A Man Walks Into a Bar… Tim Child

Hello Tim Child. Like most people of a certain age and persuasion, the biggest problem in life I had when I was 10-11 was trying to decide which I liked better out of Knightmare and The Crystal Maze. Although seeing I was a fully paid-up member of the Knightmare Adventurers’ Club and The Crystal Maze didn’t have one, that probably puts paid to that in retrospect. Which of the two shows do you think stands up better in today’s light?

I’m not sure I’m a good judge. To me, Crystal Maze is just a repackage of Fort Boyard (they’re actually and legally the same format). Knightmare is an interactive drama-based role-playing game. Crystal Maze is actually just a series of bought in logic puzzles from Games Workshop, played out in a huge set that went over-budget. It was originally supposed to be 30 minutes, but they had to make it an hour to amortise the set cost. The result is the show dynamics are false. Richard O Brien kept telling people to hurry when they had bags of time. Not an adventure game – just an obstacle course – but I’m glad you liked it.

Knightmare has been off our screens for 13 years now – cable repeats notwithstanding. Are you surprised that (other than yourself which we will get onto later) given what a huge success it was nobody seems to have tried anything that taps into a similar vein?

Not really. They’d have to be mad.

History suggests that one of the biggest influences on the show (with the wellways and lifeforce) was the old and brilliant Spectrum game Atic Atac. Did you prefer playing as the wizard, knight or the serf? It was a very difficult game, did you ever manage to complete it?

I played all of them. Loved the wells to change levels (which of course we nicked for Knightmare).

Did I complete it? Don’t be silly – I’m a gamer.

Let’s talk about lifeforce. The image of the knight with the helmet and skin peeling away is surely one of the show’s most iconic images. How many other ideas did you have before settling on that one? Given that is was added between the original Dungeon Doom pilot and the proper 30-minute pilot, how difficult was it to program on mid-80s computer machines?

The principle of the first life force clock was again borrowed from Atic Atac. There was no programming involved – it was just a linear cgi animation sequence. The Travelling Matte Company built it to my brief.

It looked great but the trouble is it was always too short and there were not enough frames in it to slow it down and make it longer. It also didn’t edit too well for Life refresh purposes.

In my research I watched a lot of episodes back to back and doing this there are certain things you notice that you don’t when you have a lot of time between viewings. Basically, is there any truth to the idea that teams were never going to run out of lifeforce through dithering, and you’d stick the decomposing face up in post-production to make picking up food more exciting than it actually is?

This is sort of true (and not). Life Force is really what we call a hurry-up, but starvation makes for a rather boring death, so if a team were really slow, we’d summon up a monster and kill them with that instead. After all: they deserved to die, and we gave them an interesting death instead?

In series 2 you came up with something brilliant that was to prove a Knightmare staple, monsters (such as the Automatum) chasing dithering dungeoneers. Was this meant as a one-off but which proved so effective it was worked into future adventures? What was the thinking behind it?

The automatum was really just a variant on Goblins, Frightnights, cavernwights etc. I’m glad you liked it, but I didn’t think it was visually quite good enough. It was also (like the Life Force) a linear animation sequence – so quite difficult and restricting to administer in a game.

[Brig's note - I think he's confused the Automatum with the Dreadnort here - the Automatum, the Mindless Mechanical Warrior - predates everything except the Cavernwights in terms of "coming to get the Dungeoneer"-ness.]

Originally you planned out the dungeon in its entirety for each team of adventures, before deciding to prepare individual levels with no crossover to be stacked up and used when neccessary, to make it easier for the actors.

One of the things I found quite interesting, both on the show and in Dave Morris’ books, was the idea that if there were no indications as to where to go, you should take the right hand path. Why was that then? Did you have a set of super-difficult rooms for teams that didn’t follow that advice?

God, we threw away a lot of good stuff in the first two series, before I clicked on how to do it! Its easy to laugh now, when the answer was so simple. The right-hand path is just good ‘n evil logic stuff. It was in their pre-game briefing (there was a written brief – The Rules of the Dungeon). If they forgot we’d usually chick them into a bomb room (Level
One) to scare them witless and sharpen them up. Level one was about making good teams better and identifying bad teams early. I don’t like wasting good adventures on poor teams, and the cast felt the same. ‘Kill them Tim’, they’d say to me in the corridor. ‘This lot are pathetic.’ Usually I’d give them one chance to improve, and then we’d move them into something difficult.

