Few TV series deserve to be described as ‘legendary’ but The Crystal Maze is undeniably one that does. A gameshow like no other, it first appeared on Channel 4 back in February 1990 and quickly claimed a special place in the hearts of British television viewers.
Its origins are as full of mystery and serendipity as the maze itself. Chatsworth Television was the company which produced Treasure Hunt. It was based on a French programme created by Jacques Antoine – who was also behind adventure gameshow Fort Boyard. Chatsworth had made a British pilot of this but then found that the fortress location was not going to be available when they needed to film the series.
Admirably, rather than seeing this as the end of the line, the Chatsworth team instead got creative and – according to some accounts – took just two days to reconfigure the DNA of the idea into The Crystal Maze. Losing the fortress allowed designer James Dillon the freedom to create a whole new world – or, rather, four new worlds, in the beautifully-realised shapes of the Medieval, Industrial, Futuristic, and perhaps most iconically of all, Aztec Zones. The producers waved goodbye to traditional television and launched themselves headlong into what had previously been the territory of feature films and video games.
One crucial element of the Fort Boyard pilot which was retained was the host – Richard O’Brien. The maverick creative force behind The Rocky Horror Show and a world away from the traditional model of a gameshow host, he added a freewheeling rock and roll energy to the programme – and also came up with one of its best-loved stylistic traits – riffing to camera whilst the teams were playing games. As we sat on our sofas watching the programme we felt he was talking directly to us. He was the mischievous, mercurial uncle we all wish we had.
The Crystal Maze originally ran for seventy-eight episodes across six series (and five seasonal specials featuring kids as the adventurers) and weathered O’Brien’s departure after four series (his replacement, the actor and musician Ed Tudor-Pole was also a big, big, character) but eventually came to an end in August 1995. Except, of course, The Crystal Maze never really finished – the dream of the maze was kept alive by repeats, the board game, puzzle books, quiz machines, live attractions, YouTube, and, moreover, love from the British public.
In 2015 longterm fans of the show Little Lion Entertainment proved what an appetite there was for The Crystal Maze by successfully crowdfunding a live immersive experience in London. This generated enormous publicity, and upped the interest in a television return. In November 2016, this finally happened, with a charity special in which celebrities entered the maze for the very first time. Hosted by comedian, writer, and co-creator of The Office, Stephen Merchant – and featuring a cameo from the original Maze Master Richard O’Brien – it made a huge impact with viewers, raised a lot of money for Stand Up To Cancer, and opened the doors for the new series.