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In the 1990s, our screens were filled with game shows which tested the initiative and brainpower of the contestants, such as The Krypton Factor and Trivial Pursuit. Now, in the 21st Century, the game show is glamorised either as a red-headed woman ritually insulting people for getting general knowledge questions wrong, or a house with 24-hour CCTV showing just how exciting it is to watch people doing nothing and being evicted every now and then. But this still doesn't take the limelight away from one of the most mind-boggling and testing game shows of the past, The Crystal Maze.
The Crystal Maze, a Chatsworth Television production for Channel 4, was first aired in 1990 in the UK. It was their number one programme, with between four million and six million viewers, and was shown in 29 different countries.
It was originally based on Fort Boyard, a French initiative game show run in a remote fort in the middle of the sea. It involved completing games of various types, on completion of which, the team would win a key. They needed a certain amount of keys to open a large portcullis where gold coins were held. Also needed were word clues. These clues gave a word which was required to release the gold coins into a barred container. The coins collected would then be converted into money at the end. Other than that, the French show was played for charity, lasted for 90 minutes and had no commercial breaks.
The Crystal Maze idea came about really by accident. As the fort for the UK series was not going to be ready for the first pilot episode, the production team thought of a different way to make a programme along the same lines as Fort Boyard, but which could be constructed a little more quickly. 'Time crystals' replaced the keys, and different zones were added for variety. At the climax of the show, contestants would have to collect gold tokens in a windy dome, a little like the gold coins collected in Fort Boyard.
The Maze itself was not really a maze: it was more a circuit of interconnecting zones. It was a custom-built set which was the biggest in Europe, approximately the size of two football pitches and cost something in the area of £250,000.
There were only two studios in Britain that were large enough to house the maze. For series one, the maze was built in Shepperton Studios, but by the time planning for the second series began, both studios were booked and the hunt started for a new location. This turned out to be a disused aircraft hangar in North Weald, in north-east London.
The main objective of the game was to collect as many time crystals as possible, by solving 15 games of different genres around four designated zones inside a given time limit. One contestant was chosen for each game with advice being shouted from their teammates. If the game was not solved in a time limit, the contestant was 'locked in' to that game's room and could only be rescued by surrendering a crystal.
The time crystals collected were worth five seconds each. This then totalled up at the end of the game as the time the team had to collect gold tokens inside a massive crystal dome.
A team of contestants would be chosen to tackle the maze by applying to be on the show.
Why would you be a good contestant on 'The Crystal Maze?'
The style with which you answered this question would determine whether you (in the application crew's eyes) were a suitable candidate or not.
If you were chosen, you were given instructions as to where you had to travel to, and what you would be doing before filming began.
The night before filming, the prospective contestants had to give a three-minute talk about themselves to their prospective team-members. They then had dinner with the host of the maze.
All the contestants were clothed in light jumpsuits, with a different colour for each team-member. They were quick to dry, comfortable, and did not get in the way.
Inside the Maze
The team was led around the Maze by the host. The captain chose a team-member to perform a game of the four genres possible. The contestant nominated played the game individually, with the rest of the team shouting help and encouragement through a window.
If the captain was locked in after failing to complete the task, the vice-captain took over his/her duties. If both were locked in, then a replacement captain would be nominated on the spot.
In all there were two people who hosted The Crystal Maze during its airtime. They each had their own style to bring to the show.
First in Line
The first host, and possibly the most popular was Richard O'Brien. With the mock leopard-skin jacket and light-hearted quips at the contestants, he brought an edge to The Crystal Maze that was both funny and enjoyable to watch. His improvised jokes and little wisecracks on the contestants' stupidity were enough to keep the Maze going. He hammed it up marvelously and introduced a certain amount of campness into the show.
After series four, Richard O'Brien left the show. The next host gave The Crystal Maze a slightly different tone.
The Tudor Period
The last seen of Richard O'Brien was on the back of a Harley-Davidson with Mumsy (see below) at the start of the 1993 Children's Special. The credits rolled, and lo and behold, a new host. This was Edward 'but you can call me Ed' Tudor-Pole. No mock leopard-skin jacket, but more a Georgian look for this host plus leather riding crop. Pale and looking a little emaciated, Ed Tudor-Pole gave The Crystal Maze a dark and intimidating feeling to it.
Although Ed Tudor-Pole did well in hosting The Crystal Maze, it was hard to match up with the success of his predecessor.
There were some characters other than the host who 'lived' in the Maze.
Mumsy was a fortune teller situated in the Medieval Zone who was part of a mystery game. She would ask the contestant three questions, and one correct answer would win them the crystal. After the game had finished, Richard O'Brien would engage in conversation with Mumsy, referring to her as his mother. In series three, Mumsy went to Bratislava, and Richard was joined by her sister, Auntie Sabrina - the ultimate '60s throwback. Incidentally, both Sabrina and Mumsy were played by the same actress. Mumsy left along with Richard O'Brien in series four.
Another resident was a sleeping princess. She featured inside a mystery game in the Medieval Zone, where the contestant would have to find their way through a fiendish mirror maze with secret doors. Getting to the middle and kissing the princess would wake her up and she would give the contestant the crystal.
