The Adventure Game – Simply Media DVD Review

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Created by Patrick Dowling and Ian Oliver, The Adventure Game pitched celebrities and members of the public into the strange, science-fiction world of Arg, where they were forced to solve fiendish puzzles in order to win their freedom back to Earth ….

By 1980, both Dowling and Oliver were old BBC hands (Dowling had joined the Corporation in 1955, Oliver in 1962).  Oliver had cut his teeth on Late Night Line Up before working as a director on both Blue Peter and Multi Coloured Swap Shop.  Dowling, a veteran of Vision On, had been impressed by Douglas Adams’ radio serial The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and decided to create a sci-fi based game show for children with the same humorous streak.

Intriguingly, he approached Adams to see if he would be able to contribute to the series but Adams (at the time working on the television version of Hitch-Hikers) had to decline.  So Dowling worked out the format of the show himself, with Oliver also contributing ideas as well as directing the studio sessions.

Although the actors – in the first series these included Ian Messiter as the Rangdo of Arg and newsreader Moira Stuart as Darong – would have received scripts and therefore had a rough idea about what could happen, the contestants were totally in the dark and had the freedom to do as they wished.  This tended to make for long studio days and lengthy editing sessions in order to bring the episodes down the required duration.

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Messiter and Stuart didn’t return for S2, but Lesley Judd was a new addition to the regulars.  Judd had appeared as a contestant at the end of the first series, but her failure to solve the puzzles meant that she’d been turned into the Mole (whose mission was now to confuse and sabotage the efforts of the others).

Christopher Leaver, as Gandor, appeared every episode (the only person to do so) whilst the very appealing Charmian Gradwell, playing Gnoard, featured in the first three series.  Star Wars legend Kenny Baker popped up a number of times, although as so often throughout his career he was hidden from sight (he played an aspidistra).  The astute will have probably have twigged by now that all the names of the Arg regulars were anagrams of Dragon ….

One of the most entertaining things about the series is observing how well (or badly) the contestants do. Some do flounder about more than others, although if things get really desperate then the Argonds might pop up and attempt to push them in the right direction with a friendly hint.

Given the vague educational nature of the series, it wasn’t surprising that a number of science/technology figures (James Burke, Ian McNaught-Davis, Heinz Wolff and Johnny Ball amongst others) appeared whilst the likes of Janet Fielding and Paul Darrow would no doubt have felt right at home amongst the low-budget sci-fi high jinks of Arg.

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Twenty two episodes, as well as an unscreened pilot, were made between 1980 and 1986.  Sadly, four of the transmitted episodes no longer exist as broadcast quality masters (two from the first series and two from the second). Off-air recordings of two of these (21/6/80 and 09/11/81) are included on this DVD release, with disclaimers about the picture quality. Whilst they don’t look perfect it’s certainly better to have them in this condition than not at all, so kudos to Simply for making the effort. Another off-air recording (31/5/80) apparently exists in private hands but presumably it wasn’t possible to acquire it for this release. The pilot also isn’t included, maybe this was down to clearance issues.

The format remained the same throughout all four series (although Arg would receive several between-series makeovers).  Each week three space-travellers (many of whom looked suspiciously like well-known Earth celebrities) turned up on the planet Arg.  The dragon-like Argonds may appear to be fierce (although considerably less so when they’ve morphed into human form) but by nature they’re a friendly – if mischievous – race.  Having stolen the crystal time-lock from the humans’ spaceship, the Argonds will only return it if the travellers can solve the puzzles they’ve been set.

For those of a certain age, Rongad’s (Bill Homewood) catchphrase of “doogy rev” might bring back some memories.  The only way Rongad (although really he should have been called Nogard) could communicate was by talking backwards.  The most memorable part of the show, although it didn’t debut until the second series, was the Vortex.  Brought to life thanks to the wonders of CSO, this was the final task our brave space-travellers had to face.  Failure here would mean a very long walk home ….

