Standby for a Data-Blast

Jack Kibble-White on British TV and the home computer

First published December 2005

Even at the time, it was fair to say British television’s early efforts to get to grips with the burgeoning home computer scene felt entirely anachronistic. Here was the cutting edge of technology getting the kind of patronising treatment that “women’s pursuits” might have enjoyed some 50 or so years previously. Prior to the 1980s, coverage of things silicon fell to all-purpose science programmes such as Tomorrow’s World. Such programmes assumed the viewer had no knowledge of computers and would never understand what a silicon chip was for, or how binary worked. Consequently, their reports would be delivered with a sense of comic fascination, a “whatever will the boffins think on next?” type of detachment. Similarly for younger viewers, the occasional item on John Craven’s Newsround suggested that computers (and specifically arcade games) should be viewed as nothing more than a passing craze such as hula hooping or skateboarding. Indeed, many in the video games industry took a similar view, believing the public fascination with the form would last only a few years.

However, although television in the late 1970s may have scarcely engaged with the home computer revolution, there was a notable exception. A 1978 edition of Horizon called “Now the Chips are Down” attempted to understand the implications of the burgeoning scene, but in the main, painted a negative picture of a world in which Swiss watches were no more, word processors had signalled the end of the secretarial typing pool and unemployment had become endemic. In fact, the programme’s claims were taken so seriously that cabinet ministers were questioned as to what could be done to head off this impending catastrophe.

But as we came to the end of the decade, it became apparent that society at large had to get to grips with computers or else face the consequences. For their part, ITV broadcast a series called The Mighty Micro. Over its six episodes (broadcast over 1979 and 1980), the programme essayed an expansive and reasoned approach to the computer revolution. Next, the BBC launched a government backed computer literacy campaign and as a result took a different approach to televising the computer revolution. Instead of talking theoretically about how such machines might shape a future society, the Beeb elected to actually show people how to switch one on and even load a program from a cassette.

So on 11 January 1982 came the groaningly titled The Computer Programme. Its educational, studio-bound magazine format was more in keeping with what would follow and explicitly echoed back to a time when television considered one of its main functions to be showing viewers how to make the most of a specific hobby or pastime. The series featured Ian McNaught-Davis (a suitably avuncular quasi-boffin who more normally went under the sobriquet of “Mac”) teaching a na├»ve looking Chris Serle how to carry out basic computing operations. Serle’s previous and, indeed, subsequent television roles showed him well able to play the part of a clueless member of the public, and through a number of torturously simplistic demonstrations, both Chris and (hopefully) the viewer at home found themselves, week-on-week becoming more accustomed to the operations of their home computer. However perhaps the series’ lasting legacy was not the increase in the adult computer literacy, but rather the introduction of the BBC Micro as the corporation’s de facto TV computer for much of the decade. In fact the BBC Micro owed its origins to the computer literacy campaign, and to the Corporation’s belief that in order to educate the public on how to use computers they needed to have one of their own upon which to demonstrate. “There are many small differences between machines, we can’t look at everyone in detail,” explained Mac, “so for much of the time we’ll be using the BBC Micro”.

After The Computer Programme came Making the Most of the Micro. It again featured McNaught-Davis as “teacher”, but here there was a sense that the BBC was starting to get a better idea of how best to explore the myriad issues thrown up by the computer revolution. Ostensibly based in a plain, black studio adorned with an oversized BBC owl logo, each week Mac would present a digestible selection of studio-based items and filmed inserts. The first programme set the tone by kicking off with a filmed piece on cerebral palsy sufferer Richard Gamm, demonstrating how he had used his home computer to enhance his life (from word processing, through to writing routines that allowed him to turn lights, radios and other equipment on and off at the touch of a button).

Next up was a studio-based discussion during which an invited boffin demonstrated rudimentary computer techniques to Mac, such as the ubiquitous tape loading, as well as how to print a program listing. Believing that much of the audience would be totally new to the topic, Mac carefully explained what a word processor was “apparently a tool that allows you to type words and correct them before printing them out,” and went to great lengths to point out the differences between a television set and a computer monitor. This item then segued into a piece about binary, before concluding the first show with a fine example of early 1980s silicon chip fetishism. Here, a camera skirted round what appeared to be a giant microprocessor, before Mac appeared to give us a guided tour in classic BBC CSO style. The edition ended with a brief postscript during which Mac introduced us to a menagerie of hi-tech computer devices such as a machine that could weigh you, and one that could be made to speak. Of course, both creations were pretty inadequate really, but as was to be the case with many early television programmes on this subject, the futuristic allure of the machines was such that their impracticalities and limitations were all but ignored.

