As president of the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), and the first TEA president to hail from Europe, Nick Farmer, of Farmer Attraction Development, is a familiar figure in our industry, known for his expertise in matters of attraction development, branding and operations. But many of Nick’s colleagues may not know about his darker side as a “dungeon master” – that is, a producer of dungeon attractions.
European cities have many genuine old dungeons that attract tourists, and these have become natural sites for dungeon-themed visitor attractions celebrating their bloody but fascinating histories. Judith Rubin interviewed Farmer at the SATE conference (Story-Architecture-Technology-Entertainment) hosted by TEA in Orlando in September.
Q: How did you get into the business of dungeon attractions?
A: I was working on dark rides, dark projects… spending all day in a black room that was in a black building, with no light. That kind of work naturally leads to even darker corners of the mind.
Q: Were you depressed?
A: Not depressed. I became like a troglodyte.
Q: You became assimilated?
A: I was only slightly troubled to find I was enjoying the dark side. I suppose I have a black sense of humor, and here at last, it didn’t get me in trouble. There’s an outlet, in dungeons, for making flippant, politically incorrect remarks.
Q: What was your breakthrough dungeon project?
A: I had produced a number of dungeon experiences, but perhaps the turning point came with the Sweeney Todd Show (right) for the London Dungeon. You sit in a barber’s chair and the lighting goes to black. It’s all suggestion in the dark. You believe Sweeney Todd is creeping round the room. It starts when the door opens and you hear him walk in and say, “Aha, customers! Come for a haircut have we? In need of a shave? Some of the ladies too I notice! Well, I’ll do my best to process you in the most timely fashion…” Along with unsettling audio effects, at a key point in Sweeney’s delivery something brushes the back of your neck… the room holds 40 visitors at a time, so it’s not a very intimate barber shop, but once the lights are out, you believe you’re the only one there, and you know the real fate of Sweeney’s customers was to be tipped into the cellar. But you know they wouldn’t do that to us… would they? Would they? And at the critical moment, you do get tipped back suddenly, although you don’t end up in the cellars below. It’s a great story, delivered with great theatre. The effects are simple and reliable. It’s a five-minute show and people really get panic stricken. I wrote and produced the show and was the project leader. It opened in early 2005 and is still gets one of the best reactions of all their shows. As the London Dungeon would say, my job is to make the place ‘even worse’.
Q: What kind of stories work best for dungeon attractions?
A: True stories are best, about appalling people from history. And in Britain we have no shortage.
Q: What is your favorite line of dialogue in a dungeon show?
A: It’s in the show I produced to recreate the first public hanging in 1783 outside London’s Newgate Prison, which stood where the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, now stands. Prior to this, public hangings used to take place at Tyburn – now Marble Arch. These executions became drunken festivals with a great carnival atmosphere. The condemned were taken to Tyburn on a horse drawn wagon, and the drivers would stop for refreshment at taverns along the way. Someone had to stay with the condemned during these breaks for ale, hence the term ‘on the wagon’. Think about it next time you use the phrase.
Then as now, the authorities were not blessed with a great sense of fun, so it was decided to move all hangings to a central location to avoid the Tyburn procession.
At Newgate Prison the events were still public, and on 10th December 1783 the first hanging was carried out with the new ‘long drop’ system where death would come instantly with a broken neck. On this day ten were executed together in a single drop. This method replaced being slowly strangled on a short rope, cheerily known as doing the Tyburn Jig. Pieces of the ropes were then sold as souvenirs, hence ‘money for old rope’.
In the London Dungeon we recreate that day with a drop ride, so as with Sweeney Todd, the visitor is also the victim. It’s very funny, but very black and also rather frightening. The hangman meets you with some great lines.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your lucky day! Today you will be sent to your maker without any pain – because sadists we are not! You will be blessed with a quick exit from your miserable lives. But I want a good show – don’t let me down!” The ride takes you to the top of the tower to the sound of execution drums where you meet the judge, priest and executioner, sentence is pronounced, the priest utters a few words of discomfort, the hangman pulls a large lever and you take the drop. My hands sweat every time I take the ride and I’ve done it countless times. The show opened in 2006.
Q: How many dungeon shows have you produced so far?
A: About a dozen, and in nearly every one, somebody dies.
Q: Who are some of the appalling people from history you have brought back to life for one of these dark stories?
A: There’s the famous highwayman (street mugger) Dick Turpin, who is very well known in England. We hung him in York Dungeon this year and he goes down screaming. I did one for the Edinburgh Dungeon about William Wallace (aka Braveheart). He captured a detested English treasurer and skinned him, and hung the skin on a wall. We had to recreate the skin. I rang up a leather merchant and said, “I’m really sorry to bother you, but…” and explained my need, and he said, “It’s quite all right, we do it all the time. It’s just like human skin, old boy.” They sell lambskins to the military for use in testing shrapnel wounds.
Q: Who operates these attractions?
A: The Dungeons are all Merlin Entertainments attractions. You’ll find the Dungeons in London, York, Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Hamburg. They’re an impulse off-the-street, repeatable attraction.
Q: How much does it cost to get hanged or have your throat slashed?
A: About $30 to suffer an hour or two of degradation, torture and execution – and it’s great fun for all the family!
See also: Merlin sues London Attraction
30 years in Themed Entertainment : Blooloop talks to Nick Farmer
Themed Entertainment: Live Interaction with Electrosonic’s Chris Conte
The Joyful Architect: Al Cross Talks about Themed Attraction Design
Teaching Themed Entertainment : Interview with Don Marinelli
Photos – Top:the real Nick Farmer. Bottom left:Nick Farmer in Halloween costume. Above right:Sweeney Todd dramatization courtesy of Merlin Entertainments.