Posthumous Disclaimer (06/14/2017):Somehow, it had escaped my attention that Channel Four were planning on a Crystal Maze reboot, and had also produced a TV special back in October 2016. Goes to show what you miss when you cross the pond.. but if you still want a look back on the old 90s series, read on.
Who remembers the year 1990? I kind of do. I at least remember the World Cup from that year (Gazza’s tears are still one of England’s finest modern footballing achievements). Being a bowl-cutted 6 year-old only just baptized into the rigours of British primary school though, I was far more concerned about the latest developments of Count Duckula than I was about an international football tournament. But as a fledgling viewer of British television, I do remember that 1990 was in fact a very pivotal year for gameshows. February 15th, 1990 was an important date in particular. On that very evening, Channel Four broadcast its first episode of a TV programme that would thrust its contestants into a frenetic onslaught of tense mental puzzles and gruelling physical obstacles for glorious reward. Much more importantly, it also enabled the British public to laugh at grown adults as they faffed around helplessly on rolling logs, trying in vain to nab precious crystal gemstones. I am, of course, talking about The Crystal Maze - a show that in a world of ghastly reality drudgery and desperate punchline-heavy sitcoms, bloody well needs to be brought back and spearhead another prime-time TV revolution.
It was a programme mightily ambitious for its era - especially more so for a British television channel whose budget was paltry compared to its domestic rivals - the heavy-hitting juggernauts of the BBC and ITV. But by hook or by crook, Channel Four took it upon itself to take one very large soundstage (and in later series’, a disused aircraft hangar) and convert it into a fractured dimensional realm broken up into four separate eras of time, and summon a team of six contestants each week to traverse it in their quest to collect crystals.
Time was very much an obsession the show had, not just because of the historical themes each of its quadrants flaunted. Every ‘time zone’, as the show called them, possessed a wide array of challenge rooms - chambers whose individually unique basis on physical, skill, mental or mystery-solving puzzles masked the often perilous time limits that the contestants had to beat them by. In a further twist, only one member of the team could be nominated to take on each trial. Beat the task, and get access to the crystal hidden within the room. Fail to fulfil the requirements within the paltry amount of minutes though, and the nominated challenger would be locked in the room for the rest of the show - unless the team traded an already-won crystal to get them back out.
And the ultimate point of the crystals? Well, each crystal won would then grant the hardy Mazers five additional seconds in The Crystal Dome, a glorified windtunnel packed full of gold and silver-tinted paper strips that served as the show’s finale. By grabbing the gold tickets and shoving over a hundred of them into the Dome’s letterbox, the team could win big prizes. The silver ones were to be avoided at all costs - accidental posting of those would cancel out an equivalent amount of gold tickets, potentially forcing the teams to go home without riches, but plenty of shame in falling at the last hurdle, despite conquering so many of the Maze’s nefarious rooms.
And let's be clear - some of these rooms were stupid hard.
Youtube: Gypsy Jazz from Bute Jazz 2006
Filling a flask with water from a perforated bucket while having to cross rotating logs to get to it? Okay sure.
Risking life and limb to unscrew some bolts while perched on a precariously small platform? Fiiiiine.
Wriggling around helplessly in a human rat maze before coming straight back the way you came, without the crystal? Alright yeah, that was a pretty pathetic effort.
It was a game show whose dynamic dwelled perfectly between the curious crossroads of frenzied panic and vexing surrealism. Such unique combinations of entertainment have often been born from British eccentricity. My countrymen and I would gladly back-pat ourselves for inventing it too - had it actually been an originally English creation. Instead, we have to give kudos to the French (yes, I know) for initially coining the idea. It was French TV creator Jacques Antoines who came up with Fort Boyard, a thoroughly similar programme situated on an island fortress off of France’s coast with the same name. The familiarities didn't end there either - the show also offered a very similar set of challenges for its contestants to face. Channel Four loved the premise and wanted to film a British series, only to find the fortress was being refurbished at the time of required shooting. Thus, in a show of typically British stubbornness, the Crystal Maze was drawn up as an alternative. There was no helping it - given all our history with the cheese-eaters across the Channel, we’d be damned if we couldn’t build a better variation of our own.
