X-Fire understood exactly what it is that all blokes want more than anything — to pretend they’re in the SAS. Pronounced crossfire, Channel 4’s paintball-based game show was made for your neighbour who plays Call of Duty with the volume right up while his wife puts the kids to bed, as one of those series attempting to be a live-action videogame; specifically a Counter Strike style shooter, with added X-Files trappings. In translation however, it’s the pre-drinks warm-up for your stag weekend, smashing it with the legends from the call centre. These days, I’m more used to watching paintballs thud into Steve-O’s bare bollocks, but in 2001, they were being fired into boiler suits at 6pm. The format was devised by James Bagshawe, brother of Louise Mensch, and its host is Ed Hall off The Sunday Show. With the vibe of someone who’s throwing batteries at opposing fans of a Saturday afternoon, Ed resembles a younger Phil Mitchell, still just in that period before the perception of buzzed heads evolved solely past an indicator of thuggery.

Opening credits mix thumping techno and military radio noise over a dizzying highlight reel as we cut to Ed — trenchcoat and grey polo neck — up a radio tower in an airfield, welcoming us to “the game show that leaves you a whiter shade of pale, or whatever colour of emulsion was on offer at the time!” What, mate? Ed’s quips make you wish you were roly-polying through a minefield, performed with that late 90s/early 2000s deadpan irony, from a script that was wheezed out by the Lad-era’s dying breath. What we’re about to see, he says, is “James Bond gone mad; gadgets, explosions, gorgeous women… alright, I wish!” He holds up a clunky paintball gun straight from Roger Corman’s prop shed — “an emulsifier, one beast of a weapon!


Never a ‘gun’, the emulsifier’s awkward name speaks of X-Fire‘s intent to pre-empt complaints about violence, as participants shot with paint aren’t killed, but “emulsified.” Each week sends a team of contestants on an operation split into three missions, during which they’ll face X-Fire‘s Special Forces; an in-house team like the Gladiators or Ice Warriors. Sadly, they don’t have cool names like Pipe Bomb or Sgt. Fuck, but rather, Andrew J. Dickens and Morgan Johnson. Regardless, every video game archetype is present, all angry and dressed in black, and presented like a character selection screen.

Dickens is a former Royal Navy officer with a pick-up artist biro goatee, while Dalia’s the requisite sexy-yet-dangerous blonde-bobbed Eastern European gymnast — special skills, “a high jumper.” There’s also Helmut Strabul, jacked Austrian Rambo manning a gatling gun; Anna Luong (“speciality: martial arts, linguist”), whose call-sign is ‘Little Yin’, and Vanessa Upton, call-sign ‘Clawz’, a 90’s model known for appearances in the videos for Country House and David Brent’s in-show vanity single. Notably, Dalia and Clawz’s leather tops have a boob window for showcasing big cleavage; cleavages which are quite clearly made of plastic, with the classic y-shape you’d do if you were quickly sketching a low cut top. The mystery of these secondary tits, sat on top of the real ones, will explain itself as the show goes on.


While Special Forces act as the bosses, levels are riddled with anonymous “grunts,” functioning as cannon fodder. But given the main crew are a mix of models and jobbing actors, if they went mad and took Ed Hall hostage, even I could probably parachute in and John Wick the lot of them single handed. Up against Channel 4’s best are a strike team of six carpenter lads from Derby — captain Jono, Mazza, Tony, Pete, and a pair of brothers called Daz and Trav. No doubt they’ll be giving hearty “here comes trouble, they’ll let anyone in here!” to any combatant entering the field of battle. The stats display reels off various facts, like “Mark is known as Mazza,” along with strategic strengths ranging from “born leader” and “renovating houses” to “none.” In the category of stamina, the captain boasts “football and clubbing.” They’re kitted out in jumpsuits with orange legs, and used to the “pack mentality” of hitting the clubs, Ed suggests they target Special Forces the same way they do women on a Friday night; as the enemy.

First mission takes them behind enemy lines, to retrieve an unknown object which crashed through Earth’s atmosphere, described in the onscreen briefing as “a meteor or satallite [sic] or something much more sinister.” Spoilers, it is obviously a UFO, and ironically, the show was filmed on the grounds of the decommissioned RAF Bentwaters station, close to where the Rendlesham Forest incident occurred, and later location for C4’s astronaut hoax series Space Cadets. Before entering the crash site, where extras in hazmat suits pretend to scan wreckage, the lads must locate and inject an anti-radiation serum from the Special Forces ambulance. But as they pile out of a Ford Transit van, it’s immediately clear, no matter how they dress it up, this will never elevate itself beyond televised paintball.


Shots are dubbed with pft-pft shooty noises, while every death– sorry, emulsification has a splat followed by a SFX groan — “hurgh!” — with the same soundclip used for every victim, forced to lay still with their eyes closed. The sound adds to the distancing from KILLING and DEATH, as it’s the exact way you’d pantomime vomiting when shown a pair of soiled underpants someone tried to hide in the cistern during a family party, which you definitely haven’t seen before, and anyway, you always go commando so that doesn’t prove anything. As none of the cast are stuntmen, the death-falls are of the ‘trying to con £500 out of You’ve Been Framed‘ school; arms flopping dramatically, and occasionally a post-mortem roll if they happened to eat it on a slope.

Morgan gets splatted, allowing Maz and Daz to raid the ambulance and grab the syringe; part of the show’s awkward quasi-roleplay element, as we saw on Scavengers, with a load of slightly embarrassed lads running round play-acting they’re going to inject themselves (“ssss” noise as it goes in) and find a UFO. The inherent problem with these types of shows is that the central concept, no matter how padded with plot, has to work around the limited function of its sole game mechanic. In Scavengers, it was collecting scrap, while here they have to eke as many variations as possible out of firing paintball guns. Even Masterspy had trouble designing tasks to fit its setting, but paintballing’s so limited, each mission quickly becomes another repetitive assault on a building to collect a McGuffin and run it back to the van.


