Saturday, August 02, 2014

Riding the Chopper with Dominik Diamond (part 1)

Saturday, August 02, 2014
After indulging in the entire run of Bad Influence episodes, it was inevitable that next on the pixelated nostalgia menu would be the more meaty, edgier granddaddy of video gaming TV shows, GamesMaster. Luckily for me - and anyone else who grew up in the 90s ogling the electronic delights in Rumbelows' shop window - all seven series of the show are available on YouTube thanks to DynamiteHeaddy.

If watching video online isn't your bag, you might like to download them using the Vidown web site.

For the real connoisseur, however, the unofficial, superior quality, DVD versions are available from the GamesMaster Live forum, providing you are happy to create them yourselves. If not, they also host one-zip-per-series downloads of VHS rips, which are marginally better quality than the YouTube ones above.

The show aired from 1992 to 1998 and was hosted by Scottish TV and radio presenter/newspaper columnist - and all-round sarcastic cheeky-chappy - Dominik Diamond, who had not long since emerged from studying drama at Bristol University with hopes of seizing his big break on TV.
At the time, GamesMaster producer, Jane Hewland, was searching for the right person for the job, and knowing that the producers of another upcoming Channel 4 show, The Word, had just concluded a competition to whittle down 12,000 auditionees, turned to them for advice. Dominik lost out to Terry Christian who ended up fronting The Word, but their loss was GamesMasters' gain.
"One of the first decisions we made was that we wouldn't try to be cool. Because we couldn't possibly pull it off, and it would just end up being horribly naff. If you try to be cool it's crap, isn't it? So we thought, 'Let's see if we can at least manage witty.'"

Cameron McAllister, director (GamesMaster: The Inside Story, 4th June, 2013)
Dominik was joined by the late astronomer, Patrick Moore, as the curmudgeonly, omnipotent disembodied head who would pop up from time to time to introduce a triplet of gaming challenges and dispense cheat codes and tips to spotty youths despite going on record saying he had no interest in ever using a computer.

The overlord character was originally to be played by actor and TV/radio presenter, Nicolas Parsons, though as his face was deemed insufficiently amenable to the CGI distortion techniques the producers wanted to apply, Patrick stepped into the breach instead.

Patrick's scenes were filmed against a blue screen and edited in afterwards, so even though Dominik and Patrick worked on the show together for six series, they only met briefly once, having bumped into each other in a studio corridor. This wasn't commonly known at the time so on Patrick's sad passing, Dominik was flooded with messages of condolence, demonstrating the phenomenal level of affection fans of the show felt towards the character.

Accompanying Dominik in the pulpit (or other crows' nest style substitute as the show evolved) were a motley crew of industry insiders from the dominant gaming publications of the time, who would offer sagely advice to the contenders and commentate on the proceedings with all the vigour and intensity of a high-stakes boxing match; GamesMaster did fall under the jurisdiction of Channel 4's sports department after all.

The Quickjoy Jet Fighter SV-126
As if featuring in the UK's first and hottest TV show dedicated to video gaming wasn't incentive enough, contestants had the opportunity to win the coveted GamesMaster Golden Joystick complete with reverential, translucent showcase.

These were hot-plated - not just spray-painted - versions of off-the-shelf joysticks, which varied from one series to the next. The archetypal model as seen in the first two series was the Quickjoy III Supercharger SV-123.

The SpectraVideo QuickShot QS-135

Some of the later episodes featured the Quickjoy Jet Fighter SV-126 (series 3) or SpectraVideo QuickShot QS-135 aka the Python III (series 4, 5 and 7) as the illustrious prize.

In several episodes of series five, the Python joystick was switched with the Logic 3 Tornado model. This was manufactured by SpectraVideo PLC who purchased the Spectravideo brand from Bondwell in 1988.

Series six's trophy was a joystick handle grip wedged in a rectangular slab of stone, sans the display case seen in earlier series.

The Logic 3 Tornado
In the final episode of series 3, the winners of the Gamesmaster Team Championship were awarded a jewel encrusted version of the Jet Fighter joystick by the then head of Channel 4 sport, Mike Miller, who declared the Mega Maniacs 'megamongous'. Oh dear.

The team also took home a Commodore Amiga CD32, Philips CD-I, Atari Jaguar, and nominated the Plume School in Maldon as the lucky beneficiaries of an IBM PC with Sigma Designs ReelMagic MPEG decoder card.

The Golden Joystick given as a plaudit to triumphant contestants was Dave Perry's baby. Originally he was looking into procuring more lucrative tech-associated goodies, but hit a brick wall owing to Channel 4's restrictive policies regarding the value of prizes awarded before the watershed. I expect the intent was not to encourage children to gamble.

