Knightmare - A Blast from the Past

Category: , , , By Rev/Views

Rather than review a DVD today I've decided to lament a little about a series which still has not been released on DVD for viewing. Knightmare. A children's show which was first broadcast on ITV in 1987 and ran until 1994 - giving the viewers a total of seven seasons of suspense, fear and adventuring in a computer generated dungeon.

Opening credits:

Knightmare was (and still is) a somewhat unique creation in the world of television; in it a group of four young people would arrive at Knightmare Castle and be greeted by Treguard of Dunshelm (Hugo Myatt) who functioned as the 'quizmaster' and presenter of the show, which itself was a mixture of drama and a 'quiz show'.

One of the four children would become the Dungeoneer, who would be transported into Knightmare Castle's dungeon wearing the Helm of Justice - a device which would block the sight of the Dungeoneer except for a small area directly below them. The story given was to protect the adventurer from the dangers, but the practical truth of it was to limit the amount of blue screen the Dungeoneer would see and keep things feeling more real for them. To be honest being a Dungeoneer didn't ever seem like the most exciting of roles in the game - you spend your time shuffling about almost blind while following directions from your friends who get to see all the neat and exciting things happening around you. Occasionally you got to pick things up and carry them for a while or hold conversations with the 'denziens' of the dungeon - but for the most part the Dungeoneers role involved shuffling about like a poorly controlled computer game character.

The remaining three players stayed in the Dungeon's ante-chamber with Treguard; watching the scenes on a television screen and directing their friend while taking copious notes. Knightmare was a game which would drop a hint once for the players and then rarely remind them, forget something and tough luck - you were probably dead. And death was a constant (and very real) threat in this game.

Initially Treguard himself initially took an independant position with regards to the Dungeoneer's exploits - functioning as a judicator simply there to oversee (and occasionally take perverse delight in the deaths of the Dungeoneers - his catchphrase "Ooh, Nasty!" was delivered with great relish when another life was claimed by the dungeon, it was originally ad libbed but fast became iconic) . But later on in the show (around series five) the forces of 'the opposition' headed by Lord Fear arrived and Treguard became a champion of the teams sent in, taking a more active role in helping them as opposed to celebrating just how often the dungeon won out over the players. From series four Treguard was assisted by a twerpish Elf named Pickle, he wasn't too bad despite being a twerp though - often he was more helpfull to the players than Treguard himself.

Of particular note in Knightmare was the exceptional level of difficulty the game displayed despite it's nature as a children's program. Contestants were expected to be capable of independent thought, deduction and quick thinking, and the punishment for failure was high - normally a mistake would result in the Dungeoneer "dying" and the team's adventure ending. While some threats just ended the adventure immediately others were more insidious, gradually eroding away at the Dungeoneer's life force, which was pictorially represented on screen occasionally by a helmed head which gradually broke apart, first losing the helmet, then the skin and finally the skull would break apart leaving the eyeballs flying towards and past the screen. A pretty bleak and disturbing image for a children's show, but this was no ordinary children's show that's for sure.

A Bomb Room - Better flee before the fuse runs out!

The dungeon itself was a work of beauty, combining hand painted backdrops along with blue screen technology and computer generated graphics which created something pretty sophisticated for it's time. It was this, combined with an unprecedented level of difficulty and an overwhelming sense of tension and fear which sets Knightmare apart from just about every other kids program you can think of. Much like classic Doctor Who this show was capable of making the people watch it sit on the edges of their seat or even hide behind them.

Now if a team managed to navigate all three levels of the dungeon and reach the item of their quest (which varied) then they were considered victors and left with their heads held high. In eight years of the show only eight teams actually completed their quest out of sixty nine teams total. This was not a show looking to take it easy on the young 'uns at all and that's one of the things which I still adore about this cracking show, it mixed a challenge along with drama and comedy with great ease. Comedy which is captured in this next video:

"Sidestep Left!"
(A related video of some self inflicted deaths caused to idiocy can be found here.)

Knightmare remains in my estimation the greatest of children's programs of all time; it's certainly the most unique of them and it's a show I often look back on with fondness; the style, the appearance of the show, the difficulty, the scary bits, the funny bits - it's all one wonderful experience which really expresses television of that era well. In this day and age it's hard to tell if such a show would be allowed on at half five in the afternoon, it probably wouldn't because it's too mean-spirited. But I like to think Knightmare taught it's viewers and contestants important lessons. Lessons like being able to spell Shroud correctly (with an O guys!), flirting with depressed gargoyles to avoid dying, the importance of eating properly and just how unfair life can be - go the wrong way, miss important information, die - pick up the wrong item, die - use the wrong spell, die - and so forth. Good solid life lessons for the young.

Unfortunately Knightmare has still not been released on DVD for watching and re-watching. But for those of are interested or fancy some nostalgia complete episodes (and possibly seasons) can be found on YouTube with a little light searching, and who knows - maybe one day Knightmare: The Complete Collection may finally arrive on shelves for general purchase, stranger things have happened in Knightmare Castle. Perhaps even one day we'll see a remake of the show, but considering the nature of television these days it'll probably take place in a bouncy castle and be almost impossible to lose at.

And screw that, because it's flying eyeballs or nothing!

Ooh, Nasty!


1 comment so far.

  1. Aaron 1 July 2009 at 23:59
    This was pretty much perfect TV for me as a Fighting Fantasy obsessed kid. I did own the Knightmare Fighting Fantasy equivalent books too, which tried to use the same health system I think.

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