What it’s like being on The Crystal Maze
James R | On 16, Oct 2016
Tonight, for the first time in 21 years, a brand new episode of The Crystal Maze will be broadcast on UK television. It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long since the show was original on Channel 4, but easy to believe that it’s returned: after the revival of the programme as a live game earlier this year, it was only a matter of time before someone grabbed a camera and ran about the set filming people.
The people in question? Rio Ferdinand, Michelle Keegan, Jonnie Peacock, Sara Cox and Josh Widdicombe, with Stephen Merchant stepping into the presenting shoes of Richard O’Brien (and Ed Tudor Pole). They follow in the footsteps of more than 70,000 people, who have all ventured into The Crystal Maze’s new home in North London. (Thousands more are lining up – the event is sold out all the way into May 2017.)
Three months ago, one of those 70,000 was me, as I joined friends and fellow fans of the programme to take on the Physical, Mental, Mystery and Skill challenges peppered across the four familiar zones. The result was humiliating, exciting and amusing in equal measure – and it’s that same combination that kept the show’s fans running for five years back in the 1990s.
With the series absent from our airwaves for decades (apart from the endless repeats in the infinite time vortex that is Challenge TV), escape room games have emerged in real life to provide that buzz. Originating in Hungary and now spreading across London like creepy clown sightings, they work on one simple principle: there’s nothing like being locked in a room with other people and being forced to solve puzzles to get out. The only thing better? Watching other people fail at them.
Within minutes of our arrival at The Crystal Maze, surrounded by retro bomber jackets and talk of 90s classics such as Sister Sister and Fun House, we had a taste of that failure, as I sent my flatmate into a physical challenge involving a spider’s web and some bells. Three tinkles later and he was locked in faster than you could say “Where’s Mumsy?”. As team captain, I felt horrendously guilty. And secretly amused.
The games themselves are revived painstakingly from the original show. Some are new, but there are many you recognise, from totem poles and tessellation to stained glass windows and cannonballs transported via a giant hamster wheel. There’s even the one with the virtual maze that people outside the room have to guide the player through. (For those planning to visit the event in the future, Channel 4’s charity TV special will effectively be one big spoiler on how to solve the puzzles, but with the original show boasting 37 games in Season 1 and 40-something in the following seasons, and my team completing 14 at the new event in an hour, you won’t see everything on screen.)
Our guide to the maze – “Tex”, sporting a cowboy hat and a charming American accent – was nice enough not to mock us for our evident incompetence (we came fourth out of, erm, four in the finale), but he hurried us along between rooms, so we had enough time to get as many crystals as possible. For those who have just walked in, one crystal = five seconds in the dome to collect tokens at the end.
The geodesic dome is perfectly recreated by Artem, an FX company that has provided practical effects for films such as Ex Machina and Macbeth. They worked on the original show, returning with computers in 2016 to make sure the pieces fit together perfectly – and that the layout of the fans (now automatic, not manual) would spiral enough to produce a vortex that swirls the gold tokens around for people to collect. They did their job well: it’s fiendishly hard to grab those shiny bits of foil. My biggest achievement in the dome was getting elbowed in the face by one enthusiastic former friend.
But it’s not the painstakingly recreated dome that’s the best thing about the rebooted The Crystal Maze. Weirdly, the highlight is moving between the zones. The sets are brilliantly built, with no wobbly cardboard or badly-painted polystyrene in sight – unlike the original, they have to withstand people going in and out of them every single day, without gaps between seasons. But so, too, are the pathways that connect the Aztec, Industrial, Futuristic and Medieval zones. There’s no end to the set, where you walk down a grey corridor and say hi to Edward the janitor; the design extends to daunting ladders, flashy pods and sturdy stone steps. All it needs is the Crystal Maze theme tune and you’re off.
And that’s where the experience changes so much from the show of your childhood. In reality, the programme took two days to film each episode: one where the contestants would run through and do the games, then another run, where they would return and re-enact everything, so the cameramen could get all the shots they needed. Even the dome at the end would be repeated more than once, so the camera could go inside with them and jump around like an idiot with flailing elbows (I’m not bitter, honest).
So when you’re watching the programme in your living room, yelling at them for doing everything wrong – IT’S A MIRROR, YOU NEED TO ACTUALLY TAKE THE CRYSTAL, YOU BERK – and they cut to an ad break between zones, it doesn’t take them five minutes to move from one to the next. When you see them rushing to get to the Future zone, they’re probably not even sprinting down that corridor on the same day. The new Crystal Maze, however, fills in those breaks seamlessly. There’s no stopping for retakes or reaction shots. There’s no revisiting old failures for a close-up that highlights just how dumb you are. You’re done in an hour. That’s it. Which means that the Crystal Maze event is actually more like being on The Crystal Maze than the actual TV show.
The question, then, is what it’s like watching The Crystal Maze after being in The Crystal Maze. I’ll have to tune in at 9pm on Channel 4 to find that one out.