A long time ago, decades indeed before this world of 4K screens and super-powered consoles, if you wanted to experience incredible graphics in a (sort of) video game context, you turned on your TV after school and tuned into Knightmare. Running from 1987 to 1994, the British show chucked four often awkward, but always enthusiastic, young contestants into a computer-generated dark fantasy world and asked them to survive three "levels" of traps and tricks, and potentially (but not really) gruesome demises, in quest of some trinket or other.
One team member took on the role of the dungeoneer, whose vision was obscured by the "Helmet of Justice". The others acted as the dungeoneer's guides, offering directions through each room and advice on casting spells, avoiding trolls and goblins, life-or-death quiz answers and more. The teams were further assisted by Knightmare's dungeon master, Treguard, while their progress to the game's conclusion was always challenged by an evil opposite number, be that Mogdred or Lord Fear or some other wicked wizard of (ooh) nastiness.
Not many teams went the distance – Knightmare was, pardon the now-common cliché, very much the kid's TV Dark Souls of its day. In total, over seven years, only eight teams "completed" the game. I sought out two of these champions to discuss their memories of the show, and whether or not skills honed in a CGI dungeon could be carried over into adulthood.
An abridged cut of series eight's winning team, featuring Oliver Hilton
VICE: How exactly were you picked from all the thousands of other Knightmare hopefuls?
Oliver Hilton (series eight winner, 1994): In that classic primary school politics way, I agreed to go on because my best friend wanted to. My big, dirty secret? I'd never watched Knightmare before. To give you some context, before there were console wars, you were either an ITV kid or a BBC kid. I was BBC through and through, and Knightmare was on ITV, so I'd only caught the end of the show a couple times.
Jason Karl (series two winner, 1988): We were avid fans of season one. And were really into the Fighting Fantasy choose your own adventure books. Knightmare was a show very similar in theme. We thought our best bet would be to go beyond an ordinary letter. So we created an olden-timey parchment. We stained it with tea, blotted it with fake blood and wrote it in medieval style calligraphy. It worked, and the four of us were invited to an audition. We were asked to walk around a room blindfolded, and got quizzed on the show lore – which worked out well because I forced my team to watch a VHS of the entire first series before our interview.
Did you do any practising, before filming commenced? Were there any conversations about strategy?
OH: In the playground we got our dungeoneer to close his eyes and practise the basic stuff: step forward, sidestep, avoid the bush. But apart from that, not really. The others were more prepared, having seen the show, but I winged it. It wasn't until we were in the studio waiting for each environment to render, on a Macintosh II computer, that I watched loads of the old episodes and picked up some tricks. (Knightmare used a variety of computers over the years, including a Commodore Amiga 2000 and something called a Spaceward Supernova.)
JK: We'd decided I'd be the dungeoneer and the other three would be the advisors. But it was difficult to have a plan of action because we'd been told that series two was completely different from the first one. We did find time between filming where I'd walk around the hotel garden with a blindfold, and they'd try and stop me smashing into chairs or falling into the pond. I definitely took out a few plant pots, and I'm a bit dyspraxic. Years later I had to write "L" and "R" on my hands during my driving test.
What was it generally like on set, between filming?
JK: You'd film a room that might last anywhere from 25 seconds to three minutes, but then you'd have hours of nothing to do except sit in a green room. It was all very secretive, and we were kept away from the studio to avoid any spoilers. When the screen comes on and the dungeoneer asks, "Where am I?" we were genuinely seeing it for the first time.
OH: You didn't get to see a lot. They liked to keep things really secret. You'd film one area then it was back to the green room. If you wanted to go to the loo they'd have to escort you.
So, it was like exam conditions?
OH: Yeah exactly, they didn't want you to see actors in costume that might give you an idea of what was coming. They took it a lot more seriously than we did. We were dead impressed because the green room had an Amiga 600. We spent most of the three days playing Elfmania.
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What else were you into, at the time?
JK: We were the nerds. We were the slightly obscure, quiet, more academic kids in the school.
