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Friday, 11 October 2019

The Great Model Railway Challenge

Despite some valiant attempts in the past (for example, GAME OF WAR and TIME COMMANDERS), wargaming has never quite made it as a hobby that anyone would watch on television. It was therefore something of a surprise to me in 2018 when Channel 5 decided to run a series of programmes about model railways entitled THE GREAT MODEL RAILWAY CHALLENGE. The first series proved to be a success, and the second series is currently being aired on Channel 5 on Saturday evenings.


So why is a TV series about building model railways more commercially acceptable than one about wargaming?

Part of the answer is in the name, challenge. In each programme three teams of model railway enthusiasts are set a theme and then have to build a model railway layout pretty well from scratch, although they are given a baseboard and allowed to build some structures beforehand. The judges then decide which is the best layout, and the winning team goes through to the final. Themes have included:
  • First Series:
    • Classic Movies
    • British TV
    • Globetrotting
    • Fire and Ice
    • Waterworld
    • A Journey through Time (final)
  • Second Series:
    • The Restless Earth
    • Classic Books
    • The Best of British
    • Uncharted Territory
    • The Sky's the Limit
    • Semifinal 1 (yet to be aired)
    • Semifinal 2 (yet to be aired)
    • Final (yet to be aired)
A second reason why I think the programme works is the interplay between the team members and the judges (Steve Flint and Kathy Millatt) as well as the somewhat irreverent attitude of the two presenters, James Richardson and Tim Shaw. The programme treats the whole thing as being fun ... whereas I suspect that wargamers would expect their hobby to be treated with greater seriousness and less frivolity.

I understand that the makers of THE GREAT MODEL RAILWAY CHALLENGE are already looking for teams to take part in a forthcoming series, so it looks as if it is certainly going to match the success of TIME COMMANDERS, which managed two complete series on BBC2 in 2004 and 2005 and a short series of three 'specials' on BBC4 in 2016.


An interesting aspect of this series is watching the model railway enthusiasts model their terrain is how many of the techniques that they use are applicable to the modelling of wargame terrain.


I have certainly gathered a few ideas from watching these modellers at work, and I suspect that other wargamers would as well.

Please note that the images featured above are © Knickerbockerglory and Channel 5.

22 comments:

  1. Hi Bob

    I'm sorry if my view comes over as a bit extreme. I was appalled at the idea of rushing through a model railway build in a matter of hours when most railway modellers spend years, sometimes decades on their layouts.

    There certainly was a bit ingenuity involved in some of the presentations but I failed to be impressed with the program.

    There, I've said it, now I'm off to behead some Natal Carbineers.

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    1. Hear, hear! Just what I wanted to say. I have great admiration for model railroaders, but this building models for exhibition is not for me. I would want to play with the trains rather than spend ten years on a model that I've no room to erect at home. I suspect that this is an area where Americans with their big basements do much better.

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    2. Jim Duncan,

      I've no problems at all with your comments, which are perfectly valid. The main thrust of my blog entry was more to do with the fact that this TV programme had managed to make building a model railway look interesting to people who are not railway modellers. (My wife actually enjoys watching it, and it was a question from her as to why there were no similar programmes about wargaming that encouraged me to write this blog entry.)

      I do hope that the beheaded Natal Carabineers have recovered from their ordeal!

      All the best,

      Bob

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    3. Mike Hall,

      I wish that I had the space to wargame AND have a model railway. I don't ... so I have put my model railway stuff (which is all HO09) away, although bits of it sometimes appear on my wargame tabletop.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  2. I enjoyed the first series but, being a professional modelmaker, tended to record it and fast forward to seeing the end results. You always pic up a few ideas and there have been some lovely sets at the end. I haven't bothered with this series, not sure why exactly?

    As for a show on wargames, from my experience of clubs, it would become too competitive and rather unseemly. Unless they ran it like the old Channel 4 series with the game being run by umpires and 3 tables, which would even things out rather nicely. All told too niche these days and probably viewed as too militaristic etc for current tastes.

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    1. Steve J.,

      For me, the highlight of the current series was a Dutch layout that flooded, then drained, and which had a train running across the flooded area. Technically, this was a tour de force ... but it did not win because the judges felt that there were not enough trains running on the layout.

