Knightmare on stage: The seminal 1980s kids TV show comes to the theatre

Tom Bell, co-creator of the hit stage version, explains the weird and enduring appeal of ITV’s 1980s interactive fantasy kids’ show

Knightmare?” they ask when I explain what my show is about. “What, that one with the kids in the dungeon? And it was all done with computers and there was that guy with the beard, Trenger or something…”

“Treguard” I offer.

“Yes! Treguard!” They yelp back, lost now to the memories, eyes glazing over, back once more in front of the TV on a Friday after school, a belly full of well-earned biscuits now churning with fear and excitement as a wide-eyed man in a medieval costume stares down the lens and growls “Enter, stranger!”

“God I loved that show,” they say.

This is the conversation I have had an on an almost daily basis since I first helped conceive Knightmare Live, a stage version of the glorious kid’s TV show of epic quests, puzzles and monsters that ran on ITV from 1986 to 1994.

As anyone of a certain age will know, the original Knightmare saw teams of four children at a time face a terrifying quest through a brilliantly realised, computer-generated fantasy world of knights and dragons: think Game of Thrones with less nudity.

Their mission was to wrestle a magical item from the evil clutches of the denizens below Knightmare Castle. Only one of the children, “the dungeoneer”, was actually on the quest: moving from room to room, level to level, wearing the “Helmet of Justice”, which was so oversized that it covered their whole head, leaving them blind to anything not directly below them. The dungeoneer’s hopes of survival rested on the three remaining members, squeaking instructions at them through breaking adolescent voices while watching the action from a castle antechamber.

The genius of the show was the fact that the dungeoneer was actually walking around an empty TV studio in Norwich. Real actors played the various characters they met along the way but the dungeon itself and its many grizzly obstacles were all conjured up using blue-screen technology borrowed from TV weather forecasts.

If the team beat every puzzle and evaded every danger they would win the quest. But most of the time they just got horribly killed. Deaths were brutal and frequent. You picked up the chalk rather than the key? Dead. Sidestepped left instead of right? Dead. And with each fatal error, Treguard (Hugo Myatt), the presenter and dungeon master, would twist a droll smile and coo “Oooh, nasty!” It seems strange now that we made a hero of a man whose only hobby was sending blind children to their deaths. Simpler times I suppose.

Of course, since the late Eighties, countless kids’ TV shows have come and gone, so why is it that Knightmare is still so fondly remembered? (Only a few weeks ago, the first official Knightmare convention was held in Norwich.) Well, for one, it was technically ground-breaking; graphics that can still impress today played out to people who had no access to any sort of home computer. It also proved supremely thrilling, tense and dangerous, and, as current TV and film successes demonstrate, a fantasy world of swords and sorcery will always have appeal.

But for me the heart of Knightmare’s brilliance lay in the fact that it never spoke down to the gallant children who made up the soon-to-die teams. This was a game show with no real prize up for grabs other than glory, and precious few got even close to that. Survival, I have since learned, often hinged on whether the creator and producer Tim Childs thought you were playing in the right spirit; unbeknown to viewers, he would offer reprieves from death on the sly,  should he think you had been unfortunate, or misread a room, rather than plain witless.

Last year I was lucky enough to witness this first- hand, when the Knightmare Live cast were invited to watch the filming of a one-off online revival of the original show. I have no idea who the team of disinterested, teenage YouTube celebs were, but they wasted no time in guiding their dungeoneer off the edge of a cliff. We watched on a parade of monitors, while Tim paced the room with the controlled air of a man blooded to such horrors.

He graciously allowed them to restart the room; undeterred, they swiftly walked off the ledge again. Tim visibly tightened, thumb hovering like a Roman Emperor, but once more he showed mercy, took a deep breath and explained that they needed to jump. With heavy expectation they entered the room a third time, but their cautious leap fell well short. The screen went black. For a while, silence, deliberation, then, through the darkness Tim muttered a single, final word: “dead.”

And so the gauntlet of killing dungeoneers has now passed to our humble stage version. As far as I recall, Knightmare: Live came about late in 2012 when our own Treguard (Paul Flannery) grew a slightly feudal beard and was looking for an excuse to keep it. Alcohol was involved certainly. We tracked down an old email address for Tim Childs and sent a rough proposal of the show. The reply was four exquisite words: “Welcome to level one…”

Sixteen months later, with one successful Edinburgh Fringe run under our faux-medieval belts, a national tour under way and another Edinburgh on the horizon, we can look back fondly on one of the few times we didn’t blearily regret opening a bottle of rum.

As we stood backstage at our first preview, raw from two months of building giant spider puppets and training an army of goblins, the papier-mâché helmet I wear to play the show’s scheming arch-villain, Lord Fear, cutting hard into my temples, we were fearful what the reaction from the fans might be, and curious if anyone would even care. Luckily for us, Knightmare fans make for remarkable audience members.

At the sight of an adult dungeoneer walking through a door and asking “Where am I?” the crowd wildly cheers as one. When the inevitable reply “You’re in a room!” sounds, any sense of control is lost.

Queues snake around the post-show bar, the crowd ever so politely waiting to get a photo of themselves wearing the iconic Helmet of Justice, while behind them any failed dungeoneers are, as ritual demands, taken outside, stripped of their lands and titles and shipped to France.

It’s been almost 30 years since the portcullis first rose on the beautiful computer-generated dungeons of Knightmare Castle, but love for this ludicrous, magnificent TV show continues unabated. To borrow a timeless dungeoneer trick: Spellcasting A-W-E-S-O-M-E.

‘Knightmare: Live’ is at the Udderbelly Festival on London’s Southbank on the 6, 13 and 20 June and continues touring the UK throughout June. It arrives at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 30 July and runs to 24 August

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star