Sunday, 26 November 2017

Edit Wars #5

Update! (Inserted at the top of the article for reasons of importance.) Since writing this piece some 15 months ago, I have since discovered that some of the sources I used for it were based on garbled information about the filming of Series 3; although More Panda Monium was dropped during filming, that was an entirely separate incident to the one that resulted in injury (which happened when the robot activated without warning), and the name of the robot involved is not known. See this page on the Robot Wars Wiki for more information.

A kind-of, sort-of appendix to the Edit Wars series of articles, here, and specifically the fourth one. (The series has long ago stopped being about actual edits and more about stuff that happened backstage that wasn't mentioned on the show for obvious reasons, but there's not really a snappy title for that.)

As already covered there: there was a serious health and safety incident during the filming of the third series of Robot Wars, where a robot (by the name of More Panda Monium and pictured above, incidentally) malfunctioned in the pits and put its weapon through someone's foot, leading to some of the filming being shortened or cancelled outright because of the resulting health and safety investigation.

Now, in the same series, and also covered in that article, Pussycat was disqualified for using an illegal hardened steel blade that shattered on the arena wall. Were those two facts connected? If the first incident hadn't occurred, might Pussycat have been allowed to go through? Did the impaling lead to an immediate, much stronger enforcement of the health and safety rules?

You may think this is a pretty tenuous argument - not least because I don't even know for sure if the More Panda Monium incident happened before the Pussycat one. However, the former definitely did have a major impact on the show. Enter Rex Garrod, one of, if not the, most qualified roboteers ever to take part in the show. In fact, before Robot Wars, he had already presented several series on engineering for Channel 4, and was also the man who built Brum.

Unsurprisingly, he had major success on the show, reaching the Grand Final of the First Wars and being runner-up in the Second. In the third he embarrassingly crashed out in the heats following driver error (ironically against Pussycat). Let's let Mr Garrod speak for himself here, in this interview conducted with fansite Tectonic Robot Wars back in 2000:

Yes hundreds [of rules I oppose], far to many to mention, and most of them stupid, and written by some twerp who sits behind a desk, has never got his / her hands dirty, and never made anything, let alone a sophisticated machine like a robot. And furthermore, so intoxicated with self importance and will not seek help from professionals or listen to experts, who could help them. For example after I got a rollicking from a so called health and safety man (for drilling a hole in a piece of plastic, half a mm thick with half mm drill bit ,without goggles and leather gloves), I told him that serious accidents would occur because of their lack of proper real safety precautions like checking the all important failsafe devices that MUST be fitted on ALL robotic machines AND PROPERLY TESTED BY AN EXPERT WHO UNDERSTANDS THE DEVICES AND THEIR FAILINGS.  He merely walked away. That advice fell on deaf ears, only for a serious accident (hospital case) to occur almost immediately. The next year I arrived at the studio, only to find another robot had run amok, and injured another stagehand (machine fell off a trolley and the switch shorted out and an inefective failsafe didn't stop the machine). For one accident to occur is bad, But for two of the exact same fault to occur in my book is nothing short of criminal. I have no intention of returning to Robot Warss until I'm satisfied that safety is up to the standards I am used to in my profession (Special effects for T.V Films & Advertising). After these almighty cockups things have taken a giant step forward, But from information recieved by many of the last wars contestants, it still has a long way to go. And self important people still rule, both in safety and common courtesy.

