Hugo Myatt chilled and thrilled children of the 80s & 90s as the face of kids TV show Knightmare, where he portrayed the sinister yet also strangely loveable dungeon master Treguard. For the uninitiated the adventure game show was one of the first interactive experiences, and saw four often terrified children enter on a quest, three of which were advisors who were tasked with guiding their other friend inside the game who had to don a huge horned helmet that left them blinded.
With help from their colleagues they had to dodge goblins, huge spiders and many other horrors projected onto the blue screen set, with one inevitable false move leaving the Dungeoneer to perish, often in nasty fashion.
Aside from steering these generally hapless kids through this most difficult of mazes, Hugo has had a long career on stage and screen featuring in over a hundred theatre productions and most recently taking a role in the Danny Dyer action movie Vendetta.
We had the privilege of speaking to Hugo recently about his most beloved role as Treguard, how the concept for Knightmare came about and the enduring appeal of the show, that’s still massively popular to this day.
The MALESTROM: We’ll start by talking about one of your most famous roles if you don’t mind, that of Treguard in Knightmare.
Hugo Myatt: That’s fine.
TM: Knightmare really has endured in the minds of those who watched it. Why do you think it’s remained so popular?
HM: Having met many fans over the years it seems it’s inspired an awful lot of people to get into gaming, creating games, going into that industry and it’s also led to lots of other things like live action role play organisations and things like that. It just caught the imagination. Also, it was difficult.
There was a lot of drama involved, unlike a lot of game shows, it was more than a game show, I mean the simple idea for drama was the advisers were shouting at the poor one under the helmet and everybody at home was shouting at the advisers. So that’s two lots of drama, I think that was it really.
TM: Where did the original concept for the show come from?
HM: Well it was all down to Tim Child who was the creator and producer of the show. Tim was a great games player, I can’t say for certain, but I always got the impression he was frustrated about being outside the game, playing computer games outside of the computer rather than being in it and actually playing it.
So he was trying to think up a way for the contestant not to be a spectator, but to be part of it. And he came up with this brilliant idea. I think nowadays people would want to do virtual reality. The problem with virtual reality is, it’s not much fun watching someone else have fun (laughs).
HM: Whereas with this format everyone got involved, and that was the great thing about it.
TM: Was there a particular inspiration behind the Treguard character? Were you pointed in a certain direction?
HM: Not really. it was quite a difficult role to start with because I had to provide not only the advice and steering, but I also had to provide the menace. He was rather an ambivalent character, you weren’t sure whether he was on your side or whether he wasn’t. That menace thing was sort of what made the kids excited and wanting to win. It just developed really.
TM: You must have had to learn an awful lot of lines for Knightmare, was that the case? Or was it a lot of ad-libbing?
HM: I did a huge amount, also a lot of people don’t realise this, but though it was recorded, we did the show as if it were live. Which is to say, no rehearsals and no re-takes, so what you saw on the box was what actually happened.
Every time we thought we knew which scenario the children would follow they frequently didn’t, they did something completely unexpected, so we had to be on our toes all the time.
Yeah, I had a lot of stuff to learn. Initially, I had even more because we didn’t realise that if they went through the door on the left that was one scenario and if they went through the door on the right was another scenario. But in fact then we eventually realised, of course, it didn’t matter what door they went through (laughs), we can just use the scenario we had planned. Which took a lot of that study away.
TM: You mentioned the as-live element of the show there, do you think that’s what gave it that real kinetic energy that helped it connect with so many?
HM: I mean, people have said to me on numerous occasions, and it sounds mad, ‘you’ve made my childhood,’ I don’t know whether I want to be retrospectively responsible, I didn’t know I was making anyone’s childhood, but they said I did. They couldn’t wait to get back and see what happened next or get involved with what happened next.
I think because, and I don’t like to use these terms, but the sudden death aspect, if they got it wrong they were done, that kept people right on the edge of their seats.
TM: Knightmare was quite good life preparation in a way as it showed life could at times be quite cruel and unfair…
HM: Oh yeah. We had a wonderful team and sometimes if we knew they didn’t pick up the right clue they weren’t going to last more than a couple of scenes, and you felt terrible (laughs), because you were watching condemned people, it was an awful feeling when that happened. You knew in two or three scenes time they were going to need that red ruby or whatever it was.
TM: Were you ever tempted to nudge them in the right direction?
HM: I did, but It’s quite difficult without making it too easy. I tried to help the younger ones a bit more. But at the same time without appearing to do so, which is quite a trick.
TM: Was it hard to not break character sometimes when you saw something funny or awkward happen?
HM: Yes. I had a talkback to the director’s box, with this really helpful voice saying, “do something Hugo.” Like what? And of course you can’t give any sign you’ve heard anything, and you can’t reply to the box upstairs, so that was quite interesting.
Towards the end, some of the final shows, probably because we were doing it a bit quicker, sometimes I thought, I don’t know what the answer to this is (laughs). Something comes up and I’m thinking, oh my God, what is the answer to this one? It’s a bit like Jeremy Paxman in University Challenge, you can’t know all the answers can you? It was a very exciting thing to do.
