One of the great helium highs of Nineties Saturday night ITV is returning on the BBC. Thirty years ago, the almost pre-internet Gladiators was cross-generational viewing, so in an attempt to get the kids and granny back together on the sofa, this reboot includes the same logo, the same theme song, the same set and the same format.
The new hosts are father-and-son double act Bradley and Barney Walsh. Walsh père is very likeable, but since Gladiators is the 348th show he currently presents on British TV there is a risk of overexposure. Walsh the younger is equally likeable, though, and the pair do their best with the innuendo-heavy script they squint to read from a distant autocue.
What made this show appealing to families was that the Gladiators were like the cards in a real-life game of Top Trumps, and in this new series each one is introduced with vital statistics to emphasise their power and menace.
Back in the Nineties, the bulging intensity of Gladiators such as Wolf, Jet, Lightning and Hunter gave them the vibe of a gym-affiliated sex club on their annual away day.
This unintended eroticism has been captured again in the new series. There are fresh faces, but they have kept the naming convention, so we are now joined by Giant, Nitro and Steel for the men and Electro, Sabre and Fury for the women (to name but a few). We get to see behind-the-scenes footage of their changing room banter, where you feel they are only a few snapped wet towels away from it developing into something more substantial, in a NSFW sort of way.
As with Wolf, the producers have insisted on a “heel” (as they say in the world of professional wrestling, aka a baddie). In 2024 there are two: Legend, who insults the contestants, plus Viper, who is silent but not-so-deadly and has obviously been told to get disqualified as often as possible to provide the audience with someone to boo.
Speaking of booing, the audience also have it in for the referee, former Premier League official Mark Clattenburg, who is now dressed in the black and white stripes of an American umpire. The association with football is continued by Match of The Day commentator Guy Mowbray, who seems obsessed with the lengths of the Gladiatorial limbs for some reason. “Not only is Phantom the tallest Gladiator, he also has the longest arms.”
Each episode features two men and two women competing in five events against a range of Gladiators to collect points before they face off against each other in The Eliminator, an obstacle course at the end of which they swing on a rope through a sheet of paper.
A few new games have been introduced but mostly it’s the same fare as the original series, with Duel (the one with the giant cotton buds) and Hang Tough, where at some point you look inside your soul and realise you’ve been watching two people hanging off a rope for 30 seconds (this round could also be slightly embarrassing for parents watching with children as, especially with the women, Gladiators often pin their legs around the contestants waists then hump them repeatedly into submission).
As with any mainstream TV that involves competition, contestants need a backstory, and there are plenty of upstanding citizens here who’ve overcome adversity and who are doing it for their families.
Positivity and self-belief dominate proceedings. It’s the juxtaposition between this genuine sincerity and the slightly mad sensory overload of the Sheffield Arena – “the coliseum of chaos” – that creates the most entertainment, when “real” reality unexpectedly manifests itself in contestants falling over, getting pummelled or genuinely losing their temper. To be honest, it could do with being a bit more violent.
One contestant, Finley from Doncaster, pits himself as a modern-day Robin Hood with the Gladiators cast as the Norman yoke, and is so pumped up that he injures his knee trying to match them in The Gauntlet. After an anxious wait, he returns limping to snatch victory in The Eliminator.
In theory, that’s just the combination of unmotivated aggression, extreme pain and triumph against the odds that British audiences love. The trouble is, this looks and feels like a show from a bygone era and it’s more than likely the viewers have been and gone as well.
Gladiators will air on BBC One from Saturday January 13 at 5.50pm