Coincidentally Dave mentioned his dilemma to a contact of his, Richard Sekula, who worked as the sales manager of joystick manufacturers, Spectravideo, from 1984 to 1986.

Uri Geller offers to bend the series six trophy
He mentioned that he had devised a series of golden Quickjoy joysticks to acknowledge the contribution of store managers who had exceeded their sales targets, and that twenty of these had been squirrelled away in a warehouse. If Dave thought they'd be suitable for the show, they were his for the taking.

Spectravideo must have continued producing the exalted accolades as many more than twenty were awarded throughout GamesMaster's seven series run. The perfect symbiotic relationship given the kudos attributed to these particular models!

The Quickjoy III Supercharger SV-123

Mike Miller goes commando!

If you can imagine the winners doing anything less befitting than turning their childhood bedrooms into a perpetual shrine to eulogise their exalted trophies, you may be interested to know that some of them have been hawked to the top bidder on eBay!

In episode 17 of series 3, Steven's sharp-shooting in Megadrive game, Lethal Enforcer, saw him go home with the Golden Gamesmaster Joystick, and a date with Gladiator, Jet. Here's a capture of the moment he flogged it on eBay.

This specimen is purported to have been won by Emmerdale actors, Stuart Wade and Tonicha Jeronimo, in episode 5 of series 5 following a triumphant blindfolded, crystal-collecting challenge on the Sega Saturn game, Bug!

...although the seller's credibility was brought into question when he tried pimping his listing on the RetroCollect forum, pretending to be an impartial, potential buyer. Not that this is the most heinous crime to ever have been inflicted upon the long-suffering Golden Wonder. Some take the sacrilege to another level entirely, so I suppose we should be grateful that this one will at least live to see another day.

Doubt is also cast over whether the winning contestants actually got to take home the Golden Joystick 'prop' at all!

When the same question was put to Dave Perry on his now-defunct Games Animal forum, he couldn't definitively lend any credence to the claim:-
"Blimey. I really don't know about this. As far as I know, the winners always got to keep their Golden Joysticks, and at no time was there ever a solid gold version. Funny how these myths grow..."
His answers are similarly vague on the - also long-gone - GamesMaster Live forums:-
"If the rumour that they presented the joysticks on the show in later series but didn't allow the contestants to keep them is true, then that would probably explain it if 'they' were gold plated."
However, GamesMaster researcher, Peter Scott, sheds more light on the mystery:-
"We used to get the joysticks direct from the maker already golded-up. We did kinda run out on the first 13 eps of series 3, mainly as we used a lot more multiplayer games than forecast. So some poor winners were sent home without a joystick - but we sent them on as soon as they came through a couple of weeks later. Mind you we only had a few presentation boxes, the winners (certainly on the series I did) just got a joystick with no see-through perspex box or 'owt.

I nearly got a joystick as too many were made for the second part of series 3, the challenge bit that I didn't work on, and I was offered one to come along and help out. But I said no as I didn't want to be associated with that part of the series. I knew there was trouble in store as it was disorganised, the remaining GM staff hated working on it, and when it kinda fell to bits in the end the producer blamed me for being promoted to another show. Tsk."
The future Tony Hutchinson of Hollyoaks fame reviews
the bizarre U-force controller
The games and gaming paraphernalia reviews were conducted by a mixture of professional games journalists and young enthusiasts. Whilst these are a nostalgic curio in their own right, it's also worth watching closely to see if you can spot any 'before they were famous' candidates.

The same could be said for some of the then unknown contestants. For instance, Alex Verrey who appeared in the second episode of the first series to take on a Sonic the Hedgehog ring-collecting challenge went on to become 'Big Boy Barry' in Sky One's Games World.

I want some of what he's having
Other amateur reviewers were notorious for performing equally impressive feats; Daniel Toothill did an uncanny impersonation of a stoner while highlighting the pros and cons of Gods shown here, and Lost Vikings in a later episode.

"Aw crap, so it's 20 years later and I'm still getting abuse about this. I was bloody terrified, that's all. If I'd had any idea what I looked like during the filming, I would have at least made a conscious effort to blink once in a while".

Daniel Toothill, YouTube comment

Daniel's extraordinary party trick went on to inspire celebrities such as buff Gladiator, Shadow; a worthy protégé, but Toots still has the edge.

Who'd have guessed he was doped up on steroids?

Ever tried staring down an adversary to the point of tearing up, and still refrain from blinking? Ah, to be back in the school playground. Happy days.

Journalist, Jane Goldman, represents Game Zone as she co-commentates with Dominik before going on to become a highly acclaimed screenwriter, author and producer.

