The Crystal Maze: the best children’s programme ever made for adults

Remember Mumsy, the strange lady in the Medieval Zone who divined the future?

Hurray! The Crystal Maze is back on Channel 4. A mutation of a French format called Fort Boyard which featured philosophers with their shirts unbuttoned and children drinking wine (probably, I haven't watched Fort Boyard), it averaged four million viewers an episode when it aired from 1990 until 1995. Time will tell how it fares in these Eurosceptical times.

The premise was that a group of jump-suited enthusiasts were guided through four different zones, representing, if I understand them correctly, the four stages of historical development as laid out by Marx: “medieval”; “industrial”; “futuristic”; and “Aztec”.

The contestants were then incarcerated in themed cells until they completed physical, psychological or intellectual puzzle, "helped" by their bellowing team mates without, in exchange for much coveted crystals (much of the pyramidal, crystalline symbology of The Crystal Maze should be grist to the mill of contemporary conspiracy theorist).

It was all overseen by the dome-headed genius who created the Rocky Horror Picture Show – Richard O'Brien – who swanned about like a leopard-skin Buddhist, breaking the fourth wall with impunity well before it was deemed either hip or mentally healthy. He was the only regular cast member, if you didn't count Mumsy, the strange rambling lady who lived in the Medieval Zone, divining the future with Tarot cards (sadly, Theresa May wasn't available for the reboot).


It was the best children's programme ever made for adults (and I'm including House of Cards and True Detective in this) and it's back tonight for a series with a celebrity version in aid of Stand Up to Cancer (there was also a one-off episode helmed by Stephen Merchant last year).

Things have changed in the wider world since the Maze’s heyday. Famous people now include “reality stars”,something that didn’t exist in 1990 (we had a firmer grasp on reality then and so we all thought we were “reality stars” or, at least, “reality extras”).

The guests are frightened Strictly Come Dancer Ore Oduba, The Only Way is Essex star Lydia Bright, likeably nervous television presenter Alex Brooker, hyperactive dance-bunny Louie Spence, and Geordie Shore's bright and sparkly Vicky Pattison.

Brooker frets. Spence pirouettes excessively (“It’s almost as if he’s trying to get attention,” observes Ayoade). Pattison jovially endorses drinking games. As Ayoade notes, slightly wearily, “Society has accorded these people celebrity status.”

Yes, Richard O’Brien’s breed of genuinely unhinged eccentricity has given way to something more arch. Compared to O’Brien’s sartorial madness, Ayoade’s bright red suits seem almost bank-managerial. When O’Brien turned to the camera, to comment on contestants or to play harmonica, it felt a bit unhinged. But such post-modern riffing is a staple of light entertainment now, so when Richard Ayoade does it, it feels studied and detached (O’Brien originally started doing his asides to camera as a way to amuse the crew; they were never meant for broadcast, the loveable nut).

Luckily the games and sets, contrived by the original designer James Dillon, are as blissfully weird as ever and watching celebrities being confused by his highly involved Sisyphean puzzles is very enjoyable.

Here are some things you will see. Ayoade breathlessly ushering contestants from section to section clutching, for some reason, a metal hand on a stick; Pattison swinging from one planet-shaped pendulum to another adorned in kneepads and a helmet; Bright attempting to make sense of what looks like a large Rubix Cube; Brooker solving riddles for a grumpy man in a cowl; Spence paddling in a little boat across a flooded room in order to balance an oversized set of scales. These are all, as you’ve no doubt recognised, metaphors for the human condition. Who has not, in their way, been trapped in a crystal maze?

The programme ends, as always, with the weary contestants exchanging their hard-earned crystals for the privilege of being locked in a geodesic dome where they must scrabble for gold and silver tickets in a man-made blizzard. Yes, such is the lot of the worker in the era of late capitalism. It’s also, even if you missed that subtext, good clean, family fun.

“Now we’re talking,” says Louis Spence as they are led to their glittery doom.

“We were talking before,” says Ayoade, accurately. And so they were.