After getting over the initial shock when we heard The Crystal Maze was being revamped with a new host, new games and new characters, we had one burning question: will it be the show we remember so fondly?
We spoke to executive producer Neale Simpson and set designer James Dillon to find out exactly what’s changed and what’s stayed the same in the new series.
The biggest and most obvious difference between old and new Crystal Maze is the presenter. Although Ed Tudor-Pole hosted the last two series in the 1990s, it’s Richard O’Brien who’s best remembered as the one shouting “Start the fans, please!” and darting about the zones. Now, actor and director Richard Ayoade has picked up the baton.
“When you see Ayoade’s his take on it, it’s the same knowing, acerbic sort of thing that you had from Richard O’Brien but slightly different way of coming at it,” explains producer Neale Simpson.
“Richard’s a sort of exaggerated version of himself being slightly stand-offish and officious. He has a clipboard so instead of doing that soft presenter chat you get he treats it like it’s a job interview when they’re going through the zones. He’s clearly on their side and wants them to win, but it’s a very funny theme going through the whole thing.”
Like O’Brien, Ayoade also brings a definitely style to the new series: “Richard O’Brien brought his own jacket when he did the original series,” says Simpson, who explains that a Saville Row designer has created five tailored suits for Ayoade.
The debate on whether to bring back the character of Mumsy proved to be something of a quandary for Simpson and his team.
“We wanted to have the spirit of Mumsy but have a fresh take on it, because Mumsy was a character that the team in 1990 came up with,” explains Simpson. “She was just a generic fortune teller and then O’Brien came up with all the back story and that felt like his creation.
“We had an idea at one point which was Mumsy’s head in a jar in the future,” he explains. “And then we just thought, ‘You know what – we’re over-thinking everything.”
That idea was (thankfully) shelved: “We’ve worked with Richard Ayoade in trying to bring in some new cameos with his own flavour, which is why we have Jessica Hynes doing this Knight character and comedian Adam Buxton as a head in a jar.
“They have such a great rapport,” Simpson says of Ayoade and Buxton. “It’s the same spirit, but it’s just executed differently.”
The new series has gone back to the programme’s roots when it comes to the zones. The original incarnation of The Crystal Maze featured the Aztec, Medieval, Industrial and Futuristic Zones, all of which have returned for this series.
The only difference is that the Futuristic Zone has been renamed as the far less clunky Future Zone. The Ocean Zone has been left sleeping with the fishes.
“Luckily I had a lot of the original drawings from the first series, stored in a dusty box in my attic,” says designer James Dillon. “So we were able to get those out and get them into production, which saved a lot of time and I suspect a lot of money as well.
“I tried to keep a very similar look because people are very familiar with that,” he adds. “But we’ve really reimagined the Future Zone, because nothing dates quite like the future.”
Similarly in the Aztec Zone, that amazing 60 foot-long river entrance from the original series had to be adapted due to space and budget constraints.
“But at the suggestion of producer Neil, we did put in a waterfall to use as an entrance on a passageway out of the zone.”
The skill, physical, mystery and mental games are all returning – as are the timed tasks and automatic lock ins (or “ALIS”, as Ayoade calls them).
However, none of the games from the original series are coming back.
“We have a games team who have designed over 60 brand new games for this series,” says Simpson, although he adds that the infamous wet log will be making a comeback.
“One of the things we had as part of our creative ambition was bringing the show back that you’ve seen before, but you don’t want to just start repeating things that everyone’s seen. You want to move it forward and do new things whilst not upsetting people.”
Of all the games we’ve seen in the episodes so far, there’s no risk of that. They still involve figuring out patterns, sequences, balancing bags of sand, avoiding lasers… basically all very, very similar to the fiendish puzzles of the original.
However, there are now actually fewer games per episode.
“We wanted teams to come out with an average of five to six crystals per show, so we play 10 games in our episodes,” says Simpson.
“And that’s not because we’ve stripped back the number of games per time; it’s that a commercial hour is shorter now than it was back in the day. They started out with 15 games per show – later series went down to about 13. Now we can only fit in about 10 along with the dome in time without losing lots of fun and bits with Richard.”
There’s also now subtle – but very effective – music that plays over the top of the games, something that was lacking in the original. “It adds a bit of value and jeopardy,” says Simpson.
The new series kicks off with a series of celebrity specials, but ‘civilians’ will be facing the maze later in the run.
Considering how rude the players could be to each other in the original series (screaming instructions through the hatches, getting irate when they couldn’t figure out a game, choosing to leave their teammates locked in instead of sacrificing a crystal to free them) it’s quite a shock to discover that the teams were comprised of complete strangers.
“They would meet for the first time the night before the show and have a dinner to get to know each other, and then they’d take part,” explains Simpson.
“We decided that we wanted to care about the team and get to know them a bit more than you did in the old shows. They all come with a team name and a backstory, and by casting them as a team we’ve been much more selective and we’ve had lots of interesting characters come through.”
Teams include an AC/DC tribute band, five people who became good friends while sitting on a jury for six months, an all-female football team, a group of deaf friends and a team featuring a contestant who also took part in the original show. In her 20s then, she’s in her 50s now.
This time round, the teams are smaller too. “Another change that we’ve made is that in the original series there were six players per team,” says Simpson. “Now they’re teams of five and it means every player gets to play two games each.”
Although it looks the same, the dome is no longer on an island – the water and drawbridge have gone.
“It’s now this incredible light show,” says Simpson as we’re shown a demonstration of amazing light patterns that can be programmed to make the dome look like it’s sparkling. “The entire frame is covered in intelligent LEDs.”
“We’ve tweaked the dome quite a lot,” says Dillon. “I think the dome looks really sensational now and I think this one now works very well indeed. We used the company that built the original dome and the company who did the fans were also involved in this. So we’ve got a continuity as well, which is nice for people who made the original show.”
And there’s a real treat in store for the Christmas special. “Instead of gold and silver tokens we’re going to put in snowflakes and the whole thing will look like a snowglobe.”
The Crystal Maze: Celebrity Specials start on Friday 23rd June at 9pm on Channel 4