“Knightmare” the RPG Game Show

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Last week we looked back at the children’s sci-fi game show Starstrider (1984), and this week skip forward a couple of a couple of years to September 1987 and the very Dungeons & Dragons inspired kids’ game show Knightmare!

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Knightmare debuted on ITV (another British TV station that is not the BBC) on September 7th, 1987 and was designed to be an adventure game show that brought elements of role-playing games to the small screen. The show involved a team of four children (mostly geeky boys) —one taking the role of the sightless dungeoneer, and the remaining three acting as their guide.

KnightmarecorridorofcatacombsThe dungeoneer wore a bucket like helmet (so as not to see the lack of set) while the rest of the team watched on a monitor screen and gave verbal commands to the dungeoneer. The medieval environment was created with the use of blue screen chroma key (an idea borrowed by the show’s producers from weather forecasts, where it had just started to be used) and use of ‘virtual reality‘ interactive gameplay on television. Together the team attempted to complete a quest and exit the dungeon, using their wits to overcome puzzles, obstacles and the unusual characters they meet along the journey.

The host of the show was Treguard of Dunshelm (played by Hugo Myatt) who would call “Enter, Stranger”, the first member of the team (the “dungeoneer”) would magically appear. After giving his or her name, the dungeoneer is asked by Treguard to call three advisors, who also appear next to the viewing apparatus. Before entering the dungeon, the dungeoneer is given a knapsack to wear, in which food found along the way is to be placed, in order to replenish Life Force. In addition, the “Helmet of Justice” is put on the dungeoneer’s head, the story is that this is to protect the dungeoneer from seeing the real danger ahead.

KnightmareThere were three levels in the dungeon. The object of the game is to collect various items, meeting a selection of the many inhabitants of the dungeon along the way, and get out alive after finding a specified treasure. In some series, the teams could choose one of four treasures to pursue. The choice would only affect the first room entered, and the prize found. It was always located towards the end of level 3. Travel between levels, included wellways, mine cart rides, lifts (‘descenders’), and even airborne rides on the dragon Smirkenorff. The dungeon’s inhabitants include: jesters, maids, and wizards, who help the dungeoneer; and guards, witches, and sorcerers, who either demand passwords, spells, or objects, or who simply try to kill the dungeoneer.

Knightmare TeamAt its peak in 1991/1992, Knightmare attracted approximately 4-5 million viewers per episode (at that time a very high figure for a children’s TV series). By 1993, the year which saw the program’s seventh series, it was the most popular non-animated children’s show on ITV. However, changes had recently occurred. Late the previous year, the ITV Children’s Committee was replaced by a single Controller of CITV (Children’s ITV), Dawn Airey. Although she thought well of Knightmare, the average audience age of CITV was now 6-10, down from 6-15 in 1985. It was believed that the older audience was moving to satellite television and video games, and that programmes for a younger audience were needed. After two meetings, it was agreed that an 8th series of Knightmare would go ahead in 1994, but that it would be a shorter run (10 episodes instead of 15/16 episodes) and that the remainder of the season’s timeslot would be taken by Virtually Impossible, a new virtual reality show from Broadsword, the same production company as Knightmare, and aimed at this younger audience.

Despite the diminishing older audience, Knightmare’s eighth series performed well, and gained a higher audience than Virtually Impossible did later that autumn. The last episode aired on November 11th, 1994, but amongst British geeks and nerds its cult status was already firmly planted.


 

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