Looking Back At KNIGHTMARE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At KNIGHTMARE

Tony challenges the dungeon.
It’s almost impossible in the high-tech, slick-graphic gameplay-addicted world of the 21st century to imagine a show like Knightmare.

In some respects, watching it again IN the 21st century makes it far too easy to dismiss. You have to go back on a quest through time to really get the most out of it. Which, what with one thing and another, is quite appropriate.

Knightmare – for those just joining us – was an ambitious and innovative children’s quiz show that ran for eight seasons between 1987-1994. With a distinctly Dungeons & Dragons vibe, it mixed live action with chroma key environments, hand-painted backgrounds, late Eighties computer animation and TV techniques to present a kind of ‘reality adventure game,’ in which a team of four children broke down into one in-person adventurer (or ‘Dungeoneer’), and three advisers, who could not interact with anyone but their hapless friend.

When it first arrived, it’s difficult to explain the wow factor it carried. Despite being fairly slow and laborious to get from room to room in the fantasy dungeon, it looked and felt like nothing else (unless you reeeally looked closely, in which case, possibly The Adventure Game had similarities). This was an age where computer games were in their infancy, so the idea of going into a quest was relatively new, and something that existed on the borders of out-and-out geekery with Dungeons & Dragons and something every compute gamer could potentially do if they found it interesting.

Knightmare took that whole concept and put it on your TV at teatime.
The backgrounds were hand-painted (for instance, by artist David Rowe for the first three series), then re-lit and occasionally augmented by computer elements. But gorgeous as the backgrounds were, it was frequently the gameplay that made you tune in.

Along the path of the Dungeoneer’s journey, they would encounter a range of mythic and fantasy characters and dangers, and a troupe of actors both old and new would come along, be dressed up and made up to the absolute nines, and either prance about, looking to be spotted for Cats in the West End, or give a dramatic oration, looking for work in the legitimate theatahhh, while viewers at home tried desperately to work out what each clue, each choice and each monster would take to get past.

Some of the filmed sequences were – and remain to this day – positively traumatizing. Ariadne, the spider-goddess was filmed to look huuuuge compared to the sometimes laughably young Dungeoneers. It’s also true to say that some of the problems and quests were relatively simple – getting through a weeping door by answering true of false questions, for instance – while others were positively demonic in their fiendish difficulty. Granted, they still made more sense than anything that ever appeared on grown-up quiz show 3,2,1, but still – sometimes, Knightmare ran it a close second. In fact, towards the end of every series there would be an unwinnable scenario, simply so the series could end cleanly – hardly fair, perhaps, but that was the Eighties for you, fairness was for the weak.
Overseeing this whole grand adventure, and staying for the most part firmly out of the action along with the Dungeoneer’s advisers, was Treguard, a Saxon knight more or less taking the role of a dungeon master. Played by Hugo Myatt with a voice somewhere between Brian Blessed and Mephistopheles, it’s easy to underestimate the role that Treguard played in the action, but by engaging with the advisers, egging on the team to act with more haste, and occasionally throwing either clues or misdirections out into the game, he was an essential aid in making Knightmare feel directed and watchable. As you’d expect in a quiz show, some of his dialogue and interaction was ad-libbed in the room, especially in conversation with the adventurers.

It was a glorious performance, breaking the fourth wall to address the viewers at home at least at the start and the end of every show, and dancing on a high-wire between supporting the adventurers and almost revelling in their distress and the sticky situations. For instance, a head-turn to look straight at the camera and an almost murmur of “Ooh, nasty” became a kind of ambivalent catchphrase for the dungeon master – usually delivered after a Dungeoneer had been ‘killed’ and the team’s time in the game had come to an end.