A breakthrough of sorts came in 1983 with the introduction of Micro Live. Initially designed to be a four-hour one-off special, it was produced by BBC Education (as was Making the Most of the Micro and The Computer Programme), but as the title suggests it was afforded a higher profile than either of those series, thanks to its live nature. The first edition was shown on Sunday morning, 2d October 1983 and was actually billed as Making the Most of the Micro: Micro Live. This perhaps explains the reassuring presence of McNaught-Davis once again (who by this time had established himself as the BBC’s acceptable face of computing in much the same way that Patrick Moore had done with astronomy – one of the Beeb’s few other forays into hobbyist territory). Despite the programme’s luxurious length, Making the Most of the Micro: Micro Live was really just more of the same, however it did include an early on-screen demonstration of a working electronic mail system (as well as coverage of the BBC’s exotic sounding Telesoftware service).

With Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum home computer now becoming ever more prevalent (ultimately five million of these British home computers would be sold), the return of Micro Live the following summer seemed inevitable. This time shown on a Sunday morning in late June, Mac presided over a series of filmed reports taking in the use of computers in the USA and exploring the issues of hacking (very much on computer users’ minds thanks to the previous year’s blockbusting film WarGames), as well as a number of studio items including a live download of software sent from a computer in New York, a review of modems, and, best of all, the unveiling of the winning entrants into the BBC’s National Schools Software Competition (with Bill Cotton presenting the prizes).

Such was the success of this second “one-off” special, Micro Live was awarded its own monthly series as of 5 October 1984 (although from hereon it would go out on Fridays), with Lesley Judd added as co-host. Given her Blue Peter background and previous brush with technology as co-presenter of The Great Egg Race, Judd was an assured choice, and provided a welcome dose of femininity in what was fast becoming a male dominated pastime. However, the recipe for success didn’t change an awful lot with the same mixture of filmed reports, studio-based discussions, plus the odd live experiment proving to be a thorough, if at times a little staid combination of elements. Consummate superstar (and soon to be title character in his own Commodore 64 game), Brian Jacks, provided one of the more entertaining moments by letting the cameras into his home life to reflect on how he and his family were getting on with their new microcomputer, and the occasional mishap (such as one of McNaught-Davis’ interviewees almost being sick on camera, and hackers breaking into the programme’s Prestel account live on air) did at least add some fun, as well as make a virtue out of the programme’s live nature. But all in all, Micro Live represented the BBC at its most educationally focused.

Happily by 11 November 1985, things got a little more light heated, in the shape of a filmed report provided by none other than Fred Harris. Undoubtedly one of the first really friendly faces to guide us through the mysterious and often difficult world of home computing, Harris was known to most as the impossibly thin, curly-haired one from pre-school favourite Play School . Harris’ own approach to presenting (which is to assume that the viewer is brighter than you but doesn’t necessarily have a lot of knowledge about the subject in question) worked extremely well on Micro Live where he established himself as a fun-loving, slightly dotty but always knowledgeable spokesman for the home computing hobby. Indeed to many, Fred was to become much like a favourite uncle, worldly wise and ready to impart information, but just as likely to slip you a humbug and an American comic behind your parent’s back. Consequently it didn’t take long for him to supplant the slightly fustier (albeit still charming) McNaught-Davis from the position of television’s unofficial computer expert. This meant that from hereon he would regularly turn up on programmes such as Saturday Superstore to partake in computer themed phone-ins (including one memorable occasion where he raved about a games creator program for the Commodore 64, claiming it to be one of the most incredible things to ever happen to computer games).

After a run of six monthly editions, Micro Live returned again in October 1985, now promoted to a fully-fledged weekly series and awarded a 20-episode run to boot. Now very much a three-hander, Mac, Lesley and Fred provided perhaps the ultimate line-up of computing presenters and the new series featured a host of different items, including an insight into how Cerebral Palsy sufferer Richard Gomm used computers to make his life easier (hadn’t we been here before?), a look at the latest development Stateside (again a subject touched upon previously) and even a step outside the studio as the 8 November edition came live from Garth Hill school in Bracknell.

