Before X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, before even Stephen Mulhern’s Animals Do The Funniest Things, Saturday nights on ITV were ruled by one show – Gladiators.
Every Saturday evening, families across the nation would sit down with a plate of oven chips and watch the lycra-clad likes of Hunter, Falcon, Jet and Panther slug it out with members of the public at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham.
The show comprised of a series of challenges, undertaken by fitness fanatics from around the UK. So you’d have Greg, an IT consultant from Milton Keynes battling Rhino – a man actually wider than he was tall – by bouncing around on giant elastic bungee ropes, smashing each other offer pedestals with massive foam sticks or racing up climbing walls.
The best Gladiator was Wolf. Wolf was in fact a 57 year old homeless man pulled off the streets at the last minute by London Weekend Television producers, desperate for someone to play the bad guy. Wolf was a pantomime villain, all straggly hair and crazy eyes.
Supposed to be terrifying, he was by far the least frightening Gladiator, and you could see the contestants visibly draw a sigh of relief if he was their chosen opponent. Only Shadow actually looked like he might actually be taking the whole thing completely seriously and could possibly kill a contestant
The whole thing was hosted perkily by Ulrika Johnson and John ‘Fash’ Fashanu, but referee John Anderson had the catchphrase– shouting ‘Contestant, Ready! Gladiator, Ready!’ in his broad Scottish accent before blowing his whistle loudly.
The big finale was a race between the two contestants through the ominously named The Eliminator– basically a big assault course over various crash mats and monkey bars. The Eliminator ended with possibly the most tortuous device ever created – The Travelator. Essentially one of those moving walkways you get at the airport, only risen by 45 degrees and going backwards, it had the power to sap any remaining ounce of remaining energy from an already exhausted contestant. Every week, you could guarantee at least three minutes of joy, laughing as a contestant tried in vain to jog up it, their legs going nine to the dozen, but getting nowhere. If someone did manage to run up the Travelator, their reward was getting to jump spectacularly through a piece of paper and have a sweaty chat with Ulrika. There must have been some sort of prize, but I can’t remember what it was. Perhaps a sweaty chat with Ulrika was enough.
The show was incredibly popular, turning the phrase ‘pugel sticks’ a household phrase and catapulting the muscle-bound Gladiators into superstars. Kids would watch for the sub-WWF style pantomime, while the Dads could enjoy the glamorous delights of female Gladiators like Jet and Lightning. Sky1 re-made Gladiators a couple of years ago, but it’s time had passed. It’s real successor is the BBC’s Total Wipeout – essentially Gladiators without the Gladiators – and that, my friends, is what is called missing the point.