Lost Gems: The One Game (1988)

LARP? I nearly paid my licence fee

Patrick Malahide and Stephen Dillane in The One Game

The story of Merlin and King Arthur has been around for centuries, so it’s not surprising that every so often, someone wants to retell it*. Most recently, we’ve had the BBC series Merlin, but there have been numerous other retellings including the Sam Neill mini-series Merlin, the movie Excalibur, the Clive Owen historical, King Arthur, and mild American 70s sitcom Mr Merlin.

Back in the 80s though, there was a more subtle adaptation of the myth set in modern times. Starring Patrick Malahide (Minder et al) as the Merlin-esque ‘Magnus’ and Stephen Dillane (Hamlet, Spy Game, Welcome to Sarajevo) as Nick, the King Arthur of the piece, The One Game posited the question: “What would have happened if Arthur had been made King with Merlin’s help – and then Arthur had kicked him out?”

This being the 80s, however, for the retelling Nick was the MD of a games company and Magnus was the creator of his best-selling game, thrown out and sent to a mental asylum after he couldn’t handle Nick’s rejection of his newest invention. Magnus escapes from the asylum and using his near-magical skills, steals all Nick’s company’s assets and plans his further revenge.

What made The One Game so interesting and worthy of being described as a Lost Gem was its then-unique concept: during the course of the four episodes, set over a Bank Holiday weekend, everyone Nick meets – including friends and loved-ones – and everything he does and comes across may be part of ‘The One Game’, a live-action and possibly deadly game invented by Magnus to teach Nick a lesson.

It was only ever shown once on ITV1, was released on DVD but is no longer available. It’s The One Game and it’s a Lost Gem. Here’s the the opening titles to the second episode, Saturday, complete with theme tune sung in Patagonian Welsh and annoying 80s narrator recapping just enough of the plot for you to know what’s going on.

He’s the boss of Britain’s most popular games company. He’s got a beautiful girlfriend. He’s a ruthless and respected businessman. He’s worth millions. Nicholas Thorne has it all. Then someone takes it away.

An old enemy from the past has turned Nick’s life upside down. Now he’s playing The One Game, a reality game where anyone you meet could be friend or foe. Anyone. A pawn. With his life as the prize.

The stakes have been raised on The One Game. Nick has been imprisoned, shot at, fought sword battles, and found that every time his opponent is one step ahead. Magnus, his enemy. Formerly his best friend.

The battle of wits between Nick and Magnus reaches its end game. Everything will come down to one final realisation and then confrontation. For The One Game started many years before…

Is it any good?
Although it’s very 80s, The One Game is undoubtedly one of the most interesting genre shows ITV produced before it went to crap following the franchise cock-ups of the early 90s. The serial has a great concept, strong storytelling and some decent performances (from the main cast, at least). More importantly, it’s complicated – in no way is it the dumbed down rubbish we came to expect in later years.

Over the four episodes, we gradually get to know the various characters and the back story, much of it – appropriately enough for a show about remembering – being told in flashback. The show piles on the tension, with frequent action scenes, double and treble-crosses, games within games and just general mind-f*ckery. Nick, a loathsome, cocky yuppie, slowly becomes more appealing as we see the various events that have created him and he’s broken down by the Game, while Magnus, who spends virtually the entire first episode looking menacing and insane without saying a word, becomes more and more menacing and insane as we discover all the things he’s been getting up to – before we discover the rationale behind it all.

The One Game itself is a collection of puzzles, situations and people, with Nick one minute having to solve a simple crossword puzzle riddle to find out where he’s supposed to go next, the next minute he’s having to dodge bullets and fight jousts on motorbikes and the next he’s discovering that people in his life he assumed he could trust have been playing The One Game for years.

But mostly the game is designed to remind Nick of Magnus’s contributions to his life and to make him reflect on his choices. Whether it’s their first meeting, their first shop together, or Nick’s romancing of Jenny, Magnus’s beloved, The One Game throws Nick’s memories back in his face as part of an atonement to Magnus. It’s not intended entirely maliciously, however, since the final part of the game sees Magnus put himself in Nick’s hands so that Nick can finally make up for the worst of his many perceived crimes against Magnus, something that’s haunted him most of his life.

There are two real themes to the show that make it worth viewing. The show is abundant with allusions to the Arthurian myths, whether it’s the Lady of the Lake, Guinevere (Jenny), Morgan Le Fay (Fay), Merlin (Magnus) or Excalibur (knives being hurled into canals in artistically composed shots), and part of the fun is spotting them and seeing who’s going to do what or act against type as a result.

The other theme is the game itself, but not because of the obvious recent popularity of live action role-playing or even David Fincher’s The Game. Instead, it’s the implication that more or less anyone will want to play the game, simply because it’s a game, even though some terrible things end up happening in it. Even Nick’s closest friends end up playing the game and betraying him, usually with minimal incentive.

At the end, there’s the further implication that for many of the nastier people involved, this is just the beginning and they fully intend to keep playing it, even if the game’s creator and victim have no need for it anymore.

There’s also the issue of being able to tell who is playing the game and who isn’t: the show is a paranoiac’s nightmare/wet dream. While there are many points where the game’s artifice shows through, such as with the frequent puzzles provided, for much of the game, Nick is unable to tell who the players are, who might happen to be an innocent bystander and who might whip out a sub-machine gun and start firing at him.

Even after multiple viewings, The One Game’s exact meaning isn’t obvious: who were the ‘lady in white’ and the ‘lady in black’ really? Were they really both Magnus’s daughters? When did the game start? Was the game purely so Nick could atone, was it mainly about revenge or both? Is Nick really King Arthur to Magnus’s Merlin or does Magnus see himself as Arthur betrayed by Nick’s Lancelot? Is Magnus even Mordred? Or is it really about Richard Branson and Mike Oldfield?

But thank God for that. It’s so much better to have something to think about than some piece of rubbish where everything’s explained, don’t you?

Here are a few choice clips for you. In the first, we have Magnus being magical after the hacker who helped him embezzle Nick’s funds turns on him:

Nick gets confused as to who’s playing the game and a bit scared when one turns deadly:

And in the last, Magnus explains the meaning of games in his own magical way:

The One Game DVD menus

If you do get the DVD (one disc only), assuming you can find it, bear in mind that apart from a great booklet that explains most of the show’s production history (apparently, the production team got so involved that the director found a note on his car windscreen: “Mummy, mummy is daddy dead?” “No dear, he’s working on The One Game“), there aren’t any extras worth mentioning, which is a shame really.

James Coyle (Beggar)
Stephen Dillane (Nicholas Thorne)
David English (Chat Show Host)
Philippa Haywood (Jenny Thorne)
Peter Howell (Professor)
Gavin (John Bowe)
Andrew Keir (Lord Maine)
Patrick Malahide (Magnus)
David Mallinson (Tom Darke)
Kate McKenzie (Fay)
Alex Norton (Conjuror)

* At least we’re not as bad as Japan, where they retell the story of the 47 ronin more or less every year


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.