Book with pen

Outside the Dungeon Walls

By Nicholas Lam

Knightmare fan Phil Colvin provides a memoir of growing up with Knightmare and life after it.

A fan's history of Knightmare

First off, if anyone hasn't read Tim Child's History of Knightmare, then do so now. Not only is it an excellent read, it's also the article I'm "bouncing off" to write this thing.

I kinda felt obliged to after Tim namedropped me in Part 3 (so would anyone if one of their childhood heroes mentioned they'd read their work). incidentally, Tim, did you ever read any of the Knightmare stories I sent to the KAC all those years ago?

Knightmare Series 1 Team 1. Treguard issues a warning in the Level 1 clue room.
Treguard appears in the first episode of Knightmare (1987)

I was only 4 years old when Knightmare began and 13 when it ended. In those early years, memories come and go very fast at the best of times. But some things stick out because they not only came and went, but became a part of life. I can only speak personally, but I'm sure many others can relate to this, but Knightmare is one of those things because it extended long past its twenty-five minute slot on a Friday afternoon.

Just to get you all in a role-playing mood: imagine a playground at school. You get the normal football games, the conkers and the whatnot. And then you get the playground conversations. Those things shouted over twenty metres or whispered to a friend.

For those eight years, Knightmare was one of those things. And to me, it was one the ones which got talked about most. Every autumn Monday morning, the first topic would be discussing Friday's episode. If a team died, we would give our juvenile analysis of their success or faliure ("That guider on the right was too bossy!") If a team had got into the depths of Level 3, there would be heated anticipation. And on those occasions where there was a winner... it reached JFK levels of banter ("Where were YOU on the day that Ben redeemed the shield?")

Knightmare Series 5 Team 4. The Shield appears, frozen in ice, on a central platform.
Series 5 Team 4 approach the Shield (1991)

It didn't just happen this way for the first series, this was for eight years. From the day the first trailers went out (BTW, Knightmare always had fantastic trailers!) to the Monday after the dungeon had closed for another year, the talk would continue. The catchphrases got taken into the language, we would all say "Oooh, nasty..." and "enter, stranger!"

And it wasn't just talking. Knightmare was about more than that. It wasn't unusual for one poor soul to be volunteered to wear a blindfold whilst the rest of us would guide him/her around the playground. You thought the Corridor of Blades was tough? Try getting across a middle school football game :) Walls provided excellent ledges and when Series 5 came we found that hopscotch patterns made superb causeways.

In a funny way, Knightmare was probably the most educational show on TV at the time since it taught us all the value of working as a team and showed us that if you don't you could find yourself plunging into a pit or something worse. We weren't just playing the game, we were practising for when it was our turn on the television.

Knightmare Series 5 Team 9. Kelly reaches a causeway with symbols of attack and defence.
Series 5 Team 9 reach a causeway (1991)

All of us wanted to be on Knightmare. Trouble was, we were never old enough and when we were we only received our application forms a fortnight before closing date which is never enough time for a group of disorganised twelve year olds to write a personal resumé.

The reason for all this is simple and logical, Knightmare was a role playing game.

It wasn't like Fun House or the Crystal Maze where you felt outsiders and unable to participate because it seemed so detached. In Knightmare you knew the recurring characters and rooms, you know that when a team walked into a seemingly empty chessboard in Series 7 that all hell was about to break loose. You knew when they picked up a spyglass that in a minute Lord Fear was going to see them and they'd have to run for their lives. And there was still that surprise element of not knowing what lay in the next room, and which strange and wonderful objects would appear on the quest tables that week.

Knightmare Series 7 Team 2. Nicola on a chess board covered by spikes.
Series 7 Team 2 tackle the Trial by Spikes (1993)

Most of all, you could become familiar with each team and have the time to become attached to them. Having the same faces for 2/3 episodes made the game more enthralling and our discussion more familiar, especially when they had a particularly memorable set of personalities (Barry's team from the end of Series 7 spring instantly to mind). It's such a shame the TV execs didn't recognise that this deviation from quiz show convention only made the fans want to watch the show more, not less.

As the years went on, Knightmare changed. And every year the anticipation was the same: what was new this year? The trailers would tease us, in later years The Quest newsletter would give us even more to chew on, but every year it was a genuine surprise as each new character was introduced and each new room was entered for the first time. Each new addition or change was always welcomed and discussed to death in the playground.

When Series 4 premiered, we were all fascinated by the eyeshield ("At last we can see where they're going!") and by Pickle ("He says the coolest things!") Of course, opinions changed as the show went on and new ideas became old. Obviously, when you look back from this day and age over eight years there are some memories which are better than others and ideas which seem easy to criticise when the show exists only in the memories of a handful of diehard fans. (That's the way 'big kids' are taught to watch TV, to analyse and try to forget those childlike instincts.)

Knightmare Series 4 Team 1. The team goes to collect the new Eye Shield.
Our first glimpse of the Eye Shield (1990)

There was no other better gameshow on television. Full stop. And if Knightmare were still on today, I'm certain the same would be true since there isn't another show which gets the viewers so involved. Sure, now you can phone in to shows like Sub Zero on BBC2 and play games live, but I don't know anyone who's ever tried to be on it. And I doubt it gets talked about in the playground.

Knightmare's exit left a real gap in those last playground days. Nothing else could fill it.

"TimeBusters" was good fun and I loved it, but we couldn't become attached to it in the same way since it changed every week and felt too closely scripted. In his final part of Knightmare history, Tim will talk about "Virtually Impossible" which was once billed as Knightmare's possible successor, but it never provoked the same interest. I think the virtual reality and lack of real people made it feel too detached and repetitive. And I personally felt a little betrayed when Virtually Impossible was billed as featuring an 'ice queen' and it wasn't Aesandre, my favourite Knightmare character.

Knightmare Series 5 Team 4. Ben encounters the sorceress, Aesandre.
A final encounter with Aesandre (1991)

Whereas repetitiveness was a problem with "Virtually Impossible", it was a different thing to Knightmare. To a TV exec, a show like Knightmare which features the same rooms and clutch of characters each week is an understandably dead concept on paper.

But there were never two identical quests, never two identical teams. And whereas other shows would rely on big prizes, the joy of Knightmare was that the reward felt so personal and those spurs/trophies were an object we all wanted to get our hands on.

On paper, it's a repetitive show with miniscule prizes. In the playground, and in the minds and memories of impressionable kids of all ages, it's the ultimate adventure.

And I know others feel the same way too - it's cropped up in some strange places. Computer magazine Amiga Power quoted all the lines from the TV show in their review of the computer game and cited it in their guide to role-playing. And in the Bullfrog computer game Syndicate, one of the symbols available for players' co-operations is the eyeshield! Later on, Hugo Myatt would provide Treguard-esque voiceovers for the Magic Carper games.

It's still my favourite childhood memory and probably my favourite show of all time since I don't talk about any other half as much... even if I am now an analytical big kid who rants about the eyeshield.

Cheers, Tim, for giving us Knightmare, and Nicholas for creating this site to let those old memories come back.

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