“I Was Deaded by the Rangdo!”

Ian Jones interviews Patrick Dowling and Ian Oliver

First published August 2004

Precious few children’s programmes have managed to stamp as much of an indelible impression upon the minds of viewers as The Adventure Game. Although just 22 episodes were made, shown on BBC2 over a span of six years from May 1980 to February 1986, nostalgic recollections of talking aspidistras, green cheese rolls and crossing the vortex continue to resonate across an entire generation. OTT was fortunate to talk to the show’s creators, Patrick Dowling and Ian Oliver, about how they dreamed up such a remarkable endeavour and how they turned it into a memorable reality.

OTT: Could you sketch in a bit of background about your respective careers prior to The Adventure Game?

IAN OLIVER: I’d been at the BBC since 1962, starting as a trainee cameraman, then cameraman, trailer maker, a trainee director on Late Night Line-up, a studio director on Blue Peter, then the director of The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop. I went out to the Oman Television service in 1975 as producer of all non-news film output, but came back to the Beeb in 1979 as producer of Star Turn. Then Patrick had his inspiration for The Adventure Game and needed a director.

PATRICK DOWLING: I’d joined the BBC in 1955, and had eventually become a staff Senior Producer in the children’s TV department.

OTT: What circumstances led to the conception of The Adventure Game?

PATRICK DOWLING: It was a number of things coming together. I’d seen the very original computer game called “Adventure” back in 1977, which was played on mainframe computers (on which my son worked). Then we got involved with a team playing Dungeons and Dragons. I needed a new imaginative idea to replace Vision On which I had been making for some 10 or more years, when I heard The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio and was knocked out by it! So I met up with Douglas Adams and outlined a general idea to him in the hope I could get him to write it up, but unfortunately he had just agreed to write the TV version of Hitch-hiker … and though he liked the idea didn’t have the time. So I just went at it myself, trying to combine all of the above.

IAN OLIVER: Patrick managed to convince Monica Sims, then head of BBC children’s programmes, that he wanted to do something like Mathematics in Action. Based on his track record – Vision On, Take Hart, etc – Monica gave the green light without much persuasion. As mentioned, I was available (and cheap).

PATRICK DOWLING: I don’t know where the idea came from that The Adventure Game started out as a project for adult TV. It never was anything else but a children’s programme by the children’s department, for transmission at teatime.

OTT: How did the idea and structure for the series take shape?

PATRICK DOWLING: I suppose the general idea that emerged was to face a group of three studio visitors with a bizarre and completely unknown surreal set of situations, with only the instruction “to progress” and just watch them get on with it. Which is, roughly speaking, what happened. But this was the point I got Olly in on it because I knew I wouldn’t be able to direct from the gallery at the same time as keeping some sort of control over what might happen. We collaborated on the development from then on.

IAN OLIVER: So I came in after Patrick had the go-ahead. He was definitely the ideas man. When he was stuck he dug into his experience and came up with a winner. We’d both sit in the office muttering to ourselves and kicking around ideas, then come to some sort of compromise.

Patrick had worked in Rep in his early days and got into the habit of very late nights. He’d come off-stage, clean up, have a meal, then get the milk train home, arriving at six or seven in the morning. Then he’d sleep until early afternoon and do it all over again. He was still running according to that body clock timing when we were doing The Adventure Game. I really don’t remember him ever arriving in the office until after lunch!

PATRICK DOWLING: This is calumny most foul!!! I was always in by 10am – not necessarily awake but at my desk!

IAN OLIVER: Probably because of the curtain-up timing his brain would move into top gear around six or seven. I’d be getting my coat on and Patrick would yell, “Hey, Olly – I’ve had a bit of an idea.” I’d grump, drift into his office and act as his sounding board for two or three hours. Or four or five …

I started off wanting to have two (or more) groups of travellers solving things in different ways. It would have made the editing easier. Actually, I think this two-team thing later cropped up as another BBC Bristol series, Now Get Out Of That. We also thought about having viewers calling in to offer suggestions. So the butler would drift in with a drognaphone or something. However that would’ve meant live transmission, which would’ve meant no limit to the programme duration, which would’ve meant showing it late at night, and that wouldn’t be much good to an audience of children.

There were many possibilities that we considered until late into each evening. Certain amber liquid was frequently involved. Eventually we decided all the plots had to have several problems that could be solved in any order; the solving resulted in information that helped with the next problem and so on.

PATRICK DOWLING: Ideas came out of the air from wherever or whoever. The production office as a whole contributed and anyone who ventured into our orbit was sucked dry!

IAN OLIVER: One big help was a very nice chap called Eamonn Bloomfield. A genuine eccentric. He ran a board game shop in Kingston-upon-Thames. I don’t really think he enjoyed selling games, though; just playing them and owning them. He had a personal collection of three or four thousand games and knew the rules, and variations on the rules, of all of them. He introduced us to Dungeons and Dragons, which was obviously a large influence on where the programme went.

OTT: What was your reaction upon seeing the very first episode?

IAN OLIVER: Ha! You mean the one that never went out?

