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The Crystal Maze and “Modern Audiences”

Posted 19th July 2015

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So, that’s it – the Indiegogo for the “live immersive experience” of The Crystal Maze has closed, with an absolutely whopping £927,252 raised – a full 185% 85% over target.

If you haven’t heard of the project, this from the Indiegogo page sums it up:

“In the 90’s, The Crystal Maze, was one of the UK’s favourite television shows. Now we’re planning for it to return as a live immersive experience right in the heart of London!

You’ll get to play the maze just as contestants did on the original show – placing you at the centre of the action. What we really want, is for people to live the magic of the hit television programme for themselves.

We will be lovingly recreating the famous set just as it was on the original show. All four famous zones will be present; Aztec, Medieval, Industrial and Futuristic, not forgetting of course, The Crystal Dome!”

But the part I want to concentrate on is the following:

“Modern audiences want to do, not watch. In recent years, there has been a cultural shift towards entertainment that audiences can engage with in a more active way. More and more we are finding new audiences who want to experience, interact, and play as opposed to watch.”


The short answer to that:

The longer version? I’ll turn to a certain Mr. Chris Tarrant, from his book Millionaire Moments:

“David Briggs, for many years my producer at Capital Radio, is co-deviser of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? One crucial element to its success is what David terms ‘shoutability’. When we worked together on radio David dreamed up most of the competitions that I ran, and they all had people screaming abuse at the radio. They couldn’t believe that so-and-so contestant could be so dumb as to not know such-and-such an answer. David’s genius was to adapt this concept to TV – Millionaire possesses the ultimate ‘shoutability’ factor and in so many ways this is the key to its success. ‘Shoutability’ means the show is great family entertainment – it’s a chance for Dad to show off, Mum to scream her disagreement and the kids to be amazed at how intelligent their parents actually are or, just as often, how much brighter they are than their parents! ‘Shoutability’ also means that the game feels wonderfully inclusive. A fishing mate of mine, who left school very early and has a fairly menial job, says he loves Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? because it gives him a great sense of superiority. He says, ‘I may not be that bright, but I can’t believe how stupid some of those people in that chair are!’ Equally, of course, some of them are super-intelligent. But, whether bright or not-so-clever, every contestant knows that all around the country millions of people watching from the comfort of their living rooms are screaming at them, and they usually openly admit that they’ve done the same. They regularly tell me, ‘My family sent me here to put my money where my mouth is.'”

And if you want evidence of “shoutability” for The Crystal Maze… well, it’s not too hard to find:

“Modern audiences want to do, not watch” paints television as a passive medium. And it is anything but. Audiences didn’t just sit there in front of The Crystal Maze in a dull stupor. They were playing the game.

This, of course, applies to all kinds of television, not just game shows. Even the great Russell T. Davies starts falling into this trap – but catches himself just in time. From The Writer’s Tale:

“If you listen to Bryan Elsley, the co-creator and driving force behind Skins, talking about the future of drama and the need for a narrative for a young audience, he is absolutely fascinating – and maybe absolutely right. He did the most brilliant interview about this, maybe two or three years ago, I think for the Sunday Times. That interview was so memorable because it frightened me. It said that the people running TV now are of the generation that grew up with it – we know it, we know TV, its forms and potential – but for the generation coming up, those brought up not so much on TV but on video gaming and user content, etc, TV is archaic. Soon, Bryan said, we – meaning me and him, and all of us of a certain age – would be as redundant as the generation before us. It was a real call to arms, to say that new forms of storytelling were on their way. Maybe we won’t like it, but that change, that shift, will and must happen. (Will it? Aren’t certain rules about drama, about storytelling, as old as the hills? Aren’t their some truly fundamental needs that will never change?)”

It’s perhaps no surprise that it’s the bracketed section I agree with most. Of course forms of storytelling will change and adapt; but “video gaming and user content” implies a certain kind of storytelling which won’t suit everything. It’s not that some kinds are more important than others: they’re all important. And what’s especially important is not to paint traditional forms of storytelling as passive or outdated, and more interactive forms as inherently superior.

Just like The Crystal Maze, sitcoms and dramas are specifically designed to provoke a reaction. That’s kind of the entire point of them. And whether it’s yelling at a Crystal Maze contestant, in torment over Andy Murray, in agony over Bonnie’s alcohol relapse in Mom, or chortling at child murderers in EastEnders, absolutely none of it is passive – any more than immersive theatre like that created by Punchdrunk is. To say anything else is patronising to any audience, whether it’s 1990 or 2015.

And that is what worries me. The people behind this Crystal Maze project seem to have misunderstood one of the most important parts of the TV show. And, frankly, one of the most obvious. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the outcome. If you can get such a fundamental part of the TV show wrong, then what other horrors and misinterpretations of the show will be lying in wait for unsuspecting visitors?

Hey-ho. Hang on, what are you doing reading this article? That’s far too passive. People like to do, not read. You bloody idiot.

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Paul Hughes on 19 July 2015 @ 3pm

“All four famous zones” is wrong of course.

James Cluskey on 19 July 2015 @ 7pm

I hope they do a live immersive experience of Fort Boyard too. With real tigers that kill people. Modern audiences don’t want to see people get nearly eaten by tigers because they are scrabbling for gold, they want to nearly get eaten by tigers themselves.