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Enter, Stranger – Darran Anderson On Kids' TV Show Knightmare
Darran Anderson , October 12th, 2020 08:53

In the second of our subscriber-exclusive Low Culture essays, author Darran Anderson talks about the fantasy show that created a semi-magic-realist escape from a childhood in Derry during the Troubles

“Where am I? What does that mean, ‘the world’? What does that word mean? Who has tricked me into this entire affair and now leaves me standing here? Who am I? How did I come into the world? Why wasn’t I consulted? … Is there no manager? To whom I shall direct my complaint? … Will no one answer?”
Søren Kierkegaard

“Where am I?”
Every Knightmare dungeoneer

It took courage to be a nerd where I grew up, courage I did not possess. In those days, to speak publicly of Bilbo Baggins was to invite bodily harm. A larger city would likely have afforded the safety in numbers that a community of fellow nerds might bring. In smaller cities like mine, you either went rōnin or you kept your interests to yourself. It was also an age of scarcity, where Japan felt like the other side of another planet, and comic books, albums and films from the US were talked about in legendary, cornucopian terms, given the ocean between us and them.

Before the internet, in Derry, a working-class part of the already peripheral province of Northern Ireland, a ‘country’ that no one living there, or anywhere, had really wanted upon its invention, we were well and truly islanded. Given that our little disputed corner of the United Kingdom and Ireland was undertaking an extremely convincing impersonation of a police state, culture from elsewhere, anywhere but there, took on near-samizdat qualities and importance. You discovered and hoarded it, or passed it around furtively, lest it be lost forever. It had real weight and currency. It felt not only that it belonged to you but that you belonged to it. And, because of this, it felt genuinely sacred, in a land of spoiled relics.

Publicly, I was the kind of horrible little bastard who loved nothing more than the sound of smashing glass, the sudden gallop of flame through a field of gorse or being chased down alleyways and across rooftops by the RUC/ army/ caretakers/ security guards/ hoods/ dogs/ fireworks and so on. Privately though, in my head, I was always halfway inside a semi-magic-realist world, holographically transposed on to the austerity of the surroundings, a view brought on by excessive reading and tacitly encouraged by my parents, who were hippies.

Enchanted by the maps at the start of fantasy books in the local library - housed in the basement of a former Presbyterian church, which was rumoured to be slowly capsizing - I began to secretly create my own maps of my neighbourhood, charting forbidden areas of treasure and trespass amidst the derelict houses, brutalist flats and waste ground, perhaps in an effort to understand a place that seemed both unreal and too real. I took great care for these never to be found by my fellow hyenas. Maybe now, looking back, they did the same.

There was one place where these underground attractions to the fantastical somehow breached the mainstream. Bookended by adverts and inane kids’-TV zaniness, there was half an hour of the week that was truly weird. It moved at a different pace and seemed to belong to an entirely different medium. Other children’s shows were like tiny, colourful, hyperactive fish in an aquarium briefly parting to show a glimpse of the kraken that was Knightmare.

The game show was dark, strange and occasionally frightening (bearing in mind I was in primary school when I started watching it). It seemed to encapsulate so many of the fragments and fixations I was slowly piecing together, not just in terms of escapist literature but actual history. Looking back, we often construct the pasts we wanted to inhabit, not by lying necessarily, but selective editing – some trimming here, some exaggerating there.

When I think of the 1980s now, it is like walking through a hall filled with veils: on each is projected a version that is not untrue but is nevertheless distorting. There’s the neon 80s, with cyberpunks dancing to synth music on the dancefloor of Tech Noir. Then there’s the black-and-white Joy Division 80s, ponderous and melancholic, all overcoats and cigarettes and concrete overpasses. Then there’s the Miami Vice 80s, and so on. Recalling what actually dominated that era culturally, on terrestrial television at least, is like revisiting a debilitating childhood illness or the memories of taking your first playground hiding. It has the feverish qualities of an actual nightmare - gormless synchronised boy bands, shrieking puppets, crazed daytime television presenters, and the football results delivered in a desultory voice, preceded by the killings for that day.

