With its unusal-yet-captivating premise of teams solving cryptic puzzles in make-believe worlds, The Crystal Maze has long been regarded as a real diamond of a game show.
Launched in 1990, this family-favorite series proved a real hit, with us all gathering around the telly to cheer on players tasked with unlocking the titular crystals.
To do this, the groups had to battle through a series of timed challenges. The more of these golf ball-sized Swarovski glass time tokens they could gather the better. For each one was worth five seconds inside The Crystal Dome, which the winning team would step inside at the show’s finale.
The host would then utter the famous catchphrase ‘can you start the fans please?’, which sent a load of gold and silver tokens spiraling up into the air. The team then had whatever time they amassed to gather as many gold tokens as they could.
If the group collected a total of 100 gold tickets or more – minus any silver deductions – they were declared the winners. Each contestant who appeared in the show won a commemorative crystal saying ‘I Cracked The Crystal Maze’, to which original host Richard O’Brien would say ‘keep that in your glove box and whip it out if ever stopped by a policeman’.
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The challenges leading up to the Dome were incredibly diverse and spread across a sprawling world made up of different zones. In the original series these were Aztec, Medieval, Futuristic and Industrial. Each participant could choose between a Mental, Mystery, Physical or Skill game in an effort to bag that crystal.
Some of the more memorable challenges included the Aztec Zone’s underwater labyrinth where you were meant to navigate the chained crystal through a maze under water and across walls and Medieval Zone’s angled mirrors where you had to move them to direct a beam of light to a target.
There were also Futuristic Zone’s planet swing which involved swinging between five planets to reach the crystal and finally Industrial Zone’s phone sequence where you were tasked with answering phones (rather self explanatory) in sequence, each giving a clue to the next one to answer.
If the competitor didn’t complete the task in time, or broke a three-strike rule of the challenge, they were locked in. The show originally ran from 1990 to 1995 before being resurrected in 2016 and the following year until 2020, where it was canned due to a ratings drop over the pandemic.
The UK show, which ran on Channel 4, has featured four wildly different presenters over the years. Let’s find out what they’re up to now.
Richard O’Brien – 1990 to 1993
The most emblematic of the show’s hosts, theally entertaining Richard O’ fantastic Brien was there from the start. Often bedecked in a long fur coat with a vibrantly colorful shirt and long sleek leather boots, O’Brien brought a wonderfully infectious, manic energy to the show. Skipping around in his tight leather trousers, he’d enthusiastically encourage competitors but was also never afraid to chastise them if they messed up.
If ever there was a lull, Richard would often whip out his harmonica from his pocket and play a few bars of what he dubbed ‘excitement music’. He would also converse with the show’s various characters such as Mumsie and genial fortune teller Auntie Sabrina.
Richard left the maze after four series in 1993 as he wanted to pursue other things. He told viewers he was leaving to live in America with Mumsie.
What he actually did was to play the Child Catcher in the West End theater production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well as performing various cabaret-style music and comedy on stages across the globe. A writer, actor and musician, he is perhaps best known for penning musical stage show The Rocky Horror Show in 1973, along with co-writing the film adaptation The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975.
Post-Maze he racked up numerous film roles such as in 1997’s Spice Girl’s film Spice World, fantasy film Dark City in 1998 and Urban Gothic in 2000. In 2004, a statue of the character he played in Rocky Horror – Riff Raff – was unveiled at the site of a former cinema in New Zealand, where O’Brien now resides.
He reprieved the character in a limited 11-performance run of The Rocky Horror Show in the West End in 2015. The following year he appeared as the Crystal Maze computer in a one-off Celebrity Crystal Maze episode in aid of charity Stand Up To Cancer .
Now aged 80, he is still working and most recently appeared – well, his voice did – in animated musical adventure science fiction comedy film Phineas and Ferb the movie: Candace Against The Universe in 2020.
Ed Tudor-Pole – 1993 to 1995
A fine English dandy, Tudor-Pole donned a fetching waistcoat and tunic, lending his whole appearance a rather distinct Georgian vibe. With his sallow complexion and slightly emaciated look, he imbued the show with a slightly darker, more intimidating feeling. Yet despite that aesthetic, Ed was rather more sympathetic to guests than his predecessor, and would empathise in their misfortune rather than deride it.
Filling his tenure with wonderful nonsense words such as ‘trignification’, it was hard not to get swept along in all the fun. He would also wax lyrical about fictitious backstories to each of the zones and refer to unseen characters such as Starbuck the deranged cat in Ocean Zone and Bert the horse in Medieval Zone.
Since leaving the maze, Ed went on to play the role of Enaros in sci-fi epic Kull the Conqueror in 1997. A year later he played a landlord in the film adaptation of Les Misérables.
In 2002 he landed the role as Mr Borgin in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but it was sadly cut from the theatrical release, though was included in the extended edition of the DVD. He played Spike Milligan in the 2004 film The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers. and his last known role was in a film called Straight To Hell Returns in 2010.
Ed rocked up in Game of Thrones as an angry street preacher in series two in 2011. He is also very well-known for his punk rock band Ten Pole Tudor, who were very highly regarded during their heyday in the late 70s and early 80s.
Stephen Merchant – 2016
This is where the show rather lost some of its earlier characterful mystique. But this isn’t to say Merchant was any less of a host, he just brought a bit more ‘real life’ into proceedings, often joking about world events.
Togged up in a blue suit with a red waistcoat and white shirt with floral neckerchief, he certainly looked very smart. His cheerful demeanour and witty repartee made him very popular with both contestants and viewers.
Much like his predecessor, he’d cheer when contestants won, he’d boo when they lost, and he did his utmost to ensure they all had the greatest time. We perhaps know Stephen the best as being the co-writer along with Ricky Gervais of British sitcom The Office. Since leaving the Maze, Merchant has been kept incredibly busy.
In 2017 he appeared in Hollywood blockbuster Logan where he played a deranged character called Caliban opposite Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. He cropped up in Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway as a guest announcer in 2018 and as Nazi Gestapo leader Captain Deertz in the Oscar-winning Jojo Rabbit.
In 2019 he penned biographical sports comedy flick Fighting With My Family, which featured Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. In 2021 he starred in – and co-wrote – comedy drama The Outlaws, where he even managed to persuade legend Christopher Walken to take a role in! Merchant will appear – or rather his voice will – as the character Croc in the upcoming animated movie The Ark and the Aardvark.
Richard Ayoade – 2017 to 2020
Taking things in a rather more cerebral direction, the droll Richard Ayoade definitely brought a quirky charm to the show. Sporting his trademark black-rimmed specs and colourfull suit, he’d wave around a stick sporting a wooden hand at contestants. Ushering in a far more laid-back version of the show, Ayoade would often break the fourth wall and conspire with the audience.
He’d also – for better or worse – largely erase the fantasy element of the Crystal Maze, instead of making jokes at the expense of its production values and re-arranging contestant’s safety gear. A most gentle of hosts, Ayoade made for perhaps the Crystal Maze’s most charming presenter.
A regular on many panel shows such as The Big Fat Quiz Of The Year, Ayoade is never very far from our screens, cropping up in his very popular travel series Travel Man.