Around the Playfield with “Pinball” Geoff Harvey

Around the Playfield with “Pinball” Geoff Harvey
Photos by
Around the Playfield with “Pinball” Geoff Harvey
Graphics by
Around the Playfield with “Pinball” Geoff Harvey
Published on
June 27, 2024
Updated on
June 27, 2024
Read time:
No items found.

Image Gallery

I wouldn't be surprised if you’ve never heard of Geoff Harvey or Pinball Geoff, as he’s often known in silverball circles. Despite being in pinball for multiple decades, he hasn’t crossed over into American hobbyist circles as much as other beloved pinball figures. 

I first came across Geoff through one of his YouTube uploads, a pilot for a TV show called “Obsessions.” The pilot detailed his personal story and passion for pinball from a bygone but familiar era. I was struck by the authenticity and charm of it all and knew I had to learn more. 

Pinball Geoff has quite the media history, as he’s often been tapped to explain the game of pinball to curious TV show hosts and their audiences. The number of times I’ve heard him say “bagatelle” seems countless. 

In the last few years, he’s had a small role on BBC’s show Repair Shop, which I can only describe as a crossover between British Baking Show and Antique Road Show. Geoff makes an appearance anytime pinball machines are featured. 

This time of year, he can be found operating pinball machines through Pinball Alley UK at the annual Glastonbury festival within the Glastonbury-on-Sea area. Knowing what I know of the crowds at music festivals, the idea of inserting a collection of classic pinball machines for public play seems both asinine and astoundingly awesome

In this conversation, I wanted to learn more about Geoff’s history with pinball, what’s kept him engaged with the hobby for so long, and see if we could get some insight into the state of modern pinball relative to its past, as documented in several of Geoff’s public interviews at the time. I think there’s a bit of Geoff in many of the Pinball Enthusiasts I talk to, a deep passion and respect for the game that may sometimes border on obsession, depending on the day. 

Without further ado, here’s our conversation with Pinball Geoff Harvey.

Interview with "Pinball" Geoff Harvey

Colin: Somewhat famously, your pinball origin story involves purchasing a number of machines as a kid and being told by your parents that you could keep as many as you could fit in your bedroom, which led to you tossing all your furniture and sleeping underneath the machines for many years. Do you remember the games you had in that initial collection? 

Geoff: Indeed, the very first machine I played in Jersey. One of the Channel Islands off the British Coast was a Chicago Coin Gun Smoke and also a Bally "Dixieland" and "Minizag" are also very fondly remembered, and Dixieland was in the hotel where we used to stay - it was a strange instant obsession, and the machines I obtained in a job lot for free were all 1930/40s pre flipper Genco's and Chicago Coin machines in various states of disrepair which I vaguely repaired learning a great deal in the process but also found a supplier of more recent machines prepared to be very generous to a young enthusiastic soul and I bought a Williams 2 player "8 Ball" and from then on "Mad World," and many more followed very quickly! 

Colin: Can you describe what sleeping underneath pinball machines is like?

Geoff: Sleeping under them was always rather cosy, as I loved the smell of warm electronics, old wood, and the buzz of the 60 hertz! I have often slept under machines at various times since, and my bed in my London flat is very close to the ceiling. As a friend pointed out a few years ago, it is a pinball leg's distance—not only that, but equivalent to sleeping under a 1960s machine! 

Colin: You've done a lot of pinball-related media over the years (mostly TV shows or segments of TV shows, it seems). When was your first TV appearance for pinball? How did you get involved in those efforts?

Geoff: Media-wise, I think if you have a slightly unusual hobby and are very keen, the media finds you - I had a few articles in magazines, etc, in my early teens, and being in the film "Arcade Attack" in 1982 was a wonderful experience - no acting required - I just had to be a bit of a pinball enthusiast/nerd - came very easily! Originally the producer Mike Wallington just wanted to hire some machines, but my obvious joy won him over and I supplied quite a few machines and had a great time too. I find it goes in waves as if one has any publicity, then others follow. The BBC "The Repair Shop" has been very helpful over the last few years, and I am amazed at how often I get recognised and have wonderful discussions about nostalgia and repair and renovation. And it’s ironic as one of the reasons I always had "hobbies" is that I was not allowed to watch TV as a child, hence my pinball enthusiasm and still do not have a TV now and very rarely watch TV - maybe half a dozen times a year if that.

Colin: Relatedly, how many times have you explained what a Bagatelle is and how it relates to the story of pinball?

Geoff: I have explained a brief history of pinball many times—often several times a day if I am in my little pinball arcade in "Dreamland " in Margate, UK, but I never get bored of talking about pinball, and the word "Bagatelle" must have come out of my mouth many thousands of times. 

