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Monthly Archives: December 2015

…is on!

I thought it correct to round off the year with Countdown as it’s basically been a part of every other post of my 2015 tenure here, some way or another. That, and the clock itself is surely the coolest way to countdown to midnight. Who needs Big Ben and millions of pounds worth of fireworks when you have that music?

This is just a quick render using the original (current set design) version of the Countdown graphics made by me, which I spoke about in exhaustive detail in an August post wherein I gave them an 80s redressing.

CLOCK2016-1_0498As you can see, I got overexcited and ended up building the entire set. This gave me the hope of flying cameras around it while the clock ticked, but nightmarish render times put me off doing that.

But this post isn’t about me, nor is it about Countdown. I’m here to say thank you to YOU for putting up with me for, goodness, five months now! You are all so kind and encouraging – it quickly became a lovely place to be and that’s definitely more down to you than me.

I wish a Happy New Year to all who jaywalk, be it regularly or just occasionally, long-standing or newcomer, loud or in silent. Have a great night whatever you’re getting up to, and I shall see you here, next year – you be sure of it!

To 2016! x

spider-mastermind-cHere we have The Spiderdemon, later known as The Spider Mastermind, the final boss of one of the biggest (and most controversial) games of 1993: id Software’s Doom. It earns the latter moniker when – spoiler! – the plot reveals this cybernetic colossus as the mastermind behind the monster invasion of the Phobos and Deimos bases you’ve had to blaze through en route to the showdown in hell itself. It’s not actually a spider at all, having only four legs and two arms, but we’re not going to argue with it.

Over the season I often get nostalgic for childhood, and a large part of that throws me back to the time I wasted in front of the TV playing games… and using said nostalgia as an excuse to do precisely that once again. In a true Christmas spirit and after chancing upon a YouTube video discussing the game, Doom was one to which we found our way back.

I was very young (too young) when I played it for the first time, at the age of about six. We were one of the four or five families in the world that owned a Sega 32X – though we got it in 1998, long after it had been discontinued! – and when my brother bought it from some second-hand shop, the vendor just chucked a Doom cartridge in without prompt or apology. He did the same with a particularly dire Star Wars game too… I guess there were a lot to be rid of.

In my innocence, my intrigue was more expended in the ‘3D’ graphics and the fact that the perilous pools of acid were animated to look like rippling liquid, than it ever was with blasting a shotgun at demons. And I was never very good at that anyway. (Playing it over the past couple of days: that hasn’t changed.) There was one time I merrily strolled up to a door, only for it to raise on me with a terrifying predatory trumpet, revealing a pair of hideous goat-esque beasts – the Barons of Hell – who promptly put me out of my misery as I’d dropped the controller in panic and ran away. But other than that one incident, and considering I found lots of kids TV puppets unnerving, I think I coped with Doom pretty well.

There are facets to the game that still impress me – things that you can observe as truly a step-up from any game that had preceded it. One I enjoy the most is the use of sound; the fact that you can hear distant enemies grunting, their increasing volume betraying an impending encounter. The sound of doors opening and closing behind you. With the clever level design, the atmosphere is still there in bucket loads – the now-dated graphics seem to add to it.

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Ohhhh fudge.

Our Spider Mastermind friend here wasn’t in the 32X version, so I didn’t see it until we acquired the PC version… this would have been a year or two later; the then-seven-year old game was about the most our pitiful machine could cope with without catching fire. Being the ultimate boss, you’d expect it to be one of the toughest enemies to beat – and you’d be right, even if the mountainous Cyberdemon that you meet halfway through the game is more damaging. That’s a super-action chaingun on the front of the chassis; drop the ball for a second and it will finish you off. As a child, I could never best it without cheating. Beating it on Ultra-Violence (hard) without sneaky codes was my crowning achievement of last weekend, or heck, perhaps the entire year.

The Doom monsters are an impressive and characterfully vile troupe. They were sketched and sculpted by Adrian Carmack and Gregor Punchatz (the latter of which built our subject, to the former’s designs). The sculptures were then photographed from eight different angles, scanned, coloured and mixed with hand-drawn sprites. Here’s the team playing around with the awesome Spider Mastermind model:

This was a time-consuming job, and not without its frustrations, but ultimately it was one of the most fun I think I’ve ever done for this blog, and certainly a departure from my norms. I might come back with some more Doom hellspawn later on!

