“I’m alone in a dark cell, time slipping away. I’ve got what I came for, I’m holding my prize. The only thing between me and my getaway is a maze of laser beams. If I avoid them, I’m free. If I touch one, it’s all over. Focusing on my goal, I take a deep breath and step forward.”
For those of you who spent the early 90’s not being born yet, allow me to bring you up to date. The Crystal Maze was a show that launched in 1990 on Channel 4, with a team of 6 contestants attempting a series of challenges that were either Physical (testing the speed, strength & agility of contestants), Mental (puzzle games testing brainpower and problem solving skills), Skill (tests of dexterity and accuracy) and Mystery (which admittedly could cover anything) in a series of themed zones – Medieval, Futuristic, Industrial (Ocean in the later series) and Aztec – the latter being my particular favourite. Contestants had between 2-3 minutes to solve the game, winning a crystal if they were successful which would count towards 5 seconds in the Crystal Dome at the end of the show. Exceed the time taken in the game however, or make a mistake in some of the games and you would be locked-in; your release only secured if the rest of your team agree to sacrifice a crystal for you.
For six years the show ran, hosted by Richard O’Brien initially, with Ed Tudor-Pole taking over for the last two series. But all things must come to an end and in 1995 the show was taken off the air. Although repeats would surface on Challenge TV, that seemed to be the end of the maze. Occasionally rumours of the show returning made an appearance, although the most troubling of these was a celebrity only version hosted by Amanda Holden – an idea that ranked alongside Dog Turd Milkshakes, giving the Nobel peace prize to Attila the Hun or electing Donald Trump as President. But nothing ever came of these, and that was it. The gates at Medieval remained closed, the fans in the Dome remained off. The end. Or was it?
Skip forward 20 years, and Little Lion Entertainment made a post on Indiegogo. Needing £500’000 in order to rebuild the maze in a Central London venue, this was met with a huge response. People were clearly desperate to give this a try for themselves, and the target was met within the space of a week. I’d seen the story, remembered the show, was drunk in charge of my credit card and joined in; booked myself a spot. By the end of the campaign they had raised £933,798 – an amazing response for something that hadn’t been seen on TV in two decades. Eagerly I checked my inbox for updates, before booking myself in on a Friday afternoon slot at the end of April. I then settled in for a very long six month wait, filled with anticipation…
The day arrived, finally. I travelled to London, found the address and immediately wondered if I’d gone to the right place. The building seemed to be an office complex, on a street filled with offices, the Eritrean embassy and a Costa coffee at the end. Still, I entered the building and was luckily met by the maze staff and not the confused members of an office supply firm. Once inside I was given my teams bomber jacket and awaited the rest of my team. This is one of the features of the show – you can submit a team of up to eight people, or you can do things as I did and enter as a solo traveller and wait to be paired up with other randomers. Both have their own levels of risk – enter on your own and you have no idea who you’ll be matched up with… you could have people barely able to tie their shoelaces or people in possession of a giant ego who will loudly shout at you instructions on how to complete the challenge before berating you when their ideas don’t work. However, enter with friends or colleagues and there is definitely the potential to never want to speak to these people by the end of the session.
As it turned out, there were four teams tackling the maze at any one time – three of these teams all knew each other beforehand, whilst my team were the team of randoms. This did mean that we were at one disadvantage beforehand – we’d not had the opportunity to develop our own team name. Luckily, we managed to pull together our combined levels of creativity, and thus team “We’re not shit!”was born.
So yes, we’d met. We swapped names, quick introductions, gone through the briefing and then… it was time. It had begun! We were taken into the medieval zone, sat in a giant bedchamber and shown a quick video featuring the man himself, Richard O’Brien! As atmosphere building goes, that’s hard to top. We were then introduced to our maze master Dusty, a man with boundless energy and a smoking jacket which I covet to this day. He talked us through the rules before asking us to choose a captain. It was to my endless credit that I managed to wait 0.0003 seconds before shooting my hand in the air to volunteer. It was done, my vice captain was named… and then we entered!
Starting off in medieval zone, it was immediately obvious the time, effort and devotion that had gone into realising the sets. This was a theme that remained through the game – the cold dank castle atmosphere in medieval zone, the heat and openness of Aztec land where they had even turned up the heating (something you definitely felt wearing the bomber jackets). Industrial zone had a grim, grungy feel to it whilst Futuristic zone had a relentlessly clean and shiny feel to it. Travelling between zones was more than just moving through a door from one room to another… there were slides, ladders, climbing walls through connecting sections all whilst the theme tune played in the background, really adding to the feel of the experience. Add the madcap nature of Dusty, and it truly captured the nature of the show. But the atmosphere is just one thing… what about the games?
Whilst I sat there taking everything in, Dusty launched into a spiel about the Medieval zone (again, to his credit managing to make something that he must have repeated 200 times by that point sound fresh, witty and original) before asking me as captain to select who was going to take the first challenge. What else could I do but lead by example? I took a mental game – if I was going to humiliate myself in a physical one it was going to be later on – and was taken to a cell where I had two minutes to build a sundial out of the assembled building blocks on the ground. Not much my team could do to assist me – shouts of ‘Try that one!’ and ‘Rotate it!’ were of limited use when those were my only real options anyway – and I quickly realised how short two minutes could be. Dusty provided the updates on the time, adding to the pressure, the stress and the sweat. What had I done? Why was I here? Why am I captain when I can’t build a sodding sundi… wait, it’s there! Done it! What now? Where’s the crystal? Ahhhh, so I need to turn the clock handle on the wall to corresponding time… is that a three or a four!?! I think it’s four…
I’VE GOT THE CRYSTAL!!! CHILDHOOD DREAM REALISED!!!
