Ginger Nuts of Horror
There's a particular generation here in the UK members of which, should you utter phrases in front of them such as: “Side-step to your left!” or “Where am I?” or “Oooooh, nasty!” will get slightly misty eyed and enthusiastic for a show they recall loving as children, but whose name escapes them.
That show is Knightmare, a phenomenally ambitious experiment that resulted in what is unambiguously one of the most challenging, engaging and atmospheric children's shows of all time. For the most part, the media we loved as children does not stand up to an adult viewing. We notice the technical limitations, the terrible writing, the awful animation; the trite, cereal box morals.
Knightmare is a whole other species; a show that not only stands up to an adult viewing, but gets better and better and better as we and it age.
As part of the aforementioned generation, I recall being enthralled. I would await the Winter, when the show would air on Friday evenings, after school, in the later slots of CITV (Children's ITV), which was then reserved for shows which appealed to a much older audience than the preceding cartoons and sketch shows. That small slot; those twenty five minutes or so, I recall with the utmost fondness; the genuine tension, dread and fright that the show would induce; that it still does, to some degree.
For many, this was their first experience of the tropes and manipulations that we collectively call “horror,” which it deployed with a deftness and subtlety that many shows aimed at adults fail to. This was from an era when the notion of horror in children's media was far from verboten (still contentious, thanks to the finger-wagging crusades of Mary Whitehouse and her fellow professional hand-wringers), but still possible.
Knightmare more than lives up to its name.
Bridging the gap between video games (which were then very much in their infancy) and television, the show consisted of a virtual dungeon into which a lone adventurer (the “Dungeoneer”) would be thrust, blind-folded by the iconic “Helmet of Justice” (“For all justice is blind...”), directed by a team of three friends who would (ideally) guide them through chambers and corridors littered with traps and hazards, as well as helping them to solve extremely challenging puzzles, riddles and social encounters.
The central tension of the show derives from the limited time the dungeoneers have to navigate the dungeon and each of its chambers: one of the most iconic elements of the show was the “life force meter;” a digitally animated face that would follow them through the dungeon, gradually decomposing to reveal a skull beneath. The meter could be replenished with food or magic, that generally had to be earned, and if it ran down completely, they would “starve” and their time in the game would be done.
Furthermore, each individual chamber presented its own risks, teams that lingered usually drawing the attention of some spectre or monster that would appear and frighten them into making a mistake or taking the wrong item. Most of the time, such entities were simply computer generated ghosts and ghouls (chattering skulls, ghosts, woodland spirits) or actors dressed as ogres, mechanical knights, goblins and other monstrosities (the range increasing and the nature of the beasties becoming more elaborate as the series wore on and technology developed). In and of themselves, far from threatening, but the manner of their presentation made them genuinely terrifying: usually, the team would be warned by Treguard, the dungeon master and host of the game, that “...you're wasting life-force, team,” shortly after which the sound of a heartbeat or approaching footsteps might occur, sometimes accompanied by strangely frightening chords of music, until the monster itself appeared.
The use of sound in particular is masterful from the earliest episodes; footsteps, whispers, heartbeats, hunting horns; strange scurryings and scratchings all contributing to the sense of tension; of the dungeon as a living and genuinely threatening environment rather than a mere projection on blue screen.
Take, for example, one of the earliest “deaths” in the first season: having failed to answer a certain number of riddles correctly in a previous room (thus missing a vital clue), the dungeoneer finds himself in a room of almost total darkness, only one small patch illuminated around him. In the distance, something clicks and rattles, faintly insect like, evoking spiders, rattlesnakes etc. Treguard, as was often his function in the earlier seasons, compounds the sense of dread by remaking: “...this darkness is made by something that doesn't like visitors. Even now, it's making it's dislike felt...”
The team's life-force metre begins to decay at an unnatural rate as they panic, a bizarre strain of funereal music playing as their game ends, the darkness never dissipating, what “created” it never seen. A case of technical limitation inspiring imagination, and a well worn trope of documentary horror, in that the “monster” or entity is suggested rather than presented.
