It was the sitcom that did nothing for flame haired teenagers at school in the 1990s and taught the word ‘agoraphobia’ to the kind of kids who stayed up past their bedtime on weekday nights to chuckle at an artistic array of imaginative insults. Game On continues to be a gloriously underrated and overlooked piece of work that first hit our TV screens 17 years ago, giving us three imperfect and troubled tea-drinking characters across three perfectly interwoven laugh-a-minute series.
Those with a peripheral recollection of Game On will probably remember it as the comedy about the bloke who didn’t go outdoors, the wimpy ginger one who wore a suit and Samantha Janus before she was in EastEnders as Ronnie Mitchell. But it was much more than that.
Due to some totally bizarre reason (possibly because I was only 11 years old at the time) I missed the entire first series when it aired in 1994. I grew up thinking Neil Stuke was Matthew Malone – the slightly insane flatmate of Martin Henson (played by Matthew Cottle) and Mandy Wilkins (Samantha Janus), who was too scared to go outside his flat. Imagine my shock, then, when I discovered later in my adult life that Matt wasn’t always acted by Neil Stuke and that I’d missed the entire first series.
Someone else as Matt? I’d have to go back, undo everything I already knew about the show and start from scratch with someone else as Matt. This wouldn’t work. It was doomed to failure before I began. I wouldn’t have even bothered if it wasn’t for someone buying me the first series on DVD for Christmas. I’m grateful that they did.
How would a mid-90s sitcom that had kept a relatively low profile ever stand a chance of being funny in 2011? The writers would have had to have written a comedy years ahead of its time. As it turns out, they did. And this new Matt would have to be extra good. He was. Ben Chaplin, who played Matt in the first series, gave a career defining performance and forged the character into something that made Stuke’s efforts seem merely admirable. Chaplin was immense in the role; he had the swagger and arrogance of Liam Gallagher yet came undone at the mere mention of going out.
So we had the eccentric, erratic, stay-at-home Matt; the soppy, self-pitying Martin – who just happened to be ginger, too – and the rather promiscuous Mandy, who had a penchant for northern blokes. Well, any blokes really… as long as they weren’t Martin or Matt. It was a mismatched trio – brought together in Matt’s flat, which he inherited following the death of his parents in a car crash. You’re left to assume that this is the reason why he developed his agoraphobia, although it’s never candidly revealed.
It’s not an outrageous comedy with far-out storylines involving characters getting themselves into incomprehensible situations; it’s built on the subtle but flimsy relationships between the three, unhinging from time to time before they realise how dependent they are upon each other.
While Matt and his peculiar behaviour might have stolen the limelight, Martin was an unsung hero. His casting was genius. While it appeared as though he was there purely to be abused by Matt for a few cheap gags, you realise in time that nothing could have been further from the truth. It’s interesting to wonder whether such harassment of a ginger haired person would be acceptable in a sitcom today given how sensitive we are as a nation about equality, diversity and inclusion. But somehow it’s allowed to pass because he’s so loveable.
Martin was a complete flop with the ladies. In fact he was a disaster. The one time he got close (with a flirty dark-haired American called Nancy– now where else have we seen an American Nancy in a Brit comedy?) he fluffed his chance after leaving her flat to get condoms. He ran through the streets and finally located a chemist, only then to realise that he was completely and utterly lost. He didn’t take note of where Nancy’s flat was and so rather pathetically walked home. That storyline seemed to sum him up perfectly.
Matt, meanwhile, spent most of his time trying to entertain himself in his flat while Martin and Mandy were at work and his mild insanity led him to cutting an ear off his teddy bear when recreating a scene from Reservoir Dogs. It was a glimpse into the world he cornered himself into. He read magazines, watched TV and worked his way through Mandy’s knicker drawers. Hardly seems enough to base an entire comedy on – but then three priests on a remote island didn’t stop Father Ted from becoming a universal success.
Anyway, don’t take my word for it – buy the box set, reintroduce yourself to a genuinely decent comedy and indulge in a time when we didn’t need Michael McIntyre or Frankie Boyle to make ourselves laugh.