Reprieves were fleeting, but there were odd and riveting kids shows - Children Of The Stones, The Tripods, Moondial, Chocky - that might instil a propensity in adulthood for reading weird fiction and a magnetic attraction to places like Suffolk (our equivalent in the north of Ireland was and remains Donegal). These were often, however, either irregularly scheduled, hit-and-miss in terms of quality (Doctor Who being a prime example), or seemed to have momentarily, miraculously slipped past the guards and were then promptly discovered and removed. Knightmare remained, by contrast, a refuge that you could look forward to each week. A half-hour as warped as reality, as coldly reassuring as an echo in the dark.

The author, holding the 2000AD Special, and his sister, 1989

Most weekdays, I used to spend an hour, sometimes even two, walking slowly home from school, with a straggle of friends, knowing my parents would still be at work and revelling in the freedom, which was another word for misadventure. We’d climb trees in the grounds of an old infirmary, occasionally trying to find the tunnels that we’d been told - accurately it seems - ran from there to what had once been an asylum nearby. Another destination was a square of walled-in tarmac wasteland, next to the station where the firefighters kept old, wrecked cars to practise on, putting out fires and extracting mannequins with the jaws of life. When no firemen were around, we’d spend hours letting on to drive or trashing what was left of the vehicles. It felt cathartic in an inarticulate way. The one day I didn’t go exploring, and instead hurried back, was the day of the week that Knightmare aired.

The premise was simple but ingenious. A team guided their friend, with verbal instructions and a kind of electronic scrying mirror, deeper and deeper into the dungeons of a castle, meeting all kinds of creatures and challenges along the way. They were assisted by an enigmatic dungeon master, a knight called Treguard (played with relish by Hugo Myatt). The lead ‘dungeoneer’ wore a ‘helmet of justice’, which ‘blinds you to the way ahead’. This was designed to shield the dungeoneer from the fact that he or she was entering the same room repeatedly.

The creator of Knightmare, Tim Child, had wanted to take some of the otherworldly elements of the computer games of the time and develop them for television. Those of us who’d grown up on the glorious but relatively limited Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum were gradually becoming aware of the newly emerging immersive worlds of the point-and-click adventures on the Amiga and early PCs. Child’s inspired move was to realise how this might be achieved on the small screen, namely by adapting the technology of weather forecasting. Instead of standing ‘in front’ of a map with incoming weather fronts, the player could be superimposed into a fantasy world. These would be painted evocatively by David Rowe. The restrictions of this approach would become one of Knightmare’s greatest strengths – the scenes were minimalist and mysterious enough to allow the childhood imagination to wander.

Looking at the backdrops now, it’s striking how atmospheric they are, precisely because shadows and emptiness are allowed to exist within them, whereas so much visual culture today assumes we can’t go three seconds without being bombarded with CGI or we’ll lose interest. Instead, these scenes, and the viewers, are allowed to breathe, even if it is the air of an ancient crypt. The scenes are all bathed in light and an eerie stillness more akin to a Caspar David Friedrich or Arnold Böcklin painting than a kids’ show that existed in the same era as Grange Hill and Byker Grove.

Watching today, via grainy episodes on YouTube, it might be difficult to recognise how captivating Knightmare was at the time. Much as, in the great Carl Sagan’s words, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe,” to understand why the escapism of Knightmare was so welcome and convincing, you’d first need to rebuild the 1980s. This would take a great deal of destruction and dereliction, perhaps even a Threads-level intervention. As an adult, you can see how they made the series, the amateurish, pantomime sides to it, the rusty mechanics. You notice the actors having fun hamming it up. You realise how ludicrously makeshift certain scenes were that once set your heart racing (rooms with giant fizzing bombs for instance). You see the tropes a mile away - the impetuous queen, the bumbling wizard and so on. There’s a certain schadenfreude in watching precocious children being undone by the old ‘Take a step to the left. No, the other left!’ pitfall. There is a charm, though, to the production, partly because it knows how inventively ramshackle it is, partly because it is has an affectionate irreverence for its source material (its Tolkienesque qualities come not piously but with a Pratchett-style slant), and partly because, in today’s world where nerd-dom is a husk being drained dry by mainstream corporations that care little for it, it has an endearing innocence.