She is accredited with writing some of the highest grossing movies of the noughties, in addition to numerous books, and as the producer of several popular entertainment TV shows. The fact that she is married to prime-time chat show royalty, Jonathan Ross, is a mere footnote in her biography.

Gamesmaster producer, Jane Hewland, keeps it in the family
Here we see Jane's son Harry reviewing John Maddon '92 in episode nine of the first series. Doesn't look too happy to be there does he. Was he missing Neighbours?

Harry's love of gaming is credited as the catalyst which led to the conception of Gamesmaster, transforming the solo pursuit into a competitive, televised extravaganza.

Oh what happened to you, whatever happened to me
what became of the people, we used to be

Dominik's ickle brother, Michael, reviews the Cheetah CharacteriSticks range of novelty joysticks in episode 3 of series 2.

Michael is now a stage actor and producer, working with the 'Diamond School of Performing Arts', the drama academy founded by his mother, Paula.

These ill-advised creations featured a bog-standard joystick base with a hand grip moulded into the shape of a popular cartoon or movie character such as Bart Simpson, Predator, Batman or the Terminator.

I imagine they looked pretty nifty on a mantelpiece, though I doubt anyone would have found a use for the cord.

Is slapping kids always wrong?

In series three, ultra-precocious thirteen year old sproglet, Simon 'it's too easy for me, I need a challenge' Amstell, of Nevermind the Buzzcocks fame, appeared as a competitor in the Gamesmaster Team Championship along with two other members of the "unstoppable" 'Essex Allstars'.

Simon proves the bigger the mouth, the gloatier the heckles, crashing out of his semi-final Davis Cup World Tour challenge with a dismal performance.

In a hundred years time we'll still be claiming virtual reality is the next big thing in gaming technology. It's just around the corner, honest!

GamesMaster chased this golden goose as much as anyone back in the 90s. To teleport to the Consoletation Zone to meet Sir Patrick, kids would have to don the contraption depicted to the left, and in season four there was a preview of the CyberMaxx headset, touted as the first 'affordable' virtual reality helmet.

The poster-boy of VR flopdom, Nintendo's short-lived Virtual Boy, hit Japan in 1995 and had been swiftly discontinued and swept under the rug by the following year. I'd give it a mention, but it's too painful to even contemplate, let alone play. What remained of the unsold stock was buried next to Atari's 2600 E.T. game in a New Mexico landfill dump.

In 1996, the news segment of another episode featured Pac-Man VR, a fully immersive arcade game played from the perspective of the yellow pill-muncher himself, and supporting up to four players when the machines were networked together. If you could find one at all in the wild given how expensive the machines were to purchase, it would cost $5 for 5 minutes of game-play, and of course no-one cared anyway because it was a virtual reality game.

It's hard (we're off!) to believe I've gone this far without mentioning innuendo and double entendres; for better or worse, they defined the show. You may have noticed that a joystick can be equated with a certain male appendage, and granted, while there's some comedic cache in that, Dominik et al managed to string out the same joke for six years!

Re-visiting series 1, the first example to hit me transpired following Annabel Croft's successful Pro Tennis Tour 2 challenge. Tripping over his own tongue, Dominik almost makes sense: "I'm not sure where you're going to put that, but I'm sure you'll have lots and lots of endless hours of fun with that".

The suggestive quip appeared to go right over Annabel's head, otherwise she might have got a bit flustered. Twelve year old me didn't bat an eyelid either, although watching it back now, it's all a bit cringey and uncouth.

It occurred to me that you could make a case, attributing the untimely downfall of the humble joystick to none other than Dominik Diamond. The joypad was never the best tool for the job, it was just less susceptible to abuse from genital connotations and so took root when nob gag fatigue set in. You heard it here first.

Other celeb guests knew the score from the outset and gave as good as they got. When Dominik asks Pat Sharp, "do you think you can take Mick?", he fires back, "I'll have to ask my wife first", out innuendoing the Lord of Lewd. Allegedly they were referring to Acro Aerials in the Amiga game, Ski or Die.

In series six, Zoey Ball raises the bar when she straddles the Manx TT: Super Bike Twin arcade machine in skin-tight leather trousers, and you can guess the rest:-
Dominik: "Please welcome the best reason for an early rise on Saturdays... Zoey Ball" ..."Have you been on a motorbike before?"