OH: I think I was too young to have a personality. I didn't have a taste in music yet. I was into playing video games. I had an Amiga 1200, which was top of the line at the time. The other guys were more into fantasy stuff. Sometimes I think I was just on the team because I was the best friend.
Were there any screw-ups while filming?
OH: It was a weird week. We almost ruined the entire thing before it even began. We were playing in the hotel garden and they called us in for dinner and I ran face first into this plate glass window. I broke my nose. And breaking things became a running theme.
Our dungeoneer was being fitted with the helmet and the producers were making a big fuss about it being very delicate. The first room we filmed in was full of dragons, so we freaked out and shouted, "RUN!" And the way it works is, they generate the virtual room a few feet from the edge of the real walls. Our dungeoneer runs full pelt, disappears through the portal and all you hear is this huge thud. He'd cracked the helmet.
JK: We'd been given instructions on what we could and couldn't wear. You can't wear anything with stripes because it will fuzz on camera. You can't wear anything blue if you're the dungeoneer because you will disappear against the blue screen. I had a pair of grey trousers and a yellow short-sleeve shirt. I walked on set and everyone's faces dropped as my legs went semi-transparent. There was, apparently, the slightest touch of blue in my trousers. So I ended up wearing a horrific, adult-sized pair of red trousers from the costume department at Anglia Television for the entire dungeon run.
Wardrobe malfunctions and head-butting walls aside, what did it feel like to win?
JK: Our last challenge involved me standing on a pink cross in space, then one of my advisors cast a spell, and that was it. The studio went nuts. We filmed the last scene in which Treguard awarded us the hugely unimpressive prize. It was a medal that was meant to resemble the Silver Spurs of Squiredom. In reality, it's a coin made of plaster of Paris, or some kind of resin. But we were elated at the time. Mine still takes pride of place at home.
OH: Winning was certainly unexpected. Like I said, I hadn't watched a lot of Knightmare before, so I wasn't aware what a huge achievement it was to win. We were the last team to win the show, so yeah, it was a big deal. They handed us our trophies and that was it.
An abridged cut of series two's winning team, featuring Jason Karl (then known as Julian Smith)
Do you still have your trophy, Oliver?
OH: I don't, actually. I used to work in a pub and for a long time it sat above the bar. Eventually I sold it on eBay for about £300 to pay the rent. Post university, with no money, it was the only thing I could flog of any value. I'd buy it back now if I had the chance.
How did things change in the following weeks?
JK: Instead of just being the geeky nerds, we were the geeky nerds from Knightmare. And that was about it.
OH: Well, we filmed it over the summer break, after which I started at a new school and nobody knew what I'd done. I told a few people once I gauged that they weren't going to beat me up for it over the next seven years.
What does a Knightmare champion do after journey's end?
JK: I'm absolutely not into the same stuff as I was back then. I don't play adventure games anymore. I'm still interested in everything Knightmare as a show, though.
OH: I dabbled in consoles, and I had a Dreamcast, which is the pinnacle of console gaming in my opinion. I've just got an HTC Vive. I'm jumping around the living room, when the girlfriend lets me. The fact no one has made a Knightmare VR game is surprising.
Smells like a Kickstarter. What kind of mark did the show leave on you, and how has that carried through to adulthood?
JK: I've been involved in television projects over the years that have been somewhat linked to the tenets of Knightmare. I'd love to see an adventure show, whether it was Knightmare or something else become popular again. It's unlikely as Knightmare cost £50,000 an episode back then – and that's close to £100,000 in today's money – and I don't think kid's TV has that kind of money available anymore, which is sad.
OH: I guess I just looked at it as a fun thing to do. It was an interesting and surreal week spent in Norwich. It got me deeper into gaming, including tabletop gaming. It's more about playing and drinking these days, obviously. We play a bit of Dungeons & Dragons Pathfinder, which is great with mates, but it's equally important to get some fancy beers in for it.
Since its disappearance from terrestrial TV, Knightmare has been revived as a touring live show, had a (fan-made) 25th anniversary documentary produced about it, and returned for an Isy Suttie-starring one-off special on YouTube in 2013. We're quite up for a new version for the TV, though, if someone would oblige. Thanks.