Before we start, we know.
We know that Richard O’Brien wasn’t just bloody brilliant in The Crystal Maze; he basically was The Crystal Maze.
He was hilarious, flamboyant and sarcastic, both exasperated with and yet celebratory of the contestants. He hopped around the zones in his leopard print coat and jazzy boots toting a harmonica and quickly became synonymous with the Channel 4 game show.
When O’Brien left in typically ‘understated’ fashion – on the back of a motorbike with Mumsy, speeding out of the Medieval zone on their way to California – we never thought the show would be the same again. And for two further series after Ed Tudor-Pole inherited the dome, it wasn’t (sorry, Ed).
But we’ve seen The Crystal Maze 2.0. We’ve watched two full episodes of new presenter Richard Ayoade, carrying a wooden hand on a stick and running around in gold lamé boots. And although it seems crazy – and also kind of wrong – to even type this, we genuinely think he could be better than Richard 1.0.
What was always so fantastic about the Rocky Horror legend’s style on The Crystal Maze was his irreverence; his ability to simultaneously help the mostly hapless, jumpsuit-clad contestants and yet also show them utter contempt. Somehow, Ayoade has cleverly been able to embody a lot of the qualities O’Brien had, and yet bring a completely innovative feel to the maze.
“A bit like Richard O’Brien, you can tell he’s warm and cares about the contestants, but at the same time he portrays this distanced character,” explains executive producer Neale Simpson, who shows us the wooden hand prop that Ayoade carries throughout the show.
“This is so they never touch him,” Simpson explains. “The contestants shake this hand and he does these high fives up top. He also uses it to accentuate movements, so he’ll point at people and various things when he’s running from zone to zone. It’s just very funny. We’ve had to build about 30 of them because he keeps breaking them on doors.”
Ayoade has come to the dome with fully-formed catchphrases and gimmicks, and has breathed new life into a 27-year-old game show. Although he still shouts “Start the fans, please!”, he reminds contestants when it’s an “ALIS” (that’s automatic lock-in situation, FYI) and runs from zone to zone stating that he is “not liable for injury…fast and safe, fast and safe”. He’s basically a more cerebral and intense version of The IT Crowd’s Maurice Moss.
Where Ayoade most comes into his own is his humour. His quick-witted retorts are laugh-out-loud hilarious. When David Coulthard is shouting “smash it, smash the glass” as he tries to help Steve Jones on a game during episode two, his dry response is “You’re not in Scotland now.”
Then there’s the time he’s trying to help Scarlett Moffatt. “Say what you see,” he prompts before turning to the camera. “That’s not an infringement on Catchphrase.”
He likens the Industrial zone to Shoreditch and when Joey Essex asks if Ayoade will be coming into the game with him, he replies, “Can I come in? What am I, your mum coming in for a check up?”
If the ‘civillian’ episodes are even half as compelling and funny as the two celebrity specials we’ve so far seen, Ayoade will very quickly become the Richard most iconically associated with The Crystal Maze.
The Crystal Maze: Celebrity Special airs on Friday June 23 at 9pm on Channel 4