GamesMaster interview – the return of the king of video game TV shows
GameCentral talks to Rab Florence, one of the hosts of the GamesMaster revival, about games on TV and Sir Trevor McDonald’s gaming habits.
If television had been your only source of information and entertainment for the last 40 years you might not even know video games exist. They’re barely ever mentioned on live TV and if they are the odds are it’s in some disparaging news programme. The very few exceptions made even mediocre magazine shows like Bad Influence memorable, but there was one series that was both genuinely good and popular with a wide audience, and that show was GamesMaster.
GamesMaster originally ran from 1992 to 1998 on Channel 4 and now, finally, it is back, with three different presenters trying to take the place of Dominik Diamond and Sir Trevor McDonald replacing the late Sir Patrick Moore. The second episode is due to go live this Sunday, but before that happened we got to speak to co-presenter Robert ‘Rab’ Florence, about his experiences with the show and the short but notable history of video games on British TV.
Florence does seem perfect for the job as he’s already appeared in the only other two UK shows of any note, his own VideoGaiden series from the late 2000s and an appearance on Charlie Brooker’s Gameswipe. Even so, both TV and games have changed almost out of recognition in the last 25 years, so does bringing back GamesMaster even make sense today?
The new series of GamesMaster consists of three episodes that are each one hour long. They’re being released weekly but debuting on E4’s YouTube channel before being shown on E4 later.
Episode 1 is out now on both, but Episode 2 will go live on YouTube this Sunday, November 28 and then on E4 on Wednesday, December 1.
Episode 3 will then appear on YouTube on Sunday, December 5 and finally on E4 on Wednesday, December 8.
GC: I’m curious at what point you became involved in the reboot, as I imagine a revival is something people must’ve been thinking about for decades. Do you know why it happened now, at this time?
RF: No, I came in late, I came in very late. I don’t really know. I don’t really know what the thinking was behind it coming back and I’m not even entirely sure… Obviously the magazine ran for years, after the TV show finished. But I was as surprised as anybody when I heard at the start of the year… I think it was the start of this year or maybe towards the end of last year that the first kind of rumblings of it coming back started.
GC: With these sorts of things I always imagine a clock counting down in some marketing office somewhere, to the point where something popular is old enough for people to get nostalgic about it.
RF: [laughs] Maybe, but I wonder as well, maybe with Twitch being so popular and people doing speedruns and stuff like that, maybe somebody just went, ‘Oh, hang on! You know, we own the rights to a format where people do gaming challenges’. I think it’s maybe been things like that…
Because, you know, definitely that stuff has become more popular recently. My daughter, she’ll be 15 in January, she talks about speedrunners and stuff like that. So it’s obviously in young people’s consciousness as well. That kind of thing.
GC: It is clear though that TV has completely missed its chance of any kind of synergy with games, after all but ignoring the scene entirely. Why do you think that is?
RF: The way I always look at it is that we clamour for it… people that love video games clamour for it a wee bit, you know? Where is the big TV show about games and stuff? But it’s not like there’s been a huge amount of TV shows about films either… or about books. And they’re never even really that big, these shows about films.
GC: You’re right. I used to watch the Film shows with Barry Norman and even as a kid I was like, ‘Why is this on at 11pm at night?’ I thought movies were a big deal? Everyone talks about them and their actors but not the actual things themselves.
RF: You’re going back even a couple of decades to see when there was a kind of peak time movie show. So I don’t think it’s that strange [that games aren’t treated any better] and what I find odd is this: I’ve always thought that the reason why there wasn’t a lot of games TV is because people enjoy playing games more than they enjoy watching them, right? They want to participate, it’s an art form you participate in.
However, the popularity of Twitch has kind of proven that not to be the case. People are quite happy to sit for hours upon hours watching other people playing games, which mystifies me, to be honest, but people do it.
GC: The only way I’ve been able to rationalise it is that a lot of people treat it like background noise, like moving wallpaper. They’re usually not paying much attention, like you would with a scripted show.
RF: I think there’s a lot of people doing interesting stuff on Twitch. There’s a lot of people that are trying to make it more interesting and more interactive but, you know, fundamentally it’s about watching people play games. So it was interesting, the GamesMaster thing coming up for me was… I’ve always felt that a) I knew a lot about video games and b) that I kinda understood the scene. But I felt quite out of touch, actually, when I was making GamesMaster.
I realised how out of touch I was with how the scene actually is and who the people are out there and what they enjoy playing and stuff. Because I’m still very kinda retro focused, you know? And so that was interesting, it was a wee bit of an education for me as well I would say, doing it.
