Sport on TV: Jones can't keep up with the Wolfman

IN DAYS long gone, if you were looking for Boxing Day entertainment, you would have stepped out to watch the local men-folk carry a sodden pig's bladder from one end of your village to the other. These days you collapse in front of the television and watch Vinny Jones making a guest appearance on Battle of the Gladiators (ITV, Sunday). So nothing much changes, really.

Clearly, there's less mud involved: indeed, the Gladiators contest (which is basically It's A Knockout performed in rubberwear) takes place on a set as squeaky as the bathroom in a show home. But the principle is the same - a bit of argy bargy, a lot of shouting and a pervasive sense of pointlessness. In a desperate attempt to spice things up, last week's battle pitched the show's fictional regulars - Wolfman, Shadow, Trojan and their scantily clad chums - against the all too real Vinny Jones. How would these lacquered products of the sunlamp and the blow-dryer work out against Wimbledon's hard man, that product of the tumble

drier and the blow-lamp?

Actually, Vinny wasn't the only professional (for want of a better word) taking part. 'All our contenders are sporting superstars in their own right,' boasted the presenter Ulrika Jonsson, stretching the point a bit. Come in Oliver Skeats, Britain's only Rastafarian showjumper. And come in Gary Mason, who reminded us that he was the former British heavyweight boxer whose career was curtailed by Lennox Lewis. 'That was the end of me then,' he mused. 'But it might not be the end of me in the future.' John Fashanu, who normally co-presents with Jonsson, turned competitor to make up the numbers.

Before they all got down to it, Vinny did some heavily scripted tough stuff. 'I've heard there's a little man here called the Wolfman,' he announced, to a mixture of pantomime boos and hisses from the studio audience. 'I haven't seen him yet. I think he's hiding in the toilets.' Next minute, though, dressed for round one, Vinny didn't seem quite so cocky.

His head squeezed into a pair of plastic goggles and a modified cyclist's helmet, he suddenly had the sad and slightly worried look of an extra in a particularly cheap episode of Dr Who. He had to crawl through a perspex tunnel and then bang an illuminated gong. Vinny, of course, leapt up like a thuggish salmon and nutted it. You get sent off for that in football; in Gladiators, you get five points. Sadly, this was pretty much the only scoring Vinny would do. The other contenders streaked off boldly - particularly Fashanu, who was all elbows as he scrambled up the plastic wall for 10 points - leaving Vinny to struggle home in last place. During the Power Ball round, he scored precisely nothing. He did no better in the Duel event, in which a gladiator and a contender smack each other about with a spongey paddle - or rather, in the vamped up vocabulary of the show, 'a Pugil Stick'. (This is, above all, a programme prepared to call a spade a Dig Master.)

Anyway, before that round went ahead, Ulrika had a question for Vinny: when he was out there, in his swimming trunks, clutching his foam bat and with Wolfman flexing his oily muscles and breathing all over him, what was going to be running through his mind? 'I'm not gonna be thinking a lot,' said Vinny, to no evident suprise in the audience.

Naturally, there was an illegal brawl at one point, with Vinny going for the Wolfman, the others trying to pull him off and all of them shooting glances at the producer to check they were still in camera shot and doing what he wanted. Suddenly, during this creaky staginess, it clicked: this wasn't a sporting challenge, it was a morality play, illustrating how cheats never prosper. It was Vinny's way of saying sorry.

The commentator John Sachs read it slightly differently, though, urging us to respect these absurdities as a tribute to physical excellence. 'It's legs, it's arms, it's cardio-vascular conditioning.' Doubtless this was lost on Vinny, who probably thinks cardio-vascular conditioning is a posh shampoo. Eventually a gladiator called Nightshade turned to the camera and addressed us all: 'Get off your sofa and do something active. Get fit. It's great fun.' People collapsed in front of the television don't need this evangelism: either at Christmas or at any other time of the year.

Altogether less sanctimonious was Christmas Presence (BBC 1, Sunday), a Songs of Praise special from Wembley Conference Centre, featuring those renowned gospel singers Cliff Richard, Gloria Gaynor and Gavin Peacock of Chelsea FC. Peacock - lining up alongside Harry Secombe and the stars of Hi De Hi - took a line in an all-star version of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'.

The camera cut quickly between the celebrities, which meant that Peacock flashed on to the screen and then disappeared for long periods. But those who have been watching Chelsea this season will have recognised the metaphorical significance of this. Also of the line Peacock took: 'Nine ladies dancing]' sang the midfield playmaker. You rather fear this brief public appearance may come back to haunt him. That was the end of him then. But it may not be the end of him in the future.