Another series of 20 followed in late 1986/early 1987, but by now there was a sense that an explanatory series on home computers was becoming increasingly irrelevant. Where once Mac had expounded in depth on the history of storage mediums and compression, the average computer user was no longer that interested in the workings of their (by now) 16-bit micro and instead wanted to know more about subjects such as desktop publishing, spreadsheets; and, of course, games. Micro Live bowed out on 28 March 1987 with an in depth item on the “father of modern computing” Alan Turing, and a look at research projects on fifth generation machine. It seemed its time had definitely passed.

While the BBC seemed to have nailed the cosy magazine format, commercial television’s attempts to reflect the burgeoning computer scene were rather less unified. Magic Micro Mission (first broadcast in 1983) saw Adrian Hedley (best known for his mime antics on children’s programmes such as Jigsaw) piloting a spaceship on the look out for celebrities willing to play a computer game. Meanwhile, Channel 4 adopted the BBC model for the mid-’80s series Me & My Micro (even going so far as to poach a by now ill-advisedly bearded Fred Harris to present). Similarly their series 4 Computer Buffs continued the tradition of pun-laden programme titles, but at least showed some attempts at innovation by featuring what Sinclair User magazine described as “the first ever light transmission of sound, an interactive bulletin board for viewers, telesoftware via audio tones and telesoftware which can be downloaded from the TV using the new 4-Data adaptor manufactured by OEL”.

With the exception of Magic Micro Mission, these computer programmes, like their BBC counterparts, paid scant attention to games (unless of course it was showing you how to write one). The arrival, then, in 1992 of Bad Influence and GamesMaster shifted the focus of computer television programmes for good. Yorkshire Television’s Bad Influence was actually a rather impressive show. The main presenters, Andy Crane and Violet Berlin (who was replaced by Sonya Saul in the fourth and final series), removed the friendly uncles, and with it the generation gap that had opened up between computers’ most enthusiastic users and their onscreen mentors. Crane and Berlin came across as elder siblings attempting to relate to the audience in a way that “grown-ups” simply couldn’t understand. This was punctuated each week with a studio backdrop of annoying children trying to create the impression of some kind of “happening”. The name of the programme was a further ironic wink to the kids amidst growing media concern over the affects of computer games; but for all that, the show’s format was reasonably conventional featuring investigations, gaming tips and reviews.

Bad Influence‘s main concession to innovation was probably the much-vaunted datablast that followed at the end of each programme. This consisted of lots of pages of texts rapidly displayed, which you recorded and then re-watched using your VCR’s pause button. Other standing items included features from the USA presented by the ever cheery (in an uncool way) Z Wright, and perhaps most memorably, regular intrusions into the programme from a fictional pirate station run by Nam Rood – a bizarre character who would provide cheats and tips. Although his name was “Door Man” backwards, the relevance of this was never made clear, nor why he needed to refer to us as “slimy furtlers”. He was dropped from the final series when research showed girls didn’t like him.

The gender divide also informed Bad Influence‘s review section. Each week, the show’s latest infestation of kids were split into boys and girls, and invited to evaluate the latest software releases. This would culminate in summaries provided by Crane or Berlin informing us that while the boys might have thought Earthworm Jim was “hilarious and challenging”, the girls thought it was “childish and boring”.

But undoubtedly the most successful TV show about computer games was Channel 4′s GamesMaster. Produced by Hewland International, the programme was the brainchild of Jane Hewland, who recognised there was a gap in the market after becoming obsessed with her son’s NES game Duck Hunt. Whilst it was initially a hard sell to persuade Channel 4 there was an audience out there, when the series finally hit our screens it was an immediate ratings hit. The format of the programme was reasonably straightforward, consisting of game playing challenges, reviews, the occasional feature and a regular tips item. Given that with the exception of the aforementioned Bad Influence, there was little else on our screens for computing fans to actually watch (at least until 1993 when Sky One began broadcasting Games World), it might seem logical to conclude GamesMaster succeeded almost by default. However this was not the case.

The series possessed a number of stylistic elements that particularly appealed to computer fans, including subversive humour inspired by television series such as Blackadder and Red Dwarf, and a pandering to computer gamers’ seemingly limitless aesthetic obsession with post-apocalyptic landscapes. The inclusion of Patrick Moore as the titular GamesMaster gave the programme a suitably futuristic figurehead, and, more importantly, a mascot much in the mould of those found in the more irreverent computer mags.

