For those of us inclined towards the fantastical, growing up in the 1980s and 1990s was a different world. With no internet to speak of, information was found instead in books and magazines, new discoveries made at a slower pace, browsing in video rental shops sometimes for hours - a pastime in its own right. Television - for this feature specifically children’s TV - was part of this too, and with significantly fewer channels than today, choices sometime came down to deciding between what was showing on BBC or ITV. A hugely popular show from that period was Knightmare, which broadcast on ITV.
A fantasy-themed adventure show, it used the same blue screen Chromakey technology as weather forecasts to create for viewers a world of dungeons, dangerous quests and strange characters. A team of four kids would try to complete those quests, one being placed in the dungeons with a helmet that left them sightless, guided by their three friends (hopefully) to victory or quite frequently to their doom. Overseeing the quest was the dungeon master Treguard and later on in the series’ run it introduced a villain in Lord Fear, making the quests a battle between good and evil.
All of this of course just screams ‘stage adaptation’ doesn’t it? No, perhaps not. But that’s what a few plucky young improvisors decided to do some years back. For each show the talented cast have an outline but then riff on crowd interactions to make it different every time. Knightmare Live has played around the country and at the Edinburgh Festival to rave reviews and happy audiences. The show follows the basic template of the TV series but does so in a fun, charming (and not-entirely-serious), deliberately lo-fi way. And this year Knightmare Live returns with shows at London’s Underbelly Festival and more to follow later in the year. Starburst went along to the first show at Southbank and sat down for a few words with Treguard himself, Paul Flannery.
STARBURST: You had the initial idea to do a stage version of Knightmare in the pub, where many a great concept is born. How did it then go from idea into reality?
Paul Flannery: It went through several iterations, from a technical standpoint, of either having two rooms where you have an audience watching what’s going on in another room, but that for me sort of betrayed everything that’s good about theatre. It’s about tying into that, finding the things that are good about Knightmare, that work and something that’s good for theatre. So having that live element, with things happening in front of you is much better. That led to the decision of “no, let’s just have everything in one room”. We watch the dungeoneer, we can see the team, we’re there with them. There’s nothing separate and then that opens up everything else, so instead of having CGI monsters you have massive puppets and you start getting into that sort of thing, which I really enjoy. All the sort of Jim Henson school of filmmaking.
In a strange way it’s going more old-school than the TV show in the ‘80s?
Yeah, in an odd way. Ideally in my mind I would absolutely dearly love to have the machine in Labyrinth, the drilling machine? With the little goblins all peddling on the back. That’s exactly what I want to see. You can see all the workings happening. You can see the goblins running around, putting props out because you can forgive so many imperfections. If this was a huge show, on Broadway or something, there would be transitions, curtains coming open and closed, there’d be lighting and huge props, huge sets. But we don’t have that so we get around that by having the team of goblins that are also the stage hands.
Did that fit in with the improvisation background that the main performers have, so concentrating more on that than having an organised, scripted experience?
Well, it was a script at first. It was a friend of mine, Tom Bell who first said “oh, it’s an improv show”. Before that I was writing vast swathes of script with speech trees and options of what people might say and where we’d go, which door leads to which room and you map out a whole dungeon and it becomes very complicated very quickly. And then Tom just went “oh it’s an improv show” and you have a character and you just play the ‘yes’ game and allow people to play out whatever’s going on in the scene.
Is that the point at which the crowd interaction element came into it or was that already there?
I think that was always going to happen. I think there’s a certain catharsis with the show where you remember shouting at the TV ‘I could do much better than that!’. That would naturally come out and I would never want to deny an audience or shush them or go ‘come on, you’re watching theatre’, so please just get involved and do shout out. They all want to help and if the goblins come on they all go nuts as well so it has led us to do more and more interaction, like where we’re getting them to decide what quest we’re having, what monster we’re going to have at the end and all that kind of thing. The more we can get the audience involved the better.
Knightmare is a cult show with a still strong, loyal following. How have they reacted? Have they got involved and supported you?
They’ve been incredible. Some of them run the Knightmare website and they’re incredibly supportive. They’ve been going since the internet was invented, basically. As soon as there were websites they made one and have kept that whole flame going. They’ve come down and played, they turn up to most of the shows, most of the iterations once a year they’ll come along. And I’m friends with a lot of them now, it’s really nice. So they’ve been really, really, really great. They helped us get in touch with some of the original actors and they’ve got such a bigger following than we have, again they really helped with getting the word out. It’s quite nice because for them they’ve been trying to keep alive the idea of this TV show that’s not been around for 25 years. Then all of a sudden there’s a new iteration of it and it’s happening and you can go and see Knightmare, it’s interesting.
Knightmare seems to fit in with the recent wave of ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia. What are your thoughts on how important that is to people today, of tapping into those times perceived perhaps as more innocent?
There’s a huge wave of nostalgia coming up in entertainment. People are looking back rather than looking forward but I think technology has changed, there’s been such significant changes since our generation were children from the ‘80s and ‘90s to now. Children that are here now they have internet from birth. I mean I couldn’t imagine just growing up and going ‘well, that’s a tablet, that’s just how that works’. Children now can never imagine being without that. It’s very strange. I think we’re very lucky in one respect in that I think the entertainment we had as children was quite sophisticated in some ways and so it’s worth looking back and worth a revisit with new eyes. And with the fresh tools at our disposal.
What’s next for Knightmare as well as the things you're doing like your own show (MMORPG). What sort of plans have you got for Knightmare, for the future and for yourself?
In the immediate future of Knightmare we’ve got two more shows here at the Southbank on the 28th of May and the 11th of June. In between that I’m going to be at the UK Games Expo doing Knightmare and my solo show, and then there’s Edinburgh. After that I’m assuming we’re going to do more of the same really. Hopefully just continue to do more, I’d really like that. My solo show again, it’s following a similar path because it’s a very similar audience. It’s a live D&D game but very, very improvised. So if you’ve never played D&D before it’s absolutely fine, we literally make up new rules. It’s really good fun. So, that’s going to go to Edinburgh, that’s going to go to the UK Games Expo as well. In between that I’m shooting another film.
Finally, after all of the effort put into setting it up and getting the good crowd reactions you had a great critical response to it when it premiered. How did that all feel when it started to get that positive reaction and word of mouth as well?
Yeah, the first Edinburgh was incredible, it’s a literal dream come true. I’d done a few Edinburgh's beforehand where I’d been on free Fringe where no one has known who I am, you’re just there doing a show and trying your thing. I’ve done another show where we went into a bigger theatre and paid a lot of money and then ended up losing a lot of money so I’ve seen both ends of the Edinburgh stick before Knightmare came along and then to have it sell out is incredible. It was weird at the time, because I think at that time I’d spent 12 weeks non-stop working on the show. I think I took one or two days off in 12 weeks and then did a month’s run at Edinburgh so I was in such a haze that when people were going ‘it’s sold out Paul, it’s a real success’ it took a couple of weeks at Edinburgh for that to sink in. I was just like, I don’t know how to interact with people and things anymore. Once I did, without wanting to put in hyperbole, it’s really defined my career in a sense. It’s given me such a great kicking off point.
Paul made Ghosts of Darkness recently with writer and director David Ryan Keith. Read our review here.
Knightmare Live plays the Underbelly Festival at Southbank in London on May 28th and June 11th and will play the Edinburgh festival later this year. You can find both Paul and Knightmare Live on Twitter.