The Adventure Game was a Game Show (crossed with light entertainment) created by Patrick Dowling that aired for four series from 1980-86 on BBC1 (Series 1) and BBC2 (Series 2-4). Dowling co-wrote and co-produced the first two series with Ian Oliver, who took over both jobs after Dowling retired from the BBC in 1982.
Although the execution of the game changed with each series, the premise was always the same: three contestants, including two celebrities and a member of the general public, would travel across time and space to the distant planet of Arg, whose residents, the Argonds, would then set them a number of challenges to complete before they would give them the time crystal they needed to return home. (Dowling envisioned the series as a combat-free, live-action version of Dungeons & Dragons, with the Argonds as the game masters.) The episodes would then cut back and forth between footage of the contestants trying to solve the puzzles and occasional sketches involving the Argonds. Each series featured multiple puzzles that involved home computers, technology that was still strange and new to viewers and contestants alike.
But in every episode except one,note there was a sting in the tail: once they had retrieved the time crystal, the contestants would have one final challenge, and failure meant being evaporated and returning home on foot instead of by the spaceship in which they arrived. In Series 1, this meant navigating a floor covered with tiles of different shapes and colours, where they could only step on tiles with a specific colour or shape; they had to navigate the same floor at the beginning of the episode, so the challenge was to recognise which tiles were safe and remember this when returning. In Series 2, this was replaced with the series' best-remembered challenge: the Vortex, in which the contestants had to navigate an isometric grid one at a time while the Argonds moved the Vortex around the grid. If the contestant stepped onto the space occupied by the Vortex, they were evaporated.
The second most well-remembered game was the Drogna Game, based on the Argond currency. Starting in Series 2, the tile layouts the contestants had to navigate featured five colours - red, orange, yellow, green, blue - and five shapes - circle, pointed oval or crescent, triangle, square, pentagon. These colours and shapes also appeared on plastic discs that were used by the Argonds as money, with the value being the product of the number of sides on the shape (one for the circle, two for the pointed oval/crescent, etc.) and the position of the colour in a list of colours of the spectrum (so that a red circle was worth 1 drogna, while a blue pentagon was worth 25). Sometimes they would have to base their crossing of the grid on sticking to the higher values, while other times they would have to move in cycles based on the colours or shapes.
The Argonds' default form was dragonlike (hence the many Significant Anagrams of "dragon" sprinkled throughout the show), but several of them adopted human forms so as to make it easier to explain the puzzles for the benefit of the viewers before the contestants saw them, and then communicate with the contestants themselves. The only one to appear in all four series was Gandor (Christopher Leaver), an elderly and eccentric butler. In the first three series, he was assisted by Gnoard (Charmian Gradwell); she was replaced for the final series by Dorgan (Sarah Lam). The first series also featured Darong (Moira Stuart, before she became a newsreader), while the last two series featured The Adventure Game's best-remembered character, the backwards-talking Australian Ron Gad (Bill Homewood), whose Catchphrase was an encouraging "Doogy rev!" ("Very good!") for the contestants. The Argonds' monarch was the Rangdo of Arg, whom the other Argonds addressed as "Uncle" but whom the Earth contestants were required to greet by bowing and saying "Gronda, gronda, Your Highness." In the first series, he was played by Just a Minute creator Ian Messiter, but in Series 2 and 3 he took the form of a potted aspidistra, and in Series 4 he appeared as a giant teapot.note
The celebrity contestants were mostly TV actors and presenters whom young audiences were likely to recognise, such as The Liver Birds actress Elizabeth Estensen; Blake's 7 actor Paul Darrow; The Goodies' Graeme Garden; Doctor Who actresses Janet Fielding and Bonnie Langford;note Rentaghost actress Sue Nicholls; Hi-de-Hi! actress Ruth Madoc; Tomorrow's World presenters Michael Rodd and James Burke; Play School and/or Play Away presenters Fred Harris, Carol Chell, Derek Griffiths, Nerys Hughes, Sheelagh Gilbey, and Johnny Ball; Blue Peter presenters Lesley Judd and Sarah Greene; The Computer Programme presenters Chris Serle and Ian McNaught-Davis; Nationwide presenters Sue Cook and Richard Stilgoe; and Multi-Coloured Swap Shop presenters Maggie Philbin, John Craven, Noel Edmonds, and Keith Chegwin. But they also featured academics, such as mathematician David Singmaster, engineer Prof. Heinz Wolff, and astronomers Garry Hunt and Heather Couper; and athletes, such as swimmer Duncan Goodhew and judo champion Neil Adams.