 

wolf-2To be honest, I’ve wanted to post for a couple of days, but really haven’t had any idea what to actually do, or talk about. I think Christmas and various bouts of overindulgence have wearied me somewhat. I can confirm that it is Monday tomorrow. I bet you didn’t know that – I didn’t, until I checked the calendar.

No worries about the staggering though, for I eventually found my way to drawing the magnificent and glorious grey wolf, one of my favourite animals of all. Not the wicked beast we have painted it to be over the centuries, instead the social, affectionate and intelligent creature that it really is. Leave the wolves alone, yeah? Yeah.

I hope you are all enjoying the holidays!

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Just because…!

Here’s musical accompaniment for you: on Christmas Eve 1975, but a day off forty years ago, Queen put an exclamation point on their most successful year so far with a blistering performance at the Hammersmith Odeon. I’ve fiddled it to start at the awesome Bohemian Rhapsody/Killer Queen/March of the Black Queen medley, but indeed the whole concert is in that video. Enjoy it!

I wish you a very Freddie Christmas. Indeed, happy and peaceful holidays to all who jaywalk here with me.

Weinachtspyramide1_0076With it being Christmas and everyone going a bit doolally, I’ve taken a step away from the old certainties and haven’t done a Time-Tested today. I’m not sure when I’ll do the next, though sure I am that it won’t be too long; they could well prove a welcome distraction in that awkward between-Christmas-and-New-Year drudge!

I have, however, been building. The other day, dear Charlie O’Shields of doodlewash made a marvellous doodlewash of a Weihnachtspyramide, the whimsical and fascinating festive decoration, and ever since this I’ve been itching to give it a go, so you have Charlie to thank or thump for this post. I’d completely forgotten about them, in truth, but we did have one as a child. I think this is the one we had – if not, it was very similar. I thought they were wonderful, and pestered my mother like crazy for one after our grandparents started flaunting their own.

I didn’t try and copy that – much as I’d have liked to, I’m not overly confident in modelling people, no matter how basic they are. Completing the model was, actually, painless. But very long-winded. Cylinder cylinder cylinder CONE! cylinder. I booled some stars into the parapet wall to give a pleasing cutaway.

I probably should have planned out what to include on the dioramas gracing each level, rather than fudging it as I went along. It is basically the blandest Weihnachtspyramide ever.

On the lowermost stage, we have a train making an endless circular journey around some trees; in the middle we have a living room replete with gifts, tree and a roaring fire; on top we have Father Christmas and his reindeer, presumably about to enter the living room… even though the fire’s on. I didn’t actually make the models for the top floor – I sourced them from here. I did however make and light those candles, which I was dead chuffed with!

As one would expect, the model is animated, so indeed can turn with or without the help of candlelight.

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Despite my criticisms, what a tremendously refreshing and fun voyage this was – so much so, that the time just whirled away, as it often did when I found myself transfixed by these wondrous contraptions. And again, a hearteningly steady process.

It’s even made me feel a tiny bit festive!

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It’s been quite some time since I made any vector art, so I thought I would see to fixing that this evening, especially as I never really have been that skilled in the practice. With it being the season of comfort and familiarity, I fell back on not Saint Nick (besides, I’ve already drawn him!) but Miles ‘Tails’ Prower, the airborne sidekick to Sonic the Hedgehog.

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Real deal versus my vector

Reaching the final piece took a lot longer than I expected, and indeed it probably took longer than you think looking at it… pushing two hours, actually – which perplexes when I think of what I’ve proven I can draw in that time.

I always preferred Tails to Sonic in both games and the TV spin-offs. Especially in the TV series. Sonic was such a contemptible brat in those shows, with his unapologetic arrogance and a line of catchphrases and slogans that even I found to be corny. He only made you root for Long John Baldry’s Robotnik even more. But indeed, pff, Sonic is fast. Big deal. Tails can fly. Who wouldn’t want that ability? I would always play as just him in the games.