GC: We try to cover everything, to some degree, on the site, but I’m always aware there are these huge elements of gaming culture that have almost zero crossover with traditional console gaming. Like League Of Legends, for example, it’s the biggest game in the world and yet in all my years I have never heard a single other journalist or developer ever even mention its name.
RF: Yeah, yeah. There are some games that are just lifestyle games for some people, you know, and I think it’s difficult to… but we’ve always seen things like that, because I remember even with a game like EVE Online, which I think is one of the greatest games ever made, it was so difficult for anybody to skim across the surface of that game and get a grasp of what it was. So it dinnae get spoken about very much even while it was very popular and probably one of the most interesting things that was going on in gaming at that time.
But I think there’s always been that element of things where, you know… this is one of the problems, I think, that game journalists have always faced, is the pressure to review games to deadlines and that treadmill that they’re on all the time makes it very difficult for them to go deep on stuff.
They’re not gonna be able to say, ‘I want to spend five months playing EVE Online to really get myself integrated into the community and understand it from the inside’. And a TV show is no gonna be able to do that either. So what I hope we’ve done a wee bit with GamesMaster is by bringing some of these personalities onto the show, to do challenges that are very integrated into their particular spheres and scenes, hopefully it kinda starts to crack that open a wee bit for people.
GC: So if you were brought in relatively late in proceedings, how much influence have you been able to have on the show? Have you been able to say, well we shouldn’t do this or we should cover that? Or we should bring in these particular people?
RF: I’ve had a wee bit of input. But I would say that early in the process, when I got brought in, I realised that… when you’ve been playing games for a long time and you’ve got very set opinions about stuff and the kind of stuff I would like to see, and the kind of stuff I would like to cover. If they had taken a lot of my opinions on board, nobody would want to watch the show. You know what I mean? [laughs]
It would’ve been obscure Japanese games, it would’ve been old stuff… now, my hope is that if we get to do more I can start to slide these wee things in here and there, wee kind of curious things and more obscure things and older things and stuff like that. But I definitely felt, in the process, that I should kinda… it’s that thing about somebody like me who doesn’t watch Twitch and doesn’t really watch people on YouTube and the kind of games that they play… I would be the wrong person to kind of step all over it and say, ‘We should be doing this and we shouldn’t be doing that’.
There’s a reason why the game shows that I’ve always done have not had a huge amount of viewers, and I’m very aware of why that is.
GC: [laughs] Who did they use to decide what should be in the show then? Did they have researchers or other journos?
RF: It was a kinda group thing. There was a good few of us involved, good people, and everybody on the team plays games to some extent – some play them a lot, some play them a little, casually – and a lot of it, and you’ll understand this… a lot of it is about rights and what you get the opportunity to use on the show. So you’re kind of hamstrung a wee bit by that stuff.
Because when they made GamesMaster back in the day, I’m not sure how the production process went but I’m guessing they wouldn’t have come up against the big kinda PR juggernauts that already had their PR plans charted out for 24 months and weren’t necessarily saying, ‘Right, We’ll also put the game out early on this show that nobody’s seen, that nobody knows how it’s going to be or whether we’re gonna be respectful of the game or anything like that.
So we couldn’t, for example, just go, ‘Let’s have this, this, this, and this on the show’, because then you have to talk to these lawyers, those lawyers, these PR people, those PR people. So it’s not as simple as that. So it was really, really hard work getting the show together. Because there are a lot of hoops to jump through these days to get games featured. It’s not just a guy down the phone saying, ‘Yeah, you can use it!’ Maybe it was never that, but I think it might have been looser 25 year ago.
GC: The other element to the show, and Dominik Diamond has been perfectly open about this, is that a lot of the celebrity challenges were just an excuse to watch a female celebrity’s behind as she played a skiing game or whatever. Obviously that sort of thing is not going to fly today but it was a big part of the appeal of the original show.
RF: I mean, I just think it’s one of those things that… I’ve always been very clear about the fact that I think that GamesMaster’s popularity was down to Dominik. Dominik was the reason why people watched it. I know there was a lot of stuff, and a lot of people orbiting Dominik through the run of that show. But I think fundamentally it was Dominik’s show and it was Dominik that people tuned in to see. And you can’t recapture what a talented personality like Dominik did.
It’s not even respectful to try and recapture that, if you know what I mean, because that’s his thing. So you don’t want to go on and do that.
