In 2002 BBC Scotland produced a gameshow that stood out from all of the studio-based offerings that typified children's television. Instead of being given easy questions or ritually humiliated, the contestants were stretched both mentally and physically and treated with respect. Filmed in the grounds of Castle Toward in Dunoon, this mould-breaking show was Raven.
Raven - the Warrior
The eponymous hero is a Celtic warlord, played with style and gusto by Scottish actor James MacKenzie. After graduating from Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh with a BA in Acting (Distinction) in 2002, he auditioned for the role of Raven. James found himself up against 1,000 hopefuls for the part. Despite being new to television he obviously had the attributes the producers were looking for and he proceeded to make the role his own.
The opening titles show the avian raven flying around the battlements of a castle before turning into its human form. This sets up the air of mystery about the central character. Who is he, and what is he there for? His task is to find a worthy champion through a series of arduous physical and mental challenges. The Raven's Eye staff that he carries gives him magical powers that are especially useful when the young warriors fail one of the challenges and end up in the clutches of demons. He is the children's guide, encouraging and occasionally upbraiding them for their efforts at the various tasks on their journey. With an impish sense of humour, Raven makes his occasional exasperation clear, especially when the mental challenges fail to produce a single winner. However, courtesy and fair play are paramount to the feel of the game and his harsher comments are never designed to belittle the warriors.
Let the challenge... begin!
You must be quicker, young warrior!
Time is not on your side!
You had gold in your sights but sawdust in your brains!
Either you did not listen to your heads or there was nothing worth listening to in the first place!
May the luck of the Raven's Eye be with you!
Hold your head high, young warrior!
You have battled bravely and you leave us with honour!
The Rules of the Game
Each week, six warriors embark upon Raven's challenges knowing that only two of them will progress to the final. Each warrior has a standard which bears seven feathers, which represent their lives. A failed challenge will result in them losing a life. Each success enables them to collect between one and four gold rings, and once they attain seven they can win back a life. If a warrior loses all of their lives they are automatically eliminated, but, if that doesn't happen, on days two, three and four the lowest scoring warrior faces the 'Way of the Warrior'. If two or more warriors are in equal last place, they take feathers from a bag and the warrior with the black feather faces the challenge. On the final day the last three warriors face 'The Last Stand' from which two will progress to the final. In the final the six successful warriors from the previous three weeks return for the battle to find Raven's champion. The games are familiar from the heats but the level of competition is much higher. The overall winner will win their heart's desire in the form of a holiday and the Staff of Power, their own Raven's Eye.
The games in Raven use the natural surroundings of the castle grounds to excellent effect with games set in the forest, the lake or the battlements. One of the most interesting aspects of Raven is the mix of games that are used during the week-long contest. There are individual challenges, head-to-head games, 'winner stays on' games and team games which all require different tactics. Sometimes, the head-to-head games give warriors the chance to peg back the leaders by pitching first against last, and sometimes the warriors play against the person nearest to them in the competition. The challenges test the warriors' strength, agility, intelligence, tactical awareness, steadiness of hand and courage.
In this game two warriors are tied together and they have to cooperate in order to work their way through a series of spiders' webs. There are up to six gold rings to be collected and these are shared between the tethered warriors. It is a game played against the clock. Take too long and get locked in and you will lose a life. It is a test of agility, but teamwork is the chief factor in this game.
This is a head-to-head game between the leader and the second placed warrior. The object of the game is to get four shallow dishes of green dragon's blood through a fiendish maze of poles without spilling a drop. At the end of the maze is a strong box containing one gold ring that can only be opened with four dishes of dragon's blood. Often, both competitors will lose a life, but it is a race that can make a significant difference to the eventual outcome of the contest.
The wisdom tree asks a series of true/false questions. If the warriors think the answer is true they step on a white square, and if they think the answer is false they step on a black square. Five correct answers will earn the warriors a ring, but two wrong answers seals their fate at the hands of the demons. This can often deteriorate into a game of follow-the-leader as the rhyming couplet question format confuses many of the young warriors.
This game is played in teams of three. In a cage there are three gold rings suspended from the bars. Two of the warriors must manoeuvre a lance while the third warrior stands on it to move around the cage. While the lance is being moved the warrior in the cage must hang from vines. If either the warrior or the lance touches the floor the trap will spring shut. Once the gold rings have been collected the team have a limited time to get the warrior out or the trap will spring shut. It is one of Raven's most deceptively difficult games.
This challenge requires the leader to negotiate a maze of threads in order to get three gold rings. To make things difficult the warrior is blindfolded and must listen carefully to instructions from another warrior who the leader has chosen to help them. If the leader touches any of the threads a bell will ring and the thrall demons will awaken from their slumber and capture the unfortunate warrior. It is a very interesting game that has an extra twist. With three rings safely gathered, the leader chooses how many to give to the warrior who helped. Here, tactics can become abundantly clear, as in series two when the leader gave all three rings to her helper in order to move her out of last place!
