The One Game (of Thrones)

Posted: September 27, 2015 in cult tv, TV reviews
Tags: , , , ,

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Growing up in the seventies and eighties there was no such thing as iPlayer, no DVD boxsets or Netflix, so unless you videoed something off the telly at the time, or it got a VHS release, oft times you’d see something when it aired, and that would be that.

Coming back to things later in life can be a dangerous thing, for every TV show that I’ve found I love just as much—maybe even more— now (exhibit 1 m’lud: Blakes 7) there’s one that, in hindsight, is a touch embarrassing (exhibit 2 m’lud: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.)

When The One Game aired in the summer of 1988 I was seventeen, and over the course of four weeks it held me spellbound. TV shows came and TV shows went, and there are probably miniseries that I watched that you could show me footage of me watching and I still wouldn’t remember them, but The One Game stuck in my mind, The One Game was something I never forgot, and even though I wouldn’t see it again until the 21st Century every so often something would spark in my mind and I’d be reminded of the quirky thriller I’d loved. Most pertinently this happened when I watched David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game, which parallels The One Game so much (even down to the ‘it was all for your own good’ ending) that I couldn’t help wondering if anyone got sued!

When The One Game was finally released on DVD I eagerly purchased it, but would it be Blakes 7 or Buck Rogers? Well clearly since I’m still eager to talk about it a decade after buying the DVD it’s probably pretty obvious that it is something I love just as much today, probably more, than I did back in the day.

The setup is thus:

Nicholas Thorne (Stephen Dillane) is the very epitome of a yuppie, young and arrogant he’s also wealthy courtesy of his company Sorcerer, which makes games. During the course of one bank holiday weekend however he’ll potentially lose everything. First someone steals over two million pounds from the company accounts, bypassing supposedly fool proof passwords, and then Nick watches has is ex-wife Jenny (Philippa “Pippa” Haywood) is kidnapped.

The man behind this is Magnus (Patrick Malahide) Nick’s former business partner who Nick forced out of the company (and indirectly into an asylum). Magnus entices Nick into playing The One Game, a reality game that will see Nick battle skinheads, knights in armour, mysterious gunmen and even find him having to joust on a motorbike, but when you’re playing a reality game, where everyone you meet might be playing as well, can you trust anyone, or anything that you see?

Clearly this was a reworking of the Arthurian myth, and writer John Brown described it thusly: “What if Arthur said to Merlin after he’d helped set up the Kingdom, ‘Get lost. I don’t need you anymore.'”. Arthurian imagery is scattered throughout. A knife tossed into a canal, a woman’s beseeching hand rising up from a lake, knights in armour, sword fights and jousts, and with Nick playing Arthur and Magnus clearly Merlin. (I have seen it suggested that Magnus is Arthur and Nick Lancelot, and I can see where they’re coming from given Magnus’ clear affection for Jenny/Guinevere, however I don’t buy it, the story makes a lot more sense if Magnus is Merlin so that’s the interpretation I’m going with.)

This isn’t just a tale of revenge with an Arthurian twist however, because it becomes clear as the story progresses that Magnus’ intentions are not wholly vindictive towards his dear Nicholas, and in the end, after seemingly taking everything away from Nick, Magnus turns the tables and places himself solely in Nick’s hands in order to provide Nick with an opportunity for redemption.

The show has a wonderfully surreal tone, which was a refreshing call-back to the past in a decade not known for subtlety, but despite its fantastical elements it’s mostly grounded in reality.

In tone the show feels like The Avengers (as in John Steed not Iron Man!) and this vibe is never more obvious than when Nick finds himself being shot at in an abandoned village, a scene which riffs off ‘Target’, an episode of the New Avengers. The paranoia that pervades the story (who can I trust, who is playing the game?) also harkens back to The Prisoner, although Nick is far removed from McGoohan’s everyman Number 6.

Aside from a few magic tricks there isn’t anything that’s wholly impossible, but we still get some wonderfully surreal moments. From motorcycle jousting (yes I know George Romero did it first), to Magnus’ business meetings in an abandoned warehouse (complete with modern furniture and three piece suits) to the curious hobbies of Lord Maine (played with contemptible glee by former Quatermass Andrew Keir). When we first meet him he’s dressed as a cavalier about to refight Naseby and the next time he’s letting off some steam doing kendo! He isn’t in it much, but Keir’s enthusiasm and these playful asides elevate what could have been just stock evil 80s businessman into something more interesting.

There’s a definite contrast between the old and the new throughout the show, in the characters and the settings and you get a feeling of a Britain stuck somewhere between the industrial past and the technological future, with Magnus representing the old guard and Nick the future, although neither is portrayed as being an ideal, and if anything you get the impression each man was at his best when they were working together.

The 80s industrial decline is represented by decay, lots of industrial estates and abandoned warehouses where outsiders like the biker gang reside. This is juxtaposed with the luxury yuppie riverside flats and the increasing reliance on computers. And compare Sorcerer’s gleaming offices with the original shop the two men started the business in.