Why has this particular show come back into my mind at this particular time, when I am more like Limmy’s “Kill jester” caller than the naive child I once was? One reason is that I’m now a father and you inevitably reflect comparatively on your own childhood, especially when your child assumes you lived in a time when the internet was made out of wood and television was steam-powered. Another reason is the marked feeling of the uncanny these days. Reading Mark Fisher’s The Weird And The Eerie at the time of publication, it felt like a distant phenomenon. This year, it feels inescapable. You reach for cultural touchstones to articulate how it feels, but it can only be approximate. What is it like to walk through the central streets, usually teeming, of a metropolis of ten million people and pass not a single person? A John Wyndham novel? The start of 28 Days Later? That line from True Detective, “This place is like somebody's memory of a town, and the memory is fading”?

Instead, it feels like that period in youth when you did not know the parameters of reality and were continually being surprised and imbalanced; a state we revisit in dreams and nightmares. With the mental fog and physical fatigue that came with Covid-19 and its long aftermath, this feeling of the uncanny exists not only out in the streets but within once-familiar rooms. Without the connection to friends and the routine patterns of lifestyle and work, the world feels at once claustrophobic and agoraphobic, like a Hitchcock zoom that has gone on for months. The last time I remember feeling this way was back then, as a boy, with the Troubles raging and the world barely known yet encroaching. And rushing home to escape for half an hour a week into a netherworld that confirmed the strangeness of the actual world, when every other media outlet denied it and acted as if everything was fine.

The author wearing an Aliens T-shirt, 1993

It took me a little while to locate where the eeriness that permeates Knightmare comes from. There were elements of the supernatural throughout, though they are less convincing than they once were. The creepy moments when a ‘manifestation’ appeared or Lord Fear sensed the presence of an audience (an interaction reminiscent of another haunted video relic of the 80s - Atmosfear) no longer feel like someone walking over your grave. The true source of unease was much more permanent. It was in the dwindling life-force avatar that appeared when the dungeoneer stayed in a room too long. This was not like scattering coins or running out of air in Sonic The Hedgehog. No, this was like staring into the eyes of death itself. It took the form of an ancient androgynous warrior. Gradually, the armour began to peel off, then the skin, then the muscle, then the bone, until only the eyes were left and then they too were gone, spinning into the infinite void. It may have been the first memento mori I encountered, at least outside of church, and its innocuous setting, between adverts for Fisher-Price and Frosties, made it all the more shocking. On one channel, there were the extracurricular do-gooders of Blue Peter. On the other, a spectral presence, straight out of some Jacobean delirium, reminding you there was a skull under your face and one day there’d no longer even be a face, while a sinister lonesome bell tolled in the background, and you’re sitting there, paralysed with fear, trying to somehow absorb that thought and knowing you never really will, and suddenly your mum pops her head around the door to ask if you’d like crispy pancakes or fish fingers with your potato waffles?

The otherworldliness of death came to the fore in Knightmare in ways, unsurprisingly, unlike other children’s shows. “Though he perished in the dungeon, he has survived in the reality you call your time,” is a sentiment I have carried with me for decades. It was a quality that was discomfiting and irresistible to a young, already mortality-fixated child. Knightmare certainly passed HP Lovecraft’s criteria set out in ‘Supernatural Horror In Literature’: “The one test of the really weird is simply this – whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” One of the lessons of Lovecraft and other supernatural writers like MR James is not only to be afraid of the unknown, but to be wary of even exploring, hubristically, towards the margins of the known. Knightmare has other, less despairing or conservative, lessons to teach. It had, after all, at its heart the spirit of an Arthurian quest.