At least, where that was possible. Tails made his debut in Sonic 2, which was released in 1992 on the Master System and Mega Drive consoles. The 8-bit version is not a watered-down port,but a wholly different game – while Tails is all over the box art and in-game graphics, to my heartbreak he is not actually a playable character. The opening sequence shows Tails being kidnapped by Robotnik, and of course, as Sonic, you must rescue him. This is achieved by collecting the Chaos Emeralds that are hidden within each zone – if you get to the end (bloody unlikely – this game is pure evil) with all of the Emeralds (even more unlikely) then you face off against Robotnik for one last (evil) battle to win back your vulpine companion.

(I’ve no doubt the real story is that Tails as a playable character was dropped due to time constraints, and they had to hobble together said storyline to make it work.)

If, however, you don’t collect them all, the game ends a zone early and you get a long and melancholic tune of the credit sequence, played out over Sonic running seemingly endlessly across a landscape. Then, he grinds to a halt and looks up:

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Tails in the sky? Is Tails in heaven? HAS TAILS BEEN KILLED BY ROBOTNIK? Christ, this used to make me feel so awful, and it was definitely an impetus to never miss a bloody Emerald ever again. It was also a reason I steered clear of this game as a child; I didn’t want Tails’ death on my conscience.

Then, later I found that, on the good ending, the same thing happens… only with both Sonic and Tails in the sky. To be honest, I find this a little confusing. Why are their ghostly countenances in the sky a good thing, and if it is a good thing, why is Tails there whether we rescued him or not? Am I missing something? Be a dear and help me out here.

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Like the Crystal Dome, only eggier.

Looking at the game with a (barely) more mature eye and noticing different things, I rather like the simplicity of the level cards that pop up before each Act, with the quintessential Sonic landscape passing through the lettering. So, while hanging around and irritating Illustrator, I made an entire alphabet of such a design:

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sonic2-font-GO

Play Sonic 2 on the Master System, and you’ll be seeing this screen a lot. With its mocking abruptness and sinister 8-bit musical accompaniment, I used to run and hide at this point. I’m not sure what I was expecting to happen.

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This is an edited version of a piece I originally wrote for another site to celebrate the show’s twenty-fifth birthday in February 2015.

Just about the best show ever made.

When the bigwigs at Chatsworth Television reckoned that their magnificent Treasure Hunt had run its course and pulled it in 1989, Channel 4 were left with a vacant slot in the heart of the Thursday night schedule. The tenure of Treasure Hunt had cultivated this into a curiously family-friendly slot, so it would probably prove an even tougher challenge to replace than one might imagine.

Richard O’Brien was set to burst onto screens with the British version of the French Les Cles de Fort Boyard, an action-adventure game show in which a team of contestants move around the fort, completing an array of physical challenges in the hope of winning keys to chambers in ‘The Treasure Room’ at the end of the show, all in the hope of winning a big prize. However, a spanner was thrown into Channel 4’s works when it became clear that the fort itself was in no fit state for use, nor was it ever likely to be available when they wanted it anyway – Boyard was being touted by several commissioners around the world, and the scramble was unholy. Certainly, there was going to be no chance of a winter 1989-90 series, so a worthy substitute was needed.

With the guidance and wisdom of French TV maestro Jacques Antoine, that substitute was to be The Crystal Maze. While very much a child of the Boyard mould, and sticking to the same general premise, it is pleasingly distinctive from the crowd, not to mention beautifully ambitious. It’s another emblem of just how good Channel 4 used to be. With a new setup being developed, a sprawling set – the size of two football pitches, and the largest in Europe – was built, costing in the region of a quarter of a million pounds and going wildly over-budget in just about every aspect, but I think you can say with some conviction that it paid off. Altogether, there were only a handful studios in the country large enough to contain the maze, and when all were in use, it had to move to Aces High, an aircraft hangar in North Weald, where it would remain for the rest of its life.

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Scuttling through the smoggy Industrial Zone. There was lots of running about in The Crystal Maze.

