'Knightmare Live': from terrifying TV to slapstick stage show
The superbly scary kids' TV show gets a live reboot at this year's Fringe. Time Out’s Music Editor faced his fears and took on the quest for the crown
Tue Aug 20 2013
'Side-step left. And again. Turn 90 degrees to your right. Walk forward. Stop. Take two steps to your left. No, your other left!'
This is me shouting instructions, while a 33-year-old software engineer called Adrian bumbles around onstage wearing a helmet so big he can't see a thing. I'm attempting to direct him through a small archway, but instead he careers into one of the walls of the stage-set of 'Knightmare Live'. It starts to wobble, and rather ruins the illusion that we're in a dank dungeon, and not the ballroom of the Gilded Balloon.
Looking on are over 100 giggling audience members, who've each paid £10 to watch this charade. 'Caution team,' advises Treguard – French knight, decent chap, and our guide on this quest. 'You have tarried too long'. At that a club-wielding goblin appears, and attempts to bash Adrian's brains out. 'Side-step left!' I holler. 'SIDE-STEP LEFT!'
All of this will frankly make no sense to you at all, unless you're either old enough, or geeky enough, to have watched retro game show, 'Knightmare'. This groundbreaking virtual reality adventure was a staple of ITV's children's programming between 1987 and 1994, and used blue-screen technology (lifted from the weather forecasts by creator Tim Childs) to project kids into Treguard's castle netherworld. There, these 'dungeoneers' would quest to retrieve valuable items from the abominable Lord Fear – mostly unsuccessfully. Scores of pre-pubescent patsies starved, fell to their deaths, or were chopped in half by spinning blades over the show's eight seasons.
'Knightmare' was cleverly plotted, meticulously detailed and blindingly well-acted. Hugo Myatt, in particular, excelled as Treguard – booming his catchphrase, 'Welcome watchers of illusion, to the castle of confusion', with gusto worthy of an RSC thesp. But the show's masterstroke was to keep the dungeoneer in the dark with the 'Helmet of Justice'. This bit of fibreglass headgear was so large and unwieldy the poor tween wearing it could only see their own feet.
'It's this horrible thing: a child's blind, and a goblin's coming for them,' says Paul Flannery, who fills Myatt's armour as Treguard in 'Knightmare Live'. It was horrible – in a darkly compelling way – watching the original series as a kid. It made me think that maybe I too could be sent to a place beyond the protective reach of grown-ups, where I would face great dangers that I couldn't perceive first-hand.
And now, as a 27-year-old man, I have come to Edinburgh to face those fears. Except I'm not the one in the helmet, Adrian is – my job is to direct him from Companion's Corner. More importantly, those spinning blades aren't spinning within my TV set, they're just a few feet away from me. 'Knightmare Live' is as faithful a recreation of the original show as you can achieve in a theatre, with no computer graphics whatsoever.
There is, of course, only one physical space for the dungeoneer to explore (as opposed to the endless, magical possibilities of a CGI realm), but the cast and crew do a good job of heaving the set around to change the scenario from a stoney cell, into a boisterous pub, into a foreboding forest etc. It's not an easy task, and Treguard gets tetchy when I point out the similarities between one woodland clearing and another. 'You move the bloody tree, then' he barks.
Pissing off the show's bosses is, historically, not a good idea. Rumour has it that when Tim Childs was in charge back in the ’80s and ’90s he would happily cull any smart-mouthed brats that started to annoy him. I've already made a few mis-steps: encouraging Adrian to take the glockenspiel from the table of useful items, for example, when he should obviously have picked up the chalk. Add to that my slow-paced spellcasting and our team doesn't stand a chance. Adrian – brave as he is for an offshore systems specialist – perishes about 20 minutes before the end, and I'm to blame.
But 'Knightmare Live' does offer some sense of redemption. The TV show was cut off at its ratings peak, when it was thought to have outgrown its original demographic. Now the format has a second chance of sorts, and a little bit of that generous spirit has crept into the stage version.
'What made "Knightmare" stand out is that it didn't patronise these kids,' explains Tom Bell, who plays Lord Fear with eye-popping intensity. He's right – when you were dead, you were dead, and Treguard would only mark your passing with a wry, 'Ooh, nasty!'. However, in 'Knightmare Live', the magic of theatre allows more room for a fairytale ending.
It's an apt conclusion to the 'Knightmare' adventure, given that, for many watchers, seeing the show live is a dream come true. The crowd whoop and cheer at every one of Treguard's stock phrases, drown out Lord Fear's villainous laughs with boos and jeers, and help me solve the riddles that I have no hope of answering. They even applaud Adrian and I, despite our failure. The whole thing is a nostalgia trip on a Odyssian scale, with the audience phasing across time back to their own childhoods, and laughing at the demons of the past.
'Game of Thrones' might have the sex and the violence, but 'Knightmare' offers something even more compelling: 'the human element,' says Paul Flannery, summing things up with Treguardian pithiness. 'That's the reason it endures.'