Childhood is formative, of course. It shapes the way we perceive the world and the people we become. Without weighing too heavily on the importance of a children’s show from 30 years ago, it is almost certainly the case that the things we gravitated to back then led us to other, deeper things. Seeds are planted and they grow, whether we want them to or not.

The first lesson that Knightmare seemed to offer was an awareness that the present, and to an extent the future, is constructed from the wreckage of the past. We all do this, whether we treat heritage like a sacred reliquary or a scrapyard to be pilfered from and reconstituted for our own purposes. In architecture, the practise is called spolia. Old buildings or even ruins are ransacked in order to obtain materials to build ‘new’ structures. Sometimes, there is a degree of venom and vandalism to this act (there is evidence across Britain of Henry the 8th’s dissolution of the monasteries in the very stones that built certain markets towns and villages) but often it was a question of practicality. Knightmare was a work of spolia. For all the then cutting-edge technology it employed, it was a mosaic of archaic forms, myths and legends, historical events and fiction, all broken up like potsherds but each memorable and meaningful in terms of connecting back to earlier eras.

The most immediate sources it took inspiration from were table-top RPGs, like Dungeons And Dragons, and dungeon-crawling video games, and through them fantasy epics like Lord Of The Rings, The Once And Future King and Gormenghast, which in turn had been been born from the tales, and spolia, of long-lost ages - dead languages, snippets of folklore, passages from arcane manuscripts. Palimpsests upon which countless texts have been written. Copies of copies of copies, each time changing as well as retaining. Following the characters of Knightmare back to their probable sources becomes an ever-branching series of routes. You might trace a character back to Shakespeare or Rabelais, Chaucer or Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur, but given those writers were in turn inspired by numerous earlier sources, the trail begins to multiply and, at the same time, fade.

Some of the characters are more recognisable than others – Merlin, Friar Tuck-esque monks, Sinbad-like galleon sailors – but others are intriguingly veiled. Speculating back through history is a welcome distraction in these dim landlocked days. The name of the chasm-guarding sorceress Lilith, for example, goes back to the first wife of Adam in Hebrew mythology and biblical apocrypha who, showing too much independence of spirit according to some accounts, went out into the wilds, communed with the beasts and gave birth to untold demons of the night. Where do the foul-tempered wall monsters and their riddles come from? Perhaps they were inspired by gargoyles or the Green Man or liminal deities like Janus that people once professed to believe in, or maybe they originated further afield, with Oedipus meeting the Sphinx or the nurikabe wall spirits of Japan.

The Author and his Mother at the Rossville Flats, Derry in the mid-80s

For a series that seemed so sparse, the impact of Knightmare was cumulative. The dungeoneers, and the viewers, may have moved through cold desolate rooms, but their journeys were abundant with the detritus of the past (and its lost entities) – court jesters, Vikings, shape-shifting pookas, tavern monks, vengeful wraiths, Charon-like boatmen, feline Egyptian tombs, dragons and gold-mining dwarfs, astrolabes and alchemy, heraldry and magic spells. There were references to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, dreadnoughts, Excalibur, the betrayal of the Glencoe massacre, the myth of Atlantis. Real places eventually made appearances as settings – Framlingham Castle, the Alcázar of Segovia, Castell Coch, the Palacio de los Condes de Miranda, Bodiam Castle and so on.

An example of Knightmare’s use of history as a scrapyard is evident in its shifting environments. One minute, the dungeoneer is in a vacant banquet hall, the next they are in a corridor where the floor tiles are collapsing into the void or scythes are swinging towards them. Here we find ourselves in a late-modern adaptation of gothic horror, itself a romantic movement that began when the medieval world it represented had been supplanted (if it ever really existed, entirely, to begin with). Again, a copy of a copy of perhaps a forgery. And yet these elements, however fictitious they were, gained an aura with the passage of time, like moss growing on an architectural folly. Even Knightmare, from an age before the internet, smartphones or convincing CGI, is beginning to seem antiquated now, taking on a digital patina.

