After an absence of more than a decade from our screens, Robot Wars is back. Long-time fan Niki Boyle was there to watch the filming of the new series in Glasgow – and it was as exciting as you’d expect. ACTIVATE!
There were three great things about watching Robot Wars as a geeky teenage boy. First and foremost, it was presented by Craig Charles (the less said about ‘bad boy’ Jeremy Clarkson’s initial stint, the better), who was already a figurehead among nerds for his role in Red Dwarf.
We already idolised Lister as someone who could travel through space while being unashamedly gross and juvenile – having him rant, rave and deliver self-consciously cringeworthy poetry in the (semi-)real world was glorious.
Secondly, it was a show that celebrated intelligence. Robot Wars aired from 1998 to 2004 – well after the musclefest of Gladiators had started declining, and just before the Fame Academies, Pop Idols and X Factors of the world made stars of photogenic karaoke singers.
This show didn’t care if good genes had favoured you with an athletic build, or if blind luck had landed you with a decent voice – it shone a spotlight on people who, by dint of their sheer brainpower and heard-earned scientific know-how, were worthy of celebration.
Thirdly, it had robots smashing each other up. This might run counter to the noble celebration of intellect espoused above, but come on: who didn’t love watching Hypno-Disc shred some lesser mortal’s chequered aluminium carcass in the arena? Robot Wars may have been the thinking man’s Gladiators, but it was Gladiators nonetheless.
Oh, and guilty secret highlight number four: Philippa Forrester. In these days of heightened equality awareness and feminist resurgence, it’d be churlish (not to mention career suicide) to write off Forrester as the mere eye-candy counterpart of Craig Charles’ geeky godhead, as she brought her own passion, enthusiasm and presentorial panache to the table (not to mention some seriously nerdy credentials from Tomorrow’s World).
All of which should go some way to explaining how giddily excited I was to find myself at a live filming of the new series of Robot Wars a few weeks ago.
I’d spotted that a new series was underway, that Dara O’Briain and Angela Scanlon were presenting, and that the whole stramash would be taking place in Glasgow. I kept my bespectacled eyes open for audience tickets and, when they were made available, I pounced. I was going to Robot Wars.
The new arena has been constructed in a massive hangar on the outskirts of Glasgow, out towards Paisley. Devotees of the original series will notice a few stylistic differences: the roboteers’ cabins look more sleek and technologically advanced than the shaky faux-metal plywood of old; the arena floor is surrounded with supposedly bullet-proof glass (the better to prevent shards of flying shrapnel from decapitating audience members), and decked out in a minimal grey-and-orange colour scheme.
Yes, the corner danger zones have lost their chunky yellow-and-black striped industrial look, but they do appear to have at least doubled in size, meaning contestants have a harder time steering clear of the fearsome House Robots.
Ah, yes: the House Robots are also returning. The BBC has already confirmed that Matilda, Shunt, Dead Metal and the beloved Sir Killalot are all back, albeit in souped-up states (Sir Killalot in particular is terrifyingly huge – he looks about half the size of a Smart car or, to put another way, larger than any fast-moving death machine has a right to be).
Also returning is the judging panel, which is called upon to make decisions in the event of an inconclusive bout. Robot Wars diehards will be pleased to note the presence of veteran judge and Gandalf lookalike Professor Noel Sharkey, who’s joined by Doctor Lucy Rogers and Professor Sethu Vijayakumar. The inimitable Jonathan Pearce – like Sharkey a Robot Wars fixture from the original series – will be back in the commentator’s chair.
These tidbits of information were parcelled out to the audience as we regained our breath between bouts – a full afternoon of cheering for our chosen robots, interspersed with chants of ‘Three, Two, One, Activate!’ and ‘In The Pit!’, eventually left us hoarse but happy.
We were lucky enough to witness the final fights of the season (yes, I know who wins; no, I can’t be bribed to tell you), along with a number of off-the-cuff ‘friendly’ bouts from competitors who had been knocked out in earlier stages of the competition and had stuck around for the sheer sport of it all.
One such contender took to the arena having been rebuilt a dozen times with assistance from supposedly rival teams; the community spirit of the roboteers was roundly and justly celebrated, as was the hosts’ insistence that they’ll be back in Glasgow for any subsequent series (a promise that led to the loudest cheers of the day, and one any prospective audience hopefuls should cross their fingers for).
And the contestants? Well, that’d be telling, wouldn’t it? Suffice it to say, the new series will contain its fair share of plucky underdogs, rank outsiders and superstar dominators. One robot I would advise keeping an eye out for is Gabriel – if only because, in a world of nippy little motorized flippers, the big shiny galoot with a five-foot Perspex axe is a sight to behold.
Other things to look out for? Well, that bullet-proof glass isn’t entirely for show, I can tell you that much. And let’s just say the House Robots’ apparent invincibility does not go untested.
Roboteers, stand by. This is war. This… is Robot Wars.
Robot Wars will air on BBC Two later this year