Given that you have to throw away material when a dungeoneer dies, you seemed rather fond in series five to work in a set-piece where the teams “play their joker” and have Motley come and save them. Unfortunately it took three attempts for it actually to come off as two teams died before it got to the point they needed to play it. Were there any set-pieces you were really annoyed you had to throw away?

Oh so many. Even after we made all Level twos and Threes standalone/transferable, there was still bags of wastage. This contrasted greatly with the programme action itself, where we only edited out an average of 5-7 per cent. This contrasted enormously with programmes like Crystal Maze, where occasionally (on report) more than half the gameplay wasn’t lost in the edited down, to make a decent programme.

In early series, teams tended to live or die on depending on their ability to answer riddles in order to be told the correct objects they need. Did you write the riddles yourself? How was it determined if a riddle was too difficult or too easy? There were a few occasions where as a 25 year-old I look at some of the riddles that weren’t got and think “goodness, that’s tough.”

I wrote all of Knightmare and devised all riddles. Its very hard to make them consistently easy or difficult, and so we would adjust by letting Treguard hint, as appropriate…

When it came to the riddles, Treguard prompted some of the teams. Was this personal niceness from Hugo Myatt, or were these hints written into his briefing?

Hugo won’t mind me telling you that all of his interjections and apparent adlibs were in fact scripted – although the timing was his. Hugo actually started off Knightmare treating it as just an acting role (which was fine by me), but later he got really into it, and we would consult on teams, likely happenings and indeed anything else. I could reach him via ear-piece with immediate instructions if and when necessary. I suppose it’s important to understand that in RPG or adventure games, the Dungeon Master is traditionally the one who calls the shots and delivers the game to the team.

I needed to be behind the scenes to control and manipulate events, and Hugo was my front man. So I suppose you could say that I was the real dungeon master.

You would have known that teams were on a hiding to nothing depending on the objects they had picked up, and also that there is a lot of downtime between rooms. Did the cast and yourself ever find it quite difficult to hide the fact that they were about to die from unsuspecting teams?

No this wasn’t a problem, but we’d sometimes let them do a few extra chambers, just to fatten out their adventures. We’d also curtail them as well. Also (and as we knew they were going to die and deservedly in the level), we sometimes engineered a more interesting death for them. This was similar to the slow teams we didn’t want to starve. That’s why some teams carrying the wrong objects, sometimes died even before they got to the point when they needed the correct one.

Can you remember back in series two, there was a character called Mildread who used to pretend to be one of the advisors and lure the dungeoneer towards her cooking pot. How did you do this? Did you record one of the advisors before the room and then just play it in?

Each new dungeoneer got a 5-10 minute practise session before Game ON. Sometimes when we knew imposters were to be used in the scenario, we sneakily recorded the dungeoneer and played him back into his own scene later. Sometimes we used one of the Goblins (very small dancers) in a spare helmet and roughly the same dress code.

Along similarish lines, in series three there were certain items and spells that replaced the dungeoneer with another character, like a star or a samurai, and swap back at will. We can’t work out how it was done, so how was it done?

You have to remember there were two blue dungeon sets side-by side, hust like two open ended shoe-boxes, but joined. We needed this for size distortion (giants, monsters, etc) To replace characters by spellcasting, all we had to do was cut between Void 1 and Void 2. Everything was on tap.

Moving on to more adventury series four, you say that you were no fan of the eyeshield. What was the dungeoneer doing when the advisors and team were looking through the eye-shield? Did you have to tell teams that there was no point asking them to “move left/right” and “hurry up” because it was a pre-recorded piece of film?

No we didn’t tell them anything like that, because it would have destroyed the suspension of belief. Very often the advisers did call out stop, go left, etc. But we just ignored them; and then edited down the sound track and shortened the linear walking sequence to make sense.

In series three you had computerised dwarf tunnels. In series six you had actual real tunnels. These seemed quite claustrophobic, were they built especially for the show or did you just dress up some of the corridors in the studio complex?

The dwarf tunnels were built specially for the show of fibre glass sections, Each about 15 feet long. The trouble is we could’nt put lights inside or we’d see them, so the GRP was semi transparent and lit from the outside. This really didn’t work for me because it didn’t look very atmospheric. We meant to try a smoke gun in them, but were worried about choking the dungeoneer!

