Nik Kershaw's The Riddle video

Knightmare & Nik Kershaw's The Riddle

By David Goldstein

Yes, I'm really doing this. You may as well try to make the best of it.

A lot of people are fans of Nik Kershaw's music without being aware of it. He wrote (but didn't sing) a song of established catchiness called The One And Only - and even Lord Fear admits to liking it. (See 'The One And Only Lord Fear' on YouTube.) Many people are fans of Nik Kershaw's music and fully aware of it. Like Knightmare, he helped make the '80s and was no stranger to pioneering use of chromakey technology. (See the video for Wouldn't It Be Good, featured this very month in Sounds of the 80s.)

Thirty years ago this month, Kershaw realised one of his best known hits: The Riddle. Its cryptic lyrics have prompted much debate among those keen to find a meaning in what Kershaw has admitted are 'nonsense, rubbish, b*ll*cks'. I say 'admitted' but I really mean 'claimed', because I can now reveal that The Riddle is absolutely, definitively about Knightmare - every line of it. Never mind that Knightmare didn't start until 3 years after the song was released. There was clearly an oracle in play.

So, let's look at the lyrics and what they really mean. You might end up being surprised. Angry too at the time you've wasted. But above all, surprised.

"I got two strong arms." Symbolising the two clue objects that each dungeoneer was allowed to carry.

"Blessings of Babylon." Babylon was a place of wonder (the Hanging Gardens) yet also a place of captivity (as per the Boney M song), just like Knightmare and its dungeons.

"Time to carry on." A reference to Treguard's cry of "Game on!" when quests resumed after temporal disruption.

"Try for sins and false alarms." The opposing forces of Knightmare - from Mogdred and Malice down to floating swords and skulls - were ever attempting to sin against and alarm the forces of good. "False alarms" could also refer to the cries of "Falsehood!" that emanated from wall monsters' mouths when a team got a question or riddle wrong.

"So to America the brave." In 1993, a valiant attempt was made to sell Knightmare to the United States. This pilot episode, Lords of the Game, was shown at the 2014 Knightmare Convention.

Knightmare Series 2 Team 4. Mark frees the maid and becomes Knightmare's first winner.

"Wise men save." The first of Knightmare's winners were an all-male team who saved a maid (or at least unlocked a picture of the maid's head. By happy coincidence, there's a hotel called The Maids Head down the road from where Knightmare was filmed.) All Knightmare was a game, Treguard informed us, but not a game of numerous lives, and the wise way that quests were allowed to stop at the end of one episode and continue in the next episode was, in a sense, akin to clicking Save.

Here comes the chorus...

"Near a tree by a river..." The first thing ever seen by watchers of Knightmare, drawn against a green, moonlit sky, was a tree. "River" represents the flow of ideas that created Knightmare and the currents of inspiration that brought us to it. (A literal tree and a literal river would be far too mundane.)

"...There's a hole in the ground." Another metaphor. Knightmare was groundbreaking. That's how Charlie Brooker once described it on Screenwipe, so it must be true. More on Knightmare's literal holes in the ground in a moment.

"Where an old man of Aran goes around and around." Ever listened to The Riddle and wondered who the old man of Aran is? Newsflash: there isn't one. The key concept here is monitor. In the antechamber where the advisors sat was a monitor on which they watched their dungeoneer, while the team itself was monitored by Treguard. He was also known as Lord Dunshelm: a title he reclaimed when he conquered the castle Dungeon (as narrated in the first of the Knightmare books) and retook the castle, his former home, his old manor. There's a creature called a monitor lizard that is known by another name: a varan. Treguard is not the old man of Aran: he is the old manor varan. As he said himself: "Time turns." And so he turns with it, ever loyal to Knightmare Castle and those who seek knighthood there. He goes around and around.

The Vale of Banburn, from a handpainted scene by David Rowe, as shown on Series 3 of Knightmare (1989).

"And his mind is a beacon in the veil of the night." The documented lyrics are not what is being sung. For a start, it isn't "veil". Knightmare did have a vale every so often - the Vale of Worms, the Vale of Mogdred (where the infamous "Letter O" fiasco took place - search YouTube for 'Knightmare Letter O' and you'll find there's a song about that too), the spectacular three-part location seen in Series 3 - but Kershaw's not singing "vale" either. He's referring to the support that the Dungeon Master offers to the contestants, those who would be knights. "The veil of the night", then, is in fact "Th'avail of the knight".

"For a strange kind of fashion..." This could easily about the bizarre sartorial choices made by some of those who graced the Dungeon. (There have been entire threads celebrating this on the forum of, with comments such as 'Is that a JOCKY !!!?' [sic] and 'Are those shoulder pads I see? Knice.') But once again, what you hear is not quite what Kershaw sings. When Knightmare returned for Geek Week in 2013, the dungeoneer was not a Greater Game child but a man: Stuart. Known to many as Ashens, even though his real surname doesn't have an s on the end. Strange (which is of course a compliment). In other words, "a strange kind of Ashen".

"There's a wrong and a right." Needs no explanation in a Knightmare context. This picture says it all.

Knightmare Series 4 Quest 4. Simon side-steps left, straight into the pit.

"But he'll never, never fight over you." Treguard didn't fight for your viewership because he didn't need to. You knew that the other three channels couldn't compete with Knightmare: you started watching, you carried on watching, you reminisced, you visited and humoured the authors of farcically contrived articles. And of most of that, you should be proud.

"I got plans for us." Be they the schemes of the baddies, the ambitions of the goodies or the scripted dialogue and room sequences that formed the backbone of quests, the Greater Game was riddled with gameplans.

