An interview with Knightmare's creator, Tim Child, ahead of Series 6 in 1992.
Tim Child - creator, producer of Knightmare - thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak to TQ.
(We sent a note to the picture library, saying "Please send a black and white photo of Tim (Child)." That's exactly what they sent us! - Ed.)
The next Knightmare is going to be the most powerful adventure game ever produced on television.
Work starts soon on Series 6 of Knightmare. Did you have any idea in 1987, when the first series of Knightmare was transmitted, that the programme would be quite so successful?
Obviously we had no idea that it would be so successful. We also didn't have an idea that it would grow by such proportions. Not just in success, but in the sheer size of the game's system. I mean in 1986, 1987, we were trying to crack the problems of allowing a young person to wander through a series of eight rooms, from room to room to room. That was the height of our ambition. And to do this in such a manner that it would look and feel convincing to them while they were doing it. That was the most we were trying to attempt, but it bears no relation to what we are doing know, or what we hope to do tomorrow.
Tell me about the genesis of Knightmare. How did it all start?
It started probably with the playing of eight-bit computer games. My elder sister had got a job working with Sir Clive Sinclair in 1986. She was basically in charge of quality assurance on the Sinclair Spectrum - something that needed quality assurance because it had the reputation of when you turned the whole thing upside down all the keys fell out... I was fascinated by what she was doing, and I got hold of an early "BBC B", and a Spectrum, and started playing games. They were like miniature television programmes.
They had pictures - they had text - they had sound, and what people were able to do was to invent new games at a tiny proportion of the cost of piloting a television programme - games that television had never seen before! I thought of them as a sort of design tool for TV - a cheap way of working out an idea and looking at it on screen. They outputted a picture to an ordinary television set - they had movement - they had narrative - they had all the things that television had, except at a resolution and a cheapness that meant you could try almost anything!
And the location of the dungeon?
A lot of the early computer games were dungeon games. Things like Atic Atac - clever little games whereby you dropped from one room to another through a series of wellways. I stole the wellways blatantly from Atic Atac, because I was trying to figure out this problem of how to get from one room to another without having staircases. Staircases are terrible in studios because studios have solid floors. You can't dig a hole in a studio floor! The idea that you just walked into a room, found a well, leapt down it, solved all the problems.
Hugo Myatt is now firmly established as Treguard the Dungeon Master. Was the role written with him in mind?
I suppose it probably was. We wanted a dungeon master - we wanted a game that was built around a legend, rather than a conventional game, whereby you hired, say, Lennie Bennett! I mean it was ridiculous to have somebody a coloured sweater standing in the dungeon! So we decided that we wanted a dungeon master figure, and he had to mixture of friend and enemy. He had to be kind, he has to be to be aloof, he had to be inscrutable - he had to have a sense of humour, where he found something funny although nobody was quite sure what it was.
It was a complex character that needed to be designed and developed from the ground up. I was a bit worried because I knew Hugo as a somewhat stagey actor, and was slightly concerned that he would find the game show format respectable. Luckily - and television producers benefit from this - even the best actors are 85% out of work, so it's amazing what they will do. Hugo was prepared to have a go at it, and that was the main thing.
It's intelligence, but it's application as well and its enjoyment. I haven't seen one winning team yet that hasn't enjoyed their adventure.
Since 1987 very few teams have made it all the way through the treacherous levels of Knightmare Castle's dungeon. What makes a winning team?
Whenever we've seen them come in, there's a buzz goes round the whole Knightmare team - and that's a very big team, there's about 65 people working on the programme - "This lot could do it..."
The good teams spring forward. First and foremost they get themselves immersed in the adventure, in the legend, and there's little recognition that television is performing a role around them. They regard it as irrelevant. That's the first thing.
The second thing is that they communicate with each other. We assemble the programme in two parts - one part is Treguard's antechamber and the other part is the dungeon scenes - and going back over an adventure when a team wins is such a tricky job because you notice how busy a winning adventure is.
There's a lot of talking going on - a lot of exchange of information - not only with the team in the antechamber, but with the dungeoneer himself. It's intelligence, but it's application as well and its enjoyment. I haven't seen one winning team yet that hasn't enjoyed their adventure. You'd say, well they would do that because they've won, but all the way through they've enjoyed their adventure, probably more than any of the teams who've been deemed unsuccessful.
Does that mean it will be more difficult this series?
The degree of difficulty is one of the hardest things to measure. We're not intending consciously to make it more difficult, but neither are we intending to dilute the idea of the adventure game by saying, "Oh, come on, let's make it easier - let's let everyone win." To be honest, the good teams and a lot of the bad teams wouldn't like that! And I don't believe most of the viewers want it either.
You audition teams from all over the country - what's the furthest you've travelled?
We've not been over to Ireland yet, and we're hoping to do that in 1992 because there are obviously a lot of role-playing adventurers in Ireland. We keep getting messages from them!
Viewers are continually writing in to the programme with ideas and suggestions. Do you ever adopt any of them?
Not just the viewers... I've just had a huge screed of ideas from Lord Fear! Most of them are very bloodthirsty, and I'll have to avoid some of them. Lord Fear has enough advantages without plotting the adventures as well!
The cast contribute, the production team contribute an awful lot in term of ideas, and the fans and the games players are constantly inputting. Some of them have a greater understanding of what is technically possible than others - what you can actually achieve with a programme like Knightmare has got to be of pre-eminent importance. It's no good having a good idea if you can't execute it, and in a manner which is convincing to the public.
There have been suggestions regarding the possibility of a celebrity Knightmare - the dungeon versus children's TV presenters, that sort of thing...
