The Desert Forges
The Poetess: Melanie Winiger (former Miss Switzerland)
Grundy and Adventure Line for Channel 5, 23 June to 25 August 2001 (10 episodes in 1 series)
Let us give you an insight into the mind of a UKGSP reviewer [is that wise? - Ed]. We want to give shows a fair chance to impress us. We also know that you, our beloved readers, would like to know what we think about new shows. If we haven't seen a show before, we tend to give it a few episodes before writing about it unless it's blatantly obvious what a show is going to be like and within those shows we've normally worked out if it's going to be a success or not and whether we like it or not. When it comes to action-adventure game shows, chances are we're fans of a foreign version so would be able to tell more quickly as to whether it's going to work or not.
Now, we've seen other versions of Desert Forges and we like it so it would be fair to say that we thought we had the British version clocked. As it turns out, this is our third re-write because whenever we think we know the show it turns out that for some reason we don't. Let's begin, shall we? Yella, yella!
Channel 5 eh? Our sole source of action-adventure in a world dominated by... erm, other things. Hot on the heels of their successful British version of Fort Boyard comes another Adventure Line show, apparently a progression of the format set in a desert. So: Desert Boyard then. BUT! Is it? It's important to note that it's not a Jaques Antoine show, rather the people who invented this have all been producers of the fantastic French version of Boyard, so they should know what they are doing.
Interesting choice of hosts. Richard Fairbrass obviously got very lost taking a hike to Tahiti and ended up in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. Perhaps Channel 5 hoped it would get the old people vote who would perhaps confuse him for Richard O'Brien from The Crystal Maze (because old people are like that, aren't they?) seeing as they're both called Richard and are both bald. The other host is stunning glamour model Gabrielle Richens who will be familiar to readers of Loaded but perhaps few others. She speaks in an accent we could only describe as Cockney Strine.
Two male/female couples come to the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan with their sole aim of being let into the Palace of the Forge and then into the Forge itself in order to cast their own prize in gold bars. To get there, first they must duel each other under the sun in the desert and once inside the palace, the teams must complete tough challenges and mathematical problems. Sounds exciting, doesn't it?
The two couples are bought by jeep to a place in the desert. With the teams and the hosts are two people (Zach and Ramm) who act as 'the eyes' of the Poetess (read: they've got video cameras strapped to their heads) and as such 'The Poetess is always watching'. What this boils down to is that between each duel we see the Poetess in the Palace looking at highlights and adding things like "Well done, now you need just three more flames before you can enter the palace." A bit "so what?" then.
In the desert, the couples must compete in four duels in temperatures of up to 45 degrees C. The first one is played by both teams at one and is a race for the Dagger, set at the end of the course. These are things like running across a broken rope bridge, untying yourself from a board being dragged along by a camel that sort of thing. The winner of the duel wins a flame, and also wins control of the dagger. You'd think that control of the dagger would be important, wouldn't you given how much emphasis is placed on it. In fact it's not very important at all, seemingly merely deciding who goes first on a given event.
The other three duels could involve anything. Basically, these fall mainly into two types of events. Races are just that but with a cunning twist in the tail that looks rather more cunning than it actually is - although both players are racing the course it is staggered. The first player starts a sand timer at the top of the game and starts another one with the same amount of sand when when they finish. The second player begins the race when the first timer has run out. Cleverly, if the second player can catch a grain of sand from the sand timer started by the first player at the end of the course then they have been faster and win the duel. If the second sand timer runs out then they have been slower and lost.
The other main type of duel involves getting as far into the game as you can in The Time of the Warrior. Not, in fact, 15th Century feudal Japan, rather the time between two gunshots fired by Abdullah the local friendly mad warrior type, which co-incidentally happens to usually be 60 seconds.
Some of these games are quite good, such as Seven Pillars, where one player has to jump as far along a set of seven increasingly more spaced out pillars within a minute stopping when time runs out or when they can't go on anymore. The knife is then hidden in a box at the side of the pillar. The other team who have been hidden from this then do the same but as the player jumps onto the next pillar they pull a rope revealing to their partner whether the dagger is in the box or not. They have to get the knife before the time runs out.