      I agree about televising wargames being fraught with problems, although the GAME OF WAR (which is the programme I think that you are describing) was interesting because it separated the teams and was organised in a very kriegsspiel-like way. The discussions within the teams (including the umpires) was sometimes very illuminating.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  3. Hi Bob,
    This all sounds very interesting- a TV Program on a Hobby would be interesting to modelers in general- and in this case Railway Modelling enthusiasts. We've nothing like it here- I do not watch TV as a rule, though I did take a liking to the 'The REPAIR SHOP' where in England specialists restored old items that were brought in by their owners -the team of craftsmen and craftswomen worked in an English Barn. Just fabulous watching people work their craft. Cheers. KEV.

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    1. Kev Robertson (Kev),

      There have there have been several attempts to make TV programmes about various hobbies and crafting, some of which have been more successful than others. The advantage that model railways enjoys is that the end result is relatively static (which makes it easy to film) and photogenic.

      THE REPAIR SHOP is almost compulsory viewing in our house, mainly because watching craftsmen and women at work can be so interesting. Years ago I worked as an assistant to a blacksmith, and learned some of the skills he used on a daily basis. It is difficult to describe how satisfying it is to be able to take a piece of metal, heat it, and just using a few simple tools, create something that will last for a lifetime or more.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  4. I think one of the teams said they knew each other through wargaming though this didn't get discussed further.

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    1. Nigel Drury,

      I also noticed that brief mention of wargaming by a member of one of the teams ... but it wasn't picked up by any of the presenters.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  5. Bob, I agree it is an entertaining programme, but the imposition of the themes and the scratchbuild challenge mean that the resulting layouts are judged largely on their interpretation of the theme and the animations or special effects. There is no emphasis on a realistic portrayal of railways of whatever era or their operation. Entertaining yes; accurate representation of what railway modellers are trying to do, no!
    The scenery modelling techniques are interesting if one wishes to create diorama-standard terrain, but otherwise the programme offers little really practical advice.

    The Great Wargaming Challenge

    Hosts: Julian Clary, Iain Dickie (in a garish waistcoat) and Mary Berry

    Teams have three days to collect, paint and base a 1500 point wargame army, with which they fight each other in a wargame to close the show.

    Points will be awarded by judges Rick Priestley and Mike Siggins for:

    Army composition that truly reflects the theme [up to 5 points]
    Beautiful painting and basing [up to 5 points]
    The scratchbuild challenge in which one member of each team must construct a model of a war engine/artillery piece using materials provided by the judges [up to five points]
    Winning the tabletop wargame [5 points]

    This week's theme is 'Elites'

    Team A have decided to create an 'Ancient' Army, featuring Achilles's Myrmidons, Odysseus and the crew of the Wooden Horse, Alexander's Companion cavalry, the Persian Immortals, the 300 Spartans, Asterix and Obelix and Caesar's Xth Legion, led by Boudicca mounted on Hannibal's elephant.

    Team B have created a 'Horse & Musket' army, featuring Cromwell's Ironsides, William III's Dutch guards, the Three Musketeers, the Potsdam Grenadiers, Tarleton's Legion, Francis Marion aka 'The Swamp Fox', Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard and Sharpe's 'Chosen Men', led by Santa Anna aka 'The Napoleon of the West' riding Marengo.

    For the scratchbuild challenge they must construct a ballista or a 12 pounder gun, from a tube of Vicks Vapour rub, a pair of nail-clippers and a plastic spoon from McDonalds.

    The wargame will be fought using Bolt Action rules.

    "I had thought Game of War was the worst programme Channel 4 ever made; I was wrong." The Guardian TV critic

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    1. Arthur1815,

      I can understand why they have themes (it's rather like having a different type of baking each week of THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF), but I must admit that some of the teams have rather gone over the top with their interpretations. I don't like the scratch built challenge as I find it too contrived, and in my opinion it doesn't add much to the overall programme.

      I think that your experience as a TV presenter shows through in your 'treatment' for fir THE GREAT BRITISH WARGAMING CHALLENGE, and I'll forward it to Knickerbockerglory in due course. ;^)

      All the best,

      Bob

      PS. I actually laughed out loud when I read the latter part of your comment. It really ought to be published online or in THE NUGGET.

