How the UK Gladiators Reboot Can Bring Back the Oversized Cotton-Bud Joy of the 90s Original

One word for you: Wolf! Plus many more words for you, about what the new BBC Gladiators reboot needs to recapture the joy of the 90s show that had us staging mock pugil stick fights in the school playground

Gladiators image credit ITV
Photo: ITV

UK Saturday night television in the 1990s cannibalised its own audience, relying on them not merely to watch its entertainment, but also to be the entertainment. It was all good, harmless fun, and none of it placed particularly great demands on the contestants or the audiences from which they were plucked. Blind Date invited us to trade cheesy chat-up lines with strangers, and sometimes go on holiday with people we didn’t like. Noel Edmonds wanted to secretly monitor us in our homes, and then pour gunge on us. But then came Gladiators, and by golly it wasn’t interested in giving us an easy ride.

Each week, Gladiators pitted members of the public against the eponymous gladiators: a coterie of contoured, chiselled athletes and bicep-bulging body-builders with fearsome names like Hunter, Lightning, and Warrior. Two male and two female contestants competed against the gladiators, and each other, across a series of six gruelling games, building up points that would determine how much of a head-start they’d receive in the final contestant vs contestant challenge: the dreaded Eliminator obstacle course. Two champions – one male, one female – would be crowned each season. 

Gladiators took its audience on a theme park ride of tension and adrenaline, and put its contestants through the kinds of hell usually reserved for soldiers. Thousands applied, and millions of people at home hung on the show’s every sweaty, oil-soaked moment. It was both a phenomenon, and a phenomenal success. And now it’s returning…

But when Gladiators bursts back on to our screens in 2023 – this time swapping ITV for BBC, and the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham for Sheffield’s Utilita Arena – can it capture lightning in a bottle for a second time (third, if you factor in Gladiators‘ short-lived and less-than successful reboot on Sky in 2008)? And what can the new show learn, borrow and bring back from its hyper-effective ancestor to get those foam fingers waving at full-force yet again?

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Keep it big, brash, loud and electric

If you’d never heard of Gladiators, and someone explained the basic idea to you, and then asked you to guess which country’s version of the show, the UK or the US, was the biggest, brightest and loudest, you’d probably bet on the US. Our transatlantic cousins have always tended to do everything bigger, transforming even the dull arena of politics into a cross between an evangelical revival on mescaline and a space launch in the middle of Mardi Gras. About the only area the UK has them beat is in the ritualistic excess of its monarchy, and that’s only because the US hasn’t had one since 1776.

We can comfortably add Gladiators to that winning list, as the early 90s UK edition was by far the bigger and bolder beast. American Gladiators, which debuted in 1989, was strangely muted, the action unfolding in a venue, and with a mood, that cleaved closer to a career retrospective in Inside the Actor’s Studio, or a low-level Bulgarian circus, than a high-octane, electrically-charged version of the Olympic Games happening inside a giant pantomime, which is exactly the spirit channelled by UK Gladiators.

It took a month to film each UK season, with two shows filmed each day. The gruelling, punishing nature of the schedule was buoyed by the carnival atmosphere created within the arena off-camera by the warm-ups and the gladiators themselves. All of this – the pain, the sweat, the fun and the unbridled joy – came through on-screen, and in turn swept up viewers at home in the rewarding, infectious madness. Not to mention the master-stroke of booming out Queen hits to bookend the games.

The overall message was loud and clear: if you worked hard enough, you too could compete against the ‘Gods’ in an arena of deafening roars and screams. You might even defeat them. You might, like Eunice Huthart, become one of them. Eunice was a champion in both the UK and International variants of Gladiators, before briefly joining the show as gladiator ‘Blaze’. She now works as – amongst other things – Angelina Jolie’s stunt-double.

Gladiators could completely change the lives of its contestants, and without question inspired many millions at home to become fitter, faster, and stronger versions of themselves.

And that’s just not something you could easily say of Noel’s House Party.

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Don’t tinker too much

There’s no point in rebooting a franchise if you aren’t going to make some changes. But you don’t want to change things too much. New viewers are great, but established viewers come pre-disposed to liking a show. Reward their loyalty and sense of nostalgia, and they might even bring their families into the fold, too. Continuity is crucial. Imagine the producer of a recently re-booted Knight Rider series telling the TV Network: “Guys, the car’s yesterday’s news. We’ve changed it to a fridge. And it doesn’t talk any more.”

