In the UK in the 1990s, bodybuilding was a freak pursuit – the domain of weirdos who painted themselves with Ronseal and stretched tiny Lycra hammocks across acres of skin the texture of an Arbroath Smokie in an attempt to resemble Marvel’s The Thing. Nobody knew what a deltoid was. Or a protein window. Fit people were the ones who played a weekly game of five-a-side before the pub. Fake tan smelt of biscuits, and even Sporty Spice didn’t have abs.
When Gladiators first arrived on TV then, its stars were curios. We only saw people like them once a year, pulling a truck on The World’s Strongest Man or being gawped at by Clive James on Television. These demigods with 19 inch biceps and thighs the size of dustbins didn’t walk among us. (They didn’t really walk at all, but moved by sort of tilting from one direction to the other like a ship buffeted by a tide.)
Now, it’s all change. Ordinary people “lift”. Protein shakes are sold in supermarkets, and everybody’s working on their quads. There’s never been a better time, you could argue, for Gladiators to come back because never has the Gladiators aesthetic, popularised by superhero movies and spread on Instagram selfies, been more widespread. When Muff Murfin’s theme song asked the immortal question “Are YOU a Gladeyyyaderrr?”, now more than ever is the answer likely to be ‘yeah, actually, it’s one of my side hustles. Do you want to buy a pouch of AG-1?’.
So, in that changing cultural context, how does the revived BBC show measure up to the 1990s original?
Basically the Same, But a Bit Shinier and a Bit Kinder
A couple of pairs of contestants – two male and two female – compete against each other and sundry Gladiators in five events (including Duel, Hang Tough, The Wall… all the classics plus new entries The Edge, Collision, The Ring and more) per hour-long episode. That’s followed by an Eliminator in which the two contestants race each another around an obstacle course that ends with them (hopefully) running up a travellator and swinging through a massive bit of paper on the end of a rope. They’ve kept all that, it’s safe in the bank.
As is… the logo, the theme music, the arena set-up (Sheffield‘s Utilita Arena now, not Birmingham’s), the baying, foam-finger-pointing crowd, the Queen songs, and the Gladiators all having names that sound either like high-end cleaning products or models of Nissan car: Steel, Nitro, Fury, Diamond, and so on.
The new costumes are shiny and metallic, the VTs are glossier, and somebody in production clearly loves lasers as much as Dr Evil in Austin Powers loves lasers, but overall, it either looks the same or better than it used to, so no complaints here.
Also, pantomime villainy aside, there seems to be a little bit less trash talk and a bit more supportive camaraderie from Gladiator to contestant and vice versa. One of the Gladiators – professional rugby player Fury – wears a hearing aid, one of the female contestants was signed up by her wife who gets a shout-out in the audience, one of the male contestants wears nail polish, and there’s a genuinely rousing bit involving a survivor of Leukaemia. It all feels a teeny bit… kinder?
No Wolf Man, but There Are Still Baddies
The bandana of villainy has been passed from Wolf (Michael Van Wijk) to Viper (Quang Luong), who along with Matt Morsia as Legend, is one of the new series baddies. Viper’s deal seems to be grimacing, not saying much and being a pushover on The Gauntlet. Legend’s deal involves acting like he’s God’s gift and whinging about losing events because an arena light shone in his eye. They’re the new show’s bad guys, the heels, the no-good boo-hiss wrong’uns there to break the rules and storm off in a huff. Boooooooooo.
The Gladiators Still Make Weird Boasts
Diamond can lift a gorilla and Sabre can lift a baby elephant, which is why they’re both now banned from Whipsnade Zoo.
Viper can pick up a garden shed, but – like playing acoustic guitar at a party – shouldn’t unless he’s asked to.
Fire can outrun a grizzly bear, Dynamite can walk 100ft on her hands, and Fury is a five-time coal-carrying champion. All of which should spark the imagination of anyone wishing to organise a very specific Ocean’s Eleven-style heist. And finally, there’s a great deal of talk of wingspan despite none of the Gladiators having, you know, wings.
It’s on the BBC so No More Ad Breaks
More Gladiator bang for your license fee buck.
There’s No Ulrika Jonsson or John Fashanu (or his Snazzy Waist Coats)
Possibly in an attempt to curb the behind-the-scenes bed-hopping for which the original show is famed, they’ve got a father-son team presenting this time. The Chase, Blankety Blank and Doctor Who’s Bradley Walsh is on the mic (he once appeared on a celebrity version back in the day, and his wife used to coach the G-Force cheerleader squad on the original).
Barney Walsh is… also there. He wears a jacket. If it wasn’t for the shared surname, you might well confuse him for an enthusiastic competition winner.
And no, disappointedly, nobody has picked up John Fashanu’s snazzy waist coat torch and run with it.
Other personnel changes include football commentator Guy Mowbray taking over from John Sachs, and the head referee not being legendary Scot, John Anderson, but new additions Mark Clattenburg, Sonia Mkoloma and Lee Phillips.
There’s Locker Room Footage Now
Nothing unsuitable for family viewing though. There isn’t a red button option to see into the showers, for instance. We checked.
Gladiators starts on Saturday January 13 at 5.50 p.m. on BBC One and iPlayer.