Happenings at the Knightmare Live Preview on July 18th 2013.
In July 2003, a Knightmare slashfic emerged. Called Summer Heat, it involved Treguard, Lord Fear, two-way spying and... yes. The story isn't online anymore. But ten years later, the idea of Lord Fear and Treguard being brought together once again in summer heat for an adult audience made Knightmare Live an uncertain prospect - yet for a lifelong Knightmare fan, an unmissable one.
Although many fans of Knightmare feel a personal connection to the programme, community has long been important too, particularly that surrounding Knightmare.com. I journeyed to Knightmare Live in the good company of friends I have had within this community for years, and would not have wanted to experience the night any other way.
When we took our seats in the mercifully air conditioned upstairs chamber of Camden's Colonel Fawcett pub, the UNITE spell took hold and we became part of what was surely one of the largest organised gatherings of Knightmare fans ever (even if it wasn't Knightmare's first foray into theatre: the fifth official book was adapted for the stage in the '90s), making it a true event before it had even begun.
But begin it did, with fashionable lateness and successive introductions from the new Lord Fear (Tom Bell) and the new Treguard (Paul Flannery). Much of the greatness of Knightmare Live came from them: their courage in inhabiting characters synonymous with other actors; their ability to ad lib; the frenemy rapport they built up between the two characters; their talent for engaging with the audience, particularly those who felt compelled to shout out as Knightmare watchers often do - with frequently hilarious results.
It's exciting to think that Tom and Paul will grow even sharper and more confident with each performance when the show lands at the Edinburgh Fringe. For now, I was reassured that Knightmare was in good hands.
Also on the subject of good hands, we then met our dungeoneer for the evening, Alan Boyd. "Enter, stranger" was not entirely appropriate this time around: Alan had been on Knightmare (he was a Series 8 winner). And if you've seen the name Mystara around Knightmare.com, that's him too.
Because of the intimacy and informality of Knightmare Live, the dungeoneer is essentially part of the cast; and if you'll be dungeoneering in Edinburgh, you might find yourself playing a role that isn't truly you. Alan's dungeoneering persona ended up being a camp adventurer with a penchant for hugging every Dungeon denizen he could, to amusingly varied reactions. Unlike TV dungeoneers, he spent most of his time facing toward us rather than away from us, and with his face covered, it fell to his limbs to convey emotion. As I said, good hands.
Beforehand, my biggest concern was how the amazing Dungeon rooms could translate to the stage. Thanks to a triumph by Emphasis Events of design and execution (no pun intended), the set did its job with its style, taking us from clue room to tavern (we were in a pub anyway, but even so) to forest.
As Paul said on the Knightmare.com forum, 'If we've bought and built a huge room of blades set, we're going to use it!' - and the adapted Corridor of Blades duly made an appearance. It was at this point that I realised how successful the set was: as I watched and heard the blades in action, I couldn't help wincing, just as I do when I watch them in the TV episodes.
As for characters, Knightmare Live gave us something to enjoy in each one. There was wall monster Olgarth with his loose eyes and a voice provided by Tom, a man with a proven affinity for giant puppet faces (he worked for one on Wizards vs Aliens); Warren Rusher's quiet but determined "rescue goblin"; Amee Smith's beguiling Mistress Goody; the rest can reveal themselves, so to speak. Including Kevin. Also enjoyable were references to several unseen Knightmare characters, my favourite of these being Mogdred.
This being a preview, it was inevitable that not everything would run like clockwork. Among these were delayed cues; an unanticipated step in the stage area, plus a chandelier that you wouldn't want to catch with a sword, if you were wielding one for some reason; missing props represented by IOU notes (but not the Helmet of Justice, which was all present and very correct); one or two communication issues between backstage and front that Paul himself acknowledged.
I list these purely for interest, and what I must stress is that they didn't matter. They were simply extra jokes within the performance, and us watchers were in on all of them. (Except perhaps when Alan tried to reuse the dragon joke from his Knightmare quest on Olgarth.)
Between the watchers and the stage were the advisors. Alan's guides were the comedians Thomas Nelstrop and Pete Dillon-Trenchard (who's done this before, it turns out).
Knowing how much fun we get from advisors that don't get everything right, Thomas and Pete didn't give Alan as much information as perhaps he needed in some rooms. That said, in other rooms they excelled, turning Alan by degrees, getting him to exit backwards and slipping references to The Mary Whitehouse Experience into character encounters. (If you don't remember The Mary Whitehouse Experience: it did superb versions of cult gameshows too. Look up its spoof of The Crystal Maze.)
Knightmare had a dramatic element that got more prevalent as the series went on, and Paul had said on the forum that 'the show will be a 50/50 split of gameplay with a storyline/mystery woven in.' Having dabbled in the writing of Knightmare stories (none of them titled Summer Heat, I hasten to add), I was keen to witness this plot and its thickening thereof.
As the adventure went on, we were shown a number of "temporal glitches" that would have done Steven Moffat proud, given plenty of retcon, and ultimately treated to a twist that, well, twisted our perceptions of Knightmare around. I hadn't been expecting it to be so engrossing. Matt Blair's incidental music offered sterling support too.
Of all the remarks that Paul has made in interviews about Knightmare Live, the one that stands out the most is his message to Knightmare fans via UK Horror Scene: 'I am one of you, I just got lucky.' This was amply demonstrated after the show when he invited all of us to try on the impeccably replicated Helmet of Justice. The fact that so many obliged surely indicates how well Knightmare Live was received.
Paul also hung around and chatted to a good few of us, even though he had every right to make his excuses, pack up, head home and relax with a cuppa ("ooh, nice tea"). The sense was that we were all sharing in the rewards of this latest bold step on Knightmare's path.
An unbroken promise means the worlds, and in that UKHS interview, Mr. Flannery went on to say, 'I promise I'll do the original justice and not get all 'Michael Bay' on you.' From where I was sitting, the promise was kept, doing justice above all to Knightmare's power to entertain. And in the way that Knightmare Live trod the fine line between faithfulness and innovation, they didn't get all Michael Bay: they got all JJ Abrams.
And if there's any justice beyond the eponymous helmet, Knightmare Live will take Edinburgh by storm and carry on as a national tour; and for the cast and crew, portals will open. Here's hoping.
Of course, if you want to do more than hope, why not get tickets before the Edinburgh run finishes? And/or get tickets for the show at London's Bloomsbury Theatre on 27th September? You can also view footage of the July 17th preview show via this BBC News report from Tom Beal (not Bell).
Only two questions remain. One, posed by Treguard as the show ended: "What could possibly go wrong?" The other, a personal conundrum: is the knapsack really so powerful that sweetcorn doesn't go straight through?
P.S. Knightmare Live was mentioned in The Times' Saturday Review section on July 27th in Ed Potton's round-up of Edinburgh Festival shows. But in response to his assertion that 'Knightmare [was a] Dungeons & Dragons-style television show that was beloved in the Nineties of young men with dubious personal hygiene': the cross-gender audience at the Colonel Fawcett smelt fine.
[Image credits: Emphasis Events, Matt Richings.]