It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I was off sick with a broken ankle during the 'night of the long knives', when Gordon, Kati and Maff got kicked off Zzap! for some strange reason. I thought that was well out of order. I remember starting on Zzap! with Stuart and Robin and then Randy - I had trouble deciphering his Geordie accent at first. I remember him putting all his family photos in his tips section. I also recall Robin Hogg having a barney with some geezer who came in to play him in the Zzap! Challenge! And later, him and Mark Kendrick using sweets (Opal Fruits, Smarties etc) to create maps for the tips section. Hmm, maybe I'll try that one again! The move from Zzap! Towers to The Case Mills (aka Stalag Zzap!) was a wrench, and it never seemed the same somehow. From having our own little private Zzap! office, we were put in an open-plan one with the other mags. I think things started going downhill from then, if they hadn't already. We also had some very strange characters in the advertising sales department - they did all those silly team-building games, including giving each other horsey rides around the office! Then, completely out of the blue, came the day when a George Lucas lookalike (no kidding) turned up and told us all to pack up and go home because the firm had gone bust. About three months later, Zzap! was back in business within a new firm (with virtually all the same people, except Robin never came back). We moved up into the loft room - a particularly tall staff member had to keep ducking the low beams! Then, a few months later it was down to the ground floor (aka the dungeon, as it was so dark and dingy). I moved onto Amiga Force, while Zzap! transformed into Commodore Force (spit!). It all went pear-shaped again for the company (perhaps they shouldn't have employed a financial director who spent most of time in the casino and later got jailed for fraud!) and it went bust. Luckily I got out beforehand and came down to Bournemouth to work for Paragon. But I shall never forget my weird and wonderful time on Zzap!. It was a great, unique magazine in its heyday (before I worked on it!) and, sadly, I don't think we'll ever see its like again.
What can I say about
working at ZZAP! that hasn't been said already?
It was my first proper
job and it was an amazingly good one, as it would
be for anyone else who was 18 years old and mad about C64 games. Even though
we worked very hard… or if not very hard, well, the hours could be very long…
I don't remember it ever being less than good fun and I know why.
For one thing, this was ZZAP! 64 we were working on - ZZAP! 64 for Christ's sake! The best games mag around at the time! The only magazine I had ever subscribed to! And now I was sitting in an office opposite Julian Rignall, writing reviews for it! Bloody hell! That's like being a fan of Airwolf, then getting a job as Stringfellow Hawke's sidekick who sits in the back and says, "Mavericks armed and ready, String!" (this is after Ernest Borgnine would have chucked in the towel of course, probably due to ill health).
For another thing, there was a fantastic team spirit working there. I'm not sure if the same applied to Crash because they had more young part-timers on there, like Skippy Dunne, Ben Stone, Nick Roberts and Robin Candy, who used to come in for a spot of reviewing after a day at college. On ZZAP!, though, we were very close-knit, and spent almost all of our waking hours together, if not working together then in each other's flats/bedsits playing games and drinking tea. We were also very tight with the art team, and we spent a lot of time hanging out with Wayne and Yvonne and Mel. And Markie Kendrick, of course, but he had his own car and flat, and a local for a girlfriend, so he had his own social life. Come to think of it, he must have been doing pretty well for himself because just after he'd bought a second-hand MG Metro ("Listen, you can hear the turbocharger!") he started taking flying lessons, which seems quite funny.
Working at Newsfield was never a chore - how could it be when you actually had nothing better to do? Living in Ludlow, there was almost literally nothing else to do unless there had been a convoy organised to the nearest cinema. I remember a load of us once drove all the way to Birmingham in a snowstorm just to spend an evening bowling. Jaz borrowed the company Nissan Bluebird even though he hadn't a full driving licence and everybody else piled into Steve Jarratt's Fiesta XR2, which started belching blue smoke halfway there. Come to think of it, there were loads of pubs, but I think it was only Wayne and Steve who used to go drinking, with the young ladies from Ludlow College. Damn! What was the matter with me?
If you're after ZZAP! stories, though, we're not really the best people to tell them. The real editorial heroes of ZZAP! were the two Garys, Jaz, Roger Kean and Oliver Frey. They saw that magazine during its best days and as the founding staff members (yeah, Gary L wasn't but he might as well have been) I think they represented the real spirit of that magazine. Just like Peter Purves, Valerie Singleton and John Noakes will always represent the spirit of Blue Peter. We weren't quite on the same wavelength as they were, and, in spite of the good intentions and the hard work (typified by that monster Christmas 1988 issue), I think the mag, as the institution it pretty much was, suffered for it.
ZZAP! never achieved popularity because it was wacky - or at least not because it was wacky in a way that involved inflatable dinosaurs. It was good because it was authoritative and funny in a cool way, and, as a reader, I had always felt that the magazine was my best connection to the Commodore games scene outside of my own mates who I used to swap games with. By 1988 almost all the interviews and industry gossip were gone from the mag, mainly because we didn't really know anyone except PR people (the days when game publishers were happy to let programmers represent their games were coming to an end). We weren't that interested in meeting programmers anyway because we were just not very good at being sociable with strangers. I'm 31 now and my mother is still telling me not to talk to them. We much preferred to be left alone to write the magazine, so, as a consequence, we were not as good at being journalists as the original team who were taught their trade by people like Roger Kean and Graeme Kidd. I think the first time I actually left the building on a solo assignment was about a month before I left the mag, to go and review Operation Wolf at Ocean's office in Manchester, and I was absolutely bricking it. Moving down to Computer and Video Games at EMAP was quite a culture shock, because, although we were still only playing at being journalists, it was a lot closer to the real thing.
By the end of 1988 ZZAP! was coming to the end of its natural life. It had to because it was always a C64 mag and the C64 market was starting to run out of steam. There were good commercial reasons for injecting Amiga content but I don't think that sat well with the 'C64 is the best' gospel that the magazine had always preached. However, I think the editorial insularity sped up the decrepitude somewhat. Once Jaz left we didn't have much guidance so we ended up doing the magazine that we thought we would like. That went down well with the readers who liked that stuff, but it wasn't ZZAP! as it once was, and I think people outside of the editorial team realised that. It did, however, have some life in the writing, and I think when Gordon, Kati and Maff departed that was pretty much the end of the show. Hats off to Robin, Stuart and Phil for their efforts to keep things going, but I knew these lads and they weren't the rowdiest bunch, so when they started doing 'wacky' it came out a bit worse than when we tried it.
It wasn't the most dignified end for the mag, but, unlike most other games mags that have appeared since, it did have a period when it was truly great, and a large period when it was at least pretty good. And none of that is necessarily normal for any creative enterprise. And as far as value for money went, it rarely fell below par. Everyone who worked on ZZAP!, even the transient hangers-on like me, should definitely feel privileged to have been a part of the history of such an excellent piece of games history. That job introduced me to a great career and some great people (the host of this site being one), and… I've got on a bit about it haven't I? But it was great and any kind of tribute like this is well-deserved.