Although never more than oblique there’s a criticism of Thatcherism (and Nick is clearly a child of Thatcher, a self-made man interested solely in himself) inherent in the story. Nick is successful but not happy, and for all that Sorcerer is a success, it’s built on hollow foundations. Ephemeral numbers on a screen and, as Tom Darke, Sorcerer’s finance director, says, leased office space and rented furniture, the firm has no real assets beyond ideas; it’s almost prescient of the dotcom bubble bursting.

At the heart of the story are two great performances from Dillane and Malahide, and I make no apologies for the puntastic title of this posting given both men have recently been in Game of Thrones, Malahide with a relatively minor role as Balon Greyjoy (father of Theon Greyjoy, the unluckiest man in Westeros!) and Dillane with the much meatier role as Stannis Baratheon. Interestingly it’s not the first time the two men have worked together since The One Game as they were also both in the relatively disappointing Melissa George headed series Hunted a couple of years ago. Although I don’t believe they’ve shared scenes in either show.

Dillane was the less well known when The One Game was made, although around the same time he was in the excellent Christabel, but he plays Nick exceedingly well, balancing the arrogance and sneering disdain with a man haunted by past demons, and a man who, in his heart, is quite heroic. Yes his choice to play the game is born out of arrogance, his desire to beat Magnus, but he also genuinely wants to rescue Jenny. By contrast Malahide was very well known at the time, most famously as bumbling Detective Sergeant Chisolm in Minder, constantly being outwitted by George Cole and Dennis Waterman, so seeing him as Magnus was quite shock. He’s almost unrecognisable as the urbane, mystical and ever so slightly unhinged Magnus and for a man best known for playing incompetent coppers or vicious gangsters it shows what actors can do when given the chance.

The rest of the cast is mostly very good, although the least said about the guy playing the yuppie hacker in episode one the better. Kate McKenzie is perhaps the weakest of the main cast as Nick’s girlfriend Fay, but then she also has a bit of a thankless task because it is pretty obvious from very early on that Fay is more than she seems (even if you don’t make the connection between Fay and Morgan Le Fay, i.e. Morgana). It’s interesting watching in hindsight because Fay solves half the puzzles for Nick (in fairness Nick says early on that he’s terrible at games and puzzles).

David Mallinson fares better as Tom Darke, and his, on the surface, bland accountant manages to have quite a character arc, ending with, if not redemption, then at least a modicum of decency.

Magnus’ associates are played with gleeful nastiness by actors who are required to switch between personas at a moment’s thought, and do so very well, and finally Pippa Haywood is great as Jenny. Though terrified her character never gives up fighting, and even though she may have fallen out of love with Nick she clearly still has feelings for him, and even though she respects Magnus she isn’t afraid to tell him to his face that he’s a maniac, even when still his prisoner. It’s interesting to note as well that though we the audience know from the get go that Jenny is innocent, Nick has no such luxury, and so for a time her role in the One Game is uncertain from his perceptive.

In the end Magnus’ motives remain oblique. Is it about revenge tempered with a modicum of redemption for Nick, or does Magnus truly believe that Nick was a better man before money and guilt corrupted him? Is he trying to return a man he clearly loved like a brother to an earlier, simpler iteration of himself by stripping him of all the trappings of wealth and giving him the opportunity to right a terrible wrong that quite clearly was still haunting Nick, even before The One Game began? Just see Nick’s reaction upon seeing a lake when he and Fay go to dinner in the first episode, before he’s even aware any money is missing, let alone that Magnus has returned.

The One Game ends with some mysteries still unsolved, and with the final appearance of the Conjurer, the Beggar and the Comedian the inference that the Game isn’t over, and maybe never will be…

Yes it might look a little dated now, yes some of the puzzles are fairly simplistic, and some of the games seem a trifle tame (but then maybe that was the point) even though there are fatalities, but this is still a wonderful little show that remains intriguing and eminently watchable, a perfect blend of the gritty and the mystical, with a lilting and evocative Celtic soundtrack that makes even the most drab of locations appear magical.

Centred around two great performances perhaps the final thing I should say about how much The One Game means to me is that, as a writer, I’m still trying to come up with an idea just as original. If you can track it down please do so, just try and look beyond Tom Darkes’s giant glasses and computers that look like they might struggle to add two and two together and enjoy a story that’s one of a kind.

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Comments
  1. Great review of an excellent show.

    I also saw this during it’s original broadcast and it’s always stuck with me. Got the DVD a few years back and really enjoyed it on re-watching – which doesn’t always happen with stuff from the past.

    Probably time for me to watch it again so thanks for the reminder 🙂

    • starkers70 says:

      You’re very welcome, always nice to meet another fan of The One Game. I see it’s been rereleased, I’m tempted to buy another copy (not only in case of accidents but because the original DVD ended up being ridiculously valuable once it was deleted!)

  2. Oooh, I completely missed that when it was out. I shall keep an eye out for it.

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