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    2. Bob,
      Last night's episode featured a display in which two unseen locomotives and a circle of track rotated a three-scene stage set, whilst two others propelled two figures of knights on horseback in a joust. No wagons, no carriages, stations or signals - hardly railway modelling, merely using a few models to power two animations - yet it was one of the winners!

      But I suppose one must partly blame the theme, Myths and Legends, as railways have hardly been in existence long enough to qualify as either - though the modellers could have portrayed a spotlessly clean British Rail long distance train arriving on time to be met by smiling porters assisting happy passengers with their luggage on the platform as an example of the former...

      Feel free to submit my parody to Nugget if you wish.

      Best wishes,
      Arthur

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    3. Arthur1815 (Arthur),

      Whilst it was very clever, I totally agree with you that the winning layout was not a model railway.

      A true set of examples of railway 'Myths, Monsters, Legends, and Fables' might have been:
      * Myths: A railway timetable that bears some resemblance to the time trains really arrive and depart
      * Monsters: One of those huge Garratt locomotives used by the South African Railway
      * Legends: The Flying Scotsman or the Mallard
      * Fables: the Hare and the Tortoise, where a replacement bus service proves to be faster than the normal train service!

      I'll certainly submit your suggestion to THE NUGGET, along with a short explanatory note.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  6. We're going to have to stop this Bob. We have very similar TV watching choices! What am I watching Sunday night?

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    1. Nundanket,

      I'll be watching BRITAIN'S BIGGEST WARSHIP, WORLD ON FIRE, FRANCE 1939: ONE LAST SUMMER, and BTITAIN'S GREATEST GENERATION.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  7. I don't watch much on regular tv (and don't have cable), but I think I'd watch the model railroad show. I do watch plenty of youtube videos about terrain crafting, painting minis, and even game play/battle reports. Most such videos are probably not up to the standards of professional tv shows, but I often find inspiration and tips through them, as well as how to play specific games and whether they might be games I might like.

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    1. Fitz-Badger,

      Whilst it is obviously not everyone's cup of tea, programmes like this can be a source of ideas. If you get a chance, try to have a look at an episode.

      We dispensed with cable TV a couple of years ago when the price kept going up to cover channels we never watched, and now access TV via Freeview or the Internet. They seem to cover the sort of programmes that my wife and I watch, and don't cost us £70.00 per month.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  8. I come from a model railway family (we're all about one inch tall) and as a child and adult was often frustrated with the badly done or perfect static stuck down nature of the railway scenery and people etc. which were for me the most interesting bits.

    I always hoped there would be some hybrid "railway Wargames modelling" with battles over railway modelling terrain, a moveable feast of figures, vehicles, destroyed buildings inside the usual buildings.

    Like you, I sometimes include railways inside my games
    https://manoftinblog.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/airfix-acw-battle-of-pine-ridge-river-crossing/

    Enough so to start an occasional blog on this topic:
    https://sidetracked2017blog.wordpress.com

    One of my touchstone railway moments was reading this Railway Modeller article as a child - WW1 Airfix and trains but stuck down figures :(
    https://sidetracked2017blog.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/inspirational-articles-no-1-ww1-railway/
    Another one I have yet to post had toy daleks, dinosaurs and a Tardis.
    There is a neat armoured train by Martin Rapier that would fit your Russian Front Games
    https://sidetracked2017blog.wordpress.com/2018/01/20/armoured-train-in-a-tin/

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    1. Mark, Man of TIN,

      I was lucky enough to inherit several Hornby clockwork O-gauge locomotives and associated track and rolling stock, and these were featured in many of my youthful wargames, either as objectives to be captured or as a means by which troops could be moved about.

      I've read your railway-related battle reports with interest, and visit 'Sidetracked' whenever Feedly tells me that something new has appeared.

      Some time ago I also used some cheap toy trains to create an armoured train as well as a railway gun. They are still stored somewhere in my toy/wargame room waiting to be used ina game.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  9. Charming conversions to an armoured train, Bob, thoroughly approved by my budget conscious Pound Store Plastic Warriors blog mindset.

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    1. Mark, Man of TIN,

      Cheers! I always have a good look at what is on the shelves of cheap shops for toys with potential for use in wargaming.

      All the best,

      Bob

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