Soporific in spandex: How can a programme called Gladiators be this dull?
‘There’s four more hours of this’
By Dan Hayes
“Look at their thighs,” says compère Stu Holdham. “One of the requirements to be a Gladiator is very strong thighs.”
This leery comment was probably the weirdest moment of watching the new series of Gladiators be recorded at Sheffield's Utilita Arena on Friday, but it was by no means the only one. Seeing TV presenter Bradley Walsh doing a slightly offensive impression of US President Joe Biden would be another. And witnessing former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg putting on a Scottish accent to tell off a man dressed in a spandex leotard would be a third. Journalism can throw up some strange experiences from time to time, but my assignment on Friday felt like I’d been taking hallucinogens.
Earlier, when I’d arrived at 11am sharp, everything felt fairly normal. The arena, unchanging, always looks to me more like a utilitarian grain storage facility in the American Midwest rather than an exciting concert venue. But today it was to be transformed into the stage for the quarter finals of the latest reboot of a franchise which first aired on our screens 30 years ago. Milling around in the morning sun outside before the doors opened, the audience is mainly excited young families: the children are now the ages their parents were when the original series aired.
Wandering around outside the Arena’s main entrance I meet Jake and his friend, who are taking pictures of themselves flexing in front of the building. Jake is 35, and describes himself as a “massive fan” of the original Gladiators. They’ve come to Sheffield from Nottingham, Jake for the second time since filming for this series began last week. ”I used to watch it every Saturday night followed by Blind Date,” he tells me. “It’s my dream to be on it but I didn't make the cut this time.”
Also waiting outside is Carl Woodland, 42, who has travelled up from Derby with a mate. He says he remembers watching Gladiators with his parents in the 1990s, and even searched out the first episode on YouTube last night. “I just have massive nostalgia for it,” he tells me. “Although I probably loved Jet [Diane Youdale] a bit too much.”
The return of Gladiators is taking it back to where it all began. Long before shows like Total Wipeout and Ninja Warrior arrived on our screens, Gladiators set the mould for ordinary members of the public performing absurd physical tasks on prime time Saturday night television. But while on those shows contestants took on weird and wonderful obstacle courses, Gladiators is essentially organised bullying. The only place on mainstream TV you could see bodybuilders bashing car mechanics over the head with what looked like giant earbuds.
As Carl alluded to, among people of my generation (I’m in my forties), the original series is still remembered with some fondness. Presented by John Fashanu and Ulrika Jonsson, it ran for eight years between 1992 and 2000, before being briefly revived 15 years ago on Sky. This time it’s being brought back by the BBC because it’s the 30th anniversary of the original series, and the father and son presenting team of Bradley and Barney Walsh are the hosts. But while they’ve certainly tried to update the show, they don’t seem to have messed with the format too much. According to the press release, the revival is set to include “brand-new games alongside classic challenges, culminating at the end of each episode with fan favourite The Eliminator”.
But before Bradley and Barney arrive we’re treated to compère Stu Holdham, who is described on his own website by no lesser a figure than everyone’s nan’s favourite pop star Olly Murs as “the best warm up comedian on the circuit”. To be fair to Stu, he is very good, and makes what could be a dreadful experience merely very boring.
He’s wearing a short-sleeved-and-trousered turquoise suit with multi-coloured ice lollies on it which is every bit as awful as it sounds. As well as a steady stream of one liners, his job is to control the pavlovian response the producers are looking for from the audience. We will applaud when he says to applaud. We will cheer when he tells us to cheer. When a Spanish trumpet sounds we will all shout “Ole”. If this sounds sinister it’s because it was. We’re then taught to clap along to organ music, perform a Mexican wave, and last but by no means least, sing “Oh, Bradley and Barney” to the tune of Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes. Fans of Jeremy Corbyn needn’t be worried.
The Gladiators are introduced with great fanfare and their own catchphrase. “Handle with care…it’s Nitro,” shouts Stu. “Into the arena, it’s Athena,” is next. The Gladiators are all, to a man and woman, incredible physical specimens. However, the outfits they’re wearing make them look ridiculous. The show’s wardrobe department have clearly been given instructions to use as much shiny multi coloured spandex as possible and have stuck to it like glue.
One of the last Gladiators to be introduced is the unsmiling Viper, a fairly transparent attempt to recreate a pantomime villain for the rebooted show in the mould of Wolf from the original series. Now living in New Zealand, Wolf (real name Michael Van Wijk), gave an interview to GB News recently in which he was disparaging of the new series. “They’ll never be as good as us,” he said. “It’s like a photocopy of the originals.” Time will tell.
Watching television being recorded sounds like it should be exciting but is in fact incredibly boring. The TV show we watch at home is created almost entirely in the edit, with filming jumping around all over the place when you’re watching it live. I suppose you might say it’s not fair for me to compare the edited TV version to the tedium I witness in real life but you didn’t have to sit through it. If it’s a great watch when it broadcasts on the BBC at an as yet undetermined future date, at least you’ll know to credit the show’s post-production team.
At various points Bradley and Barney do rapid fire sequences of links for what seems like it must be the entire series. “Here we go with applause,” floor manager Alan says, for about the seventeenth time in a row. “Just four more hours of this,” deadpans Bradley Walsh.
There are also long waits while the stage is “reset” to start a new game, or ladders are brought out so everyone can get into position. A drone occasionally flies through the arena before landing in a little net. Every time this happens it has to be fished out, a task that sometimes takes several minutes. On another occasion two Henry hoovers are brought on to vacuum the arena floor. At times even Bradley Walsh seems to get bored and starts doing impressions of Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
In the classic original series, refereeing duties were famously performed by the Scottish John Anderson, whose famous cry of: “Contender, ready! Gladiator, ready!” became synonymous with the show. Anderson is now 91, and for the reboot has passed the baton to former Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg. But for some bizarre reason, despite hailing from County Durham, Clattenburg mimics a Scottish accent throughout, presumably in homage to his illustrious predecessor.
Before I arrive I’ve been told I mustn’t divulge any information about new games or who wins. However, as one of the contestants comes from my home town of Bolton, I can’t resist catching up with some of her supporters outside. They travelled down for her heat a few days ago and again for today’s quarter final, and tell me she was one of 15,000 to apply to be on the programme.
“And we’ll be here tomorrow and on Sunday as well,” says one of them, thinking ahead to the semi-final and final, should Betti get through. “When she applied she never expected to get through, but she’ll win it now.”
After watching two events and countless bits of repetitive filming I’m done. I’m told that on previous days the filming had gone on until past 7pm, but I bail out at about 3pm. Lots of people here seem to have enjoyed it, especially the kids, who wave their foam hands with glee every time the producers tell them to. But as the kind of sports fan who prefers the stately march of Test cricket to the smash-bang-wallop of Twenty20, I’ll admit I’m probably not the target audience.
As I walk towards the main exit, a security guard looks at me quizzically. “You want to go,” she says. “Why?” For one awful moment I think she isn’t going to let me out, but she’s just concerned I haven't enjoyed myself. I mumble something about being a journalist and needing to get home so I can start writing. But it’s sunny outside, and I’ve seen enough spandex to last me a lifetime.
Gladiators will be coming to BBC One later this year. Follow @BBCGladiators for more information.