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Wednesday, 19 July, 2000, 03:29 GMT 04:29 UK
Fight the good fight

Crushed metal, crushed egos and a crowd baying for blood. The motorised mayhem that is Robot Wars will soon hit a living room near you - thanks to a new range of toys. By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley.

It may not be a docu-soap, have a top cash prize or be presented by Charlie Dimmock, but BBC Two's Robot Wars is proving an enduring success with British TV audiences.

When the show - a gladiatorial contest putting home-made robots to the test - went head-to-head with Chris Evans' TFI Friday, it pulled in some six million viewers.

Chris Evans
The robots out-gunned Chris Evans
Evans, once seen as the saviour of UK TV, could only muster an audience hovering around the two million mark.

Not content with trashing the opposition back home, Robot Wars is conducting a furious campaign to occupy TV screens from the US to Australia. A deal with MTV is even on the cards.

As this fearsome juggernaut rumbles on, even those of us who wouldn't know an angle-grinder from a flaming pit in the ground are being given the opportunity to become robot warriors.

Toy gory

Mentorn Barraclough Carey, the production company which owns the Robot Wars format, is launching a range of replicas based on the show's "house" robots and some of the more famous creations of competitors.

With the originals revelling in names such as Dead Metal, Sir Killalot and Chaos 2, and boasting whirling blades and flame-throwers, surely no parent would wish to buy their offspring even a muzzled replica.

The ferocious appearance of the robot combatants and their array of vicious weapons may shock novice viewers of the show, says veteran audience researcher Mallory Wober.

Philippa Forrester and roboteers
Family fun: Blood, tears and sweatshirts
"At first sight it's like something out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Saw-toothed and equipped with all those destructive appendages, the robots rend each other apart."

Although it may seem mere fodder for testosterone-fuelled adolescents, Mr Wober says Robot Wars is violence with a family feel.

"It could weather any accusations that it promotes violence. After all it's the robots who act out the violence. The teams themselves tend to be amiable family groups dressed in charmingly-coloured sweatshirts."

Smash hit

Public broadcast stations across the States seem to have no problem with the show's content.

"People enjoy watching these things smash into each other, and nobody gets hurt," said a PBS spokesman.

Steve Carthy, Robot War's producer, says few people seem immune to the show's odd charm.

"It may sound like a cliché, but even my gran likes it. She thinks Jonathan Pearce's commentary is hilarious."

Technicians prepare a house robot
Saw point: Can whirring blades be family fare?
At the other end of the spectrum, when an episode of the show was pulled in favour of tennis coverage last Feburary, the Radio Times letters page was bombarded by youthful complainants.

"We think it is very silly, and you are very naughty," chided Peter and Rachel Smith, aged four-and-three-quarters and seven respectively.

The diversity of such an audience can present problems, says Mike Collier, editor of the BBC's Robot Wars Magazine.

"The most difficult thing is catering for all the types of people who enjoy Robot Wars."

Cheer leaders

Robot Wars is aired in several time slots. Children watching the early evening edition respond to Robot Wars' showmanship, says Mr Collier.

"Younger audiences graft characters onto the robots. They cheer for some and boo others."

House robots roast a competitor
Hot stuff: Do not try this at home
Viewers of the post-pub repeat are equally partisan, if slightly more ironic, in their appreciation of the contest.

On a technical level, competing "roboteers" come from the most prestigious universities and mangiest garden sheds.

"Entries from the back-garden school of roboteers tend to be the most successful and imaginative. One robot, 101, cost something like £12 to make."

An off-the-wall spirit pervades Robot Wars. This goes back to its earliest days, when its creator, Star Wars model maker Marc Thorpe, decided to attach power tools to his vacuum cleaner.

Fair play

Although in the arena the contest is no holds barred, in the "pits" sportsmanship prevails, says Mr Collier.

Robot Wars
Blind furry: Robot Wars mixes fun and fighting
"Even in the run-up to battle, roboteers are willing to help each other, share spare parts and generally make sure all the machines are in tip-top condition. There's a genuine sense of community."

Such contradictions are perhaps part of the show's charm.

It defies description and has no direct peers, says Mr Wober.

"It's not really a gameshow, nor a sitcom, its certainly not a chat show. It's a completely new format, when so many other shows are just rehashes of old ideas."

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