On paper, Knightmare is a terrible idea. It’s a kids’ TV show that simulates the experience of playing a computer game, as if kids wouldn’t rather just play a computer game. The bulk of each episode is comprised of three children staring at a television screen and shouting at a fourth kid, who is wearing a giant hat. They are constantly interrupted by a man dressed as a camp Hobbit. It’s a game show, but winning is almost impossible, and the penalty for failure is death.
On screen, the idea fared pretty well. Knightmare ran for eight years and 112 episodes. At the height of the program’s popularity, 5 million viewers tuned in every week. It remains one of the most fondly remembered children’s shows on British television, 25 years after the first episode was broadcast.
Overseeing the madness was actor Hugo Myatt, who played Treguard, Lord of Knightmare Castle, Master of the Dungeon of Deceit. He’s an icon for an entire generation of children, an enigmatic figure who could switch from paternal concern to portentous menace in an instant, just by making his eyes go all googly. Of course, to anyone who hasn’t seen Knightmare, he’s just some guy in a glitzy doublet who hosted a ridiculous-sounding game show. “Explaining it to people who haven’t seen it has always been a tremendous problem,” said Myatt, who spoke to me in May at a London hotel.
The program was borne out of a fantasy that has probably occupied the minds of many video game players. TV producer Tim Child loved computer games but was frustrated by the impassable barrier between the real and virtual worlds. As Myatt explained, “He was playing the computer games of that era, and he thought, ‘The trouble with this is, I want to be inside the game. I don’t want to be here, fiddling with the buttons—I want to be in it.’ That’s how he came up with the concept.
“But I don’t know how you describe Knightmare,” Myatt continued. “It’s an adventure quest—that sounds dull. It’s a game show—that’s dull. It’s a unique team effort, but it’s not a very organized team…”
The program’s opening credit sequence provided a misleading introduction into how the show actually worked. It was an animation in the style of a Saturday morning cartoon, showing a square-jawed, muscular hero galloping through a decaying landscape. The pounding electro-pop soundtrack was underscored by the hammering of horse’s hooves and the crackle of lightning. The whole thing promised action, conflict, and quick-fire thrills.
In fact, the majority of the program took place in a softly lit room, complete with a roaring fire, flickering candles, and comfy chairs. There was a big television, which was quite obviously a big television despite an excessive application of papier-mâché and constant references to “the magic mirror.” Basically, the show was set in Treguard’s lounge. It was from here that he summoned the contestants brave enough to take on his dungeon. “Enter, stranger,” Treguard declared, with the kind of gravitas only possessed by men with really serious beards. “Who challenges my dungeon?”
The answer, almost inevitably, was four weedy pre-pubescents from the Home Counties, dressed in pastel-colored polo shirts and looking like they would quite like to go home now, please. Three of the team members acted as “advisors,” sitting in front of the magic mirror and making notes on enchanted clipboards. The fourth player, or “dungeoneer,” got to enter the actual dungeon.
But first he or she had to don the “Helmet of Justice,” a comically large piece of horned headgear. It restricted the wearer’s vision to the area immediately around their feet. The rationale Treguard gave for effectively blindfolding the child he was sending into a hazard-laden labyrinth was cryptic: “Your quest through the dungeon is for truth and justice. Justice, of course, is blind. When you don this helmet, you also become blind.”
The real reason the dungeoneer could not be allowed to see the dungeon was because it did not exist. In reality, he or she was walking around a big room covered floor to ceiling in blue-screen fabric. The dungeon, as seen by the advisors and the audience at home, was comprised of computer-generated backgrounds that had been touched up with an artist’s airbrush.
The advisors had to guide the dungeoneer through these virtual reality environments, mainly by shouting at them as if teaching ballroom dancing by telegram: “Side-step to your left… STOP… Now turn to your right… Walk forward… STOP.”
This should have made for terrible television. In fact, it was mesmerizing and often heart-thumpingly exciting. This was partly down to the imaginative and diverse design of the dungeon chambers. Highlights included the rooms that housed giant, cartoon-style bombs with rapidly burning fuses. The teams would often be hilariously slow to recognize the danger, forcing Treguard to intervene by stating the obvious. (”Chamber mined! Fuse running!”) Many of the rooms contained puzzles. Often these would take the form of a riddle read out by a character such as Granitas the wall monster (or as Treguard pronounced it, Granitarse). He thundered out cryptic clues like, “It swims in water but isn’t a fish. It fells great trees but isn’t an axe. Its coat is costly but isn’t a mink. What is it, then?” (“Could be a swordfish, ’cos that cuts down trees?” was one team member’s response.)
