BBC: The Master Game revived on DVD

by ChessBase
7/2/2013 – This very popular BBC TV show ran for seven series between 1975 and 1982. It consisted of a chess competition specially staged for TV, with top national (and later international) players, usually on a knock-out basis, with the games being shown with the players’ own commentary being used as a voice-over. Two series of The Master Game are now being released on DVD. John Saunders reports.

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The Master Game

John Saunders looks back on the classic BBC programme

It’s a common enough question, isn’t it? “Why isn’t there any chess on the TV?” We’ll touch on the whys and wherefores of that presently, but first let’s deal with the commonest follow-up question amongst Brits of a certain age: “The Master Game was good – why was it discontinued?”

For those who don’t know, The Master Game was a BBC TV show which ran for seven series between 1975 and 1982, on BBC 2 in the UK (with later series also being broadcast in other countries). It consisted of a chess competition specially staged for TV, with top national (and later international) players, usually on a knock-out basis, with the games being shown with the players’ own game commentary being used as a voice-over.

BBC: The Master Game Series 7 (2 DVD Video Set) Trailer

In the late 1960s, the game was totally absent from our screens, and indeed from our wireless sets. Given its minority appeal and the apparent contempt in which it tended to be held by the uninitiated, this didn’t come as much of a surprise at the time. I was rather more surprised to discover, when I read the book Chess Treasury of the Air by Terence Tiller, that chess had had its own BBC radio show from 1958 to 1964, and could only wish that I had been old enough (or chess-literate enough) to have enjoyed it.

So only an extreme optimist would have expected to see chess featured on TV back in the late 1960s. Contrary to popular belief amongst fellow old codgers of 2013, my personal view is that the general standard of TV in those days was every bit as bad as it is today (of course, there were exceptions), which suggests that the decision-making process as regards what programmes to broadcast was as blinkered then as now.

Bobby Fischer made the difference. Had Soviet GMs continued to contest the world title into the 1970s, I guess we’d still be waiting for the first mainstream chess programme to appear on TV, but his dazzling upward trajectory, like an Apollo moon rocket, made headline news and we were soon able to enjoy a major televised interview (by James Burke, of Tomorrow’s World fame), and then weekly TV coverage of the Fischer-Spassky match.

The recently deceased GM Robert Byrne, covered the Spassky-Fischer match
as New York Times columnist, and played in The Master Game in the late 1970s

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” as Wordsworth said of the French Revolution. Sadly, the advent of the ‘Fischer era’ proved to be another false dawn in many ways, but such was the initial effect of the Fischer boom that chess retained its TV foothold for quite some time, with coverage of subsequent title matches continuing well into the 1990s.

What was different about The Master Game was that it was created especially for TV. It might have been seen as a risky venture for the programme-makers, particularly as its first two series didn’t have the glamour of a Fischer or a Spassky to boost its appeal. It put the game of chess centre stage, rather than the celebrity status of a player or players. And, as is obvious, the big problem which chess itself has as regards the TV is that the cameras cannot ‘see’ the action as it happens almost exclusively in the players’ heads.

Presenting Chess on TV

The coverage of the 1972 Reykjavik match had provided some valuable TV experience for the programme’s producer Robert Toner, and some of the chess people who had worked on it, such as Bill Hartston, Ray Keene and Leonard Barden. They were able to build on this experience and produce a format which would appeal to competition players and also those who knew little or nothing about chess. (Interestingly, Robert Toner, in his foreword to the book made about the first three Master Game series, wrote that there has been “many attempts” to televise the game prior to the early 1970s – I wonder if anyone is able to make a history of these attempts.)

The technique they hit upon was, like Caesar’s Gaul, divided into three parts. First, the players played the games, without any recording whatsoever. Then, as soon as the game was finished, they would be taken into a sound studio where their immediate post-game comments would be taped (with the immediacy helping to preserve the flavour of their emotions). Then, later still, the players were filmed reenacting those parts of the game that the editors decided to broadcast. The viewer would see the edited highlights, with the soundtrack dubbed over. The show was anchored by Jeremy James, a BBC presenter, whose role was to introduce the players and ask layman’s questions of a guest expert.

I can remember watching the first show with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. It was great seeing chess on the TV again (particularly after the disappointment of Fischer’s abdication the previous year), but at the same time I was worried that they might make a mess of it and the game become a laughing stock. I needn’t have worried: it was excellent. Jeremy James in particular deserved credit for being a very good presenter: confident, intelligent and able to pose the sort of questions that might occur to uninitiated but interested viewers. Leonard Barden was the regular guest expert and he too struck just the right note, enthusiastically talking up the game, but also quite adept at explaining its technicalities in plain English.

GM Tony Miles (1955–2001) was one of the great stars of The Master Game

Presentation of the games was another pitfall which was deftly overcome, with some (for then) impressive technical wizardry deployed to help indicate the moves on the board and also show the players’ faces as they (pretended to) emote during the game. The acting ability of the players could have been the biggest barrier to authenticity, but fortunately none of them was minded to overact, opting for the very mildest interpretation of ‘method acting’.

Continued in part two –

Two series of The Master Game are being released on DVD. Each series features all 13 original episodes in a two-DVD set. The DVDs are region-free and will work in all countries. Series Six was filmed/broadcast in 1980-1. Contestants included: Bent Larsen, Nigel Short, Svetozar Gligoric, Vlastimil Hort, Robert Byrne, Tony Miles, Lothar Schmid and Jan Hein Donner. Presenters: Jeremy James & William Hartston. Running Time: 6 hours 30 mins.

Series Seven was filmed / broadcast in 1981-2. Contestants included: Andras Adorjan, Nigel Short, Walter Browne, Eric Lobron, Raymond Keene, Larry Christiansen, Miguel Quinteros and Hans-Joachim Hecht. Presenters: Jeremy James & William Hartston. Also included on this special edition is a bonus BBC documentary – The Lowdown: The Master of the Game – which follows the rise to international success of a young Matthew Sadler. Running Time: 7 hours. Release Date: Monday 29 July - RRP £22.99 per series / CHESS Magazine subscribers £20.69 per series / £40 for both series TO ORDER CALL 020 7288 1305 or online from the Chess & Bridge Shop.

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