Colin: Are the conversations people are having about pinball today too much different from the conversations people were having at other times in the last 30-40 years? For example, I watched the interview from 1982 you did, and even then, the discussions were familiar. Can pinball compete with video games? Are the kids even into this stuff? There was even an interview with a pinball fan who explained having a childhood dream of owning a pin when he was old enough to do so, which is a motivation I still hear mentioned today, 40+ years later.

Geoff: There are many common themes, especially when people are discussing the memories associated with particular games - although the games remembered as old get newer as time progresses, often people will talk of an older “retro" game, which I may think of as comparatively modern - shows how old I am getting! One change is that many younger people have never played a real pinball machine or only seen them on their phones and I often have to explain how to use the flippers and the various features of the game. People are fascinated with the mechanics of how they operate, especially with the EM machines.

Colin: In your years in the industry, what is the most surprising change you've seen? Is there anything that's gone away that you'd like to see make a comeback? 

Geoff: A big change was the roller coaster-type history of pinball popularity and the fact that in spite of some very enthusiastic players and collectors, pinball is less visible in the UK now - most arcades have no pinball machines or possibly one or two, and since covid I have far fewer machines "on-site" nowadays although I have a small select group of sites - one under London Bridge where pinball is a big draw - both EM and electronic - for the general public the simpler games are more easily approachable and popular.

The fall of "The Big Three"—Bally, Williams, and Gottlieb—was a big shock. Also, the rise of machines in limited editions made with the rich private collector in mind is an interesting development.

Changes in technology, although always part of the progressive side of pinball design, does make me wonder how many of the late machines will be about in 50 years? 

Also, a topic which is relevant to time scales and being perceived as "obsolete" is the licensed themes which can be great but also give a machine a very specific time and place in terms of public perception, whilst in the "old days" themes were more generic - cards, cowboys, space etc. or all combined as in the delightful "Cosmic Gunfight" or "Alien Poker.

Colin: What is the pinball scene like in the UK? How is it different from other places that you know of?

Geoff: Very varied in the UK - the majority of the population have probably never played a pinball machine or even seen one combined with a small force of very enthusiastic players and collectors - there used to be "Pinball Arcades" with loads of pinball machines plus all the other amusement arcade ephemera, but pinball machines are a rare sight sadly now aside from a few specialist venues and occasional bars. The 1950s to the 1970s was a great time for pinball, and there was a resurgence during the late 1980s, and a subsequent downfall in the 90s, but pinball has made a comeback if a modest one and will always be a part of amusement machine culture.

In spite of actually being "made" in Louisiana, I only know of USA pinball culture by articles and a jealous look at some of the fabulous museums, although I did visit a lovely collection in LA when I was there a few years ago.

Colin: What speaks to you most about pinball generally? Is it the gameplay, the artwork, the community, history, all of the above, or something else entirely?

Geoff: I find with pinball machines it is the whole machine. Obviously, game play, but the aesthetics, feel, and mood of the machine is enhanced by the graphics and presentation enormously. I still find when playing a machine it is a magical experience rather than thinking of a metal ball bearing hitting some switches and activating electromagnets — I go to a fabulous "different space."

Colin: Is there a holy grail game that you'd like to have in your collection at some point but haven't been able to get your hands on yet? Maybe something you had once that you'd like to have again?

Geoff: No real "Holy Grail" as so many I would love and have loved. Would love a Williams 8 Ball as a reminder of where a lot of it began.

Colin: What's your favorite classic game?

Geoff: I love the 1960s Gottliebs. Especially King of Diamonds, which, weirdly, I have never owned but often played. Maybe that's an answer to the last question as well!

Colin: What's your favorite modern game from the last 10 years?

Geoff: Gosh love a few of them, although do not own any super modern ones. My most modern one being AC/DC with extra playfield — I did like the new Black Knight (Sword of Rage) as also was a nod to the original which seemed the pinnacle of machines when it came out in the 80s. From a bit over 10 years I love Twilight Zone and Circus Voltaire.

Colin: What's your favorite era of game?

Geoff: My personal faves are EMs so 60s and 70s although love all pintables and have 60 or so electronic ones myself. A difficult question.

Colin: Are there any dream themes you'd like to see made into a pinball machine one day?

Geoff: Being a child brought up on "Alice in Wonderland " I would love a modern version of such a classic fantastic tale. I can envisage the ball going down the Rabbit Hole onto a lower playfield.

You can learn more about Geoff and his work through Pinball Alley on their website, or by following Geoff on his Facebook page