Homes for Heroes

Jack Kibble-White on Games World

First published May 2000

One of the highlights of 2000′s Good Friday TV was surely the sight of a rather awkward, seemingly prepubescent 32 year old man holding aloft a tatty trophy to the rapturous applause of a bunch of social underachievers. This was the conclusion of the current series of Robot Wars. Greeted with bemusement by the media at large it has regularly topped the BBC2 ratings with 5.8 million viewers and appears on the cusp of genuine cult status. Its cyberpunk set and fun “we love violence” attitude appeals to much the same audience as presenter Craig Charles’ other BBC2 ratings topper: Red Dwarf. However, whilst the “boys from the Dwarf” merely tried to legitimise the sensibilities of a nation of bespectacled, bookish, shy boys, Robot Wars takes the therapy one stage further providing a context in which these very qualities can turn you into a winner. Series champion George Francis appears the epitome of a Red Dwarf fan and one senses that Robot Wars may well be the only home for heroes he will ever find.

During the first computer boom of the ’90s (when Sega Megadrives and SNESs were in the ascendancy) Sky One broadcast a daily computer gaming programme called Games World. The centrepieces of the programme were its Monday and Friday editions: “The Eliminator” and “Beat the Elite”. Young gamers would compete against each other to find the year’s Games World champion. Like the Wars, the heats stretched across a number of weeks, and involved competitors facing not only each other but also the “house experts” (in Games World it was the “videators”). As the weeks passed by we were invited to reflect on the glorious exploits of those atop the “leader board”, gradually building the tension, imbuing each with mythic status. The series finals were memorable celebrations, allowing these wholly dysfunctional individuals their moment in the sun. These were meaningless victories (more so then even Robot Wars), holding no value or worth (save as the playground currency that computer games were starting to gain) outside the artifice of the Games World games ring. Yet the significance to the viewers – and the participants of – say – Alex Fisher’s ability to pull off special combos on Mortal Combat was never belittled by a production team who could surely never truly grasp the playground kudos of mastering such a skill.

It was as something of an admirer and, in retrospect, as part of that student malaise that glorifies childish pursuits as “kitsch”, that myself and some friends decided to visit a recording session of “The Eliminator” back in 1993. Registering our interest to participate as contestants things like the over enthusiasm of the researcher who spoke with us and their general unwillingness to contribute to travel costs confirmed that there was a pleasing element of enthusiasm and amateurism (surely two of the defining characteristics of any school geek) to Hewland International. The programme itself was to be recorded in an old tram shed, and upon arrival it became apparent that the Mecca for computer geeks portrayed on the television was – to an extent – a reality. Whilst we awaited our brief auditions we were invited to alight upon a row of benches much like those that Tucker and Benny deposited into the Grange Hill swimming pool. Around us kids seemed to be running amok. Conspicuously there seemed to be no parents around and very little authoritative presence of any kind. However, these kids seemed to know their way around: this was their local haunt. Quite cool – I suppose – a TV studio as your playground.

Eventually we were led up some rickety stairs to a portakabin aloft the studio proper. From this vantage were able to look down at proceedings. Nothing to see yet. The portakabin was strewn with games machines, and beta test cartridges. Here, once again, children seemed to be engorging. We picked up on the studious enthusiasm in the room, familiar to anyone who has ever witnessed a congregation of “enthusiasts”. After a moment of standing around attracting no one’s attention we were asked to compete against one of the researchers at a game of their choosing. First up was Mario Kart. One of us feebly commented that Toad looked like the lead singer from Jamiroquai. Disarmingly the researcher laughed heartily, this moment of flippancy a respite. Over the course of each of the games we acquitted ourselves ably, savvy enough to realise that good humour and a little bit of moxey was going to be more important for us then any computer gaming ability. It seemed we were forging another bond between minorities: in this instance – adult contact. Whilst playing, we were aware of people flitting around behind us. Presenter Bob Mills (now co-writer and producer of Bob Martin) appeared as out-of-bounds as we had come to expect game show presenters to be, muscled “heavies” (employed for extracting failed contestants from the stage) sneered at the kids and then for fun – at us. Predictably, females were conspicuous by their absence. Most curiously, I think all of us became aware that strangely enough we were “cock of the walk”. The various scurrying researchers were pretty young and seemingly aware of their lowly position. We – on the other hand – had steamed on in with a dose of flippancy and a modicum of attitude and – by our lack of reverence – had let them know that we knew we were participating in a tin pot operation. Of course, this was not the case, and we did not feel in anyway superior to these TV lackeys. Yet, in retrospect this was a far less intimidating environment then I had come to expect from television productions.