Some are not quite so well thought out, or at least have a good idea behind it but could be thought out better, like The Well. Here, a trolley carries a knife and the player must try and get it as far down the trail as possible. Sadly, every few centimetres is a metal pole blocking it, so the female player uses a long slightly bent stick to knock them out so the trolley can travel. However, their partner is suspended upside down above a vat of water. Although they have sixty seconds to do as well as they can, she can only work whilst he's holding his breath under water. Now, this is an alright idea for a game but its a shame there's no mechanism for the metal pusher to stop working when her partner's head is above water other than for Richard Fairbrass to say 'stop'.
Aaaanyway, there are four duels and after the fourth duel they stop using their very Bedouin jeeps and jump on camels instead to get to the palace. A nice touch, although we've seen foreign versions where they travel everywhere by camel. Richard will crack a few jokes during the jeep travelling - look how different our civilisations are!
Inside the Palace torches have been placed for each couple depending on how many duels they've won, with the team with the most flames going first. (Pedantic sidenote: We thought it would've been better to have the team in control of the dagger going first - a team with the dagger but losing 3-1 would have the advantage of going first but would have to win all four houses, which would be very difficult indeed and would very probably be forced to give gold control to the better team. Dammit, it probably would have been had it been a Jacques Antoine show!).
Each flame they won in the desert now equals a life inside the palace. The team playing are tied together by the wrist, "now you must play as one" says the Poetess. Inside the palace are many houses, and four get used in each episode. Inside each house is a challenge. If they succeed, they keep their flame alight and one of the forges is lit. For every game won, a bigger value forge is lit. If however they lose then the flame dies and they lose their life. If they lose all their lives then the Sword of Damocles has fallen and the other team carry on where they left off, and probably getting the gold.
On the chance that each team happens to have two flames when they get to the Palace then they play a round of Chakria. This is Sumo Wrestling with thin people (and hence less entertaining), competitors must grab each other by the belt only and attempt to get their opponent's feet out of the ring. The losers lose a flame and hence breaks the deadlock.
The challenges in the houses range from genius to good to not-as-clever. Certainly, a lot of the attraction of the show is to how many of the games are good fun and use the penalty of the binding in an interesting way. In all these games a man dressed like Darth Vader named Ziotor (meant to represent the dark side of human nature, apparently) lights a candle with a short wick using the flame the team are currently carrying. The general idea is for the team to complete the challenge by lighting a fuse somewhere in the room, exploding a secret door leading to their flame and the next house. If they fail, they have to go to the next house via the Poetess and collect another one. If the candle gets put out, because the wick ran out, was blown out or put out by one of the obstacles in the room then they lose.
Our biggest problem with them is that while the good games are good, the bad games aren't particularly interesting. Bad games on Fort Boyard are salvaged because there are five or six people outside the room all trying to shout encouragement at once so at least it gives the impression of excitement, something not quite recreated with a lone host.
Examples of challenges include Extinguisher, an obstacle course around the room. The candle is lit and is placed on platform pulley system thing. A few
inches above the candle is a bit of metal, a few inches below the candle is a pool of water. The idea is for the players to save the candle by completing the obstacle course (which includes snakes) but at the same time keeping tension on the pulley from various points in the room. If they make too much tension the flame will be smothered by the metal snuffer-outer. Too little tension and the candle will lower into the water and be put out.
Another example is the Old Forge, where the candle is put on the end of a pivot. The fuse is at the end of a maze. One of the couple has to guide the candle on a pivot through the maze. Sadly, they can't see anything because of a huge wall. Their partner therefore has to look through the hole and become the eyes of the player.
And there is Tightrope, the players try and traverse a tightrope holding the candle. The catch is, five foot above the tightrope is a metal pole and the binding has go go above it so that there is one player wither side of the pole. The big catch is that there are obstacles on the pole which prevents the players from moving on thanks to the binding. One of the players has to climb atop the other so they can slip the binding over the obstacles, all the while keeping the flame alight.
After each game the players are confronted with a Jidi - a mathematical riddle along the lines of "If one third of the women in a Bedouin village are spinners and the others were weavers five years ago, how old is my sister's hamster?" There are four in all and the answers when placed next to each other form a sequence. The players need to find the sequence and the next number in it.
Now, it's a fair point that there is probably a correlation between "people who like game shows" and "people who are good at maths", but this strikes us by being not that much fun. Certainly not as fun as the riddles on Fort Boyard which are clever word and lateral thinking related. There they are can't help but play along fun, here they seem a bit like hard work. That's not to say that we can't do them - of course we can, they're hardly difficult. But what essentially boils down to A-Level algebra isn't the sort of thing we look forward to on a Saturday evening. In other countries it's done totally differently - Jidi is a bit of metal that represents a forge and the big puzzle is a bit like Fort Boyard's password.