It’s not helped by the staging, giving no sense of where or who anyone is, everyone masked and in identical jumpsuits, with shakycam shots cutting between disconnected footage of both teams firing, under a non-stop rip-off of Smack My Bitch Up. Add in the constant graphic pop-ups, dubbed on sound effects, black and white headcam angles like in Aliens, and Ed Hall’s witticisms as he pretends to watch from the tower through binoculars, and the ad breaks must’ve felt like a six-month silent retreat at a monastery for viewers. “Leg it, mate, get back to your Bunsen burners!” says Ed, as our team clear the crash site before making their escape across a wasteland of overworked smoke machines, with silver cardboard ‘debris’ under their arm.

If you can force yourself to pay attention, a few things become apparent. As the camera’s always perfectly on them for their big moment, most of the death-blows were shot in pick-up and cut in after. Similarly dishonest, the clock disappears from screen for great swathes of the game, re-emerging only to demonstrate the team’s ALMOST OUT OF TIME — oh phew, they’ve done it with three seconds left; again! And then the boobs. During the action, a couple of unforgiving close-ups of Clawz — emulsified, and then jumping from behind an oil drum to unload — reveal the pink edge of the fake cleavage sat against the skin hue of her actual flesh — double cleavage. Her and Dalia are essentially wearing moulded plastic boobs over their real boobs, like Gazza, one assumes because producers wanted some knocker on show, but health and safety wouldn’t allow the risk of a paintball to the jugs, (and Clawz does take one to the falsies) so this was the compromise.


Post-mission, a scorecard awards credits for stuff like marksmanship and bravery, which captain Jono spends on resurrecting his slain team members. According to Ed, whatever landed, “it ain’t no meteor,” and for mission two, they need to breach a secure hanger and take photos of it. It’s just more shooting, with a pure FPS set-up, everyone crouched behind barrels and shipping containers. Ed congratulates them for walking, “nay, running into that mission as though you were entering a club on ladies night,” before the final task, breaking into baddie HQ to get evidence of alien bodies pulled from the wreckage, which, once again, they manage with three seconds to spare. This last level has a difficulty setting, giving a choice of Easy, Standard, or EXTREME!! where Ed reveals the two genders — “are you Stallones, or are you Stilettos?” They are of course, bloody Stallones, going extreme, and very pleased with themselves as Captain Jono brags “just a walk in the park,” for the others to add a choreographed punchline of “FLAT!” How many days do you reckon you’d last in their office before killing yourself?

Anyway, it’s more paintballing, this time in an office set, taking cover behind desks and CRT monitors. Clawz defends the stairwell — “Wouldn’t mind her defending me,” says Ed — while Dalia gives a warning to the camera in broken English “they haven’t any chances run away from this building.” Special Forces Morgan massacres damn near the whole team, then retreats for reasons of not ending the game too early, before last lad standing Mazza comes upon a pile of meat on a table. “What I’m seeing at the moment can only be remains of… some… species.” He pilfers x-rays and test-tubes, but gets cut down by the ladies, having to stare blankly at the ceiling while Dalia stands over his corpse with a mocking “Englishman have such small guns without bullets, ha!” Ed commiserates the team, but hails Mazza for ending with “the three special forces girls on top of yer,” and joking that, though they didn’t prove the existence of aliens “Richard Ashcroft was all the proof we ever needed.” Sir, you are just saying things.


There’s no prizes, barring placement on the X-Fire league table, with the highest scoring team returning for a world-saving series finale. Episode four is pretty much identical, except with an evil military dictator who’s splicing human and alien DNA. The team of four men and two women work for a professional paintball company, which seems like cheating until they get going, and it’s obvious they’re the accountants or cleaners. At no point does it seem like the ladies want to be there. On meeting them, Ed greets the team with a cheeky “from clones to clowns. Only joking,” before more of the same; running, shooting, retrieving. This does feel a bit more war-like, with smoke grenades and explosions, though for safety reasons, they’re noticeably just waiting for them to stop, as you couldn’t run into a field of live bombs.

Next, they’re stealing DNA samples from a hospital “more heavily guarded than Clawz’s bedroom, and no I won’t ask if they can clone her instead!” and for the final mission, the mad doctor’s lab must be destroyed, to stop him breeding human/alien hybrids, “which certainly explains Gail Tilsley!” Mate, you look like a potato. Contestants peek round corners over a soundtrack of heartbeats, shots, splats, and hurghs; spinning warning lights reflect off Dalia’s plastic milkers as she gives incomprehensible threats, while quad-titted Clawz fires from the roof. But the team get wiped trying to stop a big jar of green goo being helicoptered away (offscreen), leaving the most nervous member as lone survivor, taking a look up the stairwell and mumbling to herself “I’m not gonna make it, there’s too many,” before her mask splatters with green paint, and she has to lay on the floor. Game Over.


Episodes close with Ed’s warning that we mustn’t try anything we’ve seen at home (bad news for plastic-tit manufacturers), and that viewers should join a real paintball club if they want, plus a website address to register for the X-Fire text messaging game, whatever that consists of, and a call for entries to series two. The latter was irrelevant, as despite combatants clearly being emulsified and not dead, five weeks into its run, X-Fire was taken off air, deemed a bit tasteless against the burgeoning war in Afghanistan, with all but one mysteriously redacted episode (titled ‘Star Wars’) airing the following summer.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as £1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my videos, my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi or some PayPal cash.


~ by Stuart on February 19, 2023.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: