Magical, mysterious, mischievous, mean moody and magnificent - just a few adjectives to describe the late, great John Woodnutt's contribution to Knightmare. He certainly had his M&M's, having played a dual role par excellence.
I am of course referring to Merlin and Mogdred, whose performances he most definitely enlivened during Series 1-4 (though intriguingly not as part of the pilot of 1987).
I am of the opinion, like many Knightmare fans, that both characters were two sides of the same coin: realising the inherent good and evil that is within all of us and that it's just a matter of which we chose to align ourselves to as people.
He sadly left us ten years ago in January (died: Jan 2, 2006) but left a great deal of output behind that is highly worthy of discussion. This first article will take an affectionate look at John's portrayal of these two Knightmare roles in greater detail, while the next will explore the vast body of work he had outside the greater game.
Merlin: Series 1-4
As a keen amateur actor myself, I can tell you the old adage is true: it's very often a lot more fun to play the bad guys. John, however, seemed to prove the case for good guys when playing the often befuddled, almost verging on senile, Merlin.
There seemed to be an impish joy he possessed as he managed somehow to steal the scene and simultaneously allow the dungeoneer or team member to be the centre of focal attention.
I recall the lovely line within the Series 4 winners' ceremony: "and of course, Praveen, or may I call you Prav? ... How splendid! I know people do." This for me seemed to cement John as someone that was in touch with youth - i.e. us, the intended audience demographic.
However, Merlin was much more than a simple prize giver and bringer of a controversial Christmas to Knightmare Castle.
In Series 1, he was arguably at his most mysterious, since we heard about - but never saw - his counterpart. Tantalisingly, Mogdred's name appears in the credits, despite him never appearing.
As an adult, this makes me wonder just what was potentially implied here. Was Mogdred just another aspect of Merlin's personality, or were we simply denied the stentorian tones because no team got far enough?
There can be no doubt that Merlin was a powerful man who was keen to help, but he also had to follow the rules and accordingly could make or break quests. All too often his magic was vital to enable dungeoneers to succeed.
He was also the only dungeon denizen to restore a dungeoneer's life force directly with the infamous VIM. (A curtailed product placement with Vimto, perhaps?) He had the uncanny ability to appear anywhere and was often accompanied by a thunderclap which underlined his magical nature. Pleasing Merlin, or 'Bert' to his friends, wasn't always an easy task.
The most challenging time to encounter him was in Series 3 with the wonderful throne room of Level 2. This place contains one of my most cherished memories when Scott (Team 9) made a valiant attempt at Olympic standard jumping.
Sadly this particular gargantuan effort was to no avail and he plummeted into the starry void. This meant death, of course, but also the lost opportunity to see another unforgettable encounter.
If you managed to invoke all 3 steps correctly then you got across. Upon Merlin's appearance there was further testing of the team's mettle.
"Two out of two or it just won't do."
Failing this stiff challenge led to another infamous death - by goblin. John's stern face was a delight, akin to an old schoolmaster admonishing a pupil only to switch when the team was doing well.
Finally in Series 4 we saw another facet to his character: he either established the mini-quest or appeared as a captive in the stocks (or both). These appearances seemed to undermine the great work that had gone before. For my money it seemed to demean both Merlin and John's investment in him, and the role was better served by Hordriss and Malice.
He only seemed to return fully to form when (not) acting as host of the Chamber of Opposite Extraction. (Ironically the confusing nature of this might well have suited Hordriss the Confuser better!) After John's departure from Knightmare, Merlin was never seen again. But his name was used briefly, still showing a fondness for his portrayal.
An explanation was never forthcoming for this, but various affectionate parodies (including the fan-made Knightmare RPG) prove that he has never completely vanished from our memories.
Mogdred: Series 2-4
As for you who watch - look upon Mogdred now. Look upon Mogdred and quail!
Mogdred's appearances were sadly far fewer than those of Merlin. Each one was a chilling delight, and it is testament to John's skill that it is not initially apparent that it is the same actor. Whilst the truly horrible makeup and simple monkish costume indubitably play a part, it cannot be denied that John's ability shines through and his decision to 'play it straight' produces great dividends.
Like with Merlin, he turns up unpredictably throughout quests. Instead of needing knowledge, he freely offered passage to the dark side through spells of glory and pledging of allegiance. Clever use of voids and perspectives allowed Mogdred to tower above dungeoneers and intimidate them.
This was coupled with chilling and malevolent voicework, so powerful in both tone and flavour that chilled watchers to the bone. For my money, he never needed to be seen to be a threat, as this vocal onslaught was so effective.
Indeed, when he was seen he was the literal puppet master, pulling on our emotional strings in a highly disturbing fashion. Consequently it seemed apt that his dispatching of Helen (Series 4, Team 1) was by Mogdred's hand, creating yet another striking memory of early Knightmare.
These final appearances of Series 4 seemed to heighten him both in physical size and level of threat and had it occurred, his final screen vanquishing would have likely involved the spell TINY by Giles.
Sadly Merlin and Mogdred never faced off directly. But if they had, it would have made for a further highly memorable scene with Mr Woodnutt's clear stamp of authenticity. Bearing all this in mind, he gave both roles and every scene his absolute all, even when the scenario occasionally let him down.
Whilst the dungeon saluted certain dungeoneering teams, I would like to close off this first instalment by saluting him and his shining contributions to the programme.