There’s something about Mary


In case you hadn’t noticed, escaping rooms has become a bit of an obsession for me so, when Brendan at Escape Plan asked me about coming down to help film a TV programme, I was more than happy to get involved. Truth be told, I hadn’t heard of “What Britain Buys”, but I was aware of Mary Portas as the person who’d been put in charge of reviving the British high street. It didn’t really matter to me, though – the main thing was that I got to spend the morning talking about escape rooms, exposing one of London’s best escape rooms to a wider public and maybe, just a little bit, getting a story to tell my friends along the way.

When we finished up for the day, it occurred to me that some of the aspects would be quite fun to blog about so, way back just after we’d shot the segment, I put together this post covering my thoughts. I’ve kept it under embargo for a couple of months (my choice!), so that I could release it at the same time as the programme is shown. The shots of me may never even see the light of day – I’ve done a couple of TV things before where I’ve failed to make it to the final edit!

Before the Game

The first thing to say is that there’s a lot of faff involved in getting ready for production: as well as being miked up, I chatted to the director about what attracted me to escape rooms, and then waited around while they got everything ready in the room. That could have been dull, but I was sitting downstairs in a café with the guys behind Bewilder Box chatting about escape rooms. More on that later.

Eventually, though, everything was ready, Mary Portas had arrived (on a motorbike!) and it was time to go up to the room. After even more faffing, we finally got to business. A delightfully brief briefing gave me a taste of what was to come, as they got Brendan to repeat various bits of it so they could record him, Mary and our reactions (mainly looking on with concentration and laughing occasionally…).

It continued throughout – so often we would film something (like walking into the room), only for them to stop us, take us back to our original positions, and then record us from a different angle.

Deja joué

The thing is, and I probably should have mentioned this at the start, I’d already played Escape Plan. It’s a very good room, but I wasn’t convinced playing it again was going to be much fun. How wrong I was!

For starters, the room itself is a joy to be in. It’s old, it’s full of interesting props and a lot of it is wood, so it’s the sort of place you’d happily mooch around, picking up curios idly while chatting to your friends. Add to that the fact that I didn’t actually do all the puzzles myself the first time, and that it was quite fun just searching round the place, and finding things made it a genuinely enjoyable experience.

So what if I knew how certain puzzles worked? I didn’t need to take part in those, and instead concentrated on rummaging round the room. Knowing that there was a jigsaw to solve (there isn’t!) wouldn’t have helped me at all to find jigsaw pieces, and so it didn’t change much for me. What it did mean was that I could watch the others discover things. I’ve often heard game hosts say how much they enjoyed seeing us discover things, and now I get a feeling of why. There’s a great look of triumph on people’s faces when they solve a puzzle. If you already know the solution, you know exactly when to look.

I did use my knowledge to good effect a few times – I knew which way a puzzle would take us, so I could gently guide my team mates towards that and away from false trails, and make sure that Mary got to take part in the game. She was obviously talking to camera a fair bit, which made it much harder for her to take on a puzzle entirely. It was particularly noticeable that in some puzzles, where there were two or three steps, she was struggling to see where we’d gone because she’d been distracted presenting. It’s a shame she couldn’t have played the whole game through with the cameras only watching on, but that’s just not the nature of television.

As I said above – we kept on recording things from different angles and, with Mary presenting during the segment and asking us questions, we were never likely to get anywhere near the end of the game in the one-hour slot, so Brendan fast-forwarded us through certain parts of the game. I feel genuinely sorry for my team mates, because this is a great game, and they’re left in a no man’s land of having played enough of the game already to make it hard to replay, but not having truly experienced it… Them’s the breaks, I guess.

Bewilder Box

A big highlight of the day was spending time with the Davids from Bewilder Box. I’ve been vaguely aware of this escape room startup for the last few months. They both crop up on one of the Facebook enthusiasts’ groups from time to time and, excitingly, they recently signed Hugo Myatt (Treguard from Knightmare) to star in their game (in recorded form, obviously!).

It’s always fun chatting with fellow enthusiasts, but ones that are in the middle of starting an escape room business are even better. We chatted about all manner of things – theming, hosting, marketing, competition… and it was clear that they’ve got the right makeup to do well in the business. The key thing for me was their great people skills: as I’ve said before, the host is very important to the success or failure of games.

One of the production assistants was always present throughout all this (I think his job was to do whatever the director requested, and by this time the director was busy). I felt incredibly sorry for him, being trapped with a group of enthusiasts. Not that it stopped me carrying on regardless… We did give him a couple of suggestions of rooms to play, though – I hope he got something out of the chat!

It wasn’t long before it was all over, however. The filming was done, Mary headed off and we were left to have lunch in the café downstairs (which I would recommend if you play the game!). A final farewell to Brendan and the Davids and then it was off home (before heading back out to play another couple of escape games…).

Oh, and for the record – yes, we escaped. I did wonder at one point whether I’d fail a room I’d previously escaped, but fortunately the magic of television saved me.

You can read Brendan’s account of the day over here.

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