TV GEMS: The Crystal Maze (1990-1995)

Richard O’Brien is your host for a round of physical and mental torture in this classic 90’s game show. Dylan gives it a revisit as it primes for a comeback.

The Crystal Maze is a programme that is scarred deep into my subconscious. It is one of the first television shows I remember watching and also attempting to watch. It was the only programme I set the video (!) for, and more often than not, it wouldn’t work. Who knows why – recording television in the nineties is already a technology as archaic as sword fighting. Halcyon days! But what this gave the programme was a mystique that fit beautifully with the feel of the show itself. It remains one of the most abiding memories of my childhood, and it’s time to spread the love…

The premise? A  group of contestants would explore the “Crystal Maze,” which consisted of different themed areas – “Aztec,” “Ocean,” “Futuristic,” “Medieval,” etc. In each one, they tried to solve a series of challenges which ranged from mental to physical, skilled in the enigmatic “mystery” category. If you succeeded, you would gain a crystal, which bought you more time in “The Crystal Dome.” With every challenge came the possibility of being locked in, and missing out on the rest of the fun. At its denouement, the contestants would try to grab as many golden tickets as possible in the Crystal Dome, which is best explained in the video below.

I’m always shocked that The Crystal Maze has never been remade… although it may be coming back in its original format. Considering the rekindled interest in game shows and fantasy fiction over the last ten years, this would surely be a huge hit! It was a very big deal at the time, engrained into a teatime slot with Channel 4’s biggest audience back then. It has been voted as the greatest UK game show of all time at least twice, and ran for five years solid. There were videos, board and computer games, and at least one “choose-your-own-adventure” novel. Why has no-one tried to recreate this award-winning formula sooner? Just look at how long the Wikipedia page is to see how much love exists for this show.

I suppose one of the main problems would be the cost of recreating the sets, which are both impressive and rickety at the same time. The zones were generic to the core (Futuristic? Really? Could no-one could think of a good sci-fi name?), but beautifully-realised. Although the production design now seems rather nineties, they all had a different feel and real charm to them. Again, with a tidy up, the show would look amazing in 2015. All of the themed areas have a genuine sense of mythology and, although obviously sets, you could easily get sucked-in.

The challenges themselves were a lot of fun, too. They had a very “play at home” element, either by thinking  you could complete the physical ones yourself, or by solving the brain-teasing puzzles. Since there was a time element, and an automatic lock-in for some puzzles, proceedings could get genuinely tense. This is despite the prowess of the contestants often not being up to standard – see this clip.

And then there’s presenter Richard O’Brien of The Rocky Horror Picture Show fame, who was a huge part of the fun. He broke the rules of game show hosting and such clichés, rejecting nuclear suits for bohemian leopard-skin. It was not uncommon for him to pull out a harmonica and start playing halfway through a challenge. This is a performance rather than a presentation, and he gave the show an instant energy that was sometimes lacking in the incredibly nerdy participants. Ed Tudor-Pole took over in the latter two series, and though he was by no means a poor substitute, he could not replace the sheer kinetic energy of O’Brien. The latter was a crucial ingredient in making it so popular.

The best thing about The Crystal Maze, though, is its ending. After all the fun, it comes down to a scrabble for tickets. What’s even funnier is when you find out it’s all a facade. Apparently, in reality, the fan didn’t work and it was much easier for the contestants to crouch down and scoop the notes from the fall. The shots of them jumping around were filmed after. Even then the prizes were lacklustre at best. After all this hard work, the contestants were lucky if they won a pony-trekking holiday. But that sums up the genius of this programme. It truly was a quiz show about the journey rather than the destination. You didn’t watch it to see people win cash prizes. You watched it because there was nothing else like it!

I can summarise the appeal of The Crystal Maze like this: The contestants would receive a crystal at the end in the same style of a “Bully” trophy or Blankety Blank cheque book and pen. They must have been nothing more than carved glass, with a street value of under a tenner. And, yet, who watching wouldn’t have swapped a real diamond for a chance to own one, too?

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The set of The Crystal Maze was the size of a football pitch and at the time was the biggest TV set ever constructed. It cost more than £500,000 and 10,000 man-hours to build and was housed for five years in a disused hanger in North Weald Aerodrome in Essex.
  • More than 10,000 gallons of water and 22 tons of sand were used in the Aztec Zone.
  • The programme consumed as much electricity during a recording of a series as an average household does in more than 50 years.
  • The highest number of gold tokens collected was 210 and the highest number of silver tokens collected was 275 (both in the same episode, so the team didn’t win).
  • Each series took three months to prepare, five weeks to shoot, four months to edit and fourteen weeks to screen (nearly an entire year).

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama giantcannibals.co.uk.

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