Sometimes the puzzles were based around symbols on the ground. The advisors had to guide the dungeoneer across these the correct order. There was much potential for ineptitude here—in the very first episode, it took one team a full three minutes to unlock a door by rearranging the letters “OPNE.”
But let’s not be too hard on the kids. As Myatt recalled, they were invariably overwhelmed by the experience of being on the show. They were never allowed to see Treguard out of costume or character and completely believed in the world they were entering. “The odd thing is, when the kids arrived on the set, they were totally into it within about five minutes,” he said. “The suspension of disbelief stuff just happened.”
According to Myatt, this was particularly true for the contestants who had to wear the Helmet Of Justice. Being unable to see what was going on around them enabled their imaginations to paint pictures more vivid than the computer technology could create. “Initially the helmet was thought to be a problem, but it’s actually what made the game work,” he said. “Every time they tried to get rid of the idea of the blindfolded kid, the game ceased to function. It was the blind man’s buff element that made it so exciting. I think that formula—someone frightened of the dark, three people screaming at them, the people back at home shouting, ‘No, you nincompoop, it’s the other way’—that’s what made it. In a way, it was the first interactive drama.”
The fact the contestants took the whole thing so seriously—showing real fear during the hairy moments, shedding actual tears when they lost—made it easier for the viewer at home to believe in the world of Knightmare. However, what really brought it to life was the kids’ interactions with the actors inhabiting many of the dungeon’s rooms.
They played a variety of memorable characters with humor and aplomb. There was Lillith the witch, who was homicidally wicked if teams failed to present a gift which pleased her. Cedric the mad monk, always full of rage and ready with an insult (”Quail, you miserable, misbegotten remnant of a recently discarded horse dropping…”). And Folly the jester, who was just really annoying.
This is where Knightmare had the edge over the computer games it was trying to emulate. There was nothing artificial about the intelligence of those characters. They were able to communicate with and react to the dungeoneers in ways a computer never could—guiding them, mocking them, and most importantly, listening to them. But this presented a challenge for the actors, as Myatt recalls.
“The thing a lot of people do not understand is that though it was a recorded program, we did it ‘as live,’” he said. “There were no rehearsals, because you couldn’t rehearse the children, otherwise it would no longer be a contest. We did no retakes, because again, you would have been making them into actors, which they were not. The actors in the void, as we called it, had a very hard job. They knew roughly how they were going to guide the children, but they didn’t have a script. They had to improvise. That sounds fine, but remember, you have to keep those kids on track. [The production team] tried to work out every possibility the kids could come up with. But they never did. The kids always came up with something they hadn’t thought of.”
With the children endlessly testing the rules of the world they were exploring and the actors making up dialogue as they went along, the show needed a steadying, predictable presence to keep it from dissolving into chaos. Myatt was that presence. At the start of each season he received a thick script containing details of every room the kids might encounter, all of which had to be memorized. “I had to learn every single scenario,” Myatt said. “A lot of the other actors had a lot of off-stage fun. I never did, because I was constantly learning stuff.”
As they came to understand their game better, the producers found ways to ease Myatt’s load. For instance, in the show’s first season, the path chosen by the contestants determined which rooms they would encounter, forcing the writers to prepare for all the branching possibilities. “Progressively we realized, of course, this wasn’t necessary, because the kids didn’t know. Whether they turned left or right, we could use the same scenario. So then I didn’t have quite so much to cram in.”
To the contestants, however, and to the viewers at home, choosing the correct path always seemed vitally important. Walking through the wrong doorway could mean instant death. As could picking up the wrong quest object, forgetting a password, misspelling an incantation, angering someone, messing up a riddle, taking a step left instead of right, failing to find enough random pork pies lying about and therefore running out of “life force energy,” and other fatal missteps.