The central element of each edition was its challenges. Here celebrities or, more often, members of the public, would attempt to collect 50 coins in two minutes on Super Mario 3 on the NES, or get through stage one of level five on Brat for the Commodore Amiga. Initially, the contestants looked like they had just come from the Children’s ITV adventure game show Knightmare, stopping off to buy a biker jacket along the way. However as the series progressed, GamesMaster was able to boast a more eclectic mix of contestants, including some that actually tried (and usually failed) to be funny. For those who were successful at the various challenges the prize would be the “GameMaster Golden Joystick”, an ironic, if worthless, trophy that did little more then give host Dominik Diamond an opportunity for cheap double entendres.

Indeed Dominik was the lynchpin of the series, and consequently was much missed when after series two he decided to “pursue other projects”. Although rumours circulated that Dominik had left in protest of GamesMaster signing up McDonalds as a sponsor, this may in fact have been simply a story put about by computing fans, or indeed Diamond himself. What isn’t in question though, is that his temporary replacement, Dexter Fletcher (previously best known to viewers as the insufferably smug Spike from the Children’s ITV series Press Gang), wasn’t at all suited to the programme. Aside from a moment at the beginning of series three in which Dexter held up Dominik’s red jacket and made some comment about the previous fella not being able to take the heat anymore, the new presenter was lumbered with an appalling script that made it apparent he knew absolutely nothing about computer games.

Diamond was lured back to present the remaining four series, but arguably by then GamesMaster‘s best years were behind it. In contrast to his series one and two persona, he was cantankerous and it seemed as if his return to the programme was an embarrassing admission that he couldn’t “make it” alone. Consequently, given that he seemed to think the show was beneath him, it was very difficult for the viewer not to feel a bit like that too. Whilst many would still tune in, GamesMaster was no longer essential viewing, and by the time its final series aired in 1998, it was standard practice to complain about Dominik’s endless “type situation” one-liners.

Today, there are no computer television programmes of note currently broadcasting, and those that are still on air are to be found on digital satellite channels. This is probably thanks to the relative success of Sky One’s original contribution to the genre, which came in 1993 under the title Games World. Today it’s perhaps best remembered for its sardonic host Bob Mills, but it was a shrewdly scheduled slice of computing fun made much in the mould of GamesMaster (indeed it came from the same production company). As well as proving beyond doubt that most computer fans were in actuality computer games fans, Games World also gave early television exposure to David Walliams. Sky One managed to work the brand successfully for three series (even establishing a short-lived spin-off magazine).

However the mid ’90s saw a decline in the videogames industry with the popular consoles of the day, the SNES and Sega MegaDrive, seeming somewhat long in the tooth. Hewland became concerned that their portfolio showed too much of a bias towards videogames related programming, and as such decided to pull the plug on Games World. However in 1998, the series resurfaced for one final time. Once again broadcast on Sky One, it was now presented by one-time warm up man, and future Family Fortunes presenter, Andy Collins. This time however, instead of landing that plum teatime slot, Games World was broadcast at 7.30am in the morning, and worse still, each edition lasted only 15 minutes. The series was a write-off, with Collins ill-equipped to match Bob Mills’ earlier performance as host.

So now we are left with the odd programme about computer games available on satellite television, all of which are interchangeable, and many presented by Violet Berlin. While the shift in focus to concentrate on gaming was probably long overdue, the subject of computers can no longer be adequately encapsulated within the confines of a single television series anyway. As a subject, computing has proliferated, expanded and become messily intertwined with almost every other element that constitutes the modern world, such that computer gaming is now one of the few facets that can be adequately dealt with in isolation. For those who miss the paternalistic programmes of old, the best modern day telly can offer up is not to be found on some far-flung satellite channel, but within the occasional item on The Money Programme, or the odd piece on This Morning.

While no-one these days seems to think the process of loading a DVD into a computer disc drive is worthy of a “how to” feature, the odd item on “surfing the internet” or “using eBay” still crops up now and again, and, what’s more, if you miss it upon transmission, you can usually download it later via bit torrent. The same goes for Ian McNaught-Davis, whose pioneering efforts are also preserved in perpetuity. At anytime he’s ready to whistle down to your PC at 100kb per second, whereupon he’ll once more set about connecting a tape-recorder to a BBC Micro and marveling at what you can do with 16k.