TM: You tended to do a lot of your acting just through your eyes. We could get what you were conveying quite clearly.
HM: I think there was one team… I don’t know whether this actually aired, we didn’t cut much, a couple of things. Anyway, one team, they really weren’t trying very hard and one of them turned around to me and said, “Help.” And I went “Noooo (said in perfect menacing Treguard drone)!”
TM: Ha, ha. We can feel their sense of dread.
HM: Yes. The other thing was we introduced the time element just to give a sense of urgency, with the life force ebbing away so they didn’t spend too long discussing it. I’ve met a lot of people that said that was the thing that frightened them most, the bits falling off the skull.
TM: That was horrific at the time. But the spider Ariadne might have been worse. Did you get many complaints from viewers?
HM: No. Mary Whitehouse, as far as I remember, wrote some article saying we were introducing children to witchcraft and some such stuff like that. But that was before we’d even broadcast the show, I think we did eventually get an apology. I don’t know whether there were any actual complaints.
Earlier on when they used to stand on the wrong bit and disappear down, we initially had a bit of artwork that showed the child falling a great distance, and that’s actually the origin of ‘ooh nasty,’ because it took a few seconds to do and there was no music or anything so I just used to go, “ooh nasty” as the kid went down.
I think that might have brought some complaints because, pun coming up, that was ‘dropped’ fairly quickly. We didn’t do any more droppings of children.
TM: Do you still hear that catchphrase back from your fans?
HM: Yes, indeed I do, it seems to be very popular.
TM: So the child with the helmet on couldn’t see anything?
HM: Not at all. They were in a blue void, it was blue screen. All they could see is a circle of blue at their feet. Some of them tried to cheat, which was quite funny because they’d tilt their heads back further and further thinking they could see something, but of course all they saw was more blue.
It was quite incredible, the children would come into the studio and we wouldn’t see them until they came on set, so none of the characters or me till they were on set. In fact when a small child came through the door for the first time some of them were visibly shaking. And I’d say, “welcome stranger.”
But within literally a few minutes of them being in the studio, they forgot about all the lights and all the cameras and whatever else and got completely entranced by the game, which was fabulous.
TM: That element of suspension of disbelief was absolute on the show. Nowadays with updated modern graphics do you think it would translate?
HM: For two reasons I don’t think it would. One is, I don’t think it dates particularly, obviously they’re far more technologically advanced now, the other is it cost a great deal of money, it was a very expensive show to make, I’m told it was about three quarters as much as a drama per hour or half hour.
Nowadays they can buy a cartoon or twenty for that price, I don’t think anyone would make it. It’s a strange thing, you wouldn’t believe what a following it’s still got, it’s astonishing, and of course we knew we were doing something different, pushing the boundaries and so forth, but we didn’t realise it would have this effect. We never thought it would be repeated, even now I get invitations to places because of it 30 years on.
TM: Knightmare was quite the forerunner in terms of its creativity. You talked about the blue screen, that wasn’t hugely commonplace on TV at the time?
HM: No. Well if you look at earlier ones that attempted blue screen, they never had any shadows, so everybody seemed to be floating across the screen, I don’t know how they did it, but in Knightmare everybody has a shadow, they’re rooted on the ground, it’s brilliant.
The other thing, David Rowe who designed those early sets, if you’d call them sets, they were paintings, drawings, which all had to be done to a grid, otherwise they couldn’t make all the different things work, his are brilliant, it set the wonderful magical tone to the thing. Then we had Mark Cordory who produced the dragon and all those wonderful things, just incredible.
It sounds terribly cruel of me, but I was terribly disappointed that no one got blown up in the bomb room. It was very funny because sometimes they’d go in there and say “where am I?” and the reply would always be, “In a room. There’s a bomb in the corner, a great big bomb and the fuse is lit, what shall we do?” And then they’d discuss it, so we had to find a way of slowing the fuse down, no one ever got blown up, they escaped that one.
TM: Knightmare also paved the way for all the interactive experiences that are around these days didn’t it?
HM: There is a wonderful stage show called Knightmare Live, which is nothing to do with me, it’s tremendously funny. They do the show, it’s great fun, a couple of times they’ve asked me to do a cameo at the end where I sort of pop on and do a bit which is great fun, because you get two Treguards on one stage.
TM: You’ve done a lot of work on stage in your career in the past, is there a favourite role that you’ve portrayed in the theatre?
HM: I don’t know, people have asked me this before and I never know the answer because I’ve been in over a hundred theatre productions. It’s usually the one at the time that’s my favourite. I’d have to say that I’ve preferred comedy to drama or tragedy, but not in a great way.
I suppose I like to hear the audience laugh, I’ve done quite a lot of comedy, which might seem strange seeing me in Knightmare. Of course, people with actors, if the first time they see you’ve got a beard they think you always have a beard. Of course, mine came and went a considerable number of times.
