Robot Wars interview: presenter Angela Scanlon

We chat with one of the new Robot Wars presenters about carnage and camaraderie behind the scenes on the revived BBC Two show...

Read our review of the first episode of the revived Robot Wars, here.

Irish broadcaster and journalist Angela Scanlon makes up one half of the new Robot Wars presenting team. For the next few weeks, she and Dara O’Briain will be talking viewers through the hyper-competitive world of flippers, pushers and spinners at 8pm on Sundays on BBC Two as the destruction-happy show counts down to its final battle.

Move over Top Gear, there’s a new sheriff in town…

We love Robot Wars. I think because it showcases the best and worst of humanity, our ingenuity and our bloodthirsty desire to destroy things.

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[Laughs] Me too! That is a perfect, perfect summary of the show.

Tell us about the relationships between the teams. You’ve got rival teams sharing welding irons one minute then trying to obliterate each other the next. How does that dynamic work behind the scenes?

As you just said, they get in the arena and they are sworn enemies and they go for it, whether they’re attacking the house robots or whether they’re attacking each other, it’s fair game and there is no smiling. Then they come out of the arena and they’re back to being jolly and helping each other. You’ve got people lending motors to each other, lending tyres… It could be that if one team has absolutely destroyed the other in an arena battle then they’ve got nothing to do in that two-hour rest period when they’re supposed to be repairing the robots, they might do a little polish but they’ll spend the time lending a hand to their mates who may in turn be helping them out in two battles’ time.

One guy had to go to A&E to get his fingernail fixed, so it was all hands on deck with his partners to try and get his robot back in the arena within the allotted time. It’s quite sweet actually because they really help each other out but then they get back in the arena and it is business as usual!

I quite like that there aren’t WWE-style taunts between teams, it seems nicely polite.

I’m a big fan of WWE and there are elements of that, because what you’re dealing with is quite visceral and emotionally charged for a lot of them. But it’s also a lot of fun. People do get really into it but it’s all slightly tongue-in-cheek. They really know how to poke fun at themselves.

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I’m not surprised it’s emotionally charged; there’s a lot at stake in the battles. Some of the robots cost £25,000 to build?! People remortgage their houses to build them?

Yes. That is correct. But then, for some of them they’ve dragged whatever rubbish is in the bottom of the garden shed and stuck it together with Pritt Stick, it’s not all enormous feats of engineering. But there is a lot at stake financially for some of these guys, they’ve put a lot on the line.

One of the teams has a father and a daughter—he was in the original with his robot and she was a Robot Wars baby if you like, her mum went into labour on the way home from the battle—and he spent five grand on that robot and that’s not including his time, which, let’s face it is very valuable. So, there is a lot at stake and then you see them smashed to bits in  thirty seconds flat!

Robot Wars must have destroyed some marriages.

I don’t know that it’s destroyed marriages! The husband and wife teams that we saw, it tended to be the husband’s passion supported by the wife, they’re kind of robot widows, in the way that we have football widows, they’re married to their bot. The wives tend to support that. It brings them together too. We actually have a husband and wife team in the process of making little cluster-bots as we speak!

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Are there more women engineers this time around?

Yes there are, and teams with a couple of young girls in charge of the weapons. They’re definitely much more involved. I think a lot of the particular batch in this series grew up watching Robot Wars and have gone into fields that they may not have gone into had they not been exposed to it at an early age. We have a robot called Glitterbomb, which says it all. We’ve getting the gender balance up!

Thinking about the children in the series. Presumably you and Dara [O’Briain] spend a fair amount of time comforting crying kids who’ve just watched their dreams get set on fire?

There were moments where little hearts were breaking in front of our eyes and that was really difficult to see, but actually, they were so good. They were such good little sports, very brave, they just kind of got on with it. Obviously they’re there with their parents or siblings and so they kind of put on a brave face.

There’s a father-daughter team and at one point, you would imagine it would be the daughter crying and the dad comforting her, but it was the dad crying. He crumbled, because in his mind he had just… he was broken by it. But then he was back there in the weapons-testing arena getting the robot fixed up afterward and hoping that something would go wrong with one of the other robots so he could get back into it!

Is part of your job stopping the roboteers getting too technical in interviews so they don’t lose us idiots in the audience?

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They tend not to get bogged down in the detail because that’s second-nature to them and also, they’re there to fight, not to give lessons. They love to do battle and I love watching them!

I do have one request for the new series.

Go on.

A Red Button option to hear the drivers’ mics all the way through a battle. I love that. When they’re like ‘Dave! Spin! Spin, Dave!’

[Laughs] You do get some of that, don’t you?

There’s a little bit. I didn’t know if some of it wouldn’t have been broadcast-able before the watershed.

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It’s really quite loud once they get going, and also, you really don’t want to kill Jonathan Pearce’s commentary. His commentary is magical. Also, there would need to be a few bleeps. People really get into it, you know.

How important are the roboteers’ personalities and personal stories? This isn’t like an X-Factor-style talent show where we’re going to get sob stories…

Totally. I don’t even think it’s a talent show. It is a competition and all of these people have amazing skill in that they’ve managed to create these machines, and they do take it quite seriously. Telly has moved on though, and people do want to connect with the humans behind the robots, it’s not enough just to see battles. There’s a lot of battles, we have more battles in this series than in previous series but you do want to see the human side and for people to be able to relate to these people, to connect with them, engage with them and really root for them. So yes, you get backstories but not in the way where you see them weeping or building  a robot out of a dustbin as a tribute to their granny.

