For the generation growing up now, GamesMaster is at best a computer game magazine. The late Patrick Moore? He was that grumpy astronomer, right? And as for Dominik Diamond? Well, he lives in Canada now. Chances are, his name doesn’t resonate at all.
But to those who have made it to this second paragraph, GamesMaster was the moment when television finally started taking videogames seriously. Sure, we’d had promo guff such as ITV’s Movies, Games & Videos. Yet we were a million miles away from the days of the excellent Dara O Briain Goes 8-Bit, currently showing on Dave.
Instead, GamesMaster, when it debuted on Channel 4 in 1992, was a very low budget TV show, pitched and ushered into production by Jane Hewland. She’s spent two years trying to get someone to buy into the format, with the vast majority of broadcasters turning the programme down. Eventually, she got a bite, when Channel 4 – through the side door really – agreed to take a chance.
It was a quick and instant hit, earning Channel 4 millions of viewers it’d be fair to say it wasn’t really expecting. Ratings were reported to be three times what the channel would expect to get in the same slot.
Episode one had former Wimbledon and Aston Villa footballer bashing his way through a soccer game nobody’s ever heard of now, Patrick Moore setting challenges in the guise of the GamesMaster, and Dominik Diamond being shot in shadows, from unusual angles. It was impossible to switch off.
Quickly, staples of the show were put in place. You got reviews of games, an assortment of gaming challenges, and strange people bringing Golden Joysticks to the stage. You also got the settings, which changed from series to series. The first series was set – not least because it was an economical set to put together – in a church. Future series would visit heaven, hell, an oil rig, a prison and a desert island. You could never accuse GamesMaster of resting on its laurels, and not trying new things.
The show was actually under the watchful eye of Channel 4’s sports department (the only way Hewland could get it made), more used to covering horse racing and Italian football than moody teenagers trying to beat an end of level boss. Perhaps that’s why the tone was allowed to evolve in the way that it did. The original plan had been to target the programme towards pre-teen views, but even from watching the first episode, it always felt like a target the programme team had little intention of hitting.
Crucially, from the off, GamesMaster never felt like a children’s television show, and in fact towards the end of its run, there were talks about just going directly for a more adult (not that sort) audience.
There were infamous moments during the show’s run, and perhaps the most notable was the third series, which took place despite Dominik Diamond quitting the show. In a growing sign of the odd marriage between who was watching the show and who it was supposed to be aimed at, McDonald’s signed up to sponsor series three.
Diamond wasn’t happy, and walked away. Dexter Fletcher – now an acclaimed film director, then best known for his excellent work in Press Gang – took on hosting duties. With the introduction of Fletcher came a series of unsuccessful tonal changes to the show. Fletcher’s hosting was a lot more direct that Diamond’s more cutting style, and fans were quick to object. The structure of the game challenges changed a little too, and the 26 episode run (the episode count had shot up after series one, when Channel 4 realised just what a hit it had on its hands) – culminating in a championship final – is generally regarded as the low point of the show.
Diamond was persuaded to return from series 4 onwards, and it would be he who steered the show through to the end of its final series.
The last episode of series seven would be screened in 1998. Not that it was designed to end at that point (although all concerned were aware the show was ending as the series went on). An eighth series was planned, to be set on a pirate ship, ideally in a later slot. But a change in management at the top of Channel 4 sealed GamesMasters’ fate. The new regime didn’t see GamesMaster fitting in with its view of what it wanted Channel 4 to be, and the show was duly cancelled. That said, the programme makers had been expecting to end the show after its sixth series, before Channel 4 gave it a surprise recommission. Perhaps it was right that it ended when it did.
There are sporadic conversations about a revival for the show, and the endurance of the magazine at least means that the name is living on in some form for the time being. But with Diamond out of the country, and Sir Patrick Moore no longer with us, if GamesMaster does ever reappear, it’s likely to be a very different beast. For a generation of us in the 1990s, though, it was the moment where television finally wrapped its head around videogames.
It seems fitting to end this little lookback with one of the most-talked about incidents in the show, when journalist Dave Perry, er, didn’t take too kindly to his attempt to play Super Mario 64….