There you have it. The More Panda Monium incident led to the show's best roboteer boycotting it. (Incidentally, researching this article led me down the rather disturbing rabbit hole of trying to find out whether or not Rex is still alive, with one source saying he passed away in 2015, another saying he has dementia and a third saying he's alive and well. A story for another time, perhaps.) And, to be blunt, there are quite a few examples of lax health and safety in the first three series, often in the pre-match interviews, which seem to not be so prevalent in later series. In Hypno-Disc's first appearance, they have the disc spinning throughout the entire piece to camera (so the robot must have actually been switched on the whole time); that's one example, but if you look at any of those pit interviews from the first three Wars, there's plenty of examples of roboteers getting uncomfortably close to their robots' weapons, with little in the way of safety, and that definitely seems to end in later series. (To say nothing of an incident in the first series where Jeremy Clarkson was almost decapitated when he walked past Dead Metal and it started up unexpectedly.) There was also a redesign of the set in the fourth series to move the audience, put a crowd control barrier between them and the arena and give them another layer of protection in the form of a large plexiglass case surrounding the entire arena, and even more changes were afoot in Extreme, principally to reinforce the arena's perimeter.

(Not all of this was a response to the incident in the pits: the third series had seen a major leap forward in the robots' sophistication, and robots like Hypno-Disc being a real game-changer - prior to H-D's arrival, the producers had often advised entrants "don't worry too much about armour, the robots' weapons don't do that much damage". That was not advice they gave out again.

In addition to the increased potential for destruction, Chaos 2 had also become the first ever robot to win a fight by flipping its opponent out of the arena entirely. Seemingly nobody had realised this was possible - Chaos driver George Francis later claimed it was an accident - and the ringside area had to be redesigned in anticipation of this happening again. The show had been making small steps forward - in the first series the roboteers and audience were offered no protection at all, with literally nothing between them and the arena - but the change between 3 & 4 was undoubtedly the biggest, and More Panda Monium-gate has been repeatedly cited as what actually motivated the show to become more health and safety conscious.)

* * *

There was, understandably, a massive effort to tighten up health and safety in the pits in the aftermath of the More Panda Monium incident. One of these was the introduction of the 'removable link' - a mandatory unit that, if removed, would immediately disable the entire robot, with strictly enforced rules that the link should only be in place when the robot needed to be active (so this was the end of the practise of roboteers demonstrating their weapons in the pits, or indeed the robots being switched on at all outside of the arena). Removable links falling out would go on to be responsible for more immobilisations than anything else, and they continue to be the number one cause of defeat in the revived series. A good thing for people who don't want to end up with massive spikes in their leg, to be sure, but perhaps less good for entertainment. There were other changes too: in the first three series, robots had entered the arena by way of their roboteers carrying them in. Beginning with the fourth series, they were placed in a special pen, switched on and then driven in, ensuring the roboteers never had to enter the arena and minimising the amount of time they had to spend around an active robot.

I don't really want to imply that the producers of Robot Wars prioritised entertainment above health & safety until the problems of neglecting the latter became too big to ignore, or that any of this wasn't absolutely the right thing to do. But it would be fascinating to learn exactly what happened in the aftermath of that health & safety incident, what changed for the rest of the third series' filming (another Tectonic interview indicates that the planned timetable was ripped up completely), and what changed behind the scenes when they came to film the fourth. That moment when More Panda Monium got dropped by someone trying to move it was a huge moment in the show's history; probably more so than the two occasions when the producers actually rigged the whole bloody contest. Not only did it lead to the show's change in attitude to health and safety, the filming that was cancelled as a result meant that many robots would never be seen on television at all, and the alternative weight championships (which were all scrapped except for the Middleweight Championship) never really took off again.

Going back to what these articles were meant to be about in the first place: you can occasionally see the 'joins' in the broadcast episodes of Series 3, where the show has to hedge around the consequences of the scrapped filming. The trials that were left are scattered throughout the series rather oddly; they stick one in the middle of the Grand Final in such a way that completely kills the main competition's momentum, the Pinball tournament erratically pops up across the series when it feels like it should be a regular thing, the two battles with walking robots are rather odd 'exhibition' fights rather than the full tournament they were probably meant to be, and they managed to include the aforementioned Middleweight Championship by reducing it to a single melee battle. If you look at how the side tournaments were done in Series 4 I suspect that's closer to what they wanted to do for the previous series; one between each round in the heats, they're dropped when the competition goes up a gear in the Semi-Finals, and a few other events get their own special programmes. (All those specials were stripped across a week during the winter holidays, where it was possible to see a new episode every day in the week after Christmas. That was an amazing time to be a child.)