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Blue and white flourescents cold-lit the barren Futuristic Zone. It was a shame they spoilt it toward the end by going all multi-coloured. (Photo: James Dillon)

Indeed, the contestants on The Crystal Maze moved not around a fort but a ‘maze’ of four inter-connected ‘time zones’ – Aztec, an abandoned village in the Mexican Gulf; Industrial, a gritty, smoggy workmans’ courtyard surrounded by corrugated iron and steel (in series four, this was replaced by Ocean, a sunken 20th century steamship); Medieval, a dank and windswept castle; and Futuristic, a disused space station of the 22nd century. This device was a work of genius; not only was it wholly impressive as a concept, but it kept the show fresh in so many ways. Each zone had its own cranky atmosphere, and the shift in moving from one to another was powerful – credit not only to those on screen, but those who built, dressed, lit and arranged the maze so smartly. Another note which I found quite surprising is that the set really was just one inter-connected beast as we saw on television, with its cumbersome rope bridges, stuttering lifts and smokey vents getting you from one time zone to the next. For so long, I believed that the four zones were ultimately separate sets, sprinkled with TV magic to appear linked. Not so. It was precisely as you saw in the snazzy diagram that popped on screen as a transition was taking place.

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The map of the maze after Ocean replaced Industrial. It really was arranged as you see, all linked together and as one. Each zone also had its own ‘entrance’ – for example, if a team began in Futuristic zone, they would have to answer a scientific question posed by a monotonic computer; in Medieval, they would have to raise a portcullis.

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Richard standing before said portcullis, outside the Medieval Zone.

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Aztec Zone at night was fantastic.

A team of six – who did not know each other, and met only the night before the gruelling two-and-a-half day filming began – clad in wondrous 80s/90s hair and universally hideous attire, travel through these zones, moved into ‘cells’ one at a time to play a series of deceptively fiendish games – generally three or four in each of the four zones – of more cerebral routing than Fort Boyard, though there were plenty of muscle games too, a balance which was refined as the show evolved. The games came from many sources, from MENSA to casual viewers, and as such varied hugely in their quality and archness. Some were just outright cruel. The on-screen nomination of physical/mental/skill/mystery was often no more than fluff, as it had already been determined long ago by the production team who was going to be playing which game. Watching it with that knowledge in mind, it remains unclear to me whether they picked people for certain games genuinely believing they might crack it, or just to watch them crash and burn. I know which I think it might be, especially with further insight thanks to rather animated (and hilarious) director-narrated behind the scenes footage, but can’t be certain…

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“MOVE THAT BIT TO THE RIGHT. NO, NOT THAT BIT. NO LEFT. NO WAIT, IT IS TO THE RIGHT. HOW MUCH TIME DO WE HAVE LEFT?” Contestants on the outside of the cell always thought they knew best, so they all yelled ‘advice’ to the person playing. Rarely could any voice of intelligence and reason be heard.

Each game has the possibility of winning a crystal, and lasts between two and three minutes; while a contestant can abandon the game at any time (usually), failure to escape within the allotted time, win or lose, results in their being locked in, and they are a prisoner of the Maze until the team captain decides to sacrifice a crystal for their release – they don’t have to, and indeed many people were simply left behind, owing either to ‘strategy’ or just lack of crystals. A concept that crept in toward the end of the first series is the ‘automatic lock-in’, which quickly became much-dreaded words for any Crystal Maze contestant; it was a game in which there are certain conditions which must be obeyed… stepping on the floor or touching the wall, for example, could result in you being shut in immediately for an extended stay.

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This unfortunate contestant has to guide that ‘shield’ through the gaps without touching the ‘force fields’. Touch them, luv, and it’s an automatic lock-in for you!