These are nice ideas, but unfortunately we don't schedule the programme. We've looked at Christmas specials before, things like that. Unfortunately, the adventurers may be captive in the dungeon, but we are captive in the schedules! And if they think these ideas are any good then we'll go ahead and do them, I think they're all nice ideas.
One thing I'd like to do is make 32 episodes instead of 16. 16 is a ridiculously short series.
This year's series of programmes starts on September 11th. How long does it take to create those programmes?
We start just as soon as we've finished the last series, but the year really starts in March. We have to wait for the good weather to go out and about to gather more locations into our graphic database, which is the Knightmare world.
Throughout April and May we're designing graphics and animations, tricks and traps and so on, and also looking at new characters. Everybody's got their best-loved character. Unfortunately they'd never meet any of the new ones if we didn't rotate some of the old characters.
The whole idea of an adventure game is that the game reacts to the players while they're playing it. It poses the problems - it gives them genuine options. Sometimes they're only either/or options, but as long as they're genuine options then the adventure game is a powerful platform.
Knightmare is described an "award winning" programme. What awards have you won?
Three international ones so far - unusual for a British children's programme. We won the top French award for video expertise and creation, again most unusual because British programmes don't usually rank in there. That was the "Jean d'Arcy" award, given in memory of the company's founding president and it's probably one of the most prestigious awards in Europe. We've also picked up awards at the New York Film & Television Festival, and we've also won the top awards for the quality of merging background pictures with foreground pictures.
Are you proud of them?
It's nice to get awards, but to be honest I think that programmes that go chasing awards very often don't go pleasing viewers.
Knightmare has spawned a series of novels by Dave Morris and yourself, a computer game and now a board game. Are they faithful to the original concept of Knightmare?
They're faithful to the concept - they're very often different in detail, and that's right. If you have a book that's totally faithful to a television progamme, it can't by its nature be a very good book. It's got to be a good book first and about Knightmare second. I think that's exactly the same with all the by-products of the series. A good board game could be totally like Knightmare and yet be a lousy board game.
Knightmare's roots were in a computer game, but I didn't copy computer games per se. I took some of the thematic elements and also some of the simplicity of computer games and made them agree a pattern for a television game.
Tony Crowther, who's the games designer for the computer game, is probably one of the best in the world in his job. It would be stupid for me to say to Tony, "I'll design the computer game for you because I know more about Knightmare than you do."
Would you like to see "Knightmare The Movie?"
No... When it comes to the point where you say, "Well, it can't possibly be anything like Knightmare", then why do it? I'd like to see someone try, but I wouldn't like to try it myself!
Up to five million people sit down to watch Knightmare regularly. Why?
Oh, I think it's the fantasy. Everybody talks about TV and books being fantasy that get you away from your humdrum life, and then usually paint a fantasy which is as close as possible to the real thing! Knightmare is as far away as possible from the real thing.
It's a celebration of childhood, just as things like Winnie the Pooh are. Like Tolkien's work. It just happens to be a particular form of childhood that we all go through, and that stays with us.
That presumably explains why the audience's ages range from 8 to 80...?
Well, I hope so. I mean I think it's a damn good game as well, which is nice, because I think even if you don't like heroic fantasy you can still look at Knightmare and say, "Cor, that's sharp, what they do in there!" or "That's a bit tough, isn't it?" It appeals to the child in all of us.
I think there'll be more adventure games now. I hope we showed the way in Knightmare.
The programme's had its critics. Notably Mary Whitehouse in 1987, who described it as "damaging." What do you say to the critics?
Well, Mary Whitehouse did actually apologise after she saw the programme. The newspapers ambush poor old Mary, and they say, "There's this new television show coming out and they're killing children on it. What do you say to that?" And she's got no choice! She says, "I think that's terrible," and the next thing that happens is there's a headline saying 'This Thing Must Stop'.
She's caught betwixt and between - once she's put herself up as having had an opinion she's openly abused by certain elements of the press. Mary had in fact never seen the show. I know that in that area we are fireproof, because right from the beginning we took so much trouble making sure that we did not behave in an irresponsible way.
So your answer would be, "Watch the programme"?
I think that if there ore criticisms let's have them! If we've slipped up, tell us about it - we're watching it - we're trying to be careful, but we're not so smug that we don't know we make mistakes,
We can expect some surprises in Series 6?
Oh yes. I think that the great thing about Knightmare is that it was born out of a will to do a certain thing. Also a technological timetable which would allow the execution of a certain thing, and that was the very effective merging of background pictures on computers from conventional illustrations with foreground subjects, whose shadows could be cast on floors and could walk around in a realistic fashion in areas which they could not.
Now we've come through the period of use of big broadcast graphic computers which allow animation and we're moving into the period of optical laser disc delivery systems. These will allow fantastic scenes to be re-enacted almost in real time at a greater resolution than any of the current broadcast graphics computers could execute.
Why is that important? It's important because the whole idea of an adventure game is that the game reacts to the players while they're playing it. It poses the problems - it gives them genuine options. Sometimes they're only either/or options, but as long as they're genuine options then the adventure game is a powerful platform.
Now we are entering a technological period where we can make the adventure game even more powerful. More powerful than ever before. As long as we can pick up that challenge and come up with the right material and enough imagination, enough ideas then we will now be able to execute them and programmes like Knightmare will go from strength to strength.
I think there'll be more adventure games now. I hope we showed the way in Knightmare - people may be coming up with something better because they've seen what we can do - and Knightmare may not go the ten, twenty years, whatever the life of these programmes is, but we'll have had our moment in time and made our contribution.
The next Knightmare is going to be the most powerful adventure game ever produced on television.
Perfect. Tim, thank you very much.