Awooga! We traipse down memory lane once more today, this time to revisit a seminal Saturday night Tele phenomenon.
Yep, Gladiators was a monster hit when it first was broadcast in the UK, creating icons out of many of the performers and people involved; John Anderson the referee, John Sachs the announcer, Wolf, Jet, Shadow, Warrior, Lightning, Saracen etc were people who would be spoken of in classrooms, playgrounds, and probably pubs and workplaces the following Monday. More than just a ratings monster, this saw impressionable kids like me wanting to emulate the show and setting up our own events at lunch-time in school or in the street and garden after school. Taking my favourite part of The Krypton Factor (already one of my favourite shows by the time Gladiators appeared) – the obstacle course – and expanding that into an hour-long format featuring different events meant it was always going to be a hit with me. It’s still surprising to me though that the show became such the phenomenon that it was with older audiences
Yes, there were hotties and hunks all round, and there wasn’t really anything else like it on early nineties TV. Previously we had seen shows like It’s A Knockout and Challenge Anneka along with a variety of similarly themed shows (including one of my favourites, the epic Run The Gauntlet – which nobody remembers), but nothing which so brilliantly tested contestants to physical extremes against each other, but also against Gladiators who could have so easily crushed them if they so desired. The only truly similar show that UK audiences had was The Crystal Maze (which I’ll cover in a later post), but it was always a more clinical show about quick thinking and teamwork. What is remarkable is how few copycat shows appeared, at least in the UK. Eventually we had shows like Fear Factor, Knights And Warriors, Fort Boyard (Based on a French show from before Gladiators), and Battle Dome, but none of these were popular in UK. Today we have the terrible Wipeout and the embarrassing Ninja Warrior (a pale imitation of the Japanese original). We seemed to get more intelligence oriented than action shows – Record Breakers, You Bet etc. Anyway, enough of the listing of other shows, lets discuss Gladiators. Contenders, ready?!
Gladiators was a port of the US hit American Gladiators. I’ve seen bits of the US version, not as entertaining as the UK one, and the crossovers which took place over the years were low points for the series. The show, for anyone not aware, was set inside Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena in front of a large live crowd and pitting two groups of contestants against a series of grueling trials against the Gladiators – highly trained and athletic super humans. Some of the events saw the contestants racing each other to win, while in others the individual contestant was pitted against one or more Gladiators. The show was over the top, with that strong mix of violence and fun that strikes a chord with any pre-pubescent male, and everyone else in the country, it seemed. The contestants went through a strict selection process (seen in video flashback segments when introducing the contestants) to prove that they were good enough to take on the might of the gladiators. The strange thing is, that selection process must have been pretty crap as I remember some truly dreadful, unfit people getting on the show – my 10-year-old self could easily have beaten them in most events. I don’t really remember any muscle-bound freaks getting through as contestants, but for the most part the men and women were average people with some sort of interest in fitness or exercise, whether they took part in marathons or martial arts or had a physically demanding job.
The contestants were split in two groups in each episode – two men and two women, and the overall series was a set of knockouts with the winner of each episode progressing to the next round until the grand finale – acting as the last episode in the series. There were usually five or six events in each episode, usually the same for men and women, and each episode always ending with The Eliminator – a deadly multi-feature race over obstacles – whoever finished first won the episode and progressed. In each of the prior games, the contestants would compete to win points – whoever had the most points upon reaching the Eliminator would get a head-start – half a second per point I believe. The head start didn’t always make much of a difference – sometimes you would have someone with a five or ten second lead, but the chaser would overtake them on the dreaded Travelator – a jog machine set on a slope right at the end of the course which saw the downfall of many a contestant. The biggest humiliation was failing after several attempts on the Travelator and either giving up and not finishing the course, or having it slowed down to allow the exhausted runner to struggle to the top.
But before we get into the final round, lets talk about the main events. Over the roughly eight year run of the series, we saw many many events, some were regular favourites, some were random oddities. As the series and years progressed, the events got more outlandish and spectacular, but also suffered from a lack of ideas – the most loved events come from the peak of the series in its first three or four years. In the early years, most episodes featured Duel – a Contestant versus Gladiator fight high off the ground involving pugil sticks with the Contestant trying to knock the Gladiator off, or more commonly, simply surviving a battering for thirty seconds. This round was usually the one just before The Eliminator. The women’s matches were never that exiting (aside from the pervy perspective) while the men’s event was only truly great i the early days when Shadow was the regular Duel Gladiator. He would almost always destroy the Contestant, physically and mentally, and I’m not sure how any of them were able to return to normality after such an emasculating mauling. Once Shadow left, Duel lost its spark (though Nightshade joining as the female equivalent provided some interest).
Other regulars in the early days included The Wall, Hang Tough, and Atlaspheres. Atlaspheres was typically the first event, seeing both Contestants and two Gladiators being locked inside individual giant metal caged balls – in a time limit the Contestants had to try to manoeuver their balls (ahem) over some special glory holes (ahem ahem) in the ground to be awarded points, while the Gladiators attempted to shove them about. This was always an exciting starting point to the show, and there was always the threat of injury or a closely contested battle. Hang Tough was (perfectly described in Wikipedia) an aerial game of chess – a one vs one, Contestant vs Gladiator battle of strength, stamina, speed, and strength and one which I dearly wanted to play with Jet. You had to swing from chain to chain over an open-pit to get from your side, past the Gladiator, to the point that the Gladiator came from. If you met the Gladiator on your way, they would wrestle you off the swinging chains to the ground, wrapping their legs around your body and tugging until you couldn’t take any more (ahem). Masters of this round were Lightning and Saracen. Getting to the opposite side was the rare ultimate victory, but if you managed to get into the scoring area in the middle of the pit, and held on till the time ran out, you would earn some pints too. Always an exciting round, (though it always annoyed me when as Jet hardly ever did it) this was the one which most kids tried to emulate on their nearest tree or Monkey Bars. I believe I remain undefeated. The Wall was a simple race up an artificial climbing wall. The Contestants would race each other, but after a five second head start, they would be chased by a Gladiator who would attempt to pull them off the wall. This one sometimes became heated, with people getting kicked and tugged in ways they felt was against the rules – John Anderson frequently had to step in to defuse the situation.