The kitchen, based on a handpainted scene by David Rowe, as shown on Series 2 of Knightmare (1988).

"Nights in the scullery..." One of the locations seen in Series 2 and 3 was a kitchen, or scullery. Aptly for Knightmare, it also sounds like a place to keep skulls. Not that it would have been easy to keep those floating skulls anywhere. They seemed like free spirits. No pun intended. (No one ever believes me when I use the phrase 'no pun intended'. Not even me.)

"...And days instead of me." Not "days" but "daze". Arguably, Knightmare had no stupid teams - they'd passed the auditions, after all - just teams that did stupid things. It's as if the awe of being away from home, in a TV studio, on Knightmare no less, put them in a daze that took the place of their usual selves. What was it that Akash's advisor Tania tweeted after their quest was repeated on Challenge last year? 'This was 25 years ago people. I do have a brain now hahaha'.

"I only know what to discuss." For a significant proportion of watchers, discussing Knightmare was and is integral to being a fan of Knightmare: from school playgrounds to's enduring discussion forum to social media hashtags (on which, more later).

Knightmare Series 2 Team 7. The team struggle to dispel Mogdred's magic.

"Oh for anything but light." This could be a reference to the incident in which a team missed out the letter O when trying to dispel SHROUD and were anything but enlightened until Treguard found a way to be extremely helpful. More generally, Knightmare and light are not natural companions. Perhaps you have fond memories of taking CITV presenter Tommy Boyd's advice to watch Knightmare with the curtains drawn. Darkness lends enchantment to the view. Not that Knightmare didn't have plenty of enchantment already.

"Wise men fighting over you." How many of you wise men and women who care about Knightmare have responded to someone who hasn't seen it, a lost sheep as it were, by going all out to make a Knightmare fan out of them, to shepherd them into the fold and spare them from lesser TV fare? In essence, to fight over a ewe?

"It's not me you see." Knightmare was illusion. We saw dungeon chambers and denizens, not bluescreens and actors. Actors such as...

"Pieces of Valentine..." Paul Valentine played some of Knightmare's best loved characters (Motley, Sylvester Hands - more on him later) and his performance pieces made for some of the most entertaining encounters.

Sylvester Hands, a beggar played by Paul Valentine. As seen in Series 5 of Knightmare (1991).

"...And just this song of mine." Let's not forget that riddles were an integral part of Knightmare. One of its first, from Granitas the wall monster, began: "Through dungeons deep and caverns cold, the miner goes in search of gold." If a riddle is a song of sorts - after all, vice versa is true - then Granitas' question about dwarves in a mine is no exception. And since it was later revealed that dwarvish miners helped build the Dungeon (modestly, they named only the tunnels after themselves and only one dwarf appeared on camera), it was right that they be the subject of the song. It was just. "Just, this song of mine."

"To keep from burning history." Not as in burning of history: as in history of burning. Treguard's fire had a history of burning. He encouraged watchers to draw closer to it; he exclaimed "Dragon's breath!" when it burned low (which might have been a clue to how it was lit in the first place). And while we're told it did nearly burn the place down once, for the most part it burned with loyalty, complemented by candles doing the same, illuminating the antechamber of Treguard's castle - or, as Mr. Kershaw has it, his keep.

"Seasons of gasoline and gold." Those autumns when school run traffic retook the roads after summer lulls, burning petrol as the leaves were turning gold: those were the seasons when we got a new series of Knightmare to feast on.

"Wise men fold." Emphasising the previous point about shepherds and folds.

Then the chorus again. Then...

"I got time to kill." The Dungeon, its adversaries and obstacles, often had the time to kill. It's what had Mary Whitehouse up in arms (though not literally: it might have seemed a mite hypocritical if she'd burst into the Anglia TV studios swinging a morning star). In one quest, time itself, the threat of eternity, was part of the kill (Mogdred's chilling "Play a while. Play... forever!" in Series 2).

Knightmare Series 2 Team 5. Tony's quest ends at the hands of Mogdred in one of his 'play-pens'.

"Sly looks in corridors." Sylvester Hands, also known as Sly Hands, was forever out and about in the Dungeon, doing Lord Fear's bidding, seeking to intercept dungeoneers. We never actually saw him looking for one in a corridor. But with so many corridors in the Dungeon, we might assume that he did.

"Without a plan of yours." Or rather: "Without, a plan of you'res." Until they were upon the path, gathering clues and learning from those they met, many teams would have had little idea of what lay ahead, other than that it would be - to quote a description of life once given to Dr. Gregory House - a series of rooms. Thus, before they entered the dungeons, while they were without, the only plan that the advisors could really make was to say "you're", as in "You're in a room", a lot.

"The blackbird sings on Bluebird Hill." The talking bird in Series 3, a black crow or possibly a raven, would have been filmed against a bluescreen. This line is also a reference to what Knightmare has achieved in the 21st century. It's made itself heard by the world's most famous bluebird: it has, more than once, trended on Twitter.

And so that's almost it. Whether I've convinced anyone else of The Riddle's true meaning, I do not know. But I'm grateful to Nik Kershaw for creating the song and giving me the chance to enjoy it. And I'm grateful of course to the creator of Knightmare, Tim Child. He defied the tameness of TV convention and listened instead to the wildness of innovation. The enduring popularity of Knightmare, itself no riddle, is testament to Tim's wisdom for doing so.

"Thanks to the calling of the wild. [A] Wise man [i]s Child."

Check back soon for my in-depth analysis of Bohemian Rhapsody's foreshadowing of The Crystal Maze. I don't know if I'm joking or not. I really don't...

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