Some of the show’s games are so synonymous with the format that it would be a cultural crime to remove them. What would Gladiators be without the sight of two people standing on raised platforms battering each other over the head with over-sized cotton buds? Or contestants and gladiators powering across the arena in metal spheres, doing battle like giant mutant hamsters in the apocalypse? Or contestants being pursued around the surface of a giant, swinging ball suspended high above the arena, a strange cross between Indiana Jones and the act of human fertilisation? Powerball, with its electric mix of rugby, basketball and Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe, is similarly iconic.

By all means experiment. Show off new games and new technology. Have the contestants navigate a three-tiered walkway of moving platforms as gladiators pelt them with jet-propelled tennis balls, like some lost level of Crash Bandicoot. Introduce non-lethal variants of the more extreme challenges from Squid Game. Augment what’s already there: make the gladiators wear special facial-capture masks that utilise deep-fake technology so that the contestants can experience the psychological accelerant of duelling against their most hated teacher from high school, or Piers Morgan. In fact, just make Piers Morgan a gladiator! ‘Braggart-icus’ has a ring to it.

And definitely don’t mess too much with…

The Eliminator     

The Eliminator is to Gladiators what the Crystal Dome is to The Crystal Maze. Both are iconic, but while the Dome feels like an arbitrary addendum, a test of luck and maths rather than fortitude, the Eliminator feels like an essential culmination of all that’s come before; a true test of skill, stamina and endurance, and one that captures the audience’s imagination. The show may be called Gladiators, but, really, the gladiator-less Eliminator is both the show’s linchpin and its most satisfying part. Even years later, rewatching those head-to-heads can infect you with all the tension, struggle and human drama that must have been roaring through that arena at the time.

Simply put, the Eliminator is to be tinkered with at the producers’ peril. Again, by all means riff on the template, but if the contestants aren’t death-sliding to the final portion of the course, then heaving up the Travellator (and occasionally falling back down it again) before bursting through a paper banner by way of a swing-rope, then you might as well remake Blind Date instead. Again. The 2008 revival had the winners bursting through foam blocks to victory, like over-excited kids at a soft-play. Never again.            

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Keep Things Deliciously British

It’s right that the new version of the show should possess the grandness of scale and charged atmosphere of the original, but woe betide it ever sheds its Britishness in favour of a more stereotypically transatlantic vibe. Cheerleaders, intense synthesiser music, roaring crowds: yes. But that’s where the pomp should end. We want to hear the announcer desperately trying to inject grand-standing passion into that most unsexy of phrases: ‘It’s Janice from Stoke Newington!’ The contestants must continue to seem ill-at-ease when trash-talking the gladiators, verbally attacking their rivals with all the aggression of Sgt. Wilson from Dad’s Army. Anything else would be antithetical to our collective inability to properly express our emotions.

Heck, let’s just drop all those alpha names like Cobra and Nightshade – all of them reminiscent of a range of supermarket-brand deodorants – in favour of more congruously British monikers: “Contestants, in this game you’ll be facing the titanic, earth-shaking wrath of… BARRY AND KEITH!”

Bring back the original Gladiators’ Team

It would perhaps be unrealistic to expect the original gladiators – Cobra, Lightning, Jet, Rhino, Falcon et al – to return to the show lycra-clad and ready to rumble, given that most of them are in their 50s and 60s (as a caveat, they’re still largely in better shape than most people in their 20s). A better option would be for the original gladiators (OGs if you please) to return in either a coaching capacity or as rotating duos of guest presenters, bringing their knowledge and experience to bear on the new contestants, and the audience. Maybe even sharing reminiscences of and statistics from games gone by.

One comeback audiences would love to see is Michael van Wijk, aka Wolf, the fearsome-looking, long-haired panto-villain whose performance as the series’ number-one heel delighted and enraged viewers in equal measure. Though Wolf has previously expressed a desire to be involved in a comeback, whatever form it might take, recent comments he’s made in response to the announcement of the 2023 revival cast doubt on his inclusion. “[The new Gladiators]’ll never be as good as us. It’s like a photocopy of the originals,” howled Wolf. But maybe that’s just Wolf being Wolf. 

And though he may now be in his 90s, the show absolutely needs the return of its accomplished coach and referee, John Anderson, that wonderful man who did nothing to mitigate against the stereotype that us Scottish people are stern-faced, shouty bastards.

And, so, one final set of questions remain: Contenders ready? Gladiators ready? Audience… ready?

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