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Gladiators review: there’s a simple, unalloyed joy in seeing people getting smashed in the face with a giant Q-tip

BBC One has revived the Nineties TV classic, complete with pugil stick battles and shimmery spandex

Nick Hilton
Tuesday 16 January 2024 07:51 GMT
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Gladiators trailer

There are many taxonomies one can use to classify television shows, but among the most effective binaries is splitting the small-screen oeuvre into “shows that would be ruined by being stoned” and “shows that would be improved by being stoned”. Gladiators – a Nineties fever dream of glittering spandex and rippling muscles – is firmly in the latter group. But can this camp icon, which is being revived on BBC One, survive the increasingly po-faced world of 21st-century television? Or has the distinctive mixture of performative homoeroticism and technicolour drama soured in the two decades it’s been off our screens?

Gone are Ulrika Jonsson, John Fashanu and Jeremy Guscott; in are the Walshes, Bradley and Barney. New audiences might be unfamiliar with the older roster (“Better times,” Bradley informs Barney, “in many ways”), but they’ll be au fait with the banal patter of the Walsh duo (if you’re wondering how accomplished a presenter Barney Walsh is, it’s worth noting that he has yet to be gifted a presenting gig that doesn’t involve his dad). But what will be familiar is the show’s basic premise. Contestants (two men, two women) compete over a series of randomised trials, battling the various Gladiators in an effort to gain an advantage in the final head-to-head race, the Eliminator. Along the way, the salt of the earth contestants will be routinely contrasted with the preening prima donna figures of the Gladiators, who fling themselves at the contestants in a vainglorious effort to stop them scoring points. It is all rather like the public embarrassment of Takeshi’s Castle meets the pantomime quality of WWE wrestling.

Except that both the Gladiators and the contestants are prime physical specimens, rather than ordinary people. If the original series was dominated by ex-squaddies and county athletes, this new version is the domain of the personal trainer (PT). As a PT marketing exercise, nothing could be more effective: scuttling up climbing walls or rope nets, getting thumped in various formations, swinging across hoops and bars. It is a programme to embarrass the chronically lazy, dripping over their sofa at home like the molten cheese on the crust of the pizza they’re about to consume. There are few tasks where anyone with a rational sense of their own performance ability should expect to last more than a few seconds. If this were a quiz show, it would be far more University Challenge than The Chase.

Which isn’t to say that all the challenges faced by contestants are built equally. There is an issue with the Gauntlet – a run through four Gladiators armed with punchbag batons – which is far too easy, and with Duel – the famous pugil stick face-off – which is far too hard. There is also a structural issue with the gameplay, in that only a very slight advantage is accrued over the course of the tasks, which can be physically exhausting, ahead of the Eliminator. But, then again, nobody watches Gladiators and worries about the point scoring (except me).

What Gladiators is, is pure theatre. Among the new cast of adversaries are a bevy of powerlifters as well as semi-celebrity athletes, like sprinter Harry Aikines-Aryeetey (reborn as Nitro), rugby player Alex Gray (Apollo) and sprinter Montell Douglas (Fire). Only a few of the characters have easily discernible personalities: Legend, a 6ft 2in bodybuilder, plays up the arrogant role, while Viper, a low-level villain in Die Another Day, is silent and moody. But they are physical specimens – designed to make you feel bad about that pizza – rather than intellectual ones. What’s stranger, perhaps, is the appearance of former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg as umpire on the floor in the Sheffield arena. Football referees, silent arbiters on the field of play, are not famous for their spoken charisma, a task that Clattenberg struggles with. More successfully loaned from the beautiful game is Guy Mowbray, the veteran Match of the Day commentator, who does for Gladiators what Jonathan Pearce did for Robot Wars. Decades on the football beat prepare him to say things like “it’s not called ‘Hang Tough without reason”, with a, seemingly, straight face.

Mowbray would be familiar with the famous anecdote about Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager, entering his dressing room during half-time of a game at Spurs and uttering simply, by way of motivation, “Lads, it’s Tottenham.” With Gladiators it’s hard not to approach it with the same simplicity, the same inevitability. All the flaws of the format remain – all the daftness, the braggadocio, the tedious protraction – but so do its strengths. There is a simple, unalloyed joy in seeing people getting smashed in the face with a giant Q-tip. It is a pleasure that doesn’t bear overanalysis. Lads, it’s Gladiators.

Gladiators is on BBC One at 5:50pm 13 January and available on BBC iPlayer

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