Crystal Maze:
start the fans

The 1990s hit TV show The Crystal Maze has been reinvented as a live experience in Manchester

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In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the midst of a full-blown 1990s revival. Power Rangers and Twin Peaks are back, while board-treading thespian Zac Efron starred in a big-screen reboot of Baywatch, providing him with an opportunity to show cinema-goers there’s more to him than just his abs (there’s also his pecs). But one of the most heartening comebacks of the decade has to be The Crystal Maze, the beloved game show recently revived by Channel 4.

After a 21 year absence, last year the show – which originally ran from 1990 to 1995 – reappeared as a live experience in London, allowing punters to live out their childhood fantasies of screaming “To the Aztec Zone!” Such has been its popularity that it’s spawned a Manchester version, which opened in April.

Which explains why I’m here at Old Granada Studios, in a cell, furiously scurrying on a human-sized hamster wheel, trying to liberate a crystal while four teammates bellow contradictory advice from windows at me. “Run left!” “No, no, RIGHT!” “That’s LEFT!” “FOR GOD’S SAKE, THE OTHER SIDE!” Even the ghost of Tony Wilson – who used to work in this building – is probably rolling his eyes contemptuously like lottery balls at my inept efforts.

It’s a ludicrously effective bonding exercise – and the way everybody wholeheartedly throws themselves into it, it probably has the power to break relationships. You could be thick as thieves with someone going in but, in a moment, you’re ready to toss your half of an Argos heart-shaped Forever Friends locket in their face while screaming: “And I want my bone marrow back too!”

For the uninitiated, The Crystal Maze entailed contestants traversing four themed zones – Aztec, Industrial, Medieval and Futuristic – undertaking various mental and physical challenges to win crystals. Each crystal earns you a valuable five seconds in the Crystal Dome – the grand finale set in a giant snowglobe-like structure where you have to grab as many gold tickets as possible while blasting fans send them swirling through the air. In its heyday, it was the most-watched show on Channel 4, pulling in up to six million viewers.

Inspired by the growing demand for interactive experiences such as escape games, entrepreneurial actor Tom Lionetti-Maguire, then out of work, and a few friends came up with the idea of constructing a real-life replica of The Crystal Maze, turning to Indiegogo to crowdfund their goal.

Teams work through zones towards a grand finale in the Crystal Dome

“We had no idea how it was going to go,” remembers the 29 year old. “But we hit £50k of our £500k target within the first half hour of going live. We were shellshocked. With the excitement, there was also trepidation because we had to do justice to people’s cherished memories of the original. We were on hallowed ground and couldn’t screw it up.”

The meticulously recreated experience couldn’t evoke the 1990s more accurately without Anthea Turner wandering in and exclaiming “I’m employable!” After donning swanky matching bomber jackets emblazoned with the programme’s logo, your team of up to eight members is ushered into an air-lock room where you’re shown a lo-fi tape of the decade’s touchstones – Sonic the Hedgehog, Tamagotchi, Spice Girls – alongside a compilation of original host Richard O’Brien’s most memorable moments. Then you’re introduced to your guide: an actor playing your maze master. In our case, it was an eccentric, ostensibly Polish master of ceremonies called Psychic Sergey who was so charmingly zany even Nigel Farage would be campaigning for EU freedom of movement upon encountering him.

Thankfully, it doesn’t sully your childhood memories. Walking into the sweltering Aztec Zone – festooned with tropical plants and brimming with sand – our squad (all children of the 1990s, despite what our Tinder profile ages may claim) sported the hit-the-jackpot expressions of Dracula entering a blood bank.

“We’ve had contestants who were on the original show come back and play it all teary-eyed, saying it brought back some incredible memories,” says Lionetti-Maguire.

The 26 games – which differ from those in London – have been devised in conjunction with series creator Malcolm Heyworth. They’re played individually while your teammates bombard you with useless instructions.

As the challenges vary in difficulty, you’ll remember all those times you scoffed at the TV screen at an estate agent from Teddington and feel retrospectively ashamed. Our tasks included diving into a giant cooking pot to find ingredients based on clues and firing tennis balls at Space Invader aliens like a remake of Independence Day starring Tim Henman. One minute you’re bobbing and weaving through Mission Impossible-style lasers (“Try limboing under them!” was one unhelpful suggestion), the next you’re beetling round in a mini-train collecting gold bars, while somebody heckles: “Southern Rail run a more reliable service than you!”

“There’s two reasons why this has worked,” reckons Lionetti-Maguire. “The first is that it allows people to be the star of the show. There’s a real appetite at the moment for immersive theatre where you get involved – it ends the disconnect between the audience and the show.

“The second is that it was a really fun show. It’s not just nostalgia. It was irreverent, tongue in cheek and very British in its humour. That’s why it’s loved still – because there aren’t many game shows these days that are self-mocking and silly. Something like Ninja Warrior is quite serious, whereas The Crystal Maze was bonkers and surreal.”

After amassing 11 crystals, it’s time for the fabled Crystal Dome. With the starting pistol of the catchphrase “Start the fans please!” fired, we’re flailing around in a geodesic dome, competing against other teams on the scoreboard. Unfortunately, we’re beaten by teams from Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and even a gaggle of purported swingers with the team name Crystal Is My Safe Word.

In London “one team came in and were all on LSD”, recalls Lionetti-Maguire. “They were licking the walls! We get all sorts coming through and that’s incredible because a lot of modern British theatre is tailored towards one demographic, which is affluent white people. I think that’s small-minded, lazy and going for bums on seats. That’s not what theatre should be.”

When Channel 4 commissioned 20 new hour-long episodes of the show, helmed by The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade – a series of celebrity specials are currently airing on Friday nights – the decision was met with unanimous praise. But why has a revival taken so long? Numerous attempts had been made to renew the show, yet these had been repeatedly been vetoed by Heyworth. “It’s been on an interesting journey,” says Lionetti-Maguire. “It was an incredibly popular game show in 1990, which is half a lifetime ago. Then we brought it back as a live experience, which paved the way for it to return as a TV show.”

As another team of maze-ransackers emerge with coat-hanger grins and deep in post-match analysis afterglow, Lionetti-Maguire says: “The best validation of what we’re doing is seeing people come out at the end and everybody has ecstatic, beaming smiles or they’re shouting at their mates. Regardless, everybody gets involved and it’s brilliant.”

He’s right. Despite the fact I’m terrible at working in a team, useless at puzzle solving and yet still compulsively competitive, within five minutes the endorphins are surging and I’m howling with so much uncynical laughter it’s as if they’ve pumped poppers through the air conditioning.

What are Lionetti-Maguire’s insider maze hacks for beginners? “I would just shout ‘Get the crystal!’ at the top of your voice. That’s the best thing to do – it gets results.”

Tickets for the live experience are priced from £45 each. For more information, visit The Crystal Maze airs Fridays, 9pm, Channel 4

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