The ‘Treasure Room’ of Fort Boyard here is dwarfed in mystique by The Crystal Maze and its ‘Crystal Dome’ finale. After all available games have been played, the amount of crystals won is frozen and that determines their stay in the Crystal Dome. Each hard-earned crystal gifts the team five seconds – I believe the record number of crystals won was ten, which was done more than once. The team move to and inside the Dome – a giant geodesic structure of perspex, standing above several huge fans. These fans, triggered by a legendary cry of “WILL YOU START THE FANS, PLEASE!” from the presenter, blew about hundreds of slithers of silver and gold – credits, as they were known – and the aim of the team is to jump about in the wind like lunatics collect as many gold credits as possible, and avoid all silver. To ‘win’, the team needed to collect and post, through the ‘Cosmic Pyramid’, one hundred gold credits. (In series one, a total of between fifty and ninety-nine would earn a secondary prize, but this was scrapped for series two onwards… presumably, too many people won.) However. Every silver credit takes one gold away, so you can’t just go stuffing tokens in blindly… as almost every single team ever did! Indeed, most teams went in with precious little time, so to sort or indeed think at all just was not an option. Then there was the team who hilariously bought out several prisoners at the death, and went to the Dome with just one crystal. In honesty, the Dome is probably the weakest part of the entire show in its mechanic, but its visual impact has made it perhaps even more synonymous with The Crystal Maze than Richard’s shiny head, and I certainly wouldn’t turn down a go inside it.

Of the eighty-three teams that ventured through the maze, only seventeen ever managed to leave the Dome with a tally of one hundred gold credits, to win the “super-duper, numero uno” prizes. Upon learning that such hard-earned rewards included canoeing on the River Wye or camping out in Kent, it probably didn’t sting too much to all those who came up short… but it’s the spirit of the thing that counts… and those murder mystery weekends aren’t cheap, you know…

OK. They were terrible grand prizes. Losers got a replica crystal, inscribed with ‘I cracked The Crystal Maze’… even though they hadn’t, because they lost.

While the format of the show was undoubtedly a highly entertaining one, allowing for contestants and viewer to partake in a visually-saturated journey of unbridled triumph and then crushing, embarrassing and hilarious defeat within the space of a few minutes, I don’t think anyone could deny that the key to the success of The Crystal Maze was Richard O’Brien. His turn on this show is perhaps one of the most distinctive and unique of any presenter ever. It could have been done by a vanilla game show host to tap into that audience, but it wouldn’t have been so terribly entertaining. With Richard’s heritage as it is, you would expect him to ham it up, but that’s the thing; was he even hamming it up that much? It’s not easy to pin down, and certainly impossible to imitate. He paraded around the show clad in loud coats and boots, and, with an instantly endearing and infectious vigour, led the team to their challenges. Often, the true sparkle of The Crystal Maze lye not with what the contestant in the game cell was doing… it was what Richard was doing on the outside. What was he going on about? Was he playing his trusty harmonica – and was he doing this through boredom, was it an attempt to buoy the contestant’s energy, or was it just him? He would very frequently join us in occasionally telling the hapless contestants to get on with it, or sniggering at their shortcomings, though it was never delivered nor received with any hint of malice or unkindness. It was always what much of us were thinking, and this only brought him closer to the viewers.

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Richard O’Brien sporting a look nobody else could hope to pull off.

As the show rolled on, enjoying critical acclaim and some of Channel 4’s biggest audiences, Richard perfected this ‘persona’ to the audience – almost half of whom were children, much to the surprise of both he and the production team (which inspired kids specials at Christmas, a wonderful and generous thing to do for the festive season) – and, as such, The Crystal Maze became more than a game show – it grew heart. This was helped too by the presence of Sandra Caron, originally intended to be no more than a fortune teller-style character to ask contestants brain teasers, whom O’Brien decided almost instantly to refer to as his mother, or Mumsey. This stuck perfectly, and by series two ‘Reckless Ricky’ and Mumsey were having frequent exchanges and embarrassing arguments in front of the guests in their homely Medieval Zone. It sowed the seed for all of Richard’s future babbling, and indeed this plot point even would go on to provide the basis for his departure from the programme; Ricky and Mumsey moved out of the maze at the end of series four as apparently Mumsey wanted to go and be with her latest inamorato – a Californian hippie by the name of Dwayne.

In reality, Richard left simply because he felt he had done all he could with the show, wanting to go out on a high and do things that he couldn’t do while tied down to the programme… presumably, things like the classic movie Spiceworld. But indeed, that seems fair enough.