Playing out over the credits of many episodes of series four seems to be some sort of tech demo, ending with the word “knightmare” flying out of a castle, in the same font that was used in the later title sequence. Was this therefore meant as a prototype for a new title sequence?

I don’t think so.

In later series the dungeoneer was given a new helmet, and with it the ability to see with certain spells. How did that work? Was it as simple as screens within the helmet?

We did expereiment with a VR style HUD (head up display) inside the helmet, but it was too fiddly and not very successful.

Your final innovation was Reach. That was just a man controlling a crosshair with a mouse wasn’t it?

Absolutely – but we also had a very clear view (much better than the audience), of the wand in the hand of the dungeoneer. If she/he didn’t respond as directed, the crosshair didn’t respond either. Not really cheating, and it gave us some good chambers.

One of the things I appreciate much more now watching it back than I did at the time was the quality of writing in the scripts in the later series (lots of the jokes went over my young head) and the ability of the cast to milk the comedy out of it (mainly Mark Knight, Rayner Bourton, Stephanie Hesp, with extra points for the underrated Hugo Myatt/David Learner/Jackie Sawris perm two from three two-hander). Did you have characters you enjoyed writing for more than others?

All the standalone drama scenes were great fun to write, especially as they generally involved Mark Knight. Paul [Valentine] was also especially fun to script as Sly Hands.

Did many teams come up with an idea you hadn’t legislated for? There was one team who were desperate to buy a spell from Julius Scaramonger and he sold them one that turned them into a goblin, which seemed rather spur of the moment.

Yes it did happen, but we were pretty well equipped for thinking on our feet. Usually I just through in a couple of extra chambers to make space and give us some planning time – and then we were ready to respond.

Foreign shows. I’ve seen the French show (Le Chevalier du Labyrinthe), and I’ve seen the Spanish show a couple of times on cable in the early nineties. You filmed a US pilot, Lords of the Game, what was that like? Was it like the continental versions with self-contained episodes and computers for a prize? Or was it more like our version?

Lords of the Game was a lot more like Knightmare, but in common with the French and Spanish variants, my distributors had convinced me that a US network would not stand for rolling game play. i.e. it had to be one game (one team) per show, win lose or draw. I hated this because it just put us on a par with things like Crystal Maze which I did not regard as true adventure gaming. Lords was quite good, but still non-satisfactory for that reason.

Let’s talk about some of your less documented work. The show you did that was closest to Knightmare in spirit was Timebusters, which I’m afraid I don’t remember very well. What was your aim with it? To take live-action role-playing out of computer generated dungeons? Was it a bit strange doing a show that didn’t revolve around computer graphics?

Yes – that was pretty much the aim. But again I couldn’t do rolling game play, so the game had to be played against the clock. This always introduces unwanted artificial elements. I began Timebusters with two teams competing against each other. We didn’t have enough cameras and microwave links to handle both at the same time, so they took turns.
Timebusters got much better Series 2, when we dropped to one team, but I think it always suffered from my attempts ‘NOT to make it like Knightmare’.

Timebusters did however give us some superbly exciting interactive sequences, and for the players, it was genuinely scary. The BBC took it off after series 3, just as it was getting really good. It was also great to be able to use Mark, Paul and so many of the others in Timebusters. Even David Learner (once!).

For our friends at UKGameshows.com who can’t remember, what was the name of the bus?

BUSTER.

Cyberzone. I understand you flirted with 3D computer generated environments with The Satelitte Game, which I’m afraid neither I or anyone I know has actually watched. The general concensus is that even by 1993 computers weren’t good enough to create the graphics neccessary for quality broadcast – the framerate for the Sewers of Goth around the same time was far from impressive. Did you think objections about this sort of thing would have been overcome with a solid format?

CYBERZONE really wasn’t bad – a second series would have really explored VR. But Janet Street Porter commissioned it, and she lost her job, so the BBC cancelled all her projects. That’s Life. Graphically and in realtime rendering terms we just didn’t have enough grunt. We were using Superscape VRT again. We’d used it in the Satellite Game on a few sequences. It was better, but still not good enough. When we used it for the 3rd time in Virtually Impossible, it almost did the trick. The trouble was the Supercape VRT wasn’t a true games engine, and boasted a software renderer without the push of hardware acceleration. Its failure was one of the reasons why Broadsword/Televirtual embarked on
developing our own engine.

