The Crystal Maze And The Magic Of Richard O’Brien

Published on July 30th, 2011 in: Issues, My Dream Is On The Screen, Retrovirus, TV, We Miss The Nineties |

By Paul Casey

The Crystal Maze was a game show which aired on British television in the 1990s; for four of its six series it was presented by Richard O’Brien, who as you may know, wrote that grand love letter to Sci-Fi and B-movies, The Rocky Horror Show, as well as its film adaptation.

crystal maze

As host Reckless Rick, O’Brien guided a group of frustrated working stiffs through themed “zones”; the goal was to capture the titular crystals in order to win a trip to a B&B 30 minutes up the road (or something equally miserable). Each zone came with its share of mental, physical, skill, and mystery challenges. Reckless Rick ain’t here, I’m afraid, so I’m your guide. And if you’re smart, or very, very lucky, you will discover wonderful televisual prizes. GOGOGO!

The prizes were shoddy and the people were often quite stupid, but that was part of the fun [Please note: The sound quality is poor in this clip.—Ed.]. While it had the benefit of some nice set design and entertaining games, the real reason to watch was Richard O’Brien.

If I could select one human being to preserve in an ever-orbiting, and as of yet fictional space station, for his wit, for his humanity, and a voice that can find joy and wonder in absurd material that most would scoff at, I would select that well-dressed Englishman.

obrien crystal maze

In its way, The Crystal Maze was as appropriate a showcase for O’Brien’s talent as Rocky Horror. A mixture of lighthearted mockery, a disturbing runner about O’Brien’s “Mumsy,” and the feeling that he genuinely cared that the people on the show succeeded, made him an excellent Master of Ceremonies. His asides to the audience at home, as some poor hapless office worker with bad facial hair tried to work out a simple puzzle, would often involve a harmonica, or bird-call and a put-down of the ability of the bod inside. His enthusiasm and manic energy were infectious.

Reckless Rick is the greatest, most charismatic B-movie star to never star in B-movies. Had Ed Wood possessed a Richard O’Brien in the ’50s, Wood would have surely been the Grand Madam of Sci-Fi and Horror. O’Brien in a remake of Plan 9 From Outer Space would be a wondrous thing. When he left The Crystal Maze, to be replaced by Ed-Tudor-Pole (who, interestingly, had also played Riff Raff in a production of The Rocky Horror Show), he took the magic with him.

In a similar fashion to Dominic Diamond’s temporary exit from the other great Channel 4 show from the 1990s, GamesMaster, my pointy child eyes cared not for this usurper! In fairness to Ed though, he was not a bad host, and certainly nowhere near the horrendous levels of GamesMaster‘s later host, cockney guffbucket Dexter Fletcher.

crystal maze set

What seems unusual about The Crystal Maze now, is how detailed and elaborate the sets were. In the age of cheap CG being the standard on any children’s television show, looking at an early evening family production like The Crystal Maze, it is striking to see so much thought and care put into its design. The movement between zones—the cobwebs, the little rivers running through the sets, and rusted Sci-Fi machinery whirring—still give me glee.

From 1990-1993, Richard O’Brien managed to transform a good concept into something more. He was your genial guide, a fearless adventurer with a wink and a smile and a verbal knife in the back of those poor saps trying to get a toy car to pick up a crystal. His style and wit was sardonic, yet never exclusionary, and pointed, yet never bitter, all inexplicable in an early evening, bring-the-whole-family TV show.

The Crystal Maze‘s wide appeal was displayed every Christmas, when the show would record a special episode, replacing glum and dour adults with a team of children. Some of the show’s most joyous moments were found in these episodes, the children even more gifted in embracing the imaginative world that Rambunctious Ricky led them through. The thought of being locked in one of the hellish challenge rooms was a fear which I did not discard till I reached double digits.

Richard O’Brien is gifted with being unashamedly individual, one who is aware of his shortcomings, anxieties, and fears, yet feels that being true to yourself is the only recourse. The Crystal Maze was the beginning of my understanding of the talent and charisma of this man. From An Evening With Richard O’Brien in 2008, to his wonderfully open interview with The Times from 2009, he is someone who finds a way to express his talent and humanity, no matter the avenue. A look at the underrated semi-sequel to Rocky Horror, Shock Treatment, shows the same empathy for the loner and the outsider. Throughout O’Brien’s work, it is this to which people truly respond.

With O’Brien, every episode of The Crystal Maze became a John Waters movie in miniature. Twisted, sharp, and embracing the joys and absurdities of life in a leopard print jacket, he made me feel the spirit of “Don’t Dream It, Be It” long before I tried to explain why “Whatever Happened To Saturday Night?” is the greatest scene in musical history. When O’ Brien left The Crystal Maze, it lost its center: A man who truly understood the liberating force of imagination.

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