PATRICK DOWLING: It was fairly disastrous!

IAN OLIVER: It was shot as a pilot and, for most series, you go on to hide your pilot in the middle of the run. Sadly this one wasn’t up to scratch.

PATRICK DOWLING: We’d set up a dummy run in the rehearsal room to give us some idea of the kind of thing to expect, but from then on it was very much a case of flying by the seat of our pants.

IAN OLIVER: Actually, it wasn’t that bad, but one of the puzzles was to do with salt water conducting electricity and we came to the conclusion that we shouldn’t do that sort of thing on a children’s programme.

PATRICK DOWLING: We also overran the recording time and were scrambling to finish it, with a studio audience – a major mistake we did not repeat!

IAN OLIVER: One very big thing we learned was how to cut it down to size. Because the adventurers/explorers were free to do more or less anything they wanted, we ended up shooting nearly two hours for each programme. Many of the “hints” from Chris the butler and company were issued in desperation – we had to be out of the studio by 10pm come hell or high water. For the pilot we spent hours trying to make the explorers’ dialogue follow a logical stream of thought. Then we realised that thoughts don’t work like that. Real dialogue totters all over the shop. Thoughts just come out of nowhere, cross each other and zoom off into the distance. We were being too precise. Editing after that got a lot easier – it was only hellishly difficult instead of totally impossible.

PATRICK DOWLING: The studio camera crew, however, were great. We were committed to using the BBC Bristol studios where I knew the crew was very relaxed and easy going. If I’d suggested to a London crew that we had no script and had no idea what was going to happen they would probably have gone all boot faced about it. But not this lot – they joined in the fun. For subsequent episodes, those who were on day off demanded to be allowed in to be guinea pigs for the morning rehearsal. This was invaluable.

OTT: As far as the production of the show was concerned, did you find you were able to call upon a sufficient budget and resources?

IAN OLIVER: The Beeb was a very kind organisation. It felt much more like a series of little villages, and children’s programmes, especially, was largely a law unto itself. Monica controlled the budget and scheduled the output. Budgets were, of course, smaller than Hollywood, but decent.

I think the budget was largely a guesstimate based on how much it cost to make Vision On. And there were a lot of very talented people in the Beeb then who could knock up several silk purses from one old piggy hearing device. The designers (especially Linda Kettle) did very clever things for tuppence. I suppose the job was made a bit easier by us not knowing what this mysterious planet looked like: “Er, it’s, you know, strange. Got dragons …” So anything outlandish and cheap was OK. I seem to remember one set that was made up largely of bits of car heater trunking somebody picked up cheap.

Some of the visual effects were a bit expensive. For instance, when you have a talking aspidistra you normally have the voice coming from a loudspeaker overhead, and the actors look at the plant. For this programme that wouldn’t have worked. The sound really had to come from the plant (or its stand) – visual effects and the sound department had to collaborate to put tiny radio receivers into all sorts of things.

This, of course, led to complications. The voice eventually came from someone who sat up in the lighting gantry with a lip microphone. Meanwhile many of the devices contained Kenny Baker – just back from playing R2-D2 – wheeling around on a tiny child’s tricycle. Add to that the fact that there was no script – most of it was improvised in response to the “explorers” actions – and it was a miracle things went as well as they did.

Another complication was that two of the series were recorded in Bristol where the studio had no air-conditioning. It worked OK in winter when they just had lights on one set at a time, rehearsed a scene and recorded it, then moved onto another set. For The Adventure Game we didn’t know where the explorers would go next, so most of the studio had to be lit all the time. The third series hit a bit of a heat wave in August.

OTT: Patrick, how much were you involved in the nuts and bolts of the programme? Did you visit the studio floor much, or meet many of the actors and special guests?

PATRICK DOWLING: In the show I introduced the visitors and told them only that they should not break anything, not to cross the “fourth wall”, and that there was a logical sequence if they could find it. And there was too, for the most part!

I also gave them some drogna, the Argond currency, with values based on the number of sides times the colour. Hence a blue pentangle equalled 25 and a red circle equalled one. We never really exploited this idea except as a game on the floor. I subsequently wrote it up as a computer game, but it never really took off. It was surprising how many pronounceable words came from the word DRAGON; all the cast had names that were anagrams, the local population were Argonds and the planet was called Arg. “Gronda Gronda” was the accepted greeting to His Highness the Aspidistra. To this day Olly and I give each other a “Gronda” when we meet.

IAN OLIVER: That reminds me of when I wanted to have Noel Edmonds on the programme. Patrick, being of the old school, was entirely against this – “Bloody hippy disc jockeys! Whatever next?” Mostly I bowed to Patrick’s better judgement but, in this case, refused to back off. Noel was booked, and Patrick gritted his teeth. On the day, Patrick was cool and gentlemanly in his approach – then after the recording they were all of a sudden chattering in a corner, smiles all round, best of friends. Couldn’t get them apart. Funny old thing, life.

OTT: How did you choose all the special guests?

IAN OLIVER: They were people we’d worked with, heard on the radio, or seen here and there. I’d done three years on Blue Peter, for instance, and Lesley (Judd) had time to spare in between other things.