In Knightmare all animation was passive/frame rendered. No realtime except the Brollachan, which was run by a giant SGI machine using Vactor (virtual Actor) software.
We ran sequence like the Sewers of Goth from a big Pioneer professional laserplayer, but sometime we had to slo-mo it, so the frame rate dropped off, and it subsequently suffered.

You’re on record as saying you’re not fond of Virtually Impossible. Why not?

Too many teething troubles spoilt it. It was very ambitious technically and thus very difficult to get right first time. Also I felt badly let down by my third party software supplier.

The Sword of The Sorceror sounded very interesting, seeing as you were calling it Knightmare‘s spiritual successor. The claim was that it wasn’t really a gameshow, more of an interactive drama with kids advising actors what to do in the fictional world of Himallia. It didn’t get a commission, but how far were you in the planning process? Was a pilot made?

No.

And then it’s the next milennium and we’re seeing a trailer for Timegate which looked super-excellent. And then it was seemingly dropped. How much work had gone into it?

You have to understand that funding the development for ambitious new fantasy shows is enomrously expensive and very high risk. We went as far as we could go with both TimeGate and Knighmare VR. Both failed to demonstrate full potential because you’d have to do full pilots for both. We could only afford trailers. We spent about £20k on Timegate and £40k on KMVR. After that we waited to see if a broadcaster would pick up and fund. They didn’t.

And finally, the one they’ve all been waiting for, Knightmare VR. For me it was a massive disapointment (our review of the promo is well documented here), yet you’ve said that technology is now good enough to do what you want to do. Despite this, we’ve read since it was made that if you were going to make Knightmare, it would be with chroma-key again. What did you think that going full-VR would have bought to the Knightmare table?

I think it would work best combining the best of the old and the new. Virtual scenes and virtual monsters, but real dungeoneers and bring back the blindfold. But someone’s still got to want to show it.

Given the success of medieval-fantasy game Raven on Children’s BBC over the last five years, and given that you once again have the rights to do with Knightmare what you will, do you think Knightmare has a future twenty years on?

I don’t think Raven does much for the fantasy gameshow genre, but the BBC (unlike ITV) are very loyal to their formats.

Thanks Tim!

This interview took place in 2007. The following comments were left in the comment box:

Dave – Show 56:
Gotta give credit where it’s due here. Loved the interview with the man behind the greatest ever kids gameshow.

As a kid, i would religiously watch Knightmare. I adored it. I loved catching the old repeats too and thinking “god aren’t those kids posh!”

Great interview! Keep up the amazing work!

James:
Wonderful interview!

Iwatched the first episode when it was originaly shown nearly 20 years ago.

It’s sill my favourite show!

Michael:
Good interview, but the ‘I was the real dungeon master’ bit and his obvious sour-grapes over the Crystal Maze made him sound like a bit of a twat.

Julie:
Agree with Michael, he didn’t come across very well, although well interviewed

John:
Can’t quite get hsi problem with the crystal maze. both were great he sounds like bit of a chip on his shoulder.

4 Comments

  1. Gizensha says:

    Belated reply to John, Michael and Julie – While the way I remembered reading the interview indicated extreme bitterness towards TCM, rereading it it sounds like he’s simply fed up of Knightmare being compared to a show which, to his mind, is in a very different genre.

  2. JamesW says:

    Even more belated reply, based on everything said here, Tim was clearly on the inside track vis a vis the pilot (which was exactly as he described). I can’t help feeling though that there’s a bit of “If Challenge were repeating my show every day, I’d get the cult recognition”, which is completely true of course. Interestingly Challenge have tried to renew rights for a long time, including pushing for them this summer holiday just gone, but it never works out for some reason (related to Televirtual’s woes, or ITV just being a bit gittish?)

  3. Velvet Android says:

    Interesting what you say about Challenge, James – have loved seeing repeats of great shows like The Crystal Maze (ironically, in light of the above) and Interceptor on there of late, but think I was out of the country back when Knightmare was being shown on the channel. Would be brilliant to see some episodes again now that I’ve just spent some time reading up on it in excellent articles like this interview. That said, I don’t think KM is lacking in cult recognition even if it is off our screens!

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