Again in the Medieval Zone was a knight who would ask the contestant to construct a stamp. When pressed into soft clay, it would imprint the king's seal.
The Aztec Zone boasted a mental game with three Aztec guards. The contestant had to find which locker the crystal was in by the description of the animal on the locker. The guards would give one aspect of the animal which was on the correct locker.
In the Futuristic Zone, there was a robot which was used in a mini-game involving a laser-shootout which was similar to Laser Quest.
The only other person, if it can be called a person, was the computer in the Futuristic Zone. The hosts would talk to the computer and it would talk back to them. The voice of the computer changed with each series; sometimes it was Marvin-esque sarcastic, and sometimes the calm emotionless female voice characteristically found in science-fiction shows, but never both at the same time.
There were four genres of game which the team had the choice of tackling.
This game made an emphasis on agility, strength and flexibility. It involved more muscle power than brainpower, such as climbing across a wall, cycling hard to generate power or lifting heavy objects.
Mental games were based on word-association and mathematical puzzles. This was generally the easiest type of game, depending on which zone you were in2. Completing a massive jigsaw puzzle, sliding letters to create a word and creating pub names which sounded correct were all specialities.
This tested dexterity and marksmanship. Usually, the contestant would have to aim certain objects at a given target and shoot at it. Others involved untying knots or pouring water into buckets.
This was practically anything which didn't fall into the previous three categories. The game could be a murder-mystery where a dead body mocked up in the specified time period would hold the key to getting the crystal, or something involving sleeping princesses. Or something completely different.
Each game had a time limit of up to three minutes but at least two minutes. The contestant chosen for the game had to complete the task within this time or get out before time elapsed, otherwise they would be locked in the game room. Players locked in were then unable to take part in any more of the games, unless the team decided to sacrifice one time crystal to rescue them.
Some games were set with an automatic lock-in. This meant that if the contestant had done some forbidden action, eg touching the ground with their body or other object; they were automatically locked in, regardless of whether the time limit had elapsed or they had the crystal.
The automatic lock-in game could either be fiendishly taxing or ridiculously easy. However, judging by the amount of pressure that got to a few contestants, the ridiculously easy suddenly became fiendishly taxing. For example...
Just a Bit Legless
As mentioned before, there was a game in the Aztec Zone which involved three Aztec guards. This game was an automatic lock-in game. The team-member chosen had realised the point of the game and started off on the right track. The lockers had pictures of:
- A bird
- A lizard
- A fish
- A jaguar
Having found the first guard, the clue he gave her was not really that helpful:
It has a tail.
Now, a bird has a tail, most lizards have tails, fish have tails and jaguars have tails.
The second guard was a little more helpful:
It has legs.
The contestant found the third guard, who said:
It has scales.
Now, the correct locker that housed the crystal was quite obviously the lizard. However, the contestant panicked a little, shouting much to the dismay of her team-members:
It's the fish! It must be the fish!
She goes to the locker with the picture of the fish and opens it. Inside is a piece of paper. The contestant then looks at it in wonder and replies:
What does this say? You are locked in. Oh.
At this point, Ed Tudor-Pole locks the unfortunate contestant in. Turning to the rest of the team, he says:
Okay, so she didn't get the crystal.
It's not the end of the world that she's locked in.
[Then adding, in a slightly sarcastic tone] But at least you tried your best.
There were various zones which were themed on a certain time period. The games would be based around this theme, but still keeping their genres.
The Aztec Zone
This zone was full of sun, sand and exotic trees3. Noises of various wild beasts and the odd parakeet were used as sound effects to make this zone seem far-out and hidden away.
The buildings which housed the games appeared to be made out of pale yellow stone. The doors which let the contestant into the room of the puzzle were made of woven straw and held closed by a rope hasp. Even if they got locked in, the hasp seemed to be impenetrable.
The object which measured the time for each game was a water clock. The water was coloured so it was easier to see how much time was left for fear of mistake.
The Medieval Zone
Creaking armour, screeching owls, cobwebs and cold stony walls. The Medieval Zone was set inside a castle4 which wasn't the nicest of zones.
The host would first sit the team of contestants at the banqueting table and offer them food riddled with rats and mice. Then, the games would begin. This zone was probably the 'darkest' zone, with heavy cannonballs being rolled on to clangy scales, murdered alchemists locked in their laboratories and a total lack of studio lighting for the effect of a dingy and gloomy castle.
Cobwebbed hourglasses were used to measure the time limit, showing the evolution of the time-keeping device.
The Industrial Zone/The Ocean Zone
This zone was full of greasy oil kegs, wire mesh and dirty metal doors. Closer to the present period, there wasn't really anything special about the Industrial Zone like the others. Again, a lack of normal studio lighting, but this was replaced by light shone through green filters and an awful lot of orange sodium lighting to give the effect of a post-nuclear time period.
As well as a lot of water.
In later series, the Industrial Zone was replaced by the even wetter Ocean Zone.