Zoey: "I'm actually terrified of motorbikes, but I like it up the back... on a motorbike."
Several years later (in S06E01), it's apparent that Dominik has fine-tuned his bad taste filter bypass mechanism to a tee when he introduces his pin-up favourite, Sam Fox, who 'mounts' the Aqua Jet arcade machine for her challenge:-
Dominik: "Welcome to the show Sam. It's a pleasure to have you." 
Sam: "Thanks for having me"

Dominik: "It's not too premature to say that. Sam, there are two big aspects to your career... you've got the modelling and the singing. For years I've been trying to make her come... Sam Fox is finally on the show".
What would have been a stroke of genius is for the screen to wobble-transition into a parallel universe where everyone involved had swallowed a 'speak literally pill' and we got a no holds barred torrent of filth.

Surprisingly enough, Channel 4 weren't exactly inundated with complaints, so either parents weren't watching the show, or it went over their heads too. The GamesMaster crew weren't prepared to stand for this so upped the ante, pushing the boundaries back further with each successive series, and at its peak, an offence-o-meter was even introduced to hammer the point home. The late night, 'Gore Special' edition really nailed it. It was a parents' nightmare, it had everything... blood and guts, swearing and full frontal nudity.

It would be interesting to see what sort of a reception it would get now in this post-Jimmy Saville scandal era. Some of Dominik's lines bordered on sexual harassment, and it probably isn't advisable to allude to children's private parts and what they might do with them in the privacy of their bedrooms. Sid James and the Carry On films were considered antiquated even back in the 90s so why they were spiritually resurrected for a cutting edge games show is beyond me. Somehow it worked; the ratings reached three million at the height of its popularity.

One of the most memorable moments has to be the now infamous Dave 'Games Animal' Perry, Super Mario 64 challenge incident. In one of the Christmas specials, Dave was taking part in a battle of the commentators contest against Kirk Ewing who was bosom-buddies with Dominik. Dave claims that the game was switched at the 11th hour for one that he'd never played before (and publicly stated that he wouldn't play until the finished product was available), yet Kirk had practised on for three months. Presumably the aim was to humiliate the self-proclaimed "best gamer in the UK".

Craig is pummelled by a stinky girl
Hostility had been brewing between Dominik and Dave for some time, and given that the producers had previously insisted on a brother and sister repeating their bouts in Evander Holyfields 'Real Deal' Boxing until the girl won, I can believe that they weren't opposed to engaging in a spot of deception if it meant injecting some controversy into the proceedings.

Other hints towards the show not being entirely on the level include the supposedly random audience contestant selections, particularly the ones involving challengers pitted against Sega European Games Champion, Danny Curley, and British Nintendo Champion, Thomas Patterson.

Strangely enough, the chosen contestants knew what game they'd be playing beforehand, and in some cases were sufficiently proficient at it to pose a threat to the title holders.

It must have been obvious to the viewers at home that this was pre-ordained, but the kids on set clearly thought they stood a chance of being selected as they grappled to make themselves as conspicuous as possible, hanging over the railings and waving to be noticed.

It makes me wonder if someone at the studio had come under fire for this because later in the same series, Dominik goes out of his way to emphasise the 'random' nature of the process when he plucks Aerosmith throwback rocker, Steve, out of the audience to serve as a benchmark for the arm wrestling challenge where Rod 'Rambo' Lanette, Robert 'Bad News' Browne and Tony 'The Lunatic' Durey take on the arcade game, Arm Champs 2. It's all a bit nod-nod, wink-wink as though he was alluding to an inside joke.

Dave's arrogant, 'Marmite' persona was the perfect foil for the viewers' schadenfreude, and his petulant reaction to this miserable defeat certainty didn't disappoint. That said, Kirk's performance was pretty dismal too, only clocking up a few extra seconds on the slippery ice track before sliding over the edge and falling to his doom. If he'd had any practise at the game, it definitely didn't show.
"I don’t talk about Dave Perry – I feel pretty bad that I humiliated the guy to that extent and the only way he is defined now is by a TV embarrassment for him that he CONTINUALLY lies about. So I just don’t bother now. I wish him nothing but good luck."

Dominik Diamond (The Games Shed interview, September 21st 2012)
The dreaded 'M' word
When the producers sold their souls to McDonalds - who came on board as exclusive sponsors for series 3 and 4 - Dominik took the moral high ground and bailed out. Like his brother, he was strongly opposed to some of their business practises including huge-scale deforestation, poor wages and the genetic modification of cattle, and didn't want to be associated with them.

Nevertheless, Jane Hewland puts a different spin on his decision to leave, chalking it up to the desire to spread his wings and take on other projects that were being dangled like a lucrative carrot as a result of his exposure on GamesMaster.

