Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Adventure Game

A Fistful of Drogna

The Adventure Game
UK 1980-1986
Simply Media DVD Region 2

I don’t know who Simply Media are but they have my undying gratitude for bringing out on DVD one of the greatest television programmes ever to come out of the UK. The Adventure Game was a kind of game show, with a marked difference to any other kind of competitive show at the time, which ran from 1980 to, roughly 1985/86 ish. It ran for 22 episodes spread out over four series and it’s a big dose of my childhood viewing that I didn’t think I’d ever get back or, indeed, have a chance to watch again. Well... mostly back anyway... two episodes, one from each of the first two series of five episodes each, are missing presumed wiped. Of the remaining 20 episodes, at least two (again from the first two series) are only included in this volume because they existed as ‘off air’ recordings from private collectors on either VHS or Betamax video tape. The quality of those specific episodes does indeed show at times but I am, again, absolutely grateful that Simply Media have managed to track down what they could because, without those off air recordings, we would not have been able to see now how such celebrity guests such as Paul Darrow, Madeline Smith and David Yip got on in their adventures on the fictional planet of Arg.

The show was set on said planet and inhabited by Dragons who could take human form. The plot of the game show each week was that three time or space travellers (depending on which series you are watching, things were pretty fluid on the show) would crash land on the planet Arg and the likeable Argons, who were cursed with ‘an unfortunate sense of humour’ would put them through a series of locked room style puzzles (pretty much the first of their kind on British TV) in order for them to leave the planet with the crystals to power them on their way.

Now I used to love The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy when it debuted as a radio show back in 1978 and I had no idea that Patrick Dowling, who devised The Adventure Game out of his interest in the game Dungeons And Dragons, wanted to capture some of the spirit of Douglas Adams masterpiece in his show and, indeed, even asked Adams to contribute writing to the show (although Adams was busy at the time with a TV adaptation of his masterwork so had to decline). There is, though, in hindsight, some of the flavour of that universe in this weekly show but, honestly, The Adventure Game was a phenomenon unto itself and, in my opinion, laid the groundwork for other similarly styled shows from later years like Fort Boyard and its UK version The Crystal Maze... although, frankly, those shows couldn’t hold a candle to The Adventure Game.

Every week you’d have three players arriving, comprising of two celebrities plus somebody else who was an expert in their field. Nowadays, of course, the less recognisable experts from the day can sometimes turn out to be modern celebrities too, as I discovered when I realised one of the contestants on one of the shows was Chris Hughes, who is now a regular expert on the TV show Eggheads. When they arrived they would be greeted by the Argons, who would aid and abet them in their puzzle quests and these people were huge personalities to us viewers. There was the sometimes half-deaf butler Gandor, played by Chris Leaver, who was absolutely brilliant and, as far as I can tell, the only regular who was in every series and every episode. I often wonder what has happened to him because I can’t find out anymore information about him and I don’t understand why he was never used by the BBC after this show... at least that I can see.

Other regulars would be the absolute sweetheart Charmian Gradwell as Gnoard, who was in all the episodes of the first three series and who disappeared completely by the fourth. Which is a shame but I assume she’s doing fairly well as the last credit I can find for her is as Cate Blanchett’s dialect coach on Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok. She was replaced by Sarah Lam as Dorgan in series four and... she did an okay job but we all missed Charmain when she was gone. If you haven’t figured it out yet, all the names and a lot of other things on Arg were anagrams (or partial anagrams in shorter words) of Dragon. Newsreader Moira Stuart played Darong in series one and she was kind of okay in the role. Also, one of the contestants in one of the shows in the first series was Lesley Judd... who got evaporated and became a series regular as a ‘prisoner of Arg’ in the second series. Basically, the contestants would have to rescue her as part of their tasks in series two, not knowing she was now an Argonian mole who was there to help stop them from winning the game. The contestants were asked at one point to figure out who the mole was and point to their nominee saying ‘Mole, mole, go to your hole.’ However, if they got the wrong one, their nominee would be evaporated in her place... which is what happened in the majority of episodes.

Two other series regulars also captured the imagination of the people who used to watch this thing.

One was his royal highness the Randgo of Arg. Up until the end of the third series he would take the form of a grumpy Aspidistra and the contestants would have to bow and say Gronda Gronda Randgo to appease his grumpiness. In the third series he was more mobile and spurted water when he was very angry, controlled by everyone’s favourite R2 unit controller Kenny Baker. In the fourth series he took the form of a huge teapot that would spurt steam if unhappy with people.

And then, of course, there was Rongad, played as a gum chewing, Australian Argon by Bill Homewood. He really caught the nation’s attention by being able to talk backwards and hold lengthy conversations in backwards speak, much to the consternation of the groups who would visit each week. He would come on singing a backwards version of Waltzing Matilda and even if the contestants finally managed to twig he was saying everything backwards and that he couldn’t understand them unless they were talking backwards... “Nodrap?” he used to say... they usually weren’t quick enough to translate more than a few words to try and help them solve some of their puzzles. Everybody I knew who used to watch it used to copy Rongad’s “Doogy rev!” exclamations to indicate something was “Very good” and I believe the actor in question still uses this exclamation on Twitter to this day.

The puzzles were brilliant too and, although they followed a fairly close pattern for each series, were somewhat different every week. One of the things which struck me as I watched this now, was how lost a modern set of celebrity contestants would be nowadays. How many of them would figure out how to construct an electromagnet or add salt to water to get things to rise in a tube? This is a real timepiece of a show and it’s as much fun watching celebrities of yesteryear such as Noel Edmonds, Keith Chegwin, Janet Fielding and Johnny Bull trying to figure out some of the devious puzzles devised by the Argons (or the show’s creators, I guess) as it always was. I was expecially impressed with the late Professor Heinz Wolff (he used to appear on the BBC show The Great Egg Race) who managed to pretty much work out almost every puzzle fairly quickly. I think he even managed to survive to the end of the show which was, actually, a fairly rare occurrence.

These DVDs brought it all back to me and, although I guess the show probably shows its age to younger viewers, I have to say I felt like I hadn’t aged a day when I started rewatching these. I even somehow remembered David Yip was going to type his name into the computer wrong and be called Daviod for the rest of the episode. And who can forget the brilliant Drogna game, where all the contestants had to do was work out the not so subtle Richard Of York Gave Battle clue (“In vein, I believe sir!” Gandor would prompt them) to get the combination of shapes and letters that made up the Argon currency, Drogna, that would get them safely across the floor tiles. Or the absolutely brilliant ‘Vortex’ board where the majority of the contestants would meet a sticky end at the conclusion of the show (unless they were intelligent enough to throw a green cheese role onto a nexus point to see if the ‘invisible to human eyes’ vortex was there). And don’t get me started on the Dogran and his Dogran Hole!

The Adventure Game was a show like no other and I have to say I spent most of my Christmas holiday this year reliving this, to much enjoyment. If you’ve never seen this before, slip on a copy, reset your screen ratio to 4:3 and let the absurd surrealist humour coupled with various celebrities and experts in their field generally showing how clueless they are in the face of Argon humour wash over you. If you remember this show from back in the day and you loved it then... pay it another visit. It hasn’t changed a bit.

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