The Ocean Zone was set inside a sunken ship - the SS Atlantis. It bore an uncanny resemblance to the interior of the Titanic, with a 1900s fin de siècle look. The whole zone was set at a jaunty angle, with all the furnishings tilted to give the appearance that the ship had fallen on its side on the seabed. The games were generally all water-based or set in a room with loads of boilers, and any contestant unlucky enough to get wet was sent away to the main boiler room to dry off.
The time-keeping devices in these zones was a stop clock. Fairly similar to the large mechanical stop clocks that schools used to provide.
The Futuristic Zone
Set in a shiny space-station, the Futuristic Zone housed bright strip lighting, long walkways and a computer which talked to you. This zone had a higher quota of automatic lock-in games than the others, as the doors to the games would only slide open by punching in a four-buttoned code.
The games here were more scientific, with chemicals needing to be moved, robots driven around set mazes and even a game where the contestant was put in a room with a massive spider's web, hinting that the space-station was a zoological or biological one.
A digital time-keeper was used with red LCD to add to the futuristic feel, even though the digital watch had been around long before that.
Every episode always started off with a different zone to enter. To enter the zone, various puzzles had to be completed:
- Aztec Zone - paddle two four-person canoes down a short river
- Medieval Zone - raise or climb over a portcullis
- Industrial Zone - climb over oil kegs and wire mesh
- Ocean Zone - climb down some very wet ship's rigging
- Futuristic Zone - answer a simple scientific question set by the computer
When a zone was completed, the team had to go over a simple obstacle course to get to the next zone:
Aztec Zone to Industrial Zone/Ocean Zone - crawl through an air-vent.
Industrial Zone/Ocean Zone to Medieval Zone - climb up a ladder and through a hatch.
Medieval Zone to Futuristic Zone - cross a log over a bubbling swamp.
Futuristic Zone to Aztec Zone - go up a lift and climb down a stepped wall.
The Crystal Dome
This was a large geodesic structure created from triangular glass panels. It was the ultimate goal of the show: where the time crystals collected could convert their work into prizes. The contestants that weren't still locked in had the chance to do this.
The Dome was surrounded by water and could only be accessed via a bridge that rose out of the water. One of the triangular panels would flip over, allowing the team access into the Dome itself. They would stand in a circle, holding on to a rail.
On the floor in front of them were the tokens they had to collect. There were 500 gold tokens and 625 silver tokens. Collecting a gold token counted as one point, and a silver token counted as minus one point. They had to post as many gold tokens as they could into a special letterbox, which would automatically shut when time elapsed.
The team would stand on a stiff wire mesh. Under this were powerful fans that blew the tokens into the air, far from the reach of the team. The host would then blow a whistle, starting the time.
The contestants then had to collect as many gold tokens as they could. Unfortunately, in the frenzy of grabbing tokens and rushing wind, it was hard to see what was silver and what was gold.
When time elapsed, the host would blow the whistle again. The fans would then cease, and the letterbox would close, preventing anyone carrying on any further token-collecting-type activities.
The total of silver tokens counted against the total of gold tokens, making it hard to win the grand prize. If the team got over 100 points, then the prize was usually an activity holiday for all six members. Over 50 points was usually a day-trip somewhere. In later series, the 50-point prize was scrapped.
On failing to get a decent amount of points, all the team would have received was a little trophy (shaped like a crystal) upon which it was engraved the words, 'I Cracked the Crystal Maze - [Insert year of completion here]'.
So much for tackiness.
After realising that over 40% of the audience were 16 years old or under, the production crew decided to create some 'children's specials'.
The bright-eyed and wholly enthusiastic children would follow the same path as the adults had done before them, completing the same zones and games as they did as well as helping each other out. They also tended to do considerably better than their adult counterparts.
Time Is up
After six series, and low viewing figures, Channel 4 and Chatsworth Television decided to call it a day, and The Crystal Maze was axed in 1995.
When The Crystal Maze was axed, many other shows attempted to copy its style, mainly children's programmes in the UK. Such shows like Incredible Games, Terror Tower and more recently, Jungle Run, seem to gain the interest of children. Perhaps it is the hands-on activities which they go through, or the experience of watching tense moments on the television.
Either way, The Crystal Maze had a large impact on how game shows were designed, and the idea is still popular now.
The highest number of crystals ever gained by any one team is ten. Obviously, they won the big prize plus the little trophy at the end.
The lowest number of crystals ever gained by any one team is one. Obviously, they won the hunk of glass and not the big prize at the end.
Unlike what the TV programme portrayed, it was not filmed in real-time as only two cameras were used to film The Crystal Maze. When the door to a game was opened, the contestant jumped in, but didn't start on it. He/she was pulled out and a camera was set up inside the game room. The rest of the team and the host then went off for tea and crumpets in the Green Room5. This was why there was no shot of the contestant entering the game room and starting on it, but instead, it cut straight to the interior.
In 1990, the London version of The Rocky Horror Show was being played at the Piccadilly Theatre. Ed Tudor-Pole played the part of Riffraff, which strangely enough was played by Richard O'Brien (who also wrote it) in the original cast.
Ironically, the original concept for The Crystal Maze, Fort Boyard, has been remade into a British version shown by Channel 5, hosted by the rather pneumatic Melinda Messenger.