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Knightmare – Cult Classic Retrospective

“Enter, stranger!”

If you were a kid in the UK in the 1980s, those simple words (said with just the right amount of imposing malice) should be all that it takes to fill your head with images of dragons, dungeons, trolls, jesters and dungeoneers. This week marks 26 years since the innovative and unforgettable children’s game show ‘Knightmare’ debuted on our screens. One month ago, the show was revived for a one-off special that has proven to be a huge hit on YouTube. Likewise this summer a live version thrilled fans at the Edinburgh Festival, while reruns of the earliest series are currently airing in prime-time on the digital channel ‘Challenge’. Despite the original series ending in 1994, fans stubbornly refuse to let the show die. What then, for the uninitiated, is all the fuss about?

Each episode of the show featured a team of four children, three guides and one dungeoneer, setting about a quest for one of four items: The Sword of Freedom, The Cup that Heals, The Crowning Glory or The Shield of Justice. Invariably, the dungeoneer would don the ‘Helmet of Justice’, an almost comically large and unwieldy piece of headgear that would render them sightless throughout their journey. The dungeoneers team mates, viewing events on a bank of monitors would steer him/her through various perilous chambers and obstacles and use their wits (or more often, bicker with each other) to solve puzzles and interact with the dungeon’s numerous colorful characters.

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Obstacles and enemies were not the only pressing concern, as the dungeoneers ‘life force’ was also frequently in need of replenishment by means of obtaining food. This was most often earned by solving riddles set by the dungeon’s wall monsters such as Igneous, Olgarth and every schoolboy’s favorite, the humorously named Granitarse.

Clues were also a frequent reward for puzzle-solving, particularly when the dungeoneer was faced with a table full of objects and had to decide what to leave behind and what may be of use later in their quest. In this and many ways much of ‘Knightmare”s actual gameplay was similar to the popular text adventure computer games of the time. The teams commands would be familiar to anyone who ever whiled away an evening at their ZX Spectrum keyboard trying to find the right combination of words to get Bilbo Baggins to ‘Go left’, ‘Examine the object’, or ‘Pick up the key’. Indeed, creator Tim Child cites Spectrum games ‘Atic Atac’ and ‘Dragontorc’ among his key inspirations for the show.

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Perhaps its most ingenious aspect, and where the show most differed from its computer or book-based counterparts was its use of green screen, also known as chroma key technology. To both the guides and the viewers at home, the dungeoneer appeared to be exploring a vast multi-levelled environment. Thanks to the then state-of-the-art (and still impressive) computer generated backdrops, in reality all of the show was taking place in a very limited space with minimal props, which when rearranged slightly and with a new background applied, meant rooms could double as different areas many times over.

Its use of live actors was also one of ‘Knightmare”s greatest strengths. Of course the interactive nature of the game meant that any given scene could have several outcomes, so slightly different versions of each script had to be learned – or on occasion, ad libbed – and the actors much like the rooms doubled as various characters. However daunting the task may have been for them, the actors’ enthusiasm shined through and they clearly relished their roles and anticipated the children’s reactions. Characters such as the affable jester Folly, the regal Lilith, bumbling wizard Merlin and his evil counterpart Mogdred are as indelible in fan’s memories as the dungeon itself.

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Of course no dungeon would be complete without a dungeon master, and in Treguard (played by stage actor Hugo Myatt in all of the show’s 112 episodes) ‘Knightmare’ found arguably its most crucial element – an alternately warm and witty or nightmare-inducingly menacing host who held the whole show together. His over-the-top but frighteningly engaging performance ensured that both viewers and contestants bought into the reality of the show right from the outset. His tongue-in-cheek response of ‘Ooh…nasty!’ to an unfortunate dungeoneer meeting a messy fate gave the show its most popular and well-loved catchphrase, and while his assurances that the dungeoneer was safe and sound “in your world” may have been deliberately calculated to appease parents (and notorious censorious battle-axe Mary Whitehouse), his wide-eyed delivery of parting shot “Remember, it’s only a game….isn’t it?” would send a chill up all but the hardiest kid’s spines.

While it may indeed have been ‘only a game’, for eight series ‘Knightmare’ gave fans a welcome break from reality at the end of a long school day and true to its name, its more frightening aspects doubtless inspired many sleepless nights. Here’s hoping Treguard returns to his dungeon full time in the near future to thrill and terrify the young and young at heart once more.

View the 2013 revival episode of Knightmare below.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74r-EbIqt9s[/youtube]