Friday, 23 March 2012

This week: A TV Show I Am Aren't Watching: "Fathom" ITV 1987

Fathom was an ITV quiz show that ran for only five episodes in 1987.
Early in 1985, ITV bosses had become increasingly frustrated with their dwindling viewer figures, and the strength of the BBC quiz shows.
With this in mind, bosses worked closely with companies willing to invest heavily in a new show which would in turn show their goods in the ad breaks. The bosses devised a new idea that would be based around a generic quiz show format, but under the sea! This idea would be known as "Fathom".
In Fathom, celebrity contestants would be taken by submarine to an underwater base, were they would answer questions about the sea and general maritime events. The base itself was a large domed affair, which was anchored near the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. This base was manned by five full time aquatic experts and ten tv crew members.
The opening titles of Fathom showed the three celebrity contestants entering the sub and taking their seats. This was interspersed with pre-recorded footage of the contestants saying how they felt about going on the quiz. The screen would then cut the the live footage of the celebrities entering the quiz dome and taking their seats.
The show was hosted by Fred Dineage with additional support from the super computer "Depth Charge". Dineage was dressed as a ship's captain, complete with hat and jacket. Depth Charge was a cabinet style super computer with rows of flashing lights that made up a face. It was not uncommon for Depth Charge to "but in" on Dineage's questions, often causing Dineage to bite his lip before saying "thank you Depth Charge, speak when spoken to!"
Each of the five rounds would have a nautical title such as "Salty Sea Dog" which involved tasting and guessing the sea food. Or "Down Periscope" which involved a periscope dropping down for the contestant to guess the partially blurred, sea based, item. At the end of the quiz the contestant with the most points would win the "Captains Wheel" trophy before leaving with the other contestants.
Viewing figures for Depth Charge were exceptional. Bosses were elated that it was such a success. But into episode five, disaster struck. The three contestants this week were: Keith Harris and Orville, Matthew Kelly and Dave Lee Travis. The journey to the base went without error, and all contestants were excited and as Orville put it: "a little bit scared". The rounds went to plan but near the final round disaster struck.
Through one of the many viewing, port holes, a tv camera man saw to his amazement, a Hunter Class Russian Submarine colliding with the base! A large bang was heard and many staff members fell to the ground. Dineage was seen by millions to be visibly shook, but like the professional he was. carried on.
Viewers at home sat in stunned silence as the situation worsened quickly. As Dineage asked Depth Charge for the scores, another lighter bang could be heard. As the camera spun round it was apparent that one of the periscopes above Keith Harris's head, had dropped down and knocked the children's entertainer clean out!
More unsettling was that as Harris lay motionless with his head on the desk, Orville continued to speak! "I want my mummy, I want my mummy!" Screamed the duck. As Dineage stumbled for a reply, Depth Charge could clearly be heard saying "well I didn't see that coming!" As the set slowly descended into chaos, crew could be seen racing across the studio towards the away sub. The cameras kept rolling though and as one hand held camera man filmed the staff leaving, another filmed the dramatic proceedings in the dome. Matthew Kelly could be seen strangling Dave Lee Travis as Dineage pleaded for calm. Depth Charge began praying to God and then sobbing and cursing God for not giving him wheels and leaving him to die. By now the away sub was full, all but for one more place. Dineage was waving a spear gun at the other contestants as he made good his escape.
As a large crack appeared in the dome and water came cascading in, viewers could see Orville singing on his own: "I wish I could swim, right out of this bin, but I can't!"
Then the screen went blank.
ITV bosses made a 30 second apology announcement the next day, citing the incident and loss of four lives was down to the Russian submarine being off course. The shows developers never went to sea again.
Six months later, a green bearded, dishevelled Orville was rescued from a remote island in the Atlantic. His subsequent multi million selling book made his fortune. The book concept was then bought up and turned into Castaway starring Tom Hanks.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

This week: Motorway Commodore 64 1986

Motorway was a game produced by Turbo Fire Studios in 1986.
The game took 2 years to develop in the bedroom of Kevin and Barry Foam in Birmingham.
The idea of the game was to drive from one destination to the next. Kevin (the elder of the two brothers) convinced his younger brother Barry, that the game should not contain elements of other games, such as count down timers, chasing/being chased by other vehicles. Not even crashes.

Instead the game would be accomplished by driving from point A to B on a map from the first screen. Once the root had been plotted, the view switched to an in car view of a Mini Metro. The controls were the first stumbling point for first time players as they were vast. The "phone book" sized manual informed players that not only would the joystick be used for control of speed and direction. Virtually every key on the keyboard would be used also!