It’s hard to say if a book or a film or a TV show really changed your life, as we tend to claim in order to retrospectively make sense of our lives and justify our directions. I’ve repeatedly asked myself why I’ve been working on a likely unpublishable long-term project called The Architecture Of Tyranny, which has meant visiting buildings where man’s inhumanity to man was enacted in ways we can scarcely envisage and retain our peace of mind. Maybe it began with that medieval conception of spatial horror – the images of portcullis, oubliettes, murder-holes. Or maybe it didn’t begin anywhere but is just a morbid leaning I have always had. I could credit, or blame, Knightmare for my obsessions with things like Dante’s Inferno, Hieronymus Bosch, Piranesi, visiting places with names like the Iron Gates and the Devil’s Bridge or having a favourite book (Brewer’s Dictionary Of Phrase And Fable) that few would consider readable, let alone admit to. Yet for all the undoubted nerdery of such pursuits, I did not have the commitment to delve further into fantasy because even then, as a boy, I could see the danger and temptation of getting lost in a semi-fictional world. I knew this, not because of encounters with role-players or Inklings (and I felt a kind of longing for such communities), but paradoxically because of the real world that existed outside of Knightmare. The world that existed when you left that little room in Derry and went outside. Or the world you encountered when you simply left the television on and waited for the news reports that followed.

You’ll no doubt already know Plato’s, or rather Socrates’, allegory of the cave. Prisoners are shackled within a cavern for as long as they can remember and the entire world for them is a series of shadows thrown onto a wall in front of them by an unseen fire and an unseen procession of figures holding different objects. Now, imagine a prisoner was able to escape. The implications of this thought experiment are endless, but let’s consider it in a basic way - that little boy watching the television. He watched the news and believed it wholeheartedly. He did not yet know that our government was colluding with death squads to murder people like his parents, or that they’d arrested, beaten, tortured and imprisoned young men and women in his family and neighbourhood, some without trial, or that they’d covered up the massacres of civilians who had been protesting for their civil rights and then were defamed in death as terrorists, or that the courts, the newspapers and good old Auntie Beeb had effectively helped them cover their tracks. Instead, his head was filled with the shadows they’d thrown, all the civilised and civilising cultural iconography the BBC and ITV and the national curriculum and Fleet Street could muster. Gradually, through grim experience, he found himself exiting that cave, which was progress of sorts. And for a long time he cursed that earlier place, basking in righteous, rebellious indignation, thinking he was out, until he began to realise that it was possible to escape one cave and simply enter another, one that might be more spacious perhaps, where we might create the shadows rather than simply watch them, but another cave, even an entire system of caves, nonetheless.

In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus claims that history “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. Growing up in Northern Ireland, it was a sentiment that resonated intensely. We were surrounded by the past and saturated with it. It was there in the bonfires and painted kerbstones and gable walls. There were dates marking glorious revolutions and even more glorious defeats – 1916, 1798, 1690 – that were cherished like precious stones in the pockets of a drowning man. History was less a feeling of standing on some mountainous peak of progress than of being enveloped within a collapsing scrapyard of precious junk and trying to carve out an air pocket to call your own. Naturally, like Plato’s cave, escape was paramount, but escape to where?