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Below is an episode guide listing the episodes included on this release –

Disc One – Series One

24/05/80 – Elizabeth Estensen, Fred Harris & Mark Dugdale
14/06/80 – Denise Coffey, Toby Freeman & Gary Hunt
07/06/80 – James Burke, Maggie Philbin & Pat Cater
21/06/80 – Paul Darrow, Lesley Judd & Robert Malos

Disc Two – Series Two

02/11/81 – Carol Chell, Graeme Garden & Nicholas Hammond
09/11/81 – Madeline Smith, David Yip & Derek Gale
16/11/81 – Sue Cook, David Singmaster & Phillip Shepherd
30/11/81 – John Craven, Kirsty Miller & Bill Green

Disc Three – Series Three

02/02/84 – Sarah Greene, Richard Stilgoe & Anne Miller
09/02/84 – Sue Nicholls, Duncan Goodhew & Emma Disley
16/02/84 – Sandra Dickinson, Chris Serle & Adam Tandy

Disc Four – Series Three

23/02/84 – Bonnie Langford, Paul McDowell & Christopher Hughes
01/03/84 – Neil Adams, Janet Fielding & Nigel Crocket
08/03/84 – Fern Britton, Noel Edmonds & Ray Virr

Disc Five – Series Four

07/01/86 – Sheelah Gilbey, Ian McNaught-Davis & Roy Kane
14/01/86 – Johnny Ball, Barbara Lott & Liz Hobbs
21/01/86 – Fiona Kennedy, Ian McCaskill & David Sanderman

Disc Six – Series Four

04/02/86 – George Layton, Joanna Monro & Val Prince
11/02/86 – Ruth Madoc, Heinz Wolff & Deborah Leigh Hall
18/02/86 – Keith Chegwin, Heather Couper & Adam Gilby

The tasks faced by the contestants varied – from computer-based conundrums to more logical and science-based challenges. During the first series, several teams – including James Burke, Maggie Philbin and Pat Cater – tangled with a computer which was running a text adventure. Those of a certain age will remember how frustrating these could be – frequently after typing what seemed like a brilliant suggestion, the computer would respond with the bald statement “nothing happens”.

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It’s interesting that it didn’t feature in every S1 edition. I wonder if that was because they wanted to vary the games or maybe it was more to do with the fact that certain teams weren’t very good at it? The variable running times for the four S1 episodes included (26:38, 29:55, 37:08 and 45:00) does seem to suggest that some contestants struggled with certain challenges more than others. This is pretty evident in the series one episode with Denise Coffey, which features several fades to black – indicating that some serious editing had gone on in order to remove sections where nothing much happened.

Very often our hapless contestants would be presented with a selection of random items which they would have to utilize and combine in a certain way in order to produce the desired effect.  Sometimes the solution to the puzzles does seem somewhat obscure, so you shouldn’t be too surprised that blank faces can often be seen.  Since the non-celebs sometimes tended to take charge here, I presume many were selected due to their technical or science backgrounds (which is probably just as well, otherwise a great many celebrities would probably still be languishing on the planet Arg to this very day).  What’s interesting is that they sometimes do reach a workable solution, just not one that the Argonds were expecting!

The Adventure Game is an enjoyable watch for several reasons. The regulars – especially the likes of Christopher Leaver, Charmian Gradwell and Bill Homewood – keep things bubbling along nicely whilst the variety of celebrities and the sometimes strange team-ups (Ruth Madoc and Heinz Wolff, together at last) is also noteworthy.

Amusing and charming (with the odd spot of learning thrown in) The Adventure Game still stands up today.  This is partly because it’s always entertaining to see boffins like James Burke out of their comfort zone, but also because it’s a nostalgic time-trip back to a period when computers were pretty basic (and also ran BASIC of course).  Just to observe the contestants operating a BBC B Microcomputer is sure to bring a rush of nostalgia for many.  And on that theme, a tip of the hat for the DVD menu design, which has a very 1980’s home-computer style font (although it’s a pity that the menus don’t list the celebs who appear in each episode).

My verdict?  What else can it be but doogy rev.  Warmly recommended.

The Adventure Game is available now from Simply Media.  RRP £29.99.

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