One of the most memorable ways to die was by getting sliced up in the Corridor Of Blades, a long hallway through which circular saws would spin at different heights. Because it reminded them of a moving walkway of the kind found in airports, the production team codenamed it Gatwick.
“You’d get real nerds who were just games players, who were, unfortunately, lousy television. So we used to throw in a few googlies,” Myatt said. “To be honest, if they put Gatwick in when they had a really dull team, they hoped it would slice their heads off. The problem is, it wouldn’t. That’s the kind of thing they were probably good at. And then things would go back to them being dull as hell afterwards.”
If attempting to kill off contestants simply because they’re boring sounds unfair, consider the fate of those teams who happened to be playing at the end of a series. Knightmare episodes were not self-contained—the show used the “straddling” technique. As explained by Gameological editor John Teti in his analysis of UK game show The Exit List, this meant that quests were allowed to continue across several episodes, rather than begin and end within the space of one show. Treguard would announce that a “temporal shift” had occurred. Bells would toll and (with the exception of Treguard himself) everything in the world of Knightmare, from the advisors poised with pens above clipboards to the flickering flames in the fireplace, would be frozen until next week.
But there was no straddling between seasons, so if a team was halfway through a quest at the end of the final show, it was tough luck. “Your bold quest cannot be completed. This phase of the dungeon is over,” Treguard would announce, and the credits would roll.
It’s hard to imagine a game show being produced today where the contestants lose simply because the season is at an end. But part of what made the world of Knightmare feel real was the fact that unfair, arbitrary things happened within it. This set it apart from other game shows, as did the absence of a scoreboard or competing teams. The challenge was to stay alive. And unlike in computer games, there were no extra lives or “CONTINUE?” options. When you died in Knightmare, you really died.
(This was kids’ TV, of course, so Treguard was often at pains to point out that although contestants had “perished in the dungeon,” they had “survived in the reality you call your time.” But this was only after viewers had witnessed a terrifying animation of skin peeling off a skull, its jaw detaching and eyeballs rolling off into oblivion, to the sound of a booming death knell.)
The show was half-way through its second season before a team successfully made it through the dungeon. Only seven more teams followed suit over the course of all eight series. Out of 112 episodes, 104 ended with no one winning. That’s a bold tally for a game show. The extreme difficulty level provided a compelling reason to keep tuning in. It felt as if someone just HAD to win at some point, and whatever happened when they did was sure to be amazing. (What actually happened was the same as when a team lost, except the winners received a small trophy bearing the legend “Anglia Television.” To share between four of them.)
But of course, the real reason to watch every week was that you’d almost certainly get to see someone mortally wounded by a giant scorpion or plummet helplessly from a floating causeway. Kids love mortal danger, gothic horror, and watching other kids get punished with death for spelling things incorrectly. The show imparted some important lessons—that life isn’t fair, and that great endeavor is not always worth it in the end. For an entire generation of British children, it was the televisual equivalent of owning a terminally ill hamster.
And it was ideal viewing for nerdy kids exhausted by a hard day of bullying and P.E., desperate to escape to a world of dragons and wizards. Adventure game books were all right, but they were only books. Computer games were good fun, but in 1987, there was no such thing as photorealistic graphics, or even vaguely realistic graphics. An orc comprised of 8 pixels isn’t about to make anyone hide behind the sofa, but the real-life goblins of Knightmare, heralded by their terrifying horn, were the second scariest thing British children of the ’80s had to face (after the perpetual threat of global nuclear holocaust).
The program was also the perfect alternative to the brightly colored whizz-bangs of other, noisier game shows. In Fun House, for example, obnoxious children in red and yellow jumpsuits raced round a giant obstacle course in pursuit of dozens of prizes of varying quality. (“Zip through the tumbling tube for this spectacular sleeping bag!”) They were egged on by two blond cheerleaders and hundreds of screaming kids. With its slow pace, quiet discourse, and muted color palette, Knightmare was the opposite. It’s hard to visualize Treguard ever making his entrance on a scooter.
It’s also hard to imagine an adult sitting down to watch Fun House. But like all the best children’s entertainment, Knightmare was enjoyed by grown-ups, too. “We had a huge following in universities,” says Myatt. “Then I got invited to be the notional president of the Cheddar Gorge Dungeons & Dragons Association.” He accepted, “but I never heard another word from them. Whether they just have my picture on a plaque, I don’t know.”