Many years earlier a magical battle was fought between Raven and a fire demon which has left the battlements of the castle burning ever since. Warriors armed with a catapult and ice balls must try to extinguish the three fires by hitting them in the centre. Each hit secures a gold ring, but failure leads to engulfment by the fire demon.
This is an archery contest that requires the warriors to hit the green centre of a standard target - shaped, however, like a serpent's eye - in order to gain a gold ring. As an acknowledgement of the difficulty of this task, any warrior who can hit the target at all will not lose a life. It is the most specific of the skills that Raven tests, but any warrior worth his standard must be able to use a bow and arrow.
Leap of Faith and High Walk
These challenges test the warriors' courage like no other. In the Leap of Faith the warriors must climb to a small platform high in a tree, then jump off and grab as many gold rings as they can. For some contestants it is too much as their fear of heights outweighs their competitive urges. Despite being safely tethered they find the mental battle too hard to overcome. The following day they must return to the treetops and walk along a very narrow beam, collecting three gold rings. When one of the warriors faces down their fears in order to safeguard their lives, the viewers find themselves cheering them on quite unashamedly.
The Blasted Mountain
This is a challenge of strength and puzzle-solving skills. A 'volcanic mountain' erupts sending a river of lava towards the warriors. First of all the warriors must pull a sledge, containing pieces of a statue, up a steep slope, then they must put the statue together to afford protection from the oncoming lava. This can often have an important bearing on the contest as the three remaining warriors are usually evenly matched at the end of the week.
The Last Stand
This final contest decides which two warriors progress to the final through the portal at the end of a battlefield. Warriors must collect pieces of a key which can be used to open the portal while avoiding the firebolts of Nevar1, the enemy of Raven. It is where the remaining lives are of crucial importance as each hit will mean a life lost. A warrior with more lives than their opponent will be able to take more risks and therefore progress more quickly through the battlefield. The loser of round one gets another chance against the third placed warrior. In series four the gradual evolution of Raven led to the toughening-up of The Last Stand. It became an assault course with demons prowling and Nevar wielding his own Staff of Power.
The Way of the Warrior
This is Raven's signature game undertaken by the warrior with the fewest remaining lives, at the end of days two, three and four. It is a combination of all of the skills of a warrior as they face a forest of swinging mannequins, a rock fall, rotating medicine balls, moving shields, swinging axes and guillotines. All of this must be combated while staying on a narrow path. It was undefeated in the first series, but in week three of series two Ishal finally became the first warrior to reach the portal at the end. When this feat was repeated in the final of series two the path was narrowed for series three - rendering the challenge almost impossible once again.
Raven: Look and Style of the Series
The programme has evolved its look as the series has progressed. Any changes have been carefully thought out and have added to the Celtic motif that gives the programme its unique style. The standards are the warriors' battle honours which must be protected. There are six designs and colours to differentiate the contestants. There is a red standard containing a sun, a yellow standard containing a mountain, a green standard containing a tree, a blue standard containing a wave, a beige standard containing a cloud and a grey standard containing a moon. The contestants started to sport these colours themselves in the second series, which made identification much easier for the audience. Raven himself has graduated from a dark cloak to a full set of feathers. For series four the production team decided to make the standards' designs bolder. Director Paul Hineman explains2:
As with each new series of Raven, we do try to move things up a gear and this year we've re-designed the warrior's icons - they're much bolder and I think they work well on camera. I was also keen to seed them into other areas of the show as I think they're an important part of the Raven brand; so look out for them at the entrance to The Way of the Warrior.
The warriors are given Celtic names to further strengthen the illusion and refer to each other by these names when the Raven's eye reveals their thoughts about the previous challenge. The direction of Paul Hineman is very tight and keeps the show moving at a rapid pace. Where CGI effects are used, they enhance the look of the show: for instance, when warriors are captured by demons or engulfed by flames, they vanish - only to be brought back by the Raven's Eye. These effects are achieved simply but effectively adding to the magical feel of the competition.
In series two Raven's arch enemy Nevar was introduced as the Guardian of the Portal. In the fourth series his role was expanded greatly as Paul Hineman again explains:
Nevar, Raven's arch enemy has a greater role this series and we've shot sequences with a new costume and face mask. Behind the mask we see that he is horrifically scarred. Our poor actor also had to get used to wearing special effect contact lenses. He also gets his own staff of power this year which fires balls of plasma. We were striving to make this series a little darker in places and so Nevar crops up more than usual.
The success of the show was recognised immediately with a BAFTA award for 'Best Children's Programme' in 2003. With the determination of Paul Hineman and producer Matthew Napier to continually evolve and improve, its continued success seems assured.