Saturday Night TV Gold: Gladiators

In Saturday Night TV Gold, we look back at the Golden Era of Saturday night television and some of the greatest entertainment shows of the last 50 years.

Show: Gladiators
Broadcast: ITV, 1992 – 2000.
Host: Ulrika Johnson, John Fashanu (1992-96, 99-00), Jeremy Guscott (1997-98)
The Big Idea: Two gym-loving members of the public take on human muscle machines, the Gladiators, in ludicrous tasks involving tests of strength, balance and the ability to deal with giant inflatables.
Best known for: “Gladiators… ready!”, “Awooga!”, the Travelator, Wolf and Jet.
Not to be confused with: Ice Warriors, Celebrity Wrestling

In the early ‘90s Saturday night TV was in rude health with Noel’s House Party, Blind Date, You Bet!, Stars in their Eyes and the Generation Game all being serious bankers for ITV and BBC in the ratings wars.

But if you were under the age of 16 and wanted something with a bit more razzle and dazzle than Cilla Black twirling or Mr Blobby, there wasn’t much to go on.

So when Gladiators was dragged across from America, all shiny, covered in Lycra and with John Fashanu bellowing “Awooga!” down the camera, Saturday night TV had suddenly found a format that was daft enough for parents and edgy enough for kids.

Moving away from the comforts and familiarity of cosy TV studios in London, Gladiators put Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena on the map and the super-sized set gave the show a genuine feel of a sporting spectacle.

It was brash, it was loud and it had thousands of kids chanting along to Queen songs with foam fingers – it was perfect Saturday night television.

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Featuring ordinary punters taking on the powerhouse, super-strength, super-toned Gladiators in XXL challenges, it was every teenager’s dream to have a pugil-stick Duel with Wolf or Warrior on live TV.

Classic Saturday Night TV: Gladiators

The Gladiators themselves became overnight stars with the likes of Jet, Wolf and Lightning becoming bona-fide celebs, who could command a decent fee at their local pantomime.

The actual challenges were