The way we approached this was really just to go, ‘Right, there’s this format, there’s the GamesMaster, he sets challenges… what can this be? What can the shape of this be?’ Obviously, giving a nod to that kinda surreal, almost like Saturday morning kids’ TV nature of GamesMaster, as it was back then, but then everything else was kind of a fresh start.
And as everybody involved in GamesMaster back then will admit, it was very much a product of its time. A show of the 90s. And that stuff just does not fly anymore. You can argue whether it actually flew then, you know, there was plenty of people then who have kinda…
GC: Yeah, I imagine there were raised eyebrows even then. But… sorry they sent me the show to watch but only half an hour ago, so I haven’t had a chance yet. So because I’m a journalist I’m going to lie and pretend I have for the purposes of this interview.
GC: But can you just talk us through how the show works? Because I’m just going purely by memory of the original show. I remember it used to have a little bit of news and magazine features and then like two or three challenges, is that still the basic structure?
RF: It’s still the same structure. So somebody comes along, they get introduced, we set them up with a challenge, if they win they get their golden joystick, if they lose they get sent into the abyss. We kill them off this time, if they lose. We tried to just make it a fun show.
One of the things I didn’t want it to be was, I kind of feel sometimes when a video game show comes on TV there’s a huge pressure for it to be the serious video game show that is gonna finally treat video games with the respect that they deserve.
GC: At last! Video games are boring!
RF: [laugh] Right? And I was like, ‘Let’s not do this. Let’s just make sure it’s fun. Let’s make sure that people that come on the show have fun’. So we thought, let’s just have a fun entertainment show that hopefully flies by quite quickly because I got quite a fright when I found out that they were hour long episodes. Because GamesMaster was always half an hour. As somebody that works primarily in comedy, hours frighten me anyway. Because I always think drama, drama is an hour.
GC: Why is it an hour though? It does seem odd.
RF: I don’t know! I don’t really know. It definitely gave us a bit more time to make the challenges maybe a wee bit… I remember the challenges in the original show, sometimes they would be a wee bit shorter, 60 seconds or something like that. There’s a wee bit more length in the challenges now and maybe there was a feeling that because people are used to Twitch and YouTube and stuff we could go a bit longer.
GC: So who is actually playing the challenges? Is it just normal people or have you got celebrities in there as well?
RF: Well, there was a lot of talk at first about celebrities, I remember an initial press release or something went out saying that celebrities were going to be in the challenges but, no. It’s predominantly just… people who are just normal punters who applied to do it. A couple of guys who have had a long-standing Street Fighter rivalry since they were at college together and stuff like that. And some people who are streamers and YouTubers who are not celebrities, but they have their own kinda wee followings and stuff like that.
The thing that amazed me was – and this is a big difference to the original show as well – is that these people were coming on as challengers and everybody’s so TV-ready already, if you know what I mean. [laughs] Because young people these days are so used to being online and being on YouTube and being on Twitch and talking to an audience that it’s almost like they’re trained already when they come on, so they can chat, they’re confident… which is a big help when you’re making a TV show.
GC: So what exactly does Trevor McDonald do? I imagine he’s not giving out tips and hints anymore?
RF: No, he’s not. He’s still doing the Patrick Moore thing of setting up the challenges. The contestants also get to enter his realm and have a chat with him before they start. And I think people will be quite surprised by how he is on the show as well, because when he got cast I was thinking, ‘Right, I know he’s got a lot of authority, he’ll be quite serious…’ But he’s actually really playful and actually quite an odd GamesMaster. I think people will be quite surprised at how he does it.
GC: So he’s actually on set with you?
RF: No, he wasn’t on set, he was in a green screen studio, doing his thing.
GC: Does he know anything about games? I mean, I’m glad he did, but why did he agree to do it? I thought he’d retired, and this seems a surprising thing to come back for.
RF: I don’t know. It’s a weird thing with GamesMaster… like with me, when I got asked to go and audition to try out as host, I’ve never auditioned for anything. But my agent often contacts me and goes, ‘This person wants you to do this, to try this’ and I always say no. So when this came in, I was like, ‘Oh god, it’s GamesMaster! It’s GamesMaster’.
Now, I’m sure he didn’t have that same response, necessary. [laughs] But he probably did still have an awareness of it. And an awareness of the legacy of it, ’cause I think people remember Patrick Moore and they remember the whole thing. And it’s a job you can do while you’re sitting down, for him!
GC: I would’ve loved if his response to being asked was that he’s a massive Final Fantasy fan or something.
RF: That would have been nice. [laughs]
GC: OK, well best of luck with the show. Thanks for your time.
RF: You too, that was good.
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