TELEVISION / People power

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The Independent Culture
IT IS no wonder that fewer people watch television on Saturday night than Sunday. How can they be in front of their sets when, apparently, half the nation is in front of the cameras? ITV's new autumn season was chock-full of ordinary people in search of the holy grail of five minutes' television celebrity. From the professional yachtsman from Streatham on Gladiators, through the hopefuls on Blind Date, who all seemed to work for 'the sales and marketing division of a major international insurance company', to the last bewildered housewife on Dame Edna's Neighbourhood Watch, here were three long hours of - as Jeremy Beadle would put it - you, the Great British Public.

Gladiators is a game show originally devised in America in which a team of men and women with improbably inflated pectorals tries to stop members of the public, some with improbably inflated egos, from completing a series of bizarre physical tasks. Presumably the audience should root for the punters, as the Gladiators occupy the kind of spoil-sporting low ground usually filled by park- keepers and bouncers. But the competitors here were so astonishingly arrogant, they made the Gladdies with their 50in biceps look modest. How the audience cheered when a Gladiator called Saracen planted one on Jeremy, the Streatham sailor.

Jeremy's nemesis apart, the Gladiators were meek as lambs. If the producers really want to test the contestants' adrenal glands, they should forget the pneumatic poseurs and put them on a football field opposite the show's presenter John Fashanu. He looked confident and relaxed in his new role, which is more than can be said for his colleague, Ulrika Jonsson, who used to read the weather for TV-am and now appears to have perma-frost in her hair. 'Listen, look, right, you're a dance teacher, yeah?' she spluttered to the first contestant, and you prayed for a Gladiator to put her out of her misery.

At least she had steered clear of the American sports cliche manual which the commentator, John Sachs, had committed to heart. In his first outing, he managed three 'awesomes', and one each of 'out the ball park', 'text-book take-down' and 'excellent defence job there.'

In fact, when contestants and Gladiators attempted to knock each other off 10ft-high perches using only padded canoe paddles, you realised that the show's ancestry was no more American than Jacques Delors. Replace the Wolfman with Eddie Waring and its provenance becomes clear: this is It's A Knockout with a budget.

Blind Date returned with its usual quota of Identikit Michelles and Darrells. If the show's format is looking older than Wolfman from Gladiators, Cilla Black remains a model of presentation. Her genius is to look as though she is still enjoying it; every 'oooh' and 'aaahh' and 'tell us, luv, 'ow due gerron' uttered with affection.

For the first quarter of an hour of Beadle's About, it seemed the presenter had gone as soft as Cilla. His victims were positively enjoying themselves. But, after the commercial break, there was the Beadle of old, crafting a set-up in which a woman visited a clairvoyant who revealed that her husband of only two years was messing about with the neighbour. The confrontation between husband and wife, when it came, was as dark as anything you could see on television.

And as compelling. Compared with ITV's barnstorming Saturday night, BBC 1 - with Jim Davidson, Bobby Davro and Bruce Forsyth carrying the flag - looks like the real joke.