The series was aimed at children and aired around teatime, but developed a considerable adult following due to the entertainment value of seeing sitcom actors and children's TV show hosts floundering in their attempts to decipher Ron Gad's backwards speech or to get the key to a door out of a seemingly impenetrable vessel. Each series was re-run a few months after its original airing, but then they were condemned to the archives (or, worse, wiped) apart from an occasional airing of Series 4 on Challenge TV in the early 2000s... until 2016, when the BBC Store made seven surviving episodes from Series 1 and 2 available for purchase,note with a DVD release of the surviving episodes from all four series following in 2017.
This series featured examples of:
- Actor Allusion: The puzzles in the episodes frequently referenced the celebrities' careers; for example, when Prof. Heinz Wolff and Ruth Madoc appeared together in Series 4, many of the puzzles had a scientific solution that played to Prof. Wolff's strengths, while one puzzle featured a xylophone identical to the one Madoc played as Gladys Pugh on Hi-de-Hi! to herald brodcasts on Radio Maplin; inevitably, she played her signature three-note jingle and said "Hello campers!" in the exaggerated Welsh accent she used on Hi-de-Hi! upon discovering the instrument (she also affected Gladys' accent and vocal inflections to recite the password after she, Prof. Wolff, and their civilian partner Deborah Leigh Hall succeeded in navigating the password maze).
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Some of the contestants were not above addressing the camera and the viewers directly; for example, the Series 3 team of Blue Peter presenter Sarah Greene, former Nationwide presenter Richard Stilgoe, and civilian Anne Miller had to chew wads of gum to solve one task, and Stilgoe looked into the camera and suggested the viewers might want to find something else to do for a bit, as watching three people chew gum couldn't have made for riveting viewing. Other contestants tutted the (unseen) technical crew for laughing at some of their more misguided attempts at solving the puzzles.
- Cannot Tell a Lie: In Series 2, Gnoard would have to answer all the contestants' questions honestly, though she generally tried to do so in a way that left some information unsaid and forced the contestants to fill in the blanks themselves.
- Consummate Liar: Part of Lesley Judd's mole persona in Series 2 involved never telling the truth before the contestants had to guess which of them was the mole; Patrick Dowling hinted at this before sending the contestants on their way at the beginning of each episode by noting that while on Arg, the mole always lies. Judd was subtle enough in her dishonesty that most contestants didn't suspect a thing.
- Continuity Nod: The contestants in Series 2 wore sweatshirts with a mask design on the front (an animation shot just before the beginning of the episodes proper revealed that the mask comprised a stylised rendition of the word "ARG", turned on its side and reflected verticallynote ); however, Lesley Judd was still wearing the pink "Galactic Archaeological Society" sweatshirt she wore in her appearance on Series 1.note
- Creator Cameo: Series creator Patrick Dowling made brief on-screen appearances at the beginning of each episode of Series 2, explaining the episode's premise to the viewers, introducing the contestants as they were seen arriving by taxi, and then greeting them before sending them off on the shuttle to Arg (represented by having them enter a studio door).
- Early-Installment Weirdness: Though The Adventure Game only ran for four series and twenty-two episodes, and each series was very different to the one immediately before it, there was still room for some early strangeness.
- The first series stands out as the strangest of the lot. The episodes were of highly irregular lengths (ranging from 26 to 45 minutes), there was no Vortex grid (the contestants instead had to backtrack across the Drogna grid), the Rangdo turned into the very human Ian Messiter instead of an aspidistra or a teapot, and it was the only series to feature Moira Stuart as Darong.
- The second series featured a different theme tune and sweatshirt design to the other three series,note Patrick Dowling appeared on screen to introduce the contestants, and the controllers of the Vortex were Gnoard and Lesley Judd (and sometimes the falsely accused Mole) instead of the Rangdo directing Gandor; indeed, the Rangdo is almost superfluous to proceedings in most episodes, and the familiar "Gronda, gronda, Your Highness" greeting didn't appear until Series 3. The first episode featured early installment weirdness within early installment weirdness; in contrast to the other four episodes, the Vortex moved first and used a different graphic (a column of visual white noise instead of a smooth purple column).
