"WILL YOU START THE FANS, PLEASE?!"
I'm in an office in East London, trying to interview the team who are planning to bring back The Crystal Maze, but all I can hear – and all I'm caring about right now – is Richard O'Brien constantly shouting lines from the classic '90s show at the top of his voice upstairs.
"TO THE CRYSTALLLLLLLL DOMMMMMMMMEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"
If you don't remember The Crystal Maze – and here's a handy primer – it is, of course, the big-budget Channel 4 adventure game show in which contestants had to undertake challenges in four different zones to collect crystals. Those crystals earned them time in a dome where they would try to retrieve gold slips of paper.
Despite ending in 1995, the show has not been lost to memory thanks to repeats on Challenge TV, and endless videos uploaded to YouTube. And then, on Tuesday, a Twitter account appeared called @CrystalMazeHQ, promising that a real-life Crystal Maze was going to be constructed somewhere in London, and asking people to "register interest" on its website.
Well, good news: It wasn't a spoof. It wasn't an exaggeration. There are actual plans to launch a Crystal Maze in London, if the money can be found. And it has Richard O'Brien's blessing – hence why he's shouting at the top of his voice upstairs.
A company called Little Lion Productions, founded by Tom Lionetti-Maguire, wants to build a replica version of the show's famous set. "We have a space lined up in Kings Cross, which is perfect," says Dean Rodgers, the executive producer, who has been involved in similar projects like Time Run London, an "escape-the-room adventure".
When BuzzFeed News visits, O'Brien is recording a video that will be shown to all participants when they arrive at the site, as well as a promotional video that will be shown on the Indiegogo website to convince members to support the project via crowdfunding. During our initial conversation, we have to whisper, so that our voices aren't heard in the background.
The plan is to build all four zones featured in the first series (so this excludes the Ocean zone, which came later and would be near-impossible to build at this scale anyway), and the dome. Contestants will arrive with as a team and will see an introductory video presented by O'Brien in the Medieval zone. Then an actor will meet you and accompany you as you undertake challenges from the traditional four categories from the TV show: skill, physical, mental, or mystery.
The team estimate the cost at £500,000. "We've done all the costings and stuff for it, so the dome, the fans [in the dome]," says Ben Hodges, one of the team members, who's been involved in Secret Cinema, the immersive cinema experience. "That's the minimum we need to make it to a level that everyone would be happy with."
The plan is to use the early donations to put down a deposit on the site, with those who give a certain amount in the early ages getting to be the first to try the site out when it is fully constructed.
BuzzFeed's questions about how exactly it'll all work are drowned out by the sound of O'Brien playing a harmonica – loudly.
"He's also been playing the guitar all morning," says Hodges. "He just turned up at 8am." He's even in his famous Crystal Maze leopard-print coat.
"The authenticity is really important for us," says Rodgers. "It's really important that we deliver something that is as it was in the show, because otherwise you're not really delivering The Crystal Maze, are you?"
Of course, there are some slight differences to the original show. For one thing, there will be an onsite bar and viewing platform, where people who aren't participating can see you hopelessly fail at retrieving the crystals – and probably shout abuse. There will also be four different teams playing at once, one in each zone at a time, all going head-to-head in the dome at the end of the game.
The classic punishment of locking people into a room for failing at a game won't work either, because another team might want to try the challenge. Instead, there will be cells in each zone for challengers to stay in until they get released by their team captain.
"I did an immersive experience last year where people got locked in cells at certain points," says Rodgers. "And generally speaking, people love being locked away. People love being shouted at, and locked away, and feeling punished, especially if it is on their own fault."
To prove that it can all work – and to help drum up publicity and donations – the team have built a replica challenge that BuzzFeed is invited to try. All you can see is a giant box, with very little clue of what is inside: just a small hole in the wall through which a teammate (in this case my photographer Matt) can shout instructions like in the TV show.
The whole thing feels really quite bizarre and bewildering. "The two-minute game starts from when I open the door," Rodgers proudly announces.
I lunge into the room. There's a thick sand all over the floor and a crystal seems to be in a contraption at the other end. I stand on the sand and start moving to the other side of the room. Immediately Rodgers cries out from outside, telling me to leave the room.
"Go back, go back, go back! You can't stand on the sand! It's the first time that I've done this." I then leave the room.
"That's entirely my fault. This why we're hiring actors for this bit."
He repeats the instructions, this time mentioning that if I touch the sand I get an automatic lock-in, and then I try again.
The aim of the game, I quickly realise, is to lob rings from a bench over some bamboo, to start a chain reaction, and release a crystal. The first six attempts of throwing the ring totally miss. Matt is frustrated. So am I. For nearly two minutes, all that everyone hears is this:
"Oh bollocks. Oh god. Fuck. Why am I so bad? Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. Oh god, where is it? Where is it? Shit."
Then, at the last moment, a ring lands where it should and I receive the crystal. I immediately act like a child who's having the best goddamn birthday party ever.
Now that O'Brien has finished recording the promo video, I meet him upstairs. He explains that this project has been both from his blessing and that of Malcolm Heyworth, the producer who conceived the original Crystal Maze concept.
"I have no idea how this is going to finally work out. They do," he says, pointing to the team. "They've brought me out of retirement really. It's given me a new lease of life."
He's instantly nostalgic about the show. "The Crystal Maze was watched by 5 or 6 million people – the only programme of its kind to build its audience through the BBC's Nine O'Clock News. And I never knew anything about television, or the demographics, or all those sort of things. I never had any idea."
I ask him about why The Crystal Maze appears to still have a huge appeal, even though the show hasn't been on for the last 25 years.
"Channel 4 was given a remit when they were given a licence when they were supposed to live up to educational, entertaining, family … these boxes you're supposed to tick. Crystal Maze ticked all the boxes, whilst nowadays it's sex and violence and controversial stuff. And watching Big Brother. Big Brother… what the fuck is that about?"
He says that The Crystal Maze worked because he was able to build a relationship with the contestants in the run-up to them doing the challenge, which you just don't get with modern day game shows. "I used to spend time with the players the night before, listen to their jokes, tell them my jokes, and I used to spend all day with them. I wouldn't go and sit in my caravan; I stayed with them all day."
He says that doing this resulted in him being able to get away with stuff on screen. "By the time we were finished them I was able to go, 'You were dreadful, you were really dreadful,' and nobody minded because we spent so much time [together] … it was all very organic and I didn't know I was being done terse or being cross; I thought that was being the same as I would be with anybody."
He also talks affectionately about the letters he received back in the day, and imitated a child's voice writing a letter to him. "'Dear Richard O'Brien, I'm written [he interrupts the child's voice to say, "It was always a double T, always a double T from the kids"] to you because you're a cool dude,' and they used to think I used to get the crystals for some reason or another at the bottom of the garden."
So can The Crystal Maze work as an immersive experience, relying on public donations to get it off the ground?
"We have to give it the best possible chance to succeed," says Rodgers. "Our feeling is that the general public are really important to it as well, and that there is a healthy amount of people who want to see this happen and share our vision of re-creating as it was."
Whether it can raise the £500,000 required purely through crowdfunding is a big question. Would they raise enough money in time for the project to be a success? Only time will tell, but the possibility that we may all get the chance to step into the crystal dome is one that's bound to send a shiver of excitement through a whole generation of '90s kids.