With the audition complete we made our way back downstairs and in to the studio to prepare for the live recording. Warm up man Andy Collins was utterly unmemorable, failing to connect with either the kids or us. Surprisingly, he spent little time referring either to the programme itself or indeed its “mythos”. Andy assumed our interest extended only to the latest computer games. Cameras were positioned as he spoke, preparing to capture sweeping shots of the main stage. Meanwhile, the sparse audience were asked to huddle around particular areas to create the illusion of a well-populated studio. In time Bob Mills appeared. Impassively and deliberately avoiding eye contact, there was an oozing sense of humiliation from the man. He knew that he should be doing better then this. This was the first recording block of the second series and you could tell he hadn’t figured on coming back after series one.

The recording of the episode itself was unmemorable – something of a grind really. Mills’ irritation at the director’s inability to correctly shoot a bit of business he had arranged involving a telephone sticks in the mind. Also, I recall a friend’s waggish response to Mills’ question “Does anybody know what a rhetorical question is?” (The retort: “Do you really want me to answer that?”) which was greeted rather ungraciously – I thought – by the presenter. Patently, the business of getting an episode in the can had washed away any sense of genuine interest in the competition. Having viewed the previous series final just some months before I wondered how they had been able to whip up the audience (and the presenter) in to the state of euphoria that had turned the occasion into an “event”. Had I been so inclined, I could’ve asked, as series one winner Alex Fisher was amongst today’s audience. A slightly embarrassed Jeremy Daldry (at that time Mills’ co-presenter, now a producer at the BBC) clocked him at one point and asked him if his prizes had turned up yet: they hadn’t.

Predictably, for a programme of this scale and budget, there were few retakes, and most of us were left to our own devices. Runner Paul Denchfield (last seen on Channel 4′s Wanted) sidled up to us to try and hide his conspicuous height, and we exchanged a few pleasantries with him. However, by this point, our affection for Games World was predictably starting to dim. By the end of the recording (by my recollection two hours in total) we were making our own fun: talking to each other and generally mucking about. As we were invited to disperse, one of my friends encouraged us to hang back (he felt sure he could take receipt of some of the games left lying around). As we waited for something to happen we got chatting with another of the warm up men (a big fellow who had aspirations to become a Capital Radio DJ), and my waggish friend grasped another opportunity to gently heckle (overhearing Denchfield asking a group of kids if they’d like to play the “Yes No” game, he shouted “Maybe”). Finally we were willingly dragged into participate in the filming of a “Round One” insert. This too proved a little interminable and it was with some welcome relief that we were finally expelled out of the tram shed and out of Games World.

Just as we were leaving we were advised that we were to be invited back to appear as contestants. For whatever reason we never took them up on the offer. Perhaps it felt rather unnecessary to us now. We had spent an afternoon within this cosseted environment and had taken from it as much as were likely to glean. We had been party to a microcosm where the values of the bespectacled male youth had been afforded some credence, and for a television environment there had been a surprising lack of intimidation. Both of these things we had found to be admirable. Ultimately, of course, Games World was an enterprise designed to accumulate revenue, and all other motivation had to be subsidiary to this. Thus, as an entertainment Games World “live” was unfocussed and overlong and not something I particularly relished repeating. Besides, as a result of the final bit of filming we had endured, I was able to watch myself on Sky One twice a week for a year flailing my fist in to the air shouting “Games World! Games World!” Here for me, was as much humiliation and computer games kudos as I was willing to endure.