Suffolk’s Robot Wars contestants share their memories as new series comes to BBC

Programme Name: Robot Wars - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: The House Robots Dead

Programme Name: Robot Wars - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: The House Robots Dead Metal, Sir Killalot, Matilda, Shunt - (C) Mentorn Media Scotland - Photographer: Alan Peebles - Credit: BBC/Mentorn Media Scotland/Alan Peebles

“For too long, the schedules have cried out for a show in which dedicated amateurs, toiling day and night, handcraft sophisticated automatons built on the delicate interplay of hand-wired servo motors with custom-built circuit boards and fingertip motion control, just to see them get smashed to pieces by a dustbin carrying a massive hammer.

Rex Garrod, star of Robot Wars, with one of his creations Photo EADT
EADT 9.2.02
ES 1 09 05

Rex Garrod, star of Robot Wars, with one of his creations Photo EADT EADT 9.2.02 ES 1 09 05

“It’s war – and how I love it so.”

Dara O’Briain may have been half-joking when he told the BBC the above back in January, following confirmation Robot Wars would indeed be returning for a new run with the Irishman on presenting duties.

But in truth his assessment isn’t far off the mark, and represents the camaraderie that those who took part at the tail end of the 1990s and early 2000s remember fondly.

“They were great guys, we really got on with them well,” recalls Debenham-based Eddy Alcock, co-owner of Prizephita with brother Roy.

Ipswich's own robot champions Storm II with captain Ed Hoppitt (left) and Meral Kocak and Tim Bence.

Ipswich's own robot champions Storm II with captain Ed Hoppitt (left) and Meral Kocak and Tim Bence. DEBENHAM EASTER ROBOT RUMBLE ES 13 04 04

“The camaraderie was brilliant. If someone’s robot broke, but had already got through to the next round, everyone would muck in and help them.

“That was the sort of relationship we had with each other – it was a good, fun, competitive experience, but it never spoiled the experience of our friendships.”

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Prizephita, which cost up to £3,000 to construct, graced the Elstree Studio’s purpose built battlefield for three series between December 1999 and November 2002, with the Alcock brothers joined by teammates Philip Chaplin, Sharon Alcock and Bill Morse at various points.

And while two wins and three losses wasn’t the all-conquering record in style, control, damage and aggression the team had hoped for, a natural progression building on mistakes was all part of the challenge.

“We used to build our own cars for motorsport,” Mr Alcock, now 78, said. “It was almost a natural progression that when you became too old, robots leant themselves to that because it was a much more calm situation to drive remotely.

“The first one was useless, as applied to most things you make you get it wrong. But by the last one we had won the first two fights which put us into the final of the heats, but we lost to a very good robot [Wild Thing] which did well in previous series.”

Creative use of technology, entertaining television and garden-shed engineering may have been what the public saw on their TV screens, but at the heart of it, Robot Wars was as much about bringing a community of engineers together.

And while that community may not have been on TV for a while, it exists as strong as it ever did through live events and regional robot competitions.

“Robots haven’t gone away, people still run them,” said Ipswich’s Tim Bence, who took part in the final two series with Storm II.

He said: “For us it’s an amazing journey. We have been to the States in the 2008 Robo Games, we have done events in Holland and Dublin – it’s any opportunity to go and inspire kids.”

It’s a sentiment Mr Alcock – who alongside brother Roy came from an engineering background – agrees with.

“We had tremendous fun and it was a huge challenge,” he said. “We met lots of very good people who were good engineers, and for my brother and I it was a forum we very much enjoyed.

“The fact it has been revived is fantastic.”

Storm II and its Ipswich-based team comprised of Mr Bence, Ed Hoppitt and Andrew Rayner, before Mr Bence’s fiance (now wife) Meral joined in lieu of Mr Rayner.

The machine won the Extreme Series 2 New Blood Championship which gave it a guaranteed entry into series seven – only losing out in the grand final to Typhoon 2 after judges ruled, somewhat controversially, Typhoon had caused more damage.

A win representing the UK in the third world championships completed Storm’s incredible form.

“Ed Hoppitt was the team captain. I said I enjoyed watching it, let’s see if we can do it better,” Mr Bence, 37, said. “We learned from overdesigning it with really powerful spinners.”

Since the early series the nature of the technology has changed. The metals used are now much stronger, software technology has improved dramatically and the machines are now powered by lithium batteries compared to the wheelchair or lawnmower motors which categorised the first warbeasts.

Mrs Bence, 38, said: “You don’t have to have a degree – it’s understanding the background and just coming in with some enthusiasm. You can be from whatever background and you can get involved.

“Our six-year-old daughter [Elissa] has really got going with it!”

But Suffolk’s success with the series didn’t end there – Cassius 2 constructed by Mendlesham’s Rex Garrod – the engineer most noted for crafting Brum – won five of its eight battles in series two and three.

But perhaps most notably the robot named after legendary boxer Cassius Clay was considered the first to be able to successfully flip itself back onto its wheels after being turned over by other overzealous competitors.

Ipswich’s George Francis also enjoyed success with the Chaos series of robots which won an astonishing 27 duels over eight series, including back-to-back series titles in 2000 and 2001 with Chaos 2.

And as last night’s new series marks the start of another era in motorised robot combat, Suffolk’s finest are hopeful others can enjoy similar success.

Mr Bence added: “The excitement it generated in the roboting community was great. It’s one thing to have the live events happening, it’s another to have it on TV.”

So, in the immortal words of Craig Charles: “Let battle commence!”

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