Yes, I was successful. Just over 20 seconds to spare, and I was bounding out of the cell, giddy with delight. Time to relax. Time to breathe. Time to send my vice captain off on a physical challenge. And this is where the other side of the maze comes into it. I have a great deal of sympathy for the poor people on the show now, struggling with to solve the puzzles whilst people at home sit at home and feel smug. Watching the games at home was one thing, watching and shouting advice to my team mates is quite another. Your mind does go blank, and having seven people shout out contradicting advice doesn’t exactly help matters. The difficulty levels of the games varied – I remember shouting at one of my team mates “The Cock and Badger, are you mad?” whilst trying to put together a list of pub names, but I have nothing but admiration for girl who put together a giant cube made out of Tetris blocks. That said, our collective advice must have counted for something, as we finished the Medieval zone with four wins out of four!
Our good fortune continued into the Aztec zone, with another three wins. Touch and go in a couple of cases – the physical challenge in particular was a little nervy at the end, followed by our first defeat at the end. And though I cursed myself for playing a game in Medieval instead – didn’t think I could get away with playing myself again quite so quickly – I was still having a whale of a time.
Things took a turn for the worst as we moved to Industrial though. We started there with seven crystals… but we left with seven. We had a win, before a cruel game took it away from us. Climbing a spiders web with a series of bells attached – ring three and you’re locked in. And no… I’m not sure what this has to do with Industrial factories either. I’m not sure how you’re meant to win that game, but the inevitable sadly happened and we had our first lock-in. And this was the first real deviation from the show – when someone is locked in on the show, they need to stay where they are until the team decides to free them (if they do so). Here though, that’s not practical. With four teams taking on the maze at any time, and with the need for the backstage staff to reset the challenges before the next team get there, a compromise has to be made. And this is where the prison system comes into play. Following a lock-in, the team member (declared a legend by Dusty) is taken to a cell where they are given a separate challenge to escape whilst the rest of the team continue with the Zone. If they escape before it is time to leave, they can rejoin the team and keep the crystal. Fail to do so, and they have to be bought out at the cost of a crystal. It’s a good method which gives the team an extra challenge and incentive, although it does mean that it’s best if a lock-in happens at the beginning of the zone. Which brings us on to the Future.
Probably the more inventive of the connecting sequences – climbing a staircase, descending a ladder, going through a slide into the airlock before emerging on the space station. Dusty informed us it was 2000 years into the future, and that sadly the Earth had been destroyed. If we looked into the distance, we could see Matthew McConaughey crying (a nice little Intersellar joke to pick up spirits after a disappointing zone). But remember when I talked about varying difficulty levels? The game is at it’s toughest in the Futuristic zones. Four difficult games, the harshest of which was with a blindfolded team member being guided round an invisible maze. We struggled, just about guided them to safety but sadly that crystal eluded us. We had a narrow success with a skill game, before it was my turn to finish the challenges. The captain, taking on a physical challenge right before the dome. And this takes us back to our story at the beginning of this article.
Yeah… it was a lock-in. If I’d known what the challenge was, I probably wouldn’t have selected the 6’3 team member to do it. But there I was… I’d only set the one alarm off on the way in. I had the crystal… surely I could make it back the same way? But then I heard Dusty laugh, and utter the phrase I didn’t want to hear… “Haha! More lasers!”.
Yep, extra beams appeared. This is one of those things that is so much harder than it seems… having to know where the beams are behind you as you try to guide your way through, knowing that if you turn your head to check there is also an excellent chance of setting of a beam. And despite my best efforts, my shoulder managed to set off the same beam twice. It being the last challenge, there was no time for me to redeem myself in the prison cell… so a crystal sacrifice it was. A team can’t do without it’s captain, right?
So we finished with seven crystals. Not bad, but could have been better. And out of the four teams, we finished with the smallest amount. Still, it was time for the crystal dome! The rules were explained to us… We had to jump and grab the tokens as they flew through the air, posting them through the door. We couldn’t grab them from the floor, as this was cheating. This was the other deviation from the show… where the gold tokens were a +1 and the silver tokens were a -1, they only had the gold tokens there. Mainly because they couldn’t be bothered counting them out (understandable). We were the fourth team to play, the winning score thus far was 180… we knew what we had to do. We went in, we jumped, we gathered we posted… and we collected over 300 tokens! We had won!
Then we were disqualified for cheating.
Yeah, go big or go home. We had no chance of victory, so we just went for it and cheated our little hearts out. Gathering from the floor, we took a heroic amount. But it seemed all for nought, maybe we should have been more subtle…
Then everyone else was also disqualified for cheating.
Whereas we went for broke, all the others cheated but to a lesser degree. So I like to think we still won – if you’re going to cheat, do it properly! Still, winning and losing isn’t really the point here, much as it barely seemed to be in the original show. The challenges were fun and varied, and whilst I would have liked to have seen the Ocean zone and some of my favourite TV challenges, I can understand that health and safety would have been a nightmare for some of them. Still, if the attraction remains popular and keeps turning a profit, there may be the scope to bring in new challenges in the future. And I’d love to go back and take on the maze once more… maybe even take on my laser nemesis again! But even if that doesn’t happen, this was a fantastic experience, and chance to try one of my favourite TV challenges. Now, who wants to do the Crowdfunder for Gladiators?