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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.