Under the Dome: how The Crystal Maze was built for a new generation

Under the Dome: how The Crystal Maze was built for a new generation
Under the Dome: how The Crystal Maze was built for a new generation

For five years in the mid-1990s Channel 4's The Crystal Maze was the biggest cult hit on television, turning the idea of what a gameshow could be on its head.

In this modern age we're used to immersive experiences where we the general public - thanks to companies like Punch Drunk, Secret Cinema and CoLab - can actively participate in theatre productions and cinema-based events, and become characters in a seemingly ever-evolving story.

From 1990 to 1995, The Crystal Maze did this first. The weekly gameshow transported contestants to a fantasy world (actually Shepperton Studios in the first series and an aircraft hangar at North Weald airfield in Essex for the rest of its run), comprising different zones set in various periods of time and space.

Crystal Maze

It was Doctor Who meets Fort Boyard, and geeks up and down the country thrilled as other-worldly and loose-limbed host Richard O'Brien (writer of The Rocky Horror Show musical) guided contestants through the zones, inviting them to take on challenges and games behind doors, that tested their powers of logic and deduction (Egg In The Tree, anyone?).

Dome run

At the zenith of this created world was The Crystal Dome, a geodesic structure into which contestants who had successfully navigated the games would be invited to enter and try to win prizes by grabbing as many gold and silver tokens as they could against the clock.

The catch? The tokens were being blown all over the place thanks to a series of manually operated fans in its base.

It's no surprise that The Crystal Maze has remained a fan favourite for over 20 years (it really was ahead of its time), and even though there has been talk of bringing it back in various forms throughout its time offscreen it really is back now, thanks to – yes – an immersive experience somewhere in London's King's Cross.

Production Company Little Lion have reconstructed some of the series' most popular games and the Dome itself for the paying public to have a go on.

Not only is this icon of '90s TV back, but it also gave the team at North West London's Artem special effects studio a chance to revisit a project it worked on during the TV show's original run.

For Company Director and Project Manager Simon Tayler there was an enhanced sense of deja vu – back in the days when Artem was a fledgling company, it was hired to dream up and design games for the show as well as service and maintain the set, including the Dome.

When Simon was asked to bring the Dome back to life for Little Lion's new immersive experience, he admitted thinking that the project would "never fly".

Crystal Maze

"[Little Lion] were describing the duty cycle for what they wanted," he says. "They wanted to have members of the public going into it rather than a bunch of contestants who could be briefed on what they could and couldn't do, where they could stand and things like that.

"We thought that we had to treat it more like a building than anything else. It needed to accommodate a constant stream of people. In the TV show we were dealing with two or three shows a week, but this new dome will have people going in and out of it 32 times a day. It's a vastly greater usage."

Crystal Maze

So the challenge was to produce something that looked and felt like the old Dome, upgrade it and make it durable enough to withstand constant usage. Briefed late last year, the clock was already ticking so Simon and his team quickly researched the project, using geodesic structures built for The Burning Man festival as inspiration, and drawing up detailed plans with CAD software, Solidworks, to get the ball rolling.