on, interactive puzzles and environments. Try to describe the show to anybody of the appropriate generation and you’ll see a loving glow of recognition in their eyes. When they come back with a story about their favourite death, you’ll know how to reply.
Are you a fan of Knightmare? Did you watch the show when young or in re-runs? Let us know!