The important role Treguard played in keeping the action moving, between the hapless Dungeoneer – who throughout all of the original Knightmare wore a helmet to obscure their view of what was actually in front of them (studio sets and occasionally platforms) – and the advisers was recognised when, from the fourth series on, Treguard got an assistant, who was mostly there to add to the amount of business that could be done in the observation annexe. Curiously enough, the first such assistant, Pickle the Elf, was played by none other than David Learner.
No? Name not ringing a bell? Any fans of the TV version of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy in? Stephen Moore was famous for playing the voice of Marvin, the chronically-not-manically depressed and definitely-not-paranoid android. David Learner had played him in a nationwide stage tour, and was so slim and wiry he could fit inside the costume that gave Marvin his animation on screen. From Marvin to Pickle was something of a leap, but Learner added a kind of wide-eyed Bambi-like helpfulness to proceedings, while also chewing up minutes of screen time with a kind of scoreboard, showing how long the team had been in the adventure and what level they had reached.

Learner gave way to Jackie Sawiris as Majida the genie as Treguard’s helper (for which read, frequently, the butt of his annoyance) for Series 7 and 8. The purpose of the character was essentially the same, though – eat up screen time, while both helping and annoying Treguard to keep the viewers watching between sequences of the Dungeoneer advancing. But the different relationship Treguard had with each of his helpers was symptomatic of an increasing sophistication in the show itself.

Like any good Dungeons & Dragons quest, the further on you went, the more the world expanded. That was true of Knightmare too. Not only did the areas in which the Dungeoneers… erm… Dungeoneered evolve and change over subsequent seasons, but the dynamics of the game shifted too. Originally, Treguard was meant to be specifically neutral, and there was no overtly clear single Big Bad in the game. But over time, characters who first been neutral evolved into either positive or negative characters – by Series 5, Treguard was firmly in the ‘good’ camp of the Powers That Be, and a Big Bad named Lord Fear (played by the ridiculously well-named Mark Knight) has taken up the Darth Vader role of the baddie you love to hate, as leader of the Opposition. (Not for nothing, this was an interesting juxtaposition for the early Nineties – were we trained to distrust the Leader of the Opposition, and to support the status quo, by such characterisations? Someone’s probably doing a graduate thesis on the question as we speak).

It’s a combination of all these things that helped Knightmare run for eight years – the glorious artwork, the computer animation, the sense of playing an adventure game for real, the staggering mesmerism of Hugo Myatt’s central performance as Treguard, the cream of RADA giving it their all in fantasy roles, and the lifelike evolution of the world and the adventure; it all made you tune in for series after series, for all the initial phases of any group’s quest were fairly similar and could easily feel tedious if you were resetting from a group who had got into much more complex levels and puzzles.
Here’s the curious thing about Knightmare. Back in the 80s, with chroma key, an essentially blindfolded Dungeoneer and three usually gormless-adjacent helpers, it was mesmerising TV.

Years later, a gang of enthusiasts tried to bring it back, but updated as Knightmare VR – with full-on CGI, no helmet of not-seeing-where-you-were-going, and a reduced gormless squad. While Hugo Myatt and Mark Knight reprised their roles as Treguard and Lord Fear, Treguard in particular was downgraded to an avatar head, while the ‘main host’ role was given to an orc character named Garstang.

The slicker, upgraded version was shelved fairly quickly, as those who saw it pronounced it had lost a lot of the charm of the original.

There are lessons there – not the least of which is don’t turn Hugo Myatt into a relatively insignificant floating head when he’s anchored eight successful series of a show. But beyond that, there’s the idea that simply upgrading the technology and the graphics of a game doesn’t translate into necessarily making it a better game.

It feels obvious to say this, but Dungeons & Dragons fans could have told you that. So could fans of audio drama, to be fair – the pictures don’t have to be slick to deliver adventure and investment. What Knightmare originally did though was to give young viewers the opportunity to engage with a game with an enigmatic dungeon master, as though it were real in three dimensions, and have breath-taking combinations of hand-painted backgrounds and computer technology. Watching it back in the 21st century, absolutely, it feels a little slow, the contestants feel a little wooden, and you begin to see it as a bunch of mechanisms in motion, rather than as the magical world it originally felt like.

But the point is that it originally felt like a magical world. If you watched it the first time round, giving it a re-watch today will awaken that sensation of original wonder in you.

Watch Knightmare today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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