Dexter Fletcher, who was best known at the time for his role as American teenager, Spike, in Press Gang, was draughted in to replace Dominik. He was always going to be a tough sell for fans of Dominik's dry wit and deadpan delivery. To begin with viewers thought he was affecting a fake Cockney accent because they assumed he was American. It was an easy mistake to make given that he out-Cockneyed most of the case of Eastenders.

Dexter brandishing all that remains of Dominik
While Dominik's demeanour was dour and a bit jaded, Dexter presented as a prepubescent child who had overindulged in the sweet stuff, or was he suffering from ADHD, who knows?

He bounced around the set, hopping from one foot to the other, leaned in to interview contestants with bent knees as though he was adjusting his underwear, and his exuberant enthusiasm made him look like the lead actor in a pantomime.
"It's a very unforgiving atmosphere, quite intimidating and just getting up, taking a deep breath and going out there and doing it was the toughest part of the challenge." "Also, the kids can be pretty ruthless. They come along expecting a show to run smoothly for half an hour but, of course, in TV it doesn't work like that and they start shouting 'You're crap' and 'Where's Dominik?'."

- Dexter Fletcher (GamesMaster Magazine, issue number 11, November 1993)
He reminds me a lot of Prince Charles on his obligatory jaunts to visit the common folk, never really knowing what to say or how to say it to make that immediate connection with guests, something which Dominik pulled off effortlessly. Of course it didn't help his cause when he opened series 3 by making a joke about Dominik's dramatic demise; as the story arc goes, Dominik was burnt to a crisp in an explosion in Auntie Marisha's kitchen at the end of series 2.
"I needed money for drugs. I was making bad choices in terms of my career. Here was someone who'd worked with David Lynch as a kid and was now presenting, badly, a computer game show."

- Dexter Fletcher (The Scotsman interview by Alistair Harkness, March 18 2012)
Toms tells it like it is
Perhaps Tom put it best when probed (oo-er missus!) by Dexter on his performance in SNES game, Mr Nutz. Avoiding the question altogether, totally out of the blue he remarks, "you look like an idiot", much to the dismay of Dexter.

Tom appears to have been egged on by older kids and gets away with it because he's cute and endearing. So what's Akbur's excuse for being a precocious, swaggering, gangster-wannabe? Did Dominik's departure leave a cockiness vacuum that sucked in the brattiest, most caustic kid in the country? (see the Mortal Kombat challenge in episode 1 of series 3).

The only person with a good word to say about Dexter's stint on GamesMaster is regular commentator and gaming guru, Dave Perry. This strikes me as odd because Dexter took every opportunity to drown out Dave's inciteful segments with random echolalia and clueless babble as though he wasn't prepared to share the limelight. It's painful to watch. Nevertheless, for the sake of balance and fairness, here's Dave's take on why series three was such a train wreck, as posted on his - sadly now out of commission - 'Games Animal' web site:-

"Outside of Series 7, which I struggle to find anyone who followed all the way through, Series 3 of GamesMaster is regularly seen by the majority of fans as the low point of the show's run. It was certainly the most controversial. However, very few people seem to realise what actually went on with those productions and so the blame is always placed very squarely at the feet of Dexter Fletcher.

The fact is, Dexter was superb, and while he was possibly not suited to presenting, it is certainly not fair that he has had to endure the amount of stick that he does as a result of that series. The truth is, he did a fantastic job under very difficult circumstances.

For the start, Series 3 was the first to be filmed without the original crew, director Cameron McAlister and producer Adam Wood, who had been part of the five man team that set up the show, had gone on to do other things (check the credits at the end of Series 2 and Series 3 and you will see what I mean). To say there were problems with the new team would be understating things grossly.

Added to these complications, the show began being filmed in Oxford prison (aka: 'The Games Academy'), only for the prison to be re-commissioned and the filming stopped and moved. Now this break in continuity may have been challenging enough in itself, but because of the size of the new location (The London Dungeon) the show's format had to change to a team challenge, as we couldn't fit an audience into the new 'studio. Now, if you remember, I was brought in at this point as the regular co-presenter, in an attempt to add some stability perhaps, so I saw all of the following events first hand.

And, while the director and producer squabbled constantly, it was Dexter who was left out front holding things together. In what was, after all, his first presenting job. If at times he seemed a bit manic with his "Waheys!" and so on, well that is perhaps because he was always attempting to over compensate and gee the contestants up. Many of whom had been left standing in cages for long stretches of time, not really knowing what was going on.

Sadly, very few people know about any of this and as a result Dexter is given no end of grief as a result. It was certainly good to see him come back so strongly in Lock, Stock, and now perhaps I can set the record straight for him further. 'A 'right geezer!'"

After the break, in part two, I'll be back for more sweaty wrangling than you can shake a (joy)stick at. Stay Tuned!


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