'Into the Labyrinth' - the Television Series

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I deny you the Nidus!

Into the Labyrinth is a 1981-2 British children's television series made by minor ITV company HTV as a rival to the BBC's Doctor Who. The series starred Ron Moody, an Oscar-nominated and Tony and Golden Globe winning actor who had been offered the role of the Doctor back in 1969. It involved a time-travel plot with the main characters travelling to different eras, but no matter the year or country, always finding themselves inside a labyrinth of caves. Though predominantly studio sets, some cave interiors had been filmed at Cheddar. Cheesy though the series is, with very outdated effects, its Arthurian ethos and charm nevertheless shines through today.

Labyrinthine: Plot

In the first series three children, siblings Helen and Terry and Phil, a boy from a better school, shelter in a cave when a sudden storm strikes. Inside they find Rothgo the wizard, who has been trapped beneath a giant boulder with no hope of rescue. Under Rothgo's guidance they are able to use magic to lift the boulder. Once free, Rothgo tells them that he is a dying wizard whose source of power, the Nidus, has been stolen by his rival, the evil sorcerer Belor. As long as Rothgo lives, Belor is unable to use the power of the Nidus herself or even touch it, but as soon as he dies she will be able to claim it and become all-powerful. She has hidden the Nidus in the past to keep it from Rothgo while she awaits his death.

Now free, Rothgo decides to use his power to firstly give the children cloaks that will enable them to blend in with whatever time period they find themselves and then send the children into the past to follow and find the Nidus. The Nidus, however, changes its shape in each era it is in. It can only be seen for what it is in reflection, where it shines brightly. Once the Nidus has been found all three children need to join hands around it and call Rothgo from the present. In every era of the past they find themselves in there exists Belor in disguise as well as Rothgo, who in each era thanks to Bellor's spells has lost his memory and will not remember who he is until the children speak his name. Every era of the past looks remarkably like a maze of caves and caverns, and every time the children come close to claiming the Nidus Belor shouts 'I deny you the Nidus!' and sends it on to the next period of time.

Belor's powers include the ability to zap people like lightning from her fingers, render people rigid and unconscious and transport them elsewhere. She can also change her appearance, create illusions and fly, with her only weakness the back of her neck. If she is wounded there she is helpless for a short period. Rather than kill the children outright she believes that as long as she keeps them alive but threatened, Rothgo will have to use up his powers protecting them, getting weaker faster than he would if they simply died. She often seeks out alliances, getting someone to hold the Nidus on her behalf and she enables them to wield some of its power as long as they serve her will. At the end of the first series Belor is defeated and dies, with the children each given a magical crystal as a reward.

Belor is resurrected at the start of the second series, which follows a similar format to the first. This time the children enter the labyrinth from the Stanton Drew stone circle1, magically transported after walking into one of the rocks. Belor has created her own gem, the Albido, to defeat the Nidus, splitting it into five and scattering the pieces throughout time. After being given even better magical cloaks that change their costume in each time they visit, will they be able to collect the five pieces of the Nidus to defeat Belor once again?

Rothgo, Helen and Terry did not return for the third and final series. Instead Phil meets young and often incompetent wizard Lazlo beneath and inside Glastonbury Tor. Phil aids him in his attempt to restore the full magical ability of his bracelet, the Scarabaeus, half of which – a beetle-shaped gem that clasps to the bracelet - is missing. Belor seeks to deny Lazlo the Scarabaeus by sending it not only across time but also frequently into fiction. As with the Nidus, Belor is unable to hold the Scarabaeus while Lazlo lives – however both Lazlo and Phil have been infected with a green, petrifying slime that is spreading from their hands and across their bodies. Once the spread is complete they will both turn to stone and Belor will be able to wield the Scarabaeus. This time Belor is aided with her own henchman, the largely incompetent Bram.

Dramatis Personæ

Rothgo….? Rothgo? Yes – I am Rothgo!

CharacterActor
Rothgo, dying wizard who needs the NidusRon Moody
Belor, evil sorcerer seeking the NidusPamela Salem
Lazlo, young wizardChris Harris
Phil, incredibly intelligent boySimon Beal
Helen, Terry's sisterLisa Turner
Terry, Helen's brotherSimon Henderson
Bram, Belor's elderly henchmanHoward Goorney

Ron Moody is of course most associated with playing Fagin in the musical Oliver!, from the original 1960 cast, the multiple award-winning 1968 film and later revivals, including the 1983 performance for which he won the Tony award. He would later that decade play a similar sorcerer character voicing soothsayer Prolix in Asterix and the Big Fight while he twice played Merlin in Disney film adaptations loosely based on Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court2, The Spaceman and King Arthur (1979) and A Kid in King Arthur's Court (1995). Pamela Salem's lot is to play his nemesis the witch Belor – she would later play Miss Moneypenny in Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983).