- Ear Trumpet: Gandor the butler pretended to be very hard of hearing and carried an ear trumpet around with him. However, it was his spectacles that helped him hear properly; the ear trumpet was instead a device intended for contestants to use to solve puzzles.
- Exact Words: At the beginning of the Series 2 episodes, Patrick Dowling told the teams that one of the Earth people on Arg was a mole; the contestants mostly interpreted this to mean that one of them was a mole, but a few of the savvier ones realised that "the Earth people on Arg" also included supposed captive Lesley Judd...
- A Form You Are Comfortable With: The Argonds transformed from their usual dragon forms into humans for the visits of Earthlings (so in the credits, the Argonds were listed as playing the humans instead of the other way round), except for the temperamental Rangdo, who transformed into the human Ian Messiter in Series 1 but chose instead to be an aspidistra in Series 2 and 3 and a teapot in Series 4.
- Golden Snitch: It doesn't matter how well the contestants did at the puzzles in the main part of the episode; if they got evaporated by the Vortex during the final game, they still "lost" the overall game and had to walk home instead of taking their spaceship. This could be particularly frustrating for viewers when it happened to especially capable puzzle solvers, such as Nationwide presenter Richard Stilgoe or Play School and Think of a Number presenter Johnny Ball.
- I Can't Hear You: Any attempts by the contestants to get answers out of Gandor when he wasn't wearing his spectacles got this reaction, as a sly method of forcing the contestants to come up with the answers themselves.
- Laser-Guided Karma: There was a lot of this going round in Series 2 for contestants who identified the wrong person as The Mole. The falsely accused mole would be sent to the far side of the Vortex grid, and although they were thus unable to participate further in solving the episode's puzzles, they were exempt from having to cross the grid and so automatically got to go home by shuttle. Their teammates, however, still had to cross the grid, and in every episode with a falsely accused mole,note both of the other contestants got evaporated by the Vortex, sometimes at the hands of the teammate whom they had managed to get evaporated earlier on, and had to walk back to Earth. As if to add insult to injury, the evaporated accusers' final scenes involved them standing next to the "< Arg | Earth >" sign seen in the opening credits, trying and failing to hitch a lift from the shuttle as it roared past carrying their smugly triumphant erstwhile teammate.
- Lock and Key Puzzle: One of the most commonly used puzzle genres in the series. Almost every episode required the contestants to get the key to unlock a box, safe, or door out of a long tube, or from behind a door that only opened if they were all standing on pressure sensitive pads on the other side of the room, or generally from somewhere seemingly unreachable before a few other puzzles were solved.
- The Mole: Lesley Judd appeared as a contestant in the final episode of Series 1 alongside Blake's 7's Paul Darrow and special effects technician Robert Malos; they were unsuccessful in crossing the grid at the end of the episode, but for Series 2, the writers decided to have Judd stay on, and the teams visiting Arg were now on a rescue mission... unaware that Judd was now in league with the Argonds and, once freed from her cell, would do all she could to hinder their progress and divert suspicion of treachery to the other contestants. At the half-hour mark of each episode, the team would be gathered and asked whom they believed to be the mole; if they guessed incorrectly, the falsely accused mole would be evaporated (but only as far as the other side of the Vortex) and the team would have to continue as a duo. Only one team correctly identified Judd as the mole.
- Nintendo Hard: The Vortex game was viciously difficult. In Series 2, Gnoard and Lesley Judd (and sometimes the falsely accused mole, out for revenge) kept good poker faces as they moved the Vortex, giving no clues to the contestants.note However, in Series 3 and 4, when Gandor was moving the Vortex ostensibly at the Rangdo's command, savvier contestants might be able to use his reactions to gauge whether the Vortex was on a space to which they were likely to move next ("Excellent move, Your Highness!") or somewhere out of the way ("Are you sure, Your Highness? Well, if you say so..."). It was also possible to win a green cheese roll from a bonus game just before the final round that could then be used to test for the presence of the Vortex (though it was evaporated if it was put on the Vortex space); some contestants were able to use logic and judicious testing with their rolls to cross the grid safely (Ian McNaught-Davis proved very adept at this on his appearance in Series 4), but more usually they just moved from one space to the next and hoped for the best.note
- Obfuscating Disability: Gandor the butler could hear perfectly well, but pretended to be very hard of hearing when talking to the contestants as a way out of answering questions about the puzzles (he would regularly ask them to repeat their question and pretend he still couldn't hear them before making excuses to leave), thereby forcing them to come up with the answers themselves.
