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Feature: 'GamesMaster' Retrospective

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Anyone who grew up playing video games in the 1990s will no doubt remember the phenomenon that was GamesMaster. As the first UK television show dedicated to competitive gaming, the series had a profound impact on the industry from the moment it hit the airwaves. Featuring regular review segments from a panel of EMAP print journalists, exclusive previews, and contests between players claiming to be the finest in the world, the programme was everything fans could have hoped for from a primetime show dedicated to their number one passion.

Although it enjoyed considerable success throughout its seven-season run, the show's creator Jane Hewland recalls facing an uphill struggle when pitching the idea to potential networks. "It took me nearly two years to sell it, during which time the [gaming] craze actually peaked," she told DS. "The show was turned down everywhere, until I found a Canadian commissioning editor for sport - Mike Miller - at Channel 4. Being from North America where games were a good six months ahead of us in the UK, he immediately recognised the phenomenon and gave us the series. I don't think anyone else at C4 understood what they had their hands on."

The network, however, would come to realise the programme's magnitude on the night of its debut. "We did one of the first viewer phone-ins and blew up a BT exchange in Glasgow and trebled the ratings for that slot in one go," Hewland recalled. "Gaming may be wider spread now, but it was more of a craze back then. I remember the release of the first Super Mario game, the arrival of the Sega Mega Drive, the launch of Mortal Kombat as major events.”

Establishing itself as the UK's network showcase for all things games related, GamesMaster was always at the forefront of developments throughout the fourth console generation and beyond. A big part of the programme's success was down to its charismatic presenter Dominik Diamond and co-host Sir Patrick Moore, who managed to convey an impressive degree of omnipotence for a disembodied head. Its third season saw actor Dexter Fletcher take the reins, a change which divided its fanbase, many of whom expressed discontent at his overzealous persona.

Each of its seven series offered something different, and for the show's creator, choosing a definitive season is a difficult. "I liked most of them for different reasons - apart from series three. We had a commercial disagreement with Dominik Diamond and replaced him with Dexter Fletcher. While he's a brilliant actor, he just wasn't right for the show," Hewland elaborated. "We patched things up with Dominik and went on to do four more series with him.

"I liked series one because it was a surprise hit and blew people's minds with Patrick Moore's strange voice and distorted head, and a church filled with mist. I also liked series two, which was possibly our most visually ambitious show, set in an old water treatment plant down in Surrey, which we said was an offshore correction facility for games addicts. I also had a soft spot for the final series. We knew it was the last and spent the last episode dismantling the set, which brought a tear to my eye."

As well as providing a platform for games industry professionals, the show featured guest appearances from top celebrities on a weekly basis. A star-studded roster of pop performers, athletes and television personalities has competed for the coveted GamesMaster Golden Joystick over the years. Notable guests throughout its run include comedian Frank Skinner, footballers John Barnes and Vinnie Jones and boyband Take That.

When pressed to choose a favourite episode, Hewland managed to narrow her selection down to a handful, revealing that she thrived on the controversy the show stirred up with its coverage of violent games. "I liked episode two of series one where Alex Verry broke his own record, collecting rings on Sonic The Hedgehog. I liked our Mortal Kombat special. I remember the first time I saw the game at CES in Chicago and knew it was going to be an enormous hit," she said.

"Street Fighter was another good show. I especially liked the episodes parents complained about. If we made it onto Right To Reply, with someone telling me I was corrupting youth, that was cool. I liked so many more that it’s really impossible to pick one."

After enjoying a lengthy run, Channel 4 brought the curtain down on GamesMaster at the end of its seventh series; a decision which Hewland believes was entirely justified. When asked whether she felt that the show ended prematurely, the creator replied: "No. In fact we thought it had finished after series six and only found out at the last minute that C4 had scheduled a seventh series. Nothing lasts forever. We had had a good run and it was starting to become difficult to find ways to keep the show fresh. Besides which, after the initial craze, games then went through a period in the late '90s when they were terminally uncool again, before being brought to life by the games systems of today which have reached a whole new market. I am surprised there's no games show on TV today, but then the TV industry has never really 'got' games."

With the games industry currently thriving like never before, Hewland revealed that she did float the idea of a potential GamesMaster revival to Channel 4, but to no avail. "I did put the idea to Channel 4 last year, as GM always brought in fantastic ad revenues and they were complaining about falling ad sales," she confirmed. "GM was one of the few shows on the box that got that elusive young male viewer, for whom TV channels can charge advertisers a fortune. The commissioning editor did dust off some old episodes, but came back to say he couldn’t see the relevance now.

"Like I said, TV doesn't 'get' games. It might be interesting in a few years, once TV and internet convergence has progressed. Because maybe the internet - or some kind of internet-based TV which must surely come - is the place for such shows now."

The plight of other gaming shows since the programme's heyday punctuates Hewland's assertion. With the notable exception of GamesMaster, television and video games have proved uneasy bedfellows. Although there have been other profitable shows since its demise - such as another of Hewland's productions Games World – they have been shortlived, failing to emulate their predecessor's impact.

The secret to GamesMaster's success was its fundamental understanding of the industry and its ability to deliver the kind of coverage that its target audience thrived on. With the gaming world experiencing exponential growth throughout the mid '90s, the programme was simply in the right place at the right time to capitalise.

With Dominik Diamond now based in Canada and Sir Patrick Moore in his 80s, it's safe to say that we've seen that last of GamesMaster. Aside from the Gore Special, which was given a VHS and VCD launch shortly after it aired, the show has never been given a retail release. Given that retro games have experienced a significant revival since the emergence of console download services, a DVD release is certainly viable in the current climate.

In many ways, today's video game fanatics are not as privileged as their '90s counterparts, who had a definitive primetime show dedicated their primary passion. Television may have proved largely inhospitable to gaming shows over the years, but GamesMaster demonstrated that a successful union between the two mediums is indeed possible. And with the gaming industry currently more prolific than ever, isn't its modern-day equivalent long overdue?

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