Tom Gutteridge Talks BattleBots & Nearly Killing Jeremy Clarkson…
You may not know the name Tom Gutteridge, but if you’re a fan of BBC2’s Robot Wars, he is the man you have to thank for it, as he bought the original series to air in the 90’s. Now he’s involved with the rather more destructive US show BattleBots, which is coming to Spike UK on Sunday 4th September 2016 at 8pm.
I had a chance to chat with Tom, who has no involvement with the recent revamp that is running on BBC2, but I wanted to know what he thought the differences were between BattleBots and Robot Wars.
“The big difference is we created ‘House Robots’ for Robot Wars, where as BattleBots doesn’t need them. That’s the fundamental difference. We created ‘House Robots’ back in the 90’s for two reasons. One was because I always had a vision of the show being family viewing, but focusing on kids, and I saw the merchandising opportunities… And the second was because, in the beginning, the British robots were largely really poor. We scarcely had enough robots to do the show. In fact in the 1st season, we didn’t, we only had 30 and we needed 36. We ended up adding in ‘ringers’, which we’d use in part of the pitch process, and kind of pretended. Even then, the 30 real robots that competed weren’t that reliable, so in order to ensure there was proper carnage, we would create ‘House Robots’ that were all powerful, and weren’t governed by the weight restriction. We had them designed up, gave them names, characters, with a view both to merchandising, and to make fights more interesting.”
Some may think that a bit cynical, but Tom prefers the word ‘pragmatic’. After all, he is a television exec who’s trying to make the most interesting show he can, and make money to keep it on air.
When it came to bringing BattleBots to air on ABC in the US last year, times and technology had moved on, and they found gimmicks like ‘House Robots’ no longer necessary. “You couldn’t build a ‘House Robot’ that could compete with some of the US robots.” added Tom. “Plus it’s not really part of the format. A lot of these guys [the US roboteers], are professional builders. BattleBots is really the only professional robotic tv event in the world. So the very best British robots don’t appear on Robot Wars, they appear on BattleBots. We auditioned all the British robots that qualified to take part, and selected the very best builders. So you’ll see on BattleBots they’re the very best builders from Robot Wars, but with different machines. Much more sophisticated. Much more advanced. Much more violent machines!”
BattleBots is treated far more like a sport than a game show, to the point that they have presenters with sporting backgrounds, and even live ‘in vision’ commentators, like you would have at a big US sporting event. ‘They are genuinely ring-side, and they react live.” says Tom. “I don’t know if Jonathan Pearce [UK commentator] ever actually went to a Robot Wars match, as it’s all added in post-production, where as this is actually done ring-side. There’s 2 of them there and they’re actually watch the fighting, and you see them in relation to the battle. The whole thing is about 100 times more exciting if you’re into robots!” He continues “What’s weird is when it came back, Robot Wars didn’t really try to update itself. They did alter the structure, where the robots have to fight each other several times. Everyone knows who’s done these things, that doesn’t lead to good programming, because the robots get trashed, and you want to give them a few days to repair themselves. I guess that was a budgetary thing, I don’t know, but we would always put up the roboteers in hotels so they can repair the robots properly, fight again and improve themselves.”
Whilst I don’t totally agree with Tom on that point about good programming, it does go to show a marked difference between the 2 shows. Robot Wars is somewhat a trial of endurance, with roboteers having to survive round after round of pommeling. BattleBots allows them time to recovers so they are always fighting at peak performance. And you can see why. With BattleBots, you’re dealing with people who are designing and building robots as a profession. In a lot of cases they aren’t amateurs with other jobs. This is what they do! They are pro-roboteers, so they probably aren’t going to want to join a competition where they can’t put their best foot/wheel forward. They also won’t want to risk destroying an incredibly expensive bit of machine because they have been made to fight without proper repair time.
Given the pro sports-style attitude BattleBots takes to it’s competition, and with the worlds largest sporting event having just ended, I posed the suggestion of a robot-battling as an Olympic sport. He laughed and said “well, no, probably not an Olympic event, but with eSports becoming so massive around the world, we see it more in that context. Where the builders and operators, if not Olympian level, are developing incredible skills, akin to computer gaming skills. The best drivers, builders etc… are absolute stars.”
If you’re thinking he’s bashing Robot Wars here, he really isn’t setting out to do that. “It’s hard for me,” adds Tom “as I created Robot Wars, so I don’t want to diss it. Far from it, I’m absolutely thrilled that it’s back!.. But, for me, it’s kind of no contest. The battles are incredible in BattleBots, just extraordinary! Frighteningly good! In Robot Wars, we created things like ‘The Pit’ and additional hazards in order to create interest. Simply because, at the beginning, the robots weren’t good enough to sustain interest on TV. You just don’t need any of that on BattleBots, it’s absolute carnage.
That carnage comes from the unbelievable weaponry which the bots are allowed to use. “Several contestants have drones! So the competitors have to figure out a way of not only fighting the robot on the ground, but also how to knock the companion drone out of the sky before it bombs them with fire!” They also discourage ‘wedge/flipper’ bots. “Contestants very early on learnt that the easiest way not to be beaten was to use a wedge. But unless you have an almighty flipper, it can lead to some very dull battles, so we discourage that.” He cites one of the turning points on the original show being the introduction of Ian Lewis & Simon Scott’s Razer. A phenomenal robot, which was beautifully designed, and went on to win 2 Robot Wars World Championships. The old Razer robot was resurrected for an appearance in the recent 2016 series, but was knocked out in it’s opening round. However, Razer isn’t really isn’t the team’s main focus these days. In the 1st episode of BattleBots, you will meet their new, fierce looking creation – Warhead. As Tom puts it “You’ll see how far they’ve moved on from Razer.”
Not that those original robots couldn’t cause a lot of damage… The most dangerous incident in Robot Wars history happened during the 1st series, and was actually caused by a House Robot! “At the time we didn’t have an encased arena.” said Tom “We had screens to protect the audience and cameramen, but not a completely closed arena. The presenters were on a platform up above, and we thought they’d be totally safe. During the first week of filming, the House Robot Sergeant Bash, who had a spinning blade, when in to cut apart a contestant. But the blade spun off, and shot in the air, and embedded itself in a solid concrete wall, directly behind presenter Jeremy Clarkson’s head! We slow mo-ed the tape… and it missed his head by about 4 inches! It would have decapitated him and we would have had it on tape! We had to shutdown production and completely encase the audience and the presenters. It was the first time I, or really anyone, had realised just how dangerous it was!”
BattleBots Season 1 is coming to Spike UK on Sunday 4th September 2016 at 8pm. Channel 5 (who own Spike) have bought the first 2 seasons, so that’s a 6 episode 1st season and a 10 episode 2nd season of robot crushing goodness to look forward to!
Dave has over 20 years experience in the digital industry, and is founder and editor of Geektown. Obviously a huge geek himself, he can often be found in front of the latest tv show or movie, on various video games, or with his head in a comic book.