"It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the imagery is almost exclusively masturbatory," wrote the Evening Standard's Mark Steyn in 1992, after GamesMaster had been on the air for a fortnight. "GamesMaster does nothing to make you revise that opinion, although it tinges it with self-contempt: after all, the only thing dumber than pointing your throbbing joystick at Sonic the Hedgehog for hours on end is watching someone else do it through a TV set." It's fair to say that some quarters of the British media didn't 'get' the show, but that didn't matter back then; GamesMaster felt like it was for us, not them.
It might not have quite the same resonance for people outside of the United Kingdom, but the name 'GamesMaster' carries considerable weight on these shores. The TV show, helmed by Scottish presenter Dominik Diamond (apart from one season, where future Hollywood director Dexter Fletcher took over) was the first of its kind; a televisual event that actually took video games seriously and made them look cool and edgy. GamesMaster rode the '90s zeitgeist in the same way that a surfer crests a wave; Diamond's devilishly creative double-entendres (this was broadcast before the watershed, lest we forget) became progressively less subtle with each series as the show fully embraced the 'lads' culture that took over the country around this decade. If you're old enough to have lived through it, GamesMaster will no doubt bring back many happy memories.
That's precisely what makes GamesMaster: The Oral History so appealing; penned by Diamond alongside series superfan Jack Templeton, the book is part autobiography, part oral narrative; 40 different guests, journalists, production crew and presenters all contribute to the tapestry of the show's incredible story (one-time contestant Robbie Williams pens the foreward), with Diamond's input underpinning everything. Each chapter has a lengthy scene-setting explanation from the outspoken Scot (the one in which he explains why he wasn't involved for season three is a doozy), while interview segments are broken up by detailed, emotive recollections from the presenter, outlining his frame of mind and memories of each notable event.
The end result, as this 320-page tome's title suggests, is a truly exhaustive oral history from the mouths of the very people who were 'in the room' when it happened. These include the likes of wide-eyed reviewer Dan Tootill ("Nobody told me how spaced-out I looked during filming"), comedy duo Richard Herring and Stewart Lee ("I remember absolutely nothing about it, except that Patrick Moore was in a hat and Dominik had good trousers") and even Emma Harrison, who was one of the contestants during the infamous Rapid River challenge in Series 7 ("I can honestly say that was one of the happiest, peak moments of my career").
Diamond has made no secret of the fact that fame went to his head during GamesMaster and thanks to copious amounts of drink and drugs he became rather difficult to be around, and there's plenty of catharsis on display as you flick through each chapter, with the excess becoming more and more apparent. "We would get absolutely off our tits," explains Diamond when discussing the writing process for series five of the show. "I am a great believer in certain substances aiding creativity." Later on, when talking about the final season, he adds: "we just wanted to spend all of this lovely money one last time on the biggest and best shit we could think of." Few fans would disagree that GamesMaster delivered on that score, especially in its latter years when Diamond had more creative control over what was put on-screen.
Cocaine is a horrible, vile drug. It destroys lives and it certainly f**ked up mine – I still feel its effects today. But back then? In London, in 1995? Doing cocaine was like putting salt on your food. You just did it without thinking.
However, it's clear from Diamond's recollections that while he had an enormous amount of fun making the latter series of GamesMaster ("the show felt like my big family"), he is very open about the fact that as his career skyrocketed, his personal life suffered. "Cocaine is a horrible, vile drug," he explains. "It destroys lives and it certainly f**ked up mine – I still feel its effects today. But back then? In London, in 1995? Doing cocaine was like putting salt on your food. You just did it without thinking." Diamond's nadir came when he was banned from flying with Virgin airlines as a result of having imbibed six cocktails which, the flight attendant had informed him, were strong enough that five of them knocked out The Rolling Stones' famously hedonistic Keith Richards. "Unfortunately, instead of passing out the Scottish gene took over and I got loud and obnoxious. Fellow passengers complained, and I apparently pulled one out of his seat and asked if he wanted to step outside. At 30,000 feet.
Diamond has long since reassessed his viewpoint on Dexter Fletcher, the man who replaced him as presenter on the ill-fated third series. Fletcher had the thankless task of stepping into Diamond's shoes in a show he had made his own, and – to make matters worse – the entire production team changed for that season, meaning everything that could go wrong did go wrong (for example, the disused Victorian prison that was used as the studio location was re-activated halfway through the series). "Looking back now and knowing how out of his depth Dexter felt, I feel sorry for what he went through, because it wasn't his fault... Dexter can'r redo series three. So to still get burned for it years afterwards is particularly infuriating. Although in Dexter's case, I kinda feel after you have become one of the top movie directors on the world it's easier to handle!" Following a successful career as an actor, Fletcher has directing credits on the likes of Wild Bill (2011), Sunshine on Leith (2013), Eddie the Eagle (2015), 2018's Bohemian Rhapsody (on which he replaced Bryan Singer) and Rocketman (2019).
Diamond's tumultuous relationship with Dave "The Games Animal" Perry is also discussed. The Super Mario 64 incident needs little introduction to fans of the show, and both Diamond and Perry have the opportunity to give their side of the story in this book. The end result isn't quite the 'kiss and make up' situation many have been expecting and wanting to see, but at least both sides of the tale are laid out in print, and both parties are a little older and wiser and can hopefully move on past the whole thing. "Boys will be boys, what can I say?" says Executive Producer Jane Hewland in the book.
Laced with full-colour photos from the period – both press and from Diamond's own personal archive – GamesMaster: The Oral History isn't just a descriptive journal of this exciting and intoxicating period, but a visual one, too. An image of Diamond nursing a particularly nasty-looking facial injury (the result of a surfing accident encountered during a visit to Julian 'Jaz' Rignal's home in the US, apparently) rubs shoulders with the Diamond we are perhaps more intimately familiar with: a smiling, smartly-dressed young man surrounded by adoring kids in front of a row of gaming demo units. For many, it's childhood in a photo.
Few books open up bygone memories as superbly as this; while it's very much a 'warts and all' reminiscence of the whole GamesMaster saga and there are plenty of moments that Diamond clearly doesn't relish reliving, it's written with such delight and detail that, in the end, it feels like the perfect celebration of what was one of the most remarkable moments in British television history. Diamond's career has led him to many places since the show ended, but he makes a point of crediting GamesMaster for opening many doors in later years, purely because so many individuals (even global superstars) were fans of the show back in the '90s. That perhaps sums up the appeal of GamesMaster better than any quote, but here's one from Diamond that perhaps is almost as fitting:
The wee kid I was at the start of the nineties wanted to be famous and do something different, something funny, something dangerous, something they would be remembered for. And it happened. It really did. Not in the way I dreamed it would, because it involved Sonic the Hedgehog rather than stand-up comedy, but that's OK. The 21-year-old Dominik Diamond wanted to do something that shook the world. Not sure he did that, but he certainly shook some pants.
GamesMaster: The Oral History costs £35 and launches on 6th October 2022 (Thames & Hudson); if you backed the Kickstarter then you'll be getting your copy courtesy of Read-Only Memory.
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