PATRICK DOWLING: She became a subversive “mole” to prevent people rushing off to an early conclusion.

IAN OLIVER: Bill Homewood, the backward speaking chap, was a guest on the very first Swap Shop. He sang Puff the Magic Dragon back to front. I fell off my chair with laughing – Ffup eht Cigam Nogard – and never forgot him.

PATRICK DOWLING: So “Ron Gad” went in as a helpful Aussie, encouraging everyone with a frequent “Doogy rev”, but in fact very few visitors understood what he was on about. We collected a few actors who would be able to help or hinder as the case may be and gave them characters but little else to work on. There was Chris the deaf butler as well, who helped the visitors – if you could understand him. He could only hear when wearing his specs and see with his hearing trumpet.

IAN OLIVER: These were regulars, not special guests, but the same rules applied. They were people you’d seen at work and knew – hoped – would be creative explorers. I’d done a couple of series with Graeme Garden, and knew he’d be OK. The same went for Richard Stilgoe, John Craven, Cheggers, Maggie Philbin, etc. In fact, we had the entire cast of Swap Shop on!

OTT: And what about the programme’s evocative theme tune?

IAN OLIVER: There were actually two of them, I think. I’m sure Patrick came up with both.

PATRICK DOWLING: We started off with one of Grieg’s Symphonic Dances, played by a brass band of all things, which I liked because it was so incongruous. I’d first used a version of it as title music for a production of The Railway Children way back in the 1950s.

IAN OLIVER: Then came the famous John Williams/Julian Bream piece.

PATRICK DOWLING: This was much nicer. Olly switched to it for series three.

IAN OLIVER: Patrick and I preferred the guitar piece.

PATRICK DOWLING: Although difficulty with copyright barred foreign sales.

OTT: Did your relationship with the show change at all during over time? Did you find devising the games becoming harder?

IAN OLIVER: Very hard. Especially when Patrick emigrated to Australia.

PATRICK DOWLING: After two series I’d hit retirement age, and so left the BBC and Olly continued with it by himself for another two. I got involved with the animation series Morph and then emigrated out to Oz.

IAN OLIVER: The chief source of ideas had vanished. Luckily many other people started contributing. Toby Freeman comes to mind. He went on to invent games for Granada.

PATRICK DOWLING: I actually had a vague idea of becoming a TV consultant but ended up living out in the bush where I couldn’t receive TV at all. So that idea was put paid to! I’ve since moved back into civilisation.

OTT: So who was responsible for the show eventually coming to an end?

IAN OLIVER: Patrick left Britain in 1982, and I left in 1985. I don’t know if Chris Tandy, who directed series three and produced the fourth, offered another run to Edward Barnes, who was by then head of children’s programmes.

OTT: The Adventure Game is fondly remembered by a very particular generation of viewers. Why do you think it had such an impact?

PATRICK DOWLING: Is that so? I didn’t know, but if that is the case let me hazard a guess or two. It may well have been the Douglas Adams effect. It was an age that was open to sophisticated fantasy, to Dungeons and Dragons, Hitch-hiker and so on. You had the sheer dottiness of the characters, and indeed of the whole idea, contrasting with the visitor’s willing suspension of disbelief. That’s what I found fascinating anyway.

IAN OLIVER: I loved it, but how much of that was adrenalin?

OTT: How do you each personally remember the show?

IAN OLIVER: Much fun. Much exhaustion. Much panic. And odd moments of delight. Like constructing the black hole (well, Bristol had a lot of infra-red cameras left over from Foxwatch). Most explorers were quite tremulous in there – it really was dark. To spice things up we sometimes got a dragon to go in there with them. I remember Maddie Smith being totally unfazed by it all and emerging at the far end to find a kitchen set. There was a kettle, so she set about making tea. A dragon followed through the secret door 20 seconds later dressed as a milkman and offered her a pint of milk, to which she responded, “Oh no thank you darling. Not with Earl Grey!” Priceless.

PATRICK DOWLING: I remember it all with huge enjoyment; we had an absolute ball making it. Every show was totally unexpected – it was like lighting a blue touch-paper and standing back with hands over our eyes! No, I know what it was like – Alice in Wonderland crossed with The Hitch-hiker’s Guide. That sums it up exactly. Alice … was always my favourite book of philosophy.

OTT: Finally, which of you were responsible for dreaming up the celebrated “vortex” the contestants had to cross at the end of each episode?

PATRICK DOWLING: That was me. Can’t remember where I found it, some sort of old book of games I expect.

IAN OLIVER: I think it was very loosely based on a game called “Fox and Geese” or “Nine Men’s Morris” or something. I wrote the programme on a BBC computer.

PATRICK DOWLING: It was the technical guys who made it really work – the starry sky below the flimsy bridge and the whirling blue vortex itself with its eerie sound. I was quite surprised how real it seemed to several of the victims.

IAN OLIVER: Fittingly, at the end of the last recording the cast insisted that I should brave the vortex. I was deaded by the Rangdo!