Another classic example that remains consistent throughout all the seasons are the ubiquitous goblins. These creatures are not the fairy-tale creatures that their name suggests; they are hunched, withered, black-skinned humanoids, often wielding clubs and scimitars and other weaponry, the mark of their approach the sounding of a very particular horn, which came to be a sign of dread throughout the show's many seasons. As viewers, we became conditioned by it; the sound enough to set our hearts racing and blood pumping, knowing that the goblins were just off screen, if the dungeoneer dithered too long.
Another icon of the series (and arguably one of its most terrifying monsters) was the giant spider, Ariadne; occurring in various different formats throughout the first seven seasons, her lair was always a place of unique dread, often facilitated by Treguard's ominous forebodings, as well as the spine-tingling music that would mark her approach.
Arguably one of the most tense, heart hammering obstacles in the entire show came in the forms of various floor puzzles, typically consisting of various tiles emblazoned with icons, colours, letters and/or numbers, which the dungeoneers would have to navigate precisely (usually with reference to a code learned earlier, if they were smart enough to procure it) whilst the floor either fell away or erupted with spikes. A variation on this became one of the show's most notorious “killers;” a corridor whose floor moved in the manner of a conveyor belt, shrieking buzz-saws hurtling towards the dungeoneer down the walls in precise patterns. In order to survive, they had to hurl themselves from wall to wall in anticipation of where the saws would appear, more often then not dying before a single one passed.
My Mother used to watch the show with me, and became as avid a fan as I myself was (and remain). I have particular memories of her sat on the edge of the sofa, screaming at the television: “NO! Go left! LEFT!” at a particular team who navigated their dungeoneer almost directly into the arms of waiting goblins. This was another aspect of the show that enhances it beyond almost any competition you care to name: that it can be watched and enjoyed through adult eyes: the horror, the tension; the occasional comedy and genuine difficulty of the show making it a genuine joy, regardless of age.
Speaking of the show's difficulty, one of the factors it became known for is that it is near impossible to beat: throughout its eight season run, there are barely ten winning teams, the vast majority undone by little more than an error of footing or judgement; the taking of wrong clue items or the misinterpretation of the show's many oblique directions. This is a show that did not patronise; that many adults would struggle to master, ensuring that those who did brave it and succeed could mark it as a genuine achievement.
Beyond the dungeon's many tricks and traps; the characters and monsters the dungeoneers had to navigate, were the opposition characters; the various witches, wizards and warlocks who would attempt to deliberately waylay or misdirect their quests (or, occasionally, provide ambiguous assistance to them). In the early seasons, said role was occupied by the dark wizard, Mogdred; a genuinely frightening character who could even affect Treguard (rendering him silent and even catatonic on more than one occasion). Mogdred would usually appear as a projection or shade of himself in the lower levels of the dungeon; a towering, pale-faced figure who would hiss threats and misdirections to the team, assault them with spells or attempt to frighten them into making errors. His appearance always accompanied by a strange, dull note, Mogdred is genuinely threatening, his presence alone more than enough to make dunegeoneer and advisors panic and make mistakes.
Later seasons would see the establishment of more entrenched nemeses: the cheesily (but appropriately) named Lord Fear, who could be spied upon by the use of “Spy Glasses” dotted about the levels to gain vital information (but at significant risk; it would only be so long before he noticed, resulting in some of the more genuinely fraught moments in the show). Whilst not as unambiguously threatening as Mogdred (Lord Fear tended towards a darkly sarcastic bent, making him faintly humorous, as well as threatening), he was certainly intimidating, and any team that eventually encountered him had to ensure they had the correct magic on their side, or fail at the final hurdle.
What Knightmare demonstrated above and beyond anything else is the untapped vitality of frightening, challenging material in children's media; that children enjoy the experience of being unsettled, distressed and shifted out of their comfort zones; that their media does not need to be consistently conciliatory, patronising or simplistic. The show garnered record views and numerous rewards throughout its eight year run, eventually being cancelled nor due to a lack of popularity or viewership, but because the then director of CITV wished to take children's media in general in a “new direction” (i.e. targeting the more lucrative, younger demographics at which toy franchises etc might be aimed).
Even now, the show maintains a significant foothold in the hearts and imaginations of many, remembered with extreme fondness, with consistent calls for it to return to our screens on one shape or form.
GEORGE DANIEL LEA