Incidentally, we don't yet know what happens if our teams fail all the challenges in the houses. We'd assume for the moment that the first team get to go to the Forge but with mega time penalties.
If a team that won the chakria have played the four houses but they lose their last flame in the last house, rather than let the other team automatically take the gold instead the two teams 'do' a snake ritual, whereby a member of each team has their head in a large Perspex box and their head is wired up to a motion sensor. Snakes are released into the box, the first person to move too much loses and give the Forge to the other team. If both last a minute, the team that won the chakria win automatically.
This leads us to our biggest problem with the show. There's obviously a lot of cause and effect going on, but the absolutely worst thing you can do is just spring these things up without telling the viewer what could happen and what will happen before and after the event. We can sort of understand why this tie-break is needed (the playing team would have won two and lost two so in effect it's a draw) but we were kind of expecting the losing team with the flame to win because they still have a flame - that's what we're expected to believe from the outset, we'd be a lot less confused and upset if they had mentioned it either from the outset or before the final house.
Anyway after the challenges and the final jidi from the Poetess, the players are shown the correct answers they've given and are given until the sand runs out of the glass to come up with the next number in the sequence. This is the number they must give Salah the Forgemaster (an actual real Forgemaster in real life, don'tcha know) when they get to the forges. And look! It's time to describe the Forges now.
The winning team now have four minutes to find the forge and pour their own gold. They use their living flame to blow open the door to the mineshaft, they go down the mineshaft and run along the tunnel. The tunnel is blocked by a crushing machine, and they must solve a puzzle to raise it so they can go under. After that, they've got to put their protective gear on - quickly as the time is ticking. Then into the Forge itself - but not before Richard explains this to the team (keep in mind the clock is still ticking at this point):
"OK now this is the forges room that you've worked really hard to get to, OK, now before you can enter the forges room you have to give Salah the answer to the conundrum you came up with in the Poetess' tent, understand? Now, if the answer is correct the crucible will free itself automatically, if the answer is wrong, you'll have to do it manually and you will lose time. Understand?"
Only four minutes, remember.
Once inside, the players have to line up the pot exactly with the forge or Salah won't allow them to tip the molten metal into their pot. When they have the metal, they wheel their giant-pot-on-tracks to the gold-bar-moulds where they spend the rest of their time pouring the metal into the mould. When time runs out or they run out of metal, Salah shouts loudly and they stop.
At first viewing, the gold pouring is spectacularly impressive to watch. However, to be honest, whilst the Forge Run gives the impression that it's fast and mad and there's lots going on, scratch beneath the surface and it's not that much fun to watch and there's not that much going on really.
Back outside, the gold is bought out to them. The players probably receive a nominal prize for every ingot successfully cast although we're not told how much. The gold bought out to them probably isn't the gold actually poured, it looks far too perfect.
For some reason during the show the hosts have added comments during post-production. I don't think it's needed. Let's however do our obligatory big-up to the music, successfully recreating the Lawrence of Arabia desert vibe. However, there's not enough variety in it - the Poetess' theme is annoying us intensely as it's played about eight times an episode.
The desert is quite beautiful but kudos must also go to the ancient palace built around 1997 by the production company. It looks lovely and they've managed to build an actual working forge inside. Nice. Watch it for the surroundings and set if nothing else.
So the setting's lovely, the games are quite good fun and as a show we quite like it. Sadly it also annoys us by making the winning conditions overly complicated. There are bits that need reworking, most notably the fact that there are four different layers of game play and no less than SEVEN different scoring devices somewhere in here (knives, flames, jidis, time, lit forges, amount of gold in a forge, gold bars won).
Having a back story is always dangerous (c.f. Ice Warriors) - they only just pull it off here, although the characters don't really get much of a look in to make this very worthwhile. The Poetess doesn't actually do very much, although she does successfully manage to combine "Swiss accent" and "Bedouin accent (?)" to make "exotic accent". Richard Fairbrass and Gabrielle Richens aren't the first people you think of to host an action-adventure gameshow. This said, they don't do to badly in their own style.
Not as good as Fort Boyard then, which does have a simple, tight game structure. Ho hum.
Adventure Line Productions
Based on a French format (which was pulled in its native country after only three shows, but the rest of the run went out on Francophile channel TV5).