Is this the real life…? ITV’s ‘The One Game’ revisited

❉  We play ‘The One Game’, the mind-bending drama that blended Arthurian themes with prescient virtual reality concepts.

The approach of the last millennium saw a sudden rash of popular fictions based around the idea of deadly games. TriStar Pictures’ ‘Jumanji’, a potentially lethal, magical board game. Christopher Fowler’s ‘Disturbia’, in which a frightened young man is chased across London on a dangerous treasure hunt. David Fincher’s ‘The Game’, wherein a complacent businessman finds himself plunged into a terrifying contest due to a birthday present from someone very close to him.

Magic. Pursuit. A gift from somebody important. All elements to be found in ‘The One Game’. A television drama which beat them all to the punch by a decade in 1988.

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With little fanfare, Tony Benet, John Brown and Mike Vardy’s four-part drama aired over June of that year. By the end of its run, its mind-bending, challenging story had gathered a small army of devoted viewers. Arriving at the tail-end of a several-year run of similar one-off, idiosyncratic television serials such as ‘Dead Head’, Stephen Gallagher’s ‘Chimera’ and ‘The Life And Loves Of A She-Devil’, it proved itself capable of holding its own in such august company.

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At first glance, the story seems enthralling but mundane. The computer game designer Magnus has been held in an asylum since a breakdown following his betrayal by his business partner Nick, who has gone on to become a very successful and arrogant yuppie. Finally recovered and released, Magnus starts a bizarre and potentially deadly Game designed to shatter Nick’s comfortable life and run him through a gauntlet of terrifying challenges. But to what ends? Destruction… or redemption?

“Arthur said to Merlin after he’d helped set up the Kingdom, ‘Get lost. I don’t need you any more.'”

This was the original idea that intrigued writer Brown. What would happen, he wondered, if such a thing had occurred? What might Merlin do, to redress such a wrong? ‘The One Game’ answers the question by initially casting Nick as Arthur, and Magnus as Merlin. Arthurian imagery runs throughout the story – a knife thrown into water, a beautiful woman rising from a lake, even jousting ‘knights’ on motorcycles.

And Magnus orchestrates an army of henchmen, from blandly smiling, callous fellow yuppies to more obvious shaven-headed and bovver-booted thugs. All of these previously uninvolved individuals, and, we are told, many more, have now been recruited by the supernaturally-persuasive Magnus as players in the Game. All aimed towards the goal of terrifying Nick, while systematically dismantling his happy existence. His rule over his successful company is rudely broken, his girlfriend Jenny is kidnapped, and he is relentlessly hounded across town and country by frightening, implacable opponents who can casually appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. He finds a potential ally in the mysterious Fay, but can even she be trusted?

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The tale of the Game has many resonances. Magnus is very much the hippie dream personified, as well as the deep bitterness at the failure of that dream, and the hope of its resurrection. Nick is very much the traitor who let down the dream, transmuted by the alchemy of ambition and greed into a Branson-esque figure. The drawing of Magnus’s army from all classes adds to the feeling that maybe Britain’s society itself is at stake in the Game, and that it must be finished successfully if Albion is to survive.

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As events play out, though, the Arthurian echoes alter. Is Nick simply Arthur, or is he more akin to Sir Gawain, and is Magnus as much the Green Knight as Merlin? Certainly the story of the Game leads Nick through the Night Journey, that mythical trial by ordeal designed to both make a man a hero, and purify him of his sins, gradually making him more of a decent human being once more. We witness his growing courage, compassion, and determination as challenge after challenge is hurled at him. But, the question nags constantly at our minds, is that going to be enough? However much he may change, will Magnus ultimately forgive him…or forsake him?

That fascinating, tormenting question stays with us to the very end, and forms the backbone of a tale the likes of which is unfortunately absent from out television screens to this day. Where one-off dramas are told in that medium now, they tend to be mundane yarns of ‘real people’ or the umpteenth re-telling of wrung-out old properties (do we really need yet another version of ‘The Moonstone’?) ‘The One Game’ is an intriguing, contemporary mish-mash of so many sources – Arthurian legend, ‘The Avengers’ (the Steed version, thank you very much), gritty urban crime tales, high-powered Big Business machinations – that grips because of its very willingness to do something different, something that doesn’t conform to the usual easy, lazy tropes of ‘prestige drama’.

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Certain elements are none-more-80s – the computer games seen are quaintly primitive these days, and there’s some seriously big female hair on display – Kate McKenzie as Fay’s deserves its own screen credit – but then again, I happen to love big 80s female hair unironically, and if you can’t get past such surface trappings and get ensnared by the marvellous tale underneath, then that’s very much your loss. Similarly, the Clannad-esque theme song by Chameleon is very much of its time, but even that adds to the atmosphere. Rather than some creepy piece of menace, it is surprisingly warm and beautiful, even wistful, but with quietly-unsettling touches of magical ominousness. The acting is superb – Patrick Malahide is a revelation as the mystical, unnerving Magnus, and Stephen Dillane (Latterly of ‘Game of Thrones’) as Nick fully conveys the transformations of the man. The women are well-served – Pippa Heywood makes a winningly spunky damsel in distress, while McKenzie (who previously shared screen-time with Malahide in 1986’s ‘The Singing Detective’) is a suitably aloof and unearthly Fay. Solid support comes from such always-welcome faces as Andrew Keir, Alex Norton and Peter Howell.

In the end, there is a conclusive, dramatically-satisfying confrontation between Magnus and Nick, leading to a happy ending which is pleasing in its very low-keyness. But, in the very closing moments, the unsettling atmosphere is rapidly reaffirmed, as proof of genuine supernatural happenings is given, and we are also left with the uncomfortable feeling that the One Game is far from over. Like Tyler Durden’s Operation Mayhem, the implication is there that there are still many other players and pieces in the Game, still out there – and still playing. That something designed by the great magician, Magnus, to make one very important point has spiralled out of even his control. That powerful magic, as always, is much easier to start, than to stop. Indeed, there was talk of a sequel, to be titled – what else? – ‘The Other Game’, although sadly that didn’t happen. But ‘The One Game’ remains a disturbing, gripping, and tantalising story, and it’s out there on DVD from Network to this day.

Accept the quest.


❉  ‘The One Game’ was reissued on DVD by Network Distribution on 19 August 2016, after being out of print for many years. Order it directly from Network On Air at a special price of £9.18.

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