On December 9th 2012, legendary astronomer – and great British eccentric – Sir Patrick Moore passed away at the age of 89.
For more than 50 years the monocle-sporting, xylophone playing legend spread his love for astronomy on the long-running TV show The Sky At Night. However for all his contributions to the field he loved, including research that was used by NASA in their space programmes, that’s not what I will remember him for. I’m sure it wouldn’t have impressed him too much, but to an entire generation, Patrick Moore will always be The GamesMaster.
In 1992, Channel 4 decided to launch the UK’s first regular show devoted to the fast-growing world of Video Games. That series was GamesMaster, which ran in a teatime slot for seven series between ’92 and ’98. The show was an attempt at recreating the format of a games magazine for television, with reviews, news and tips.
A centre piece of the show was the challenges, wherein a challenger, sometimes a member of the public, sometimes a D-list celebrity, would attempt a timed challenge in one of the latest games. It was part game-show, part very early form of professional gaming, and the winners got to take home the coveted Golden Joystick award.
The whole thing was fronted by the decidedly unlikely figure of TV and radio presenter Dominik Diamond. The sarcastic Scot’s sense of humour gave the show it’s identity, that was missed when he was replaced by Cockney loud-mouth (and future Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels star) Dexter Fletcher for the third series. Fortunately Diamond returned for the fourth series until the eventual cancellation. Each series had a different backdrop, from a gothic church in series one, to the desert island of the final run. Most memorably the fifth and sixth series were set in hell and heaven respectively. The show’s secret weapon however was the GamesMaster himself.
The GamesMaster was a fictional character, a giant floating head with a monocle who popped up regularly during the course of each instalment. In pre-recorded video inserts the GM would appear to introduce the challenges and to offer hints and tips.
Whatever possessed the programme’s makers to approach Patrick Moore to play the role, we may never know, but it was a master-stroke. Sir Patrick was no actor, but his delivery and performance was glorious to behold, and will be forever held dearly by a generation of gamers.
When the series began, Sir Patrick was approaching 70 years old, but he threw himself into the role with gusto. It’s quite probable that he didn’t have the foggiest what he was talking about. But no matter, because when a snotty-nosed ten year old in a Bart Simpson T-shirt asked “Dear GamesMaster, how do I get past level seven of Sonic The Hedgehog on Sega Megadrive?” he answered with authority.
It wasn’t perfect, but no other British show about games has ever managed to repeat GamesMaster’s success. Producers have always struggled find a successful format, and most broadcasters have now just given up on the idea. Some other series have had minor success on other channels or in other time slots (Channel 4 themselves later aired the late night cult show Bits) but it was never quite the same. GamesMaster has remained in the consciousness of Britain’s gamers – indeed the accompanying magazine is still published to this day.
So while the world will remember Sir Patrick Moore for inspiring millions to watch the skies, many (like me) will remember him for something else entirely. He played a big part in the childhoods of a whole generation, and for that we will always be grateful.
Next time we’re stuck on a game, we will remember him. Rest in peace, GamesMaster, you will surely be missed.