Myatt’s real pop-star moment, he says, came when he agreed to do a signing at a computer games exhibition. “I got there, and what seemed to me like millions of kids—not only kids, half our audience was adults—pinned me against a wall. I was there for about three hours, signing photographs. At one point I got quite panicky, because I couldn’t see how I could ever get out of there. It was quite extraordinary. But hubris comes in here. When I got out, there were all these signed photographs on the ground that people had just chucked away. So much for that.”
Being Britain’s most famous overlord of a virtual fantasy dungeon wasn’t all good times. “I had two or three stalkers. I had one for five years, which was really dangerous. I had to change my phone number several times. I moved eventually.”
Sitting on the spectrum between crazy stalkers and the people who threw his photos away was an army of fans who believed totally in the Treguard character. Credit is due here to Myatt’s commitment to the role. A trained stage actor, he treated Knightmare as seriously as he would were he appearing in a show for adults. He walked the line between theatrical drama and straightforward pantomime with deftness, putting in a performance which was often subtle and always convincing. That’s a tough feat when your most famous catchphrase is “Ooooh, NASTY,” but he pulled it off, creating a character who always appeared to have his own motives, even if it wasn’t always clear what they were.
Myatt was never afraid to break the fourth wall, addressing the “watchers of illusion” directly at the start and end of each episode, and frequently mocking “the passive ones” for not having the guts to enter the dungeon themselves.
His character’s ambiguity was especially prominent during the first few seasons, when it was never exactly clear whose side Treguard was on. “I had to be both the menace and the guide, because they didn’t have a villain,” Myatt said. “So I came up with, ‘You can try it if you like, but you might DIE…’ and that sort of stuff, and that tended to carry on. Eventually they brought in the Lord Fear character, so I was no longer the enemy, and the part became a little bit more avuncular.”
As the series became more successful, the world of Knightmare expanded. New characters were introduced, such as Pickle the elf and Majida the genie. With technological advances came better special effects and more realistic backgrounds. The production budget managed to stretch to more than one trophy per team. Myatt’s doublets got glitzier, and he grew taller (“One day I went into wardrobe and saw my costume hanging up, and a note that said, ‘Dungeon master’s boots—give lifts.’”) Most notably, as the technology used to create the dungeon environments advanced, they became more diverse and began to look more realistic.
“The technology, and the guys working with it, was incredible,” Myatt said. “If you ever watch the earlier stuff done with chroma key, there were no shadows. The great thing about Knightmare is that everybody has a shadow—nobody appears to be floating in space. If you think about the state of the art, technologically speaking, and then compare it to Titanic—we were doing stuff they were just beginning to get to grips with in the film world.”
This might seem a little overblown, looking at Knightmare today. The show has not aged well. But it’s important to consider the historical context, and how much things have changed since the series ended. “With today’s technology, we’re all too blasé,” Myatt said. “You go to a see a movie, and there are things happening in 3D, and you just think, ‘So what?’”
The last series of Knightmare was broadcast in 1994. Ten years later, Tim Child produced a pilot for a sequel titled Knightmare VR. In this show, the dungeon is entirely computer-generated, as are all the characters. Even the dungeoneer, who only has one advisor this time, is represented as an avatar. Treguard appears as a poorly animated floating head. The whole thing is dreadful.
Knightmare VR was based around a misunderstanding of the original show’s appeal. It imagined that Knightmare was fun because it simulated a computer game, which was Child’s original goal. It concluded that a better simulation would make for a better show. As the pilot illustrates, it just makes for a program that is sterile and dull.
Those technological limitations forced the production team on the original show to introduce the elements that worked so well, such as the blindfold and the live action. As Myatt put it: “Knightmare was an accidental formula that was brilliant. I’m not knocking Tim. It was his idea, and it was great because he did it. I think quite a lot of it was a happy accident.”
The end result was a hybrid of a fun computer game and a thrilling stage play. It was great not because it simulated a computer game, but because it simulated an adventure. It was the experience of exploring a real fantasy world. Oxymoronic but true. Solving puzzles, collecting treasures, talking to wizards, and facing death at every turn, spurred on all the while by your best friends and mad old uncle—now that’s a great idea for a TV show.