Christmas Special 1993. Step in Edward Tudor-Pole – but you can call him Ed! – a punk rocker and musician of many decades who, it seemed, everyone had forgotten about, despite Swords of a Thousand Men being a top ten hit in 1981. Coincidentally also, he’d just come out of playing Riff Raff in a production of Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show. It quickly became clear just how much Richard meant to the viewers, and how indelible a mark he left on the show, as Tudor-Pole’s role on the show seems to be maligned almost by nature. “Oh, I used to love Crystal Maze. Was rubbish when that Ed Tudor-Pole took over, though.” That’s what everybody says. I maintain that the only reason people have any gripe with Ed is that he isn’t Richard.

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Ed Tudor-Pole, sporting a look nobody could hope to pull off.

It’s most unfair, too. Doubtless, the show missed O’Brien to begin with, and no-one was going to airbrush his tenure out of the viewers’ minds. But Ed was marvellous as mazemaster, and in fact, in some ways, perhaps even better than his predecessor; maybe he couldn’t ham it up to quite the same degree, and the over-reliance on flowery words to describe the zone transition – trignification? osmorillo? – process grew rather tiresome after a couple of episodes, but characteristically (and sartorially) I think he fit the bill to a tee. He could tow the line between welcoming, flamboyant and quite creepy, and really appeared to become absorbed in the maze and its magic, while also allowing the contestants (and the dynamic between them – one of the show’s most important underlying aspects) more of the spotlight. The two series that he presented were also streets ahead of the previous four in terms of the quality of the games, too; they really stepped it up. It’s a shame that he rarely speaks favourably about his time hosting the show; he really did well and I hope he can at least observe a merit in fronting such a fond relic of the 90s.

Sadly, Ed didn’t really have much time to settle in and make the role his own, as the show ended in summer 1995 at the end of series six. Channel 4 put its demise down to declining ratings pitted against its humungous maintenance costs. It was a great shame, but indeed, format-wise, there was probably little else for the show to do and not a terrific scope for new ways to go without shelling out on it, which I guess Channel 4 didn’t think shrewd. It’s said that the ghostly shell of the maze remained in the hangar in which it was filmed until 1999, when it was finally taken down.

It’s a programme that is cherished as one of the most popular shows of its time, and likely paid for many of Channel 4’s subsequent (if less exciting) future investments. However, Chatsworth’s next Channel 4 venture, The Magic Carnival, in which contestants would play circus-style games, failed to ever materialise, and I don’t believe they touched another game show until they revived Treasure Hunt for BBC2 some years later. The Crystal Maze has not disappeared, for it is shown perpetually on Challenge, each time to a fresh audience (except me). So many people seem to want it come back. Oh, it’ll be great, won’t it? Well, I’m almost certain that it won’t, and I would rather it wasn’t revived, but I concede it could, if done correctly. What exactly I mean by ‘correctly’, I don’t even know. It’s a genre that isn’t really catered for that much these days, the frugal time that it is and the apparent penchant for cheap, safe and bankable quiz shows, and so I think there’s certainly room for something like The Crystal Maze. Maybe it should be a completely different animal if it comes back, perhaps not even bound to television? Maybe that’s the only way it could realistically work? I don’t know… but whatever happens, I think looking for Richard O’Brien II and replicating the Aztec Zone down to the brick is likely just setting up for failure. Perhaps it ought to remain untainted.

My brother summed it up perfectly when discussing the programme. “It was like chocolate. I would look forward to it all week.” Indeed, it was much the same here – I’m glad we didn’t get Fort Boyard (it showed up on Channel 5 some years later, though I’ve never watched it). The Crystal Maze was absolutely wonderful. It still is absolutely wonderful… and, though some will disagree, I don’t think it ever really wavered. It journeyed onward, and dropped the curtain with most of the audience wanting more. The best way to go.

Every single episode is on YouTube – go on, treat yourself.

Keep on rockin’.

December 2015 update: I can confirm that the show is still the best. And, well, I said it should be a different animal if it came back, and it appears I was spot on the money, as indeed I usually am! Shortly after writing this, The Crystal Maze Experience appeared out of nowhere, and the almost £1million pledged by fans of the programme proved that I’m not the only Maze-head out there. It looks to be opening in March 2016; I will definitely be keeping an eye on this. Sadly, my audition to be the next mazemaster was not successful.