Some of the many keyboards commands were as follows: "Space bar" would work the wind screen wipers when it rained. Simple enough it would seem, but for the wipers to stay on the space bar had to be held down! If a player found this a problem then it was just the tip of the iceberg. For instance the "Z" key controlled the car's choke. The choke had to be set before the car could even be started. Gamers found themselves quite often "flooding" the engine by leaving it open too long. It was often found the young gamers enlisted the help of dad to start the car. Unfortunately this also lead to many fathers informing sons that "if we want to make it to Stoke son, we'll have to let me do the driving!" and sons returning to their fathers complaining "are we there yet?"

Many gamers actually thought the game flawed as some of the commands never worked. In fact this was not the case. Barry Foam stated in an interview some years later: "Kevin was such a control freak, he just ignored many of my ideas, I had to do something. So basically I made it so the car was continually knackered and needed you to limp through the game or break down!" Such things as faulty window wipers, faulty lights, brakes, and worst of all, a radio that when switched on could not be switched off!

Though the game became quite tiresome after hours of play, Barry managed to sneak in some more enjoyable elements. Firstly was the petrol stop. Although Kevin knew of this, and indeed helped Barry develop this part. He did not know how Barry had changed it. For starters Barry had made the fuel gauge highly unreliable. This meant that depending on how fast you were going, the needle was pointed to "full" then suddenly "empty". Gamers became worried sick looking for the turn off for services, to the point many developed back pain and nervous ticks.

When gamers did fuel up, they found the first of Barry's surprises. First was the ability to simply fuel up and drive off! Indeed many found this to be more fun than anything! The second was the toilet stop. Barry had quite mischievously made a point of a player icon that filled up a yellow and brown colour at once! Gamers raced their character to toilets to find "out of order" signs and blocked lavatories. If all was well they could use urinals to fire a jet of urine at a cigarette but, walking the length of the urinal to "sink the battle ship".

When the game finally came out, most gamers were intrigued by the elements Barry had installed. It sold progressively well leading to a sequel: More Motorway. It was at this "junction" the brothers split in gaming became apparent. Kevin was angry with Barry's betrayal of his idea of gaming and this lead to solo development. As Barry's eye for the ridiculous lead him to games like Dick Spring's: Cow Tipper and Archibald Fallon's Magical Markers. His brother faired less well with Bus Que and Gas Meter.

Sadly penniless and jealous of his brother's fame, Kevin went on to work for the highways agency, designing contraflow systems.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

This week: Brass Band Playstation One 1997

Brass Band was created by Taistral Styudyus in Yorkshire.
The initial idea was conceived off the surprising success of the the film "Brassed Off", which made considerable stars of Ewan McCewan and Peter Pepper Pot.

The game was conceived by a local business man Frank Rank, who having witnessed some of the filming believed he could cash in on the "Brassed Off" fever. Rank, although a highly successful businessman was completely clueless with gaming and this is were the problems began.

Rank hired a local studio (Taistral Styudyus) to develop and deliver his own ideas. Frank wasn't completely clueless though and brought in a local Band Leader: Alan Pleng to give advice and help with details. Unfortunately for Rank though, his initial knowledge was soon marred by his drink problem. Rank spoke to close friends of how he found Pleng asleep slumped in front of his television. Rank said at the time: "Eee was bladdered. The fella was out cold with an empty whisky bottle next to im. Worster though were his gaming problem. The dorzy basteds at Taistral had lent him PaRappa the Rapper and a ps 1!" It wasn't long before Rank sacked Pleng and moved on with his own vision.

The game itself was something of an oddity that beat the Wii for innovation. This came in the form of the controllers. Rank believed that if one was to capture the feel of the brass band, one would need to tap that feeling. Rank developed 28 separate, wired, controller that resembled the instruments they would mimic! On top of this, Rank conceived a conductors "wand" to be the main focus.

As development continued, it was noticeable that this much effort was too much for the developers. Rank brought Pleng back in to "shore up" the instrumentation. But this too was proving unwise. As the budget grew beyond belief, Rank was horrified to find Pleng at home hanging from a noose. Pleng was attired as the character he loved: PaRappa the Rappa, complete with "boot polish" nose.

Rank was now unravelling, as he couldn't tell the incidents from the film, reality, and consequently the game. He layered in the story of Pleng's death and pushed forward a release date.

Two weeks after release, Rank declared himself broke and never developed a game again. The game bombed and was laughed out of town. But a twist was around the corner. Japanese gamers had received the game late as Rank was unaware of the Eastern potential. Gamers here revelled in buying all the instruments and it was not unknown for families to perform live at meet ups. The game gained a cult following and was loved by all!

Rank was worshipped in Japan where he went on to develop five more games in the series before retiring a wealthy man. Sadly for Pleng's family, the future was bleaker. Rank denied any knowledge of his involvement and left them penniless. A clearly insane Irene Pleng can be seen to this day, dressed as ParRappa the Rapper pushing a shopping trolley through busy streets. Cursing Rank's name