My favourite event was Danger Zone – one which became less frequent as the show went on. It involved the Contestant running through a variety of obstacles and zones while the Gladiator fired Tennis Balls at them from afar – if you got hit, you were out. The twist was that the Contestant could fight back – in each zone there was a weapon which you could use to try to hit a target and defeat the gladiator. Each zone had a timed limit before exploding so you had to hide, compose, fire and run in ten seconds, all while avoiding being hit. Make it to the end of the course safely and you’d get some points too – great stuff. There’s not enough time to talk about all the events, but there were many I enjoyed – Gauntlet (Contestant runs through a narrow alley filled with Gladiators who try to snap your spine), Pendulum (Contestant climbs around a giant ball suspended high in the air while Gladiator attempts to steal your flag and snap your spine), Pole-Axe (a race up a giant spinning totem where the winner gets to hit a button and snap the loser’s spine), Powerball (another four person event crossing rugby and basketball where Contestants try to throw balls into hoops whilst avoiding having their spines snapped), Pursuit (a mini-Eliminator where you were chased by a Gladiator), Skytrak (Contender’s race upside down in a figure 8 track attached to the ceiling while Gladiators give chase), Swingshot (Bungee Jumping Basketball), Tilt (a tilting tug of war) etc. Most involved possible spine snaps.
The Eliminator, as already mentioned, was a final race between contenders with no Gladiator involvement – although it changed slightly over the years it largely remained the same. It started with a series of jumps and climbs followed by what looked like an impossible mid-air handlebar-arm-cycling thing which people frequently messed up as if they had never been given a chance to practice on it. We then had a large net climb followed by a spectacular zip-line drop to the ground, before a wobbly balancing act and up the Travelator for a rope-swing over the finish line; I wish every day started and ended with this, and that my school had installed something like this – I would never have been off it.
But what about the Gladiators themselves? In a watered-down version of Wrestling, each Gladiator had their own vaguely distinct personality though this rarely went beyond ‘I am the best at X event’. The only true pantomime performer was Wolf, who would regularly get pissed off if contestants defeated him, if a decision went against him, or if someone in the crowd looked at him the wrong way. He even had his own chant, with the audience booing, hissing, and singing ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ whenever he went on a strop. This all created a rather unique atmosphere as this was mostly not a scripted show where winners and results were not predetermined. It was entertaining nonetheless, and maybe wouldn’t have worked if other gladiators followed Wolf’s lead. The show blended these pantomime moments with brief clips of the contenders who talked about themselves, their family lives etc in an early introduction to reality TV. Then you also had the two presenters (yes they would change after a while but I’ll only cover the originals) ex-footballer John Fashanu, and ex-Swede Ulrika-ka-ka Jonsson. They both did well in their roles, becoming household names in the process. But where are they now? Fash is still involved in football, both behind the scenes and occasionally in front of the camera in various reality shows. Ulrika of course featured heavily on one of my all time favourite shows Shooting Stars, and went on to star in various public scandals and celeb relationships, as well as the occasional reality TV show. Similarly, many of the gladiators have appeared in reality TV shows, as guests on game shows and panel shows, some in panto, others taking on completely new jobs etc. As for the Wolfman, he continues to cage fight against people half his age and run a number of gyms.
With the show being such a huge success, we saw special editions of the show – an ill-advised return a few years back, a kids version, cross-nation team versions etc. Although the show began to feel tired after a few seasons, it remained a vital part of my Saturday night routine, like so many others. I would head out to the Swimming Pool where we had special Saturday night rights to the pool (don’t ask), stop off at Edit’s on the way home for a pastie/fish/sausage supper, then watch all these shows and hope that Blind Date wasn’t on. Good times.
I can’t end without mentioning the epic music – the show had a fist-pumping, silly, rousing anthem suitable for any 80s action movie. Remind yourself of it here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8xj-Cr-J8w. That’s the entire song, the show opened with an edited (better) version but the whole thing is worth a listen. Many of the events had their own music too, each one fast paced and exciting and designed to get the blood swirling – and most are pretty memorable. Not that the music was responsible for or integral to the show’s success, but if you happened to switch channels and catch the intro I’d say there was a decent chance you’d stay on that channel to see what all the noise was about. For fans, it’s part and parcel of the show’s charms – nostalgic or otherwise.
Oh yeah, just one more thing. Remember this?
Look closely. No, not there, dirty boy. Look at the man. Look at the face. Yes, it’s Wolf himself! Before donning the pantaloons and chasing stringbean humans around futuristic arenas he was beheading trolls and canoodling with wenches in a fiery wasteland (or posing for Spectrum game covers).
There you go, another one bites the dust. Do you have any fond memories of the show? What was your favourite event, and who was your favourite Gladiator? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!