Heading Into the Labyrinth

In 1968 HTV gained the ITV franchise for the Wales and West Country region, which was among the less prestigious ITV franchises. Unable to command the budgets that larger companies could dedicate to prestigious dramas, HTV decided to compete by making quality children's dramas. The most successful children's television drama of the era was, of course, Doctor Who (1963+). Throughout the 1970s Bob Baker with his writing partner Dave Martin were among its most prolific contributors, creating well-loved characters such as Omega and K-9. They also started writing for HTV's dramas, contributing a script for children's drama Pretenders (1972) and the award winning adult drama Thick as Thieves (1972). This led to them being commissioned by HTV to create their own children's series, Arthur of the Britons (1972-3) in an interpretation of the King Arthur myth without magic.

This series led to their being considered safe hands to create more children's dramas that were broadcast across the whole ITV network. The next, Sky (1975), involved a magical being and three teenagers seeking the Juganet. The next, King of the Castle (1977), was set in a tower block where a child finds himself in an alternate, inverted world and was considered to be too scary for children to watch on their own. This was followed by another series, Follow Me (1977) about smuggling. However having written several self-contained series with definite beginnings and especially endings, Baker planned to next create a television series that had the potential to continue just as Doctor Who did.

Elements from all these previous series can all be seen in his next series, Into the Labyrinth. This was clearly inspired by legends of King Arthur, with Rothgo and Belor based on Merlin and Morgan le Fay. The idea of always travelling to a different time and place was clearly borrowed from Doctor Who and, considered the most likely rival to that programme since The Tomorrow People, it quickly gained a foothold across the whole of ITV.

The filming involved a small amount of location footage bookending the start and end of each series. The first series involved filming at Cheddar Gorge, with some cave footage used occasionally as background for chromakey3 scenes. Into The Labyrinth was heavily promoted in ITV's Look-In magazine, with a comic strip based on the characters' adventures. Two novelisations were written about the series, Into the Labyrinth based on the first series and Return to the Labyrinth based on the second.

Following Into the Labyrinth Bob Baker famously co-wrote Aardman's Wallace and Gromit films The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave, the feature-length Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and A Matter of Loaf and Death with Nick Park. All of these were Oscar-nominated, with two Best Animated Short Film wins and a Best Animated Film win. He later co-created the K-9 Television Series.

Amazing: I'm Reviewing the Situation

The series biggest weakness is that despite involving time travel, there is no denying that every time and country looks exactly like the same cave. The children meet Robin and Marian and fight the Sheriff of Nottingham at Sherwood Cave, they later experience the terror of the Civil War and encounter Roundheads and Cavaliers – or should that be Cave-aliers? They visit the Caves of Parliament on 5th November 1605, where Guido Fawkes warns King James of Catesby's plot to blow up Parliament with gunpowder. They even visit the Alamo, the famous 'cave' in Texas where it seems that only three men – Davy Crockett, James Bowie and an extra – defended the cave against a force of five thousand Mexicans, although no more than two are actually seen. Yes, try with all their stalagmite the producers cannot hide that they were obviously working with a stalactite budget.

There is no doubt that when starring Ron Moody, the series had the Nidus touch and without him it lost much of its dignity and gravitas. Realising that it would be impossible to replace Moody on his own terms the character of Lazlo was created to be a contrast and instead was played for laughs, but to no avail. There was certainly untapped potential there, but the character needed the chance to do more than frequently forget Phil's name and call him John. The lead actors' surnames were incredibly appropriate for their characters. Rothgo initially comes across as moody and threatening. Pamela Salem plays a witch and her surname reminds viewers of the Salem witch trials4. In the third series Belor successfully channels her inner 80s diva and has gloriously larger-than-life hair.

With the limitations of props and sets apparent, the series instead relies on its main characters. With three child actors it could have gone horribly wrong; Helen is very much portrayed as the caring child because she is the girl. Her brother Terry is there seemingly largely to grumpily dispute and question and thus give him a chance to discuss the plot with the other two. Phil is boy genius and action hero character, and it is positive to see a young black actor in the role of the main child at this time. Yet with Pamela Salem and Ron Moody on top form, the fun these actors are having with this series is readily transparent. Each week they get to impersonate different characters from different moments, with Salem particularly bringing a camp versatility to her performance.

Into the Labyrinth may have been ultimately unsuccessful in being a serious rival Doctor Who, only with running up and down tunnels rather than up and down corridors. Yet this does not matter. True it is amazingly formulaic, but it is fun.

1Britain's second largest stone circle; only Avebury, the setting for HTV's previous series The Children of the Stones, is larger.2The 1949 adaptation starring Bing Crosby remains definitive, though the spaceship from The Spaceman and King Arthur, released in America as Unidentified Flying Oddball was displayed at Blackgang Chine on the Isle of Wight for many years.3Also known as Colour Separation Overlay, this is a way to combine two video images together by subtracting unwanted background images from the image to be on top, with the unwanted visual image to be removed a specific colour, typically blue or green.4'Salem' should not be confused with downhill skiing after all…

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