Unlike other companies of the time, the creators of Beau Jolly had never made a videogame in their lives. It didn’t matter though, as their shrewd business success and ability to spot holes in the market enabled the Beau Jolly name to shine brightly for two long decades.
This From the Archives will be quite different from any you have read before in that it focuses on a company that created not a single videogame themselves. Borne from a business model honed and proven in the buoyant record industry, the men behind Beau Jolly had one simple idea: to licence third-party video games and re-package them into value-for-money game compilations.
Our story starts in the late Sixties, with a salesman from Winnipeg named Philip Kives. Raised on a farm and a big fan of country music, Kives wanted to create a country music compilation album. This turned out to be a great idea, as 25 Great Country Hits became an instant hit for his K-Tel Records. Having already recognised the powerful appeal of television, K-Tel secured massive TV advertising, thus ensuring an unprecedented level of awareness of their products.
Eventually the label expanded into the UK market and around this time, selling Maxpax coffee vending machines for General Foods was Colin Ashby. His success in marketing led to an invitation to join K-Tel. “I joined them in 1977, just before the summer – historically a slow period for TV advertised products,” begins Colin. “However, that autumn we went to the trade with a strong line-up of records, the orders flooded in and I was soon hooked on the music business!” Already working within the industry was Nigel Mason, and he would presently be recruited by K-Tel in light of their impressive turnaround during the winter of 1977.
Nigel’s role at K-Tel was as A&R Manager. “I picked the tracks and then licenced them from all the different record companies,” Nigel explains, “which would then be compiled onto one of K-Tel’s compilations.” With Colin Ashby soon promoted to MD, K-Tel went from strength to strength with records such as Chart Hits and The Love Album dominating the charts. Eventually, in 1982, the pair decided it was time to begin their own business together with a label named TV Records, backed by Virgin Records bosses Richard Branson and Simon Draper.
Unfortunately the new venture didn’t last long, under pressure from the rising cost of TV advertising in an increasingly competitive field. When Branson eventually withdrew his financial support to start his airline it forced Colin and Nigel to abandon TV Records, despite some moderate successes. “We didn’t give up though,” says Nigel. “[We] simply created a new label and began again, this time recording and creating our own records, rather than licensing in other music.”
In November 1982, the ex-K-Tel employees puzzled over a name for their new company, an annual event proved to be an excellent source of inspiration. Colin explains: “In November, the Beaujolais Nouveau wine arrived from France. We took the latter part for the record company name and then thought we might as well use the first part as well.” Thus “Beau Jolly” was born, although it remained just a name as Colin and Nigel concentrated chiefly on their music business.
Yet despite Nouveau Records prospering, thanks to the success of a panpipe album entitled Flights of Fancy, they would soon see the increasing popularity of computer games as a possibly useful business venture for their dormant company. Colin and Nigel were quick to get involved. “In 1983, we could see that computer games, specifically on the ZX Spectrum and Commodore, were becoming big business,” recalls Colin. “So through our contacts we decided to investigate if we could licence games that had already been successful with a plan to create compilations.” Strangely, however, Beau Jolly’s initial venture into software distribution was with single games.
“Our first move was to contact what we perceived to be the most successful and well-known games company at the time,” says Colin, speaking of Liverpool-based Imagine Software. “I initially met Mark Butler in London, and he was agreeable to our proposal [of licensing Imagine’s games].” In fact, with an interest from Imagine for Beau Jolly to licence practically their entire back catalogue, it became clear to Colin that single game releases could also be profitable in the short-term. History tells us that Imagine had a very good reason for wishing to profit so much and so quickly from their older games, yet Colin Ashby had no idea of this as he and fellow negotiator Eddie Hooper were duly invited to Imagine’s offices in Liverpool.
The industry newcomers were impressed with the set-up of the famous software house: “The only thing that surprised me was the lack of staff,” mentions Colin, “but we were informed that many of the programmers worked at night.” Imagine’s Ian Hetherington proudly demonstrated to Colin and Eddie the projects they were working on, including the ill-fated Mega Games. “We thought that by doing a deal with them it would create a working relationship for the future,” explains Colin, “and the agreement was to buy the rights for the games they had and all the existing stock of those titles.” For a short while the arrangement proved satisfactory as Beau Jolly distributed many of Imagine’s existing titles while the developer continued to work on its Mega Games.
As a result, when it eventually came to light early in 1984 that Imagine were in financial trouble, Beau Jolly, like many others, were taken by surprise. “It appeared our payment had given them temporary respite but eventually they just couldn’t avoid the inevitable,” remarks Colin sadly. Undeterred, Beau Jolly set about realising their original vision of creating compilations of games, aided by their new distribution contacts and links from the record business.
In 1984, the first Imagine compilation hit the streets. The Value Pack boasted a price tag of £14.99 and contained four of Imagine’s 16K Spectrum games: Jumping Jack, Arcadia, Ah Diddums and Molar Maul. Closely following up was another pack for the Spectrum 48k, Commodore and Vic-20 that included six games for £19.99 in a period where budget software was still rare and most games retailed for between £6 and £10. “It was a crazy time,” recalls Nigel Mason. “[Imagine] were going under and what we did in the end was essentially buy all their stock up, what must have been half a million cassettes.”
Ultimately these cassettes had to be shipped down from Liverpool to Pye Records in London who were at the time acting as distributor for Nouveau. “Pye rented out two portakabins,” continues Nigel, “and we simply filled up these two units with half a million cassettes!” Much of Colin, Nigel and Eddie Hooper’s time in these early days was taken up at their rented warehouse, repackaging the Imagine games into their new compilation cases. “We were literally putting the early packs together ourselves, probably five hundred a day, talk about a cottage industry!” says Nigel amusedly. It quickly become obvious to the three men that creating compilations was definitely the direction the industry should be heading in…
Notable Beau Jolly Games
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