- Oh Wait, This Is My Grocery List: As Gandor explains the games to Dorgan in the Series 4 episode with Johnny Ball, Sorry! actress Barbara Lott, and champion water skier Liz Hobbs, he begins reading a page from the Arg Instruction Manual, and declares, "A pint of milk, a dozen eggs, a bit of... a bit of-!? Angord! Have you been writing your shopping list on my instructions again?"
- Red Herring: Not all of the items and clues in a given room were relevant to solving the puzzles, and sometimes they would be deliberately calculated to mislead (in Series 2, Lesley Judd would waylay the teams by drawing their attention to the red herrings instead of the more useful clues).
- The team of Denise Coffey, Toby Freeman,note and Garry Hunt in Series 1 had to play a maze game on a computer terminal (with a then state-of-the-art dual display with the maze pictured on one screen and the text entered on the other), and one of the objects they could pick up was a scarlet fish. Coffey immediately suspected that it was called a scarlet fish for a reason, but they took it anyway... and, sure enough, it proved to be useless in solving the puzzles in the maze.
- The team of Sue Cook, Philip Sheppard, and David Singmaster from Series 2 found a mercury thermometer wired to an electric circuit, with two wires at high and low temperatures. As there was a kettle in the kitchen next door, they assumed they had to heat the thermometer with a cloth dipped in hot water... which only succeeded in setting off a fire alarm, leading to Gandor charging into the room wearing a fireman's helmet and carrying a hose. The players quickly deduced that they needed to cool the thermometer with ice cubes from the freezer in the kitchen.
- The regular "traditional game" of Argonds Around the Pond: Gandor would scatter a number of Argond coins on the table and then ask how many Argonds were sitting around the pond. The coins had nothing to do with the answer, which was actually the number of fingers he had spread out on the table when he asked the question.
- Room Escape Game: The series frequently featured non-video game examples, in which the contestants would have to use the items in the room to gain access to a key or a code that would allow them to open the door to the next room.
- Sdrawkcab Name: Eccentric Argond Ron Gad - or Dagnor (the credits were somewhat ambiguous as to which was his real name) - spoke backwards English, and would make his entrance on set singing a backwards version of "Waltzing Matilda" complete with fake Australian accent to clue the contestants into the secret behind deciphering his speech. Some contestants caught on immediately and, through hesitant backwards conversations with him, were able to get useful information easily; other contestants never quite seemed to crack the "code" and had to fend for themselves.
- In a Series 2 episode featuring mathematician David Singmaster, Nationwide presenter Sue Cook, and marketing executive Philip Sheppard, Cook was the only contestant to be evaporated by the Vortex, and after an unsuccessful attempt to hitch a lift from the passing Arg-Earth shuttle (with Singmaster and Sheppard as its passengers), she muttered that she wished she had brought The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This was more than just a throwaway reference; when Patrick Dowling proposed the idea of The Adventure Game to the BBC, he approached Douglas Adams about writing for the series to enhance the sci-fi feel, as he had just begun writing the Sound-to-Screen Adaptation of Hitchhiker's Guide.
- In Series 3, the contestants were presented as having crashed their spaceship on Arg after coming in to land too fast, represented with hacked versions of the home computer editions of some of the early 1980s' biggest arcade hits, including Asteroids (identified as Argeroids), Defender, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Frogger.
- Show Within a Show: Starting in Series 3, the framing story was tweaked so that now the home audience was watching broadcasts of a TV programme from Arg; it seems the general population of Argonds found watching visitors from Earth trying their luck against the puzzles set by the Rangdo to be hugely entertaining.