17th-century Gallic sea-castles thus made way for futuristic sci-fi worlds, sweltering Aztec jungles, metallic industrial factories and spooky medieval courtyards. And to oversee proceedings was a thoroughly British presenter who made the show the classic hit it’s now fondly remembered as in Blighty. Richard O’Brien - yes, that Richard O’Brien, you Rocky Horror fans - assumed the role of the show’s host for the first four seasons, and brought an abundance of panache and dry wit along with him for every show he presided over. Under O’Brien’s influence, The Crystal Maze went from potentially ridiculous jaunts in jumpsuits to nervously gripping television. His unrelenting obsession with rushing this week’s team around from room to room, zone to zone, created a pace to each episode that was never less than breathlessly manic. As challenge master, his commentary on the team’s performance was always perfectly poised, offering urgent advice for struggling challengers, infectious encouragement for success and mocking ridicule for failure. Whatever the show needed at a given time - sarcasm or sillyness, one-liners or improv - he would effortlessly provide it on cue. There was never a colourless moment in any of his episodes thanks to his impeccable knack for comedy-dramatic timing.
It was in fact O’Brien’s departure from the show that set the tone for its fall from prime-time grace. The much-loved presenter eventually departed for film roles after presenting its first four series’, creating a chasm that left its viewership - boasting numbers of six million at the peak of its success - wondering if it could be filled. Channel Four did try to plug it with the appointment of Edward Tudor-Pole, former lead singer of punk / new wave band Tenpole Tudor, and failed miserably in the attempt. Tudor-Pole’s own penchant for New Romantic prancery was too much of a departure from O’Brien’s perfect union of the deft with the daft, and Tudor-Pole’s own attempts at humour fell just as flat as the ratings that soon followed his appointment. Not even the introduction of improved special effects or a Titanic-themed ‘ocean’ zone could save The Crystal Maze from its subsequent, sad removal from Channel Four’s midweek evening lineup. It officially aired its last episode on 10th August, 1995, and has not seen any new episodes commissioned since.
Now it’s true to say that you, America, didn’t care much for Britain during the very early 90s. Four Weddings and a Funeral hadn’t happened yet, so the only exposure we got Stateside was usually by way of portraying pompous upper-class caricatures in sitcoms or dreadful films like Three Men And A Little Lady and King Ralph. And even if you were curious about our television, you guys already had proven, tested game shows that fulfilled your needs. The Price is Right, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune were all running, and had done so for years (curiously, aside from WoF, they all bombed on Brit TV too). Hell, if you wanted something with a more physical edge, there was even American Gladiators, a show that packed giant paddles, big helmets and more steroids than any WWF show of the era.
But you know what? None of those were as dynamic, or as bonkers, as The Crystal Maze. Legends of the Hidden Temple doesn’t count - yeah yeah, Nickelodeon shows from the 90s are super-amazing and blah blah blah. Doesn’t matter, that was a kid’s show. Nothing could beat the pure tension and unintentional comedy of The Crystal Maze’s adult teams floundering helplessly as they tried to conquer its nasty trials. American TV audiences could, would and should have eaten it up like warm apple pie. Instead, they’re blessed in a sense that they never got to witness such an awesome piece of television, and thus never feel the rose-tinted heartbreak of memories gone to crystal dust *sob* (ok, I might be waxing a little too lyrically here).
The Crystal Maze does live on though! Challenge TV, a British cable channel that dedicates itself to showing vintage quiz and game shows of days gone by, still airs re-runs (and also enjoys decent ratings for its small viewership). So universally shared is the nostalgia by the general British public too that a ‘live experience’ - basically a big team-building day out - has just started its run near King’s Cross train station in London, endorsed with the show’s brand and all-new challenges. The expenses required to procure a plane ticket to England, or to get foreign TV channels, probably isn’t worth the effort to check out this curiosity though, so you can also enjoy the show’s entire run on YouTube!
The first episode can be found here, complete with its brilliant, and mildly terrifying intro theme.
Media utilized in article is property of: Chatsworth Television / YouTube