Sunday, November 9, 2003 by John Phillips
“They tried to stop us!” yells Craig Charles as he walks out onto his balcony. “They tried to stop the destruction!” “They” are, of course, the BBC who after six series and countless spin-off shows axed Robot Wars due to its decreasing audience. Evidently, it never occurred to anyone at the Beeb that the audience might have been dwindling due to the fact the last few series sat in an early Friday evening slot, where it was constantly wiped from the schedule in favour of golf, athletics, snooker, tennis, darts, tiddleywinks – practically anything. While nothing could defeat Sir Killalot and his chums in the arena they were no match for Stephen Hendry in the true battle for supremacy.
By any standards, BBC2’s treatment of Robot Wars has been odd. If the show had been axed after the first one or two series, nobody would have cared. Looking back at early editions on UK Horizons is faintly embarrassing, as a pair of feeble robots, invariably looking like biscuit tins nailed to roller skates, “attack” each other with ineffective toothpick-like axes, until one of the drivers accidentally sends his creation hurtling into the “Pit of Oblivion”. Indeed, the only entertainment provided in series one was the sight of host Jeremy Clarkson wandering around in a full-length black overcoat, trying to make the whole thing sound exciting. To axe the show just when all those years of development were starting to pay off seems downright crazy. For five, this must have been a dream come true. A programme with an established fan base suddenly available for anyone else to snap up. The BBC spends six or seven years developing the show, then five walks in and reaps the reward.
The most obvious thing to have changed in the transition to five is that it now goes out at 7pm on Sunday nights, which seems far from ideal. Sunday simply doesn’t feel like the right time for this kind of programme, and for five to schedule any major new series so that the second half clashes with Coronation Street seems almost suicidal. Not only that, Robot Wars starts just half an hour after Channel 4’s Scrapheap Challenge, leaving it open to the possibility that watching a Red Dwarf cast member hosting a game show about amateur engineering will have lost its novelty before curtain up.
There is some good news, however, and that’s that the move to five has not changed the format of Robot Wars very much at all. Same arena, same basic rules, same style of presentation, same judges, and mostly the same robots. The main changes are an alteration of the first round format to allow four robots to fight at once (the format of this round seemed to change constantly in the BBC years anyway) and the replacement of Philipa Forrester with Jayne Middlemiss. Middlemiss doesn’t seem well suited to the role of pit-reporter, but then neither did Forrester at the start, or her temporary replacement Julia Reed, who both eventually grew into the role admirably.
One major change is the prize for winning the series. Whereas the winners of the BBC’s Robot Wars got a trophy, five offers “a cashpot of £20,000″. Admittedly, Craig Charles’ announcement of this innovation makes it unclear whether this goes to the winner, or is the total prize money to be shared among the teams. Whichever it is, it does slightly detract from the spirit of the “glorious amateur” that prevailed before.
As it ever was, Jonathan Pearce’s commentary remains the highlight of the show. Like all great commentators, Pearce has a curious ability to make even the dullest moments seem thrilling, and to infuriate the viewers with Murray Walker style gaffes. “I think it might have been immobilised!” he’ll yell, while up and down the country people mutter “of course it has, we’ve just seen its battery fly across the arena”. His emotive style really suits the programme, which wisely concentrates on spectacle, rather than Scrapheap Challenge-style technical detail. Arguably Pearce’s only real flaw is to assume that the audience already knew the show’s jargon, failing to explain terms like “srimech” (self-righting mechanism, used to get a robot back on its wheels after being flipped). Nevertheless, Robot Wars without Jonathan Pearce would be unthinkable.
Obviously, one major change dictated by the switch to five are the commercial breaks. Not a problem in themselves, but they do give rise to the show’s most infuriating habit. On the BBC, every edition would start with a few clips of what was coming up. This meant that, if you’ve already seen a clip of, for example, Razer fighting Chaos 2, it wouldn’t take much brainpower to realise that these two won their respective first round fights. As such, you found yourself in a situation where you knew the results of most battles before you’d seen them. On five, these clips are also shown before the ad-breaks, meaning that you go through the episode almost as if you were watching a repeat.
What remains to be seen is whether five will be able to make the most of their big new signing. Previous “major” signings on the channel have always tended to get a lot of attention for the first episode and then fall into total obscurity. I have my fingers crossed that Robot Wars will work in its new home, as I believe it deserves to. If it can just be given a decent slot (and more importantly, one where it is shown with some semblance of regularity) the programme’s established audience will help it to survive. If not, then it may be one battle that not even the House Robots can survive.