Can we expect to see more teams like Nuts then, the underdogs from the first episode? The slightly rubbish robots are always more interesting than the really slick, NASA-engineered robots, aren’t they?

Yeah, I completely agree. There’s one robot in this series that has its own cooler, it has a separate machine that helps to cool it down before it goes on so that it is primed and ready to go. These guys are like death-stare going for it, this is not an amateur robot competition in these men’s minds.

However, you then have what we believe to be an underdog in Gabriel, I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of him yet?

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Not yet.

That was a father and three sons who’d named the robot Gabriel after the archangel Gabriel and then they unleashed pure evil in the arena! Gabriel is basically a giant pair of wheels, four foot high wheels made out of very hard plastic, with a kind of hobbled together tyre situation around them and interchangeable weapons including a massive, massive axe. He really perplexed a lot of his opponents, like ‘how do we deal with this?’, they have existing techniques for going up against a flipper or a spinner or whatever, but this is just a completely bizarre machine in the way it looked, in the way it operated, but actually brilliantly designed.

It pays to be a bit quirky then, in terms of design?

I think so, purely from a visual perspective at least. If it’s eight metal boxes on wheels flipping each other over, it’d get a bit tired after a while, so you tend to root for the teams where there’s a bit of colour and a bit of difference. A lot of them all look quite similar so when they come out and there’s pageantry involved and they really commit to the team and the name and the design, people get behind that.

Do the same people control the same House Bots all the time, like how Jim Henson used to always control Kermit?

Pretty much. It’s an interchangeable team. Basically, the person who built Sir Killalot will be the best person at driving it. They know all its secrets, so yes, they tend to be the same. They’re an amazing company called Robochallenge who are two brothers, a mother and a father and in-laws. It’s an extended robot family who are absolutely brilliant and in charge of all the house robots.

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What is it that the winners actually win? Is there prize money, or just the trophy?

They win—are we allowed to pay them? I have no idea—they win the trophy. It’s a magical trophy made of shrapnel and metal. They also win the glory and the gloating rights.

Now we’re twelve years on, how have the restrictions changed on robot designs for the new series?

The weight has gone up. They’re now heavier which means they can have more powerful motors driving them and can rely on much lighter armour material, which means they can pack in more weapons. One of the robots, Thor, who’s been on the circuit for years, is basically a giant axe and sacrificed the lot in terms of armour and protection with a view to loading all of the power into that weapon and making it just a manic, axe-wielding menace.

Do the teams ever try to stretch the rules, or even blatantly cheat?

No! No, it’s not in the spirit of Robot Wars. The rules are good! That’s where the innovation comes from. You get people skating close to the edge but it’s very strict. One team had to remove armour because they were overweight ever so slightly.

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They have to be really careful about what they put where. There’s one robot called Beast that had no armour whatsoever, it was just a massive motor and then a weapon, but it meant that against the wrong opponent, they’d be absolutely exposed. There are risks to be taken but it’s difficult to cheat the rules and also, if you’re seen to be cheating the rules, even if you get past the producers, Sir Killalot will absolutely waste you.

Presumably you’ve seen the episode of Spaced themed around Robot Wars?

[Laughs] Yes!

In that, a robot gets sabotaged. Do accusations ever fly about that sort of thing?

No, no, no.

I tell you why I ask. Because in episode one, we saw the chap from Team Carbide hand the chap from Team Behemoth something and then mysteriously in the next battle, Team Behemoth’s robot seemed to malfunction. So…

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That’s a very, very harsh accusation! So you’re saying that Team Carbide, who have been on the circuit for a very long time and are known to be very lovely people sabotaged another team?

I obviously wouldn’t presume to say that’s what happened at all. I’m just saying what I saw*.

I would think that that was Carbide very honourably offering some help to a competitor in need and then perhaps it just wasn’t enough. Am I naïve?

I’m sure you’re not.

I love you! Team Carbide did admit to always underplaying their ability, so they would say ‘oh, we’re having a real problem with our motor, this isn’t working, that’s not working…’ and then they go into the arena and they go nuts. They said ‘yeah, well, we might have lied a little bit about our problems’. It’s more tactical with them.

When it was first on BBC Two, Robot Wars was classic pre-pub telly, I think it was Friday nights at 6pm. Now, it’s taking the much more prominent Top Gear spot – 8pm on Sundays. Is that because robotics is less niche now? That thanks to the maker trend and all the online resources there are in terms of coding and so on, it’s a broader interest thing these days?

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Absolutely. The suggestion back in the day was that Robot Wars was a show for nerds about nerds and I have to correct people when they use ‘nerds’ in a derogatory sense. I’m like, dude, the nerd from your school is now your boss. Elon Musk is the biggest nerd in the world and also a real-life superhero, so I think the stakes are different now. People respond to geekery in a way that we all understand. You don’t feel like you’re removed from it as a very technical thing, you can kind of enjoy it and relate to it. But also, it’s about the people behind the robots who are wonderfully eccentric and borderline bonkers in the best possible way.

Angela Scanlon, thank you very much!

*my apologies, on second viewing, it’s obvious the piece of metal was a missing chunk of Behemoth taken out by Carbide.

Robot Wars continues next Sunday the 31st of July at 8pm on BBC Two.