The temptation of other beliefs and worldviews – in other words, other caves – was overwhelming. We began to counter the silencing and lies of victor’s history with our own mythologies of saints and martyrs, heroes and villains (the first innocent steps in abstracting human lives), just as we fought fire with fire, tit with tat, darkness with more darkness, telling ourselves that those who had been wronged, and wronged terribly (for centuries), could do no wrong. We began to see the world through a prism of our own making rather than someone else’s. Given these new caves were clearly an improvement, or one day would be an improvement, you might well think you’d escaped entirely. The new shadows on the wall were different shapes, after all. And the shackles were placed there with good intentions. If they operated successfully for our benefit, we might even believe the stories we told ourselves, far into the realms of fiction and solipsism. In the meantime, far out of sight, the deficit, the debt to reality, would be accruing. The problem arose when someone dared to point out that we had not escaped but were simply in another cave. Or they simply asked the wrong question. Rather than face the problem, it was easier to extinguish the question and he or she who had asked it. And so new faiths would be born, with all the old practises of heresy, puritanism, high priests, scapegoats and flagellants, the elect and the damned, demonstrating that even in godless times, these impulses had never gone away because they have existed within us always and always will. And those who benefited from the casting of shadows would keep those fires burning whatever, or whoever, the cost.

For all the exhilarating, adventurous gallantry of the opening cartoon sequence of Knightmare, the show is effectively a prisoner’s escape from a terrible yet fascinating place, full of intrigues and predations. For all its fantastical nonsense, its unreliable narrators, shades of grey, and deceptive environments, it may have equipped us with a useful sense of doubt, especially shown alongside the adult orthodoxies of the day. I only ever saw a handful of teams win Knightmare but I remember them being congratulated outside the castle-dungeon complex, in a world that was largely empty but infinite, extending off to the horizon, the place all our video games back then headed towards. The show would end and I’d go back to our everyday world of illusions, divisions, conflicts, grifters, fanatics, fake news, wishful thinking and bad faith, and I’d start immediately looking forward to the next episode.

We live in uncertain times, once again. There are tempting methods we can employ to engineer the appearance of certainty (we grew up with them in Northern Ireland and know them all too well), all of which amount to a puritan revival, regardless of their secular appearance: dogmatic faith, witch-hunts and denunciations, conspiracy theories, collective punishments and original sin, echo-chambers, convenient pseudohistory, monomania, performative grace, simple partisan dishonesty, cult-think, hysterical posturing, bad faith, intimidation, revenge and retaliation-in-first. But they are wielded at a terrible, corrosive cost, not only to those upon whom they are directed but those who are directing them (beware using the weapons of your enemies, as Treguard used to warn). It is the recurring claim of all of us in our various culture wars to have the unique ability to see through the spectacle, to know the hidden truths, to no longer be asleep, to have taken the right pills to be roused. We are all seers now, supposedly. Everyone knows there are caves but none of us admit to being inside one. When reality unfolds in inconvenient, devastating ways that we did not foresee or chose to ignore, someone must be warping reality itself. A circularity of thought is established, akin to paranoia, that feels like knowledge but which actually leaves us vulnerable. And so, we wander on blindly through a maze, being guided no longer by the instructions of friends but by charlatans and cynics.

The real escape from Plato’s cave was to step out into the sunlight. This would be no small task. It would ask too much of us. Its light would be merciless, illuminating everything, including our own weaknesses and failings. This is the price of truth. We might want to scurry back to the familiar caves, but to do so is to live within a shadow-world of deceptions. Dedalus was right to want to wake up from history, but naive too, for we barely know our actual histories. Sifting through the complexities, contradictions, ambiguities, nuances, and contingencies of the past might not just be overwhelming but liberating, if we could bear it. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” Shakespeare had Hamlet say, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” To explore these things requires not only curiosity and openness and empathy but also fortitude and stoicism. The real test of a person’s character, the real quest if you like, comes with finding things they do not want to find, things that are not flattering or expedient, things that complicate. The act of facing them, rather than burying them, is a hard challenge but it is also a vital gift from reality. To do so, in the unflinching gaze of the sun, all of us, not just those we nominate or incriminate, would prove that we have finally grown up as a species and no longer need infantilising tales we tell ourselves about ourselves. To confront reality, as difficult and painful as that may be, we might discover who we truly are and what we are capable of. It is one thing to be afraid of the dark; it is another thing entirely to be afraid of the light.

Darran Anderson's Inventory is published by Penguin