- Significant Anagram:
- The series was packed with anagrams of the word "dragon" (the Argonds' default form). As well as "Argond" itself, the Argonds' actual names - Gandor, Gnoard, Darong, Dorgan, Ron Gad, the mute Angord (who stayed in dragon form), and the Rangdo - were all anagrams of "dragon". Ditto their currency, drogna, and the correct greeting for the Rangdo, "Gronda, gronda, Your Highness."
- The episodes of Series 2 featured anagrams of one or more of the contestants' names as a password or other significant phrase.
- Episode 1, the team for which included Rubik's Cube champion Nicolas Hammond, Play School presenter Carol Chell, and The Goodies' Graeme Garden included a postcard addressed to "Alison C. Mahon, MD, Loch Llarec, Edam Green, Arg".
- In Episode 2, which featured The Chinese Detective star David Yip, the explorers were given a letter addressed to "Ivy P. Daid"; Yip almost immediately deduced that he was the real intended recipient.
- Episode 3 featured marketing executive Philip Sheppard as the non-celebrity contestant; the password to get past the first door was "Elphrida Phipps".
- In Episode 4, the team in which included Play School/Play Away presenter Derek Griffiths, The Liver Birds' Nerys Hughes, and pharmaceutical developer Tessa Hamp, Gandor produced a typed guest list that read "Dr. GRETE KIFFISH, Nurse SHEGHY, Ms. PAT SHEA" (allcaps theirs).
- The team for Episode 5 included marketing executive Bill Green, Newsround and Swap Shop presenter John Craven, and Maggie star Kirsty Miller, but their names appeared on Gandor's guest list as "Lil Bergen, Hon. J.R. Vance, Sir Kim Tyrell".
- Sore Loser: When the Rangdo began controlling the Vortex for the final game of each episode in Series 3, he tended to get very upset if the contestants managed to avoid the Vortex on a given move (usually by luck rather than skill), represented by his unintelligible babbling getting louder, faster, and more high-pitched as Gandor attempted to placate him. When he took the form of a giant teapot in Series 4, he would also let off steam if the contestants outmanoeuvred him. The few contestants who did make it to the far side of the Vortex grid would almost invariably make a comment to the effect of "He doesn't seem very happy with me, does he?" as the Rangdo's anger escalated to full-blown tantrum-throwing.
- Stock Lateral Thinking Puzzle: In Series 3, the contestants were required to present the Rangdo with gifts before proceeding to the Vortex grid; if he particularly liked the gift, he would award them a green cheese roll which they could use to test spaces on the grid for the presence of the Vortex (though if their roll was evaporated, they were on their own thereafter), but if he found the gift especially subpar, he would evaporate them immediately. Gnoard's clue for the contestants was that they might want to sing him a ballad, but not a song, a reference to a lateral thinking puzzle sometimes known as "Crazy Mary" in Britain. The solution: he likes anything with double letters in its name.
- Sufficiently Advanced Alien: As the opening narration indicates, the Argonds are technologically advanced and, though polite, get their jollies from making Earthlings jump through all sorts of puzzle-solving hoops before they will let them leave again - and even then, they might evaporate them at the final step and force them to walk home!
- The Unintelligible: When Ian Messiter proved unavailable to reprise his role as the Rangdo for Series 2, the Argond monarch was written as preferring instead to turn into an aspidistra (Series 2-3) or teapot (Series 4) for the contestants' visits; since neither aspidistras nor teapots have vocal chords, his speech in these series was rendered instead as incomprehensible babbling (as was the Argonds' speech before transforming into humans), which Gandor would interpret for the benefit of the visitors (and the home audience).
- Who's on First?: In the Series 4 episode featuring Johnny Ball, Barbara Lott, and Liz Hobbs, the contestants had to open a combination safe with the word "watt". As Dorgan and Gandor were discussing the games before letting the contestants begin them, much "what/watt" confusion ensued...Dorgan: Now, what's the combination?
Gandor: Exactly right!
Dorgan: ... What??
Gandor: WATT! [indicating Angord, who is holding a light bulb] Look, even Angord has solved it!
- Younger than They Look: Gandor the butler appeared quite elderly and decrepit, but in Series 1, his first few appearances in each episode were in street clothes rather than his butler costume, revealing that actor Christopher Leaver was considerably younger than Gandor was implied to be.