For all these reasons - the seemingly chaotic filming schedule for the rest of the series, the cancelled filming and the health and safety reforms that happened - a full account of the accident and its aftermath would be something I would very much like to read. I have long thought the original series was worth releasing on DVD, perhaps with some making-of documentaries taking us behind the scenes of things like this accident. You could even get members of the production crew or the roboteers in to do audio commentaries! It's tough to accept that we'll never see such a release and have to settle for exactly one episode of the 1997-2004 run being available on home video. But I digress.

(By the by: there was a definite case of another robot being looked at more closely after Pussycat's disqualification that year. Shortly after that it was Cerberus' time to fight, and they had to remove their front saw blade after discovering it was also a hardened one. Just to confuse things, Plunderstorm also had to remove a saw weapon that was declared illegal, but that must have been before Pussycatgate as they were in the same heat. Was there simply, as the Garrod interview indicates, an inconsistent and selective approach to health & safety?)

* * *

Just to finish up, here's a list of all the known Series 3 filming that had to be cancelled or reduced after the accident:

Alternative Weight Championships: The Featherweight, Lightweight and Super Heavyweight Championships were scrapped completely. The Middleweight Championship went ahead as the 'Middleweight Melee', as noted above.
Pinball: I believe more robots were originally due to take part in this (ten ultimately did; it is likely they originally wanted this to be a weekly event, as it was in Series 4).
Robot Soccer: Went ahead in a reduced form, with four qualifying heats and a four-on-one grand final. There were originally meant to be more heats, and probably a more complex tournament than the two-round one they had to settle with, although the original plans aren't known for sure.
Sumo and Tag-Team Terror: Both of these were cancelled altogether. (Teams had already been decided for the Tag-Team, although the pairing of Agent Orange and Milly-Ann Bug is the only one that's ever been reported.)
Walker Battles: Reduced to two 'exhibition' matches; at least one other such match was cancelled.

Sumo and Tag-Team were both successfully remounted the following year, and walkers were also integrated into the main competition, although Anarchy was the only one that would ever really find success. The Alternative Weight championships would later be resurrected for the Extreme series and the Channel 5 series (with the exception of the Lightweight and Super Heavyweight categories, which were consigned to the scrapheap); the former also added the always-fun Antweight category. (As mentioned earlier, though, the cancelling of the other weight categories' championships means that these days you'll be lucky to find a robot that isn't antweight, featherweight or heavyweight.) However, the first Extreme series was filmed alongside Series 5, and this meant that no Trials were filmed at all for the latter (the rise of the show's sister series Techno Games might also have played a part in this, not least because it featured games that were identical to some of the Trials), completing the show's transition to a combat-only format.

1 comment:

  1. My understanding of the Pussycat incident is that there was a pause between the qualification round and the rest of the episode, where in Alan Gribble's absence one of the team swapped out the blade following a poor performance. This would suggest that the robots were checked on qualification, and seemingly not thereafter (explaining the Plunderstorm/Cerberus issues).

    What is worrying about the link scenario is that the US side seemed to include such failsafes very early on, and I'm surprised they weren't mandatory in the UK side.
    I should also point out that the concept of the RefBot is also down to improved safety concerns, as well as needing something to cleave joined robots. With Robot Wars adopting the closed box approach, having a well armoured mobile fire extinguisher makes matters a lot easier than potentially risking fire crews entering while bots are live.

    On that point, the modern version appears to have had its share of concerns now that no internal Refbot is present. I'm informed that during one of there recent tapings a house robot malfunctioned and had to be pinned in place by another machine while the link was wrestled out of it, which could have easily ended up like the More Panda Monium incident