TM: You were a bit of a trendsetter yourself, beards have been everywhere in recent years…
HM: Yes, they’re fashionable nowadays. I always used to regard it like an article of clothing, you put it on for this and take it off for that. I mean I did thirty-eight pantomimes and I generally got to play the villain, so that was a bearded role, Abanazar, the Prince of Darkness, King Rat or whoever it was.
TM: Do you think you were typecast in any way because of your role as Treguard?
HM: No. Well I’d been an actor for twenty years before I did him, so not really. I’ve done an awful lot of different sorts of roles really. Tim Child when I went to start on Knightmare was terrified I was going to give a panto performance, I think he’d seen me in panto somewhere. Of course, panto is very big with a lot of haranguing of the audience, I think he was terrified I was going to do that, which I didn’t.
TM: Is there a role that you’ve always wanted to take on that you haven’t yet?
HM: No. Years ago I had one of those Breton hats and I was sat in a Little Chef, I was on a journey somewhere. There was a well-behaved family sitting across the way and these two young boys kept looking at me and the father came over to me, this is when I was doing Treguard and I thought he was going to say my children have seen you in Knightmare.
And he said to me, “would you do it to my children?” And I said, “Do what?” He said, “your catchphrase.” So I said, “catchphrase, well which one?” He said, “You know, blistering barnacles.” Well that’s Captain Haddock from Tintin. He obviously thought me and this beard with this Breton hat that I was Captain Haddock. How the mighty fall. I suppose I ought to have played him, but never did.
TM: You worked on a film with Danny Dyer, what was that like?
HM: Yes Vendetta. I never really saw Danny much. It was alright, quite fun. I do the odd film from time to time, I did a horror film in Romania, which when I made it was called Man with a Movie Camera, which was alright, but when it was actually released it was called Snuff Movie.
TM: Slightly different.
HM: Yes. Different sort of audience. That was a Bernard Rose directed film.
TM: What are your interests outside of acting?
HM: I’ve got a few, but I suppose my major hobby is playing with old British motorcycles, so I do that. In fact I was in the garage this morning polishing and cleaning and screwing things together. That’s been a constant hobby for most of my life. Pathetic really, but there you go.
TM: Absolutely not.
HM: I used to sail. I had a boat on the Broads, that’s probably how I got into Knightmare. Tim (Child) is still a sailor on the Broads with his yacht and that’s really how we got together.
TM: What would you say has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
HM: It’s difficult as I’ve never thought of myself as anything grand or splendid or anything else, I’ve just enjoyed the job. I mean obviously Knightmare turned out to be a highlight, I didn’t know it was going to be and it’s given me a great deal of fun and pleasure over the years and still does amazingly.
The strange thing which never gets mentioned that I must say is, we had in all thirty one different actors and actresses over the years and whilst I had lots of lines to learn and had to steer the ship, these people did it all ad-lib, they didn’t have any lines they were just told the scenario, where they had to get to in the scene and the rest was completely ad-libbed. I think that’s amazing.
If you watch it they all get through it in one take, because there were no second takes, without screwing up, I think that’s incredible. Some of them were absolutely terrific, I mean Lord Fear (Mark Knight) as a villain, and that’s when I lost the need to be menacing.
One thing I remember, in a terrible scenario he’d engineered he said, “But I don’t want to gloat… what am I talking about! Of course I want to gloat!” It was a wonderful line and that was entirely Mark’s.
TM: Did it take the pressure off when a villain came in?
HM: It did and it didn’t. Yes, it took the pressure off, but I rather missed my slightly menacing character, but I had to give Mark his due, he was a wonderful villain. We had some incredible people over the years and they did some very fine stuff. People often ask me what did they win? Well they didn’t really win anything except the kudos. We only had eight winners in eight years.
TM: That’s incredible really.
HM: Well it was tough, we had eight series and there wasn’t one (winner) a series, sometimes there were two, sometimes there weren’t any, it was quite extraordinary really. Like I said there weren’t any real prizes.
Towards the end they made some nice sculptures called Fright Knights which the winning team got, but they only got one between the four of them, I often used to imagine what fights went on afterwards.
TM: The legacy Knightmare has left and the fact people still adore the show must be heartening to you?
HM: Yes, it is. It’s extraordinary. The responsibility you feel latterly that you didn’t realise at the time. I’ve had all sorts of wonderful comments from the conventions and other places. I remember one girl coming up to me who just stood there and burst into tears and didn’t say a word, she couldn’t get a word out. And I think, well you know, I’m just an ordinary bloke really (laughs).
TM: Finally, is there a piece of wisdom from your time in the business that you can impart onto our readers?
HM: People often ask if I’ve any tips from acting. Of course, I’ve been doing it for fifty years. The only thing I would say to anybody is when you’ve got a role, you’ve got to believe in it. You’ve just got to believe the character, it’s a lot easier if it’s a well written piece and more difficult if it’s not terribly well written, but otherwise you become a ham, you’re doing showmanship.
I know it’s called show business but nonetheless it’s slightly different, you’re doing showmanship rather than acting. So that’s the thing, you just have to find a way to believe in it, if you do that you’ll give a good performance. It’s always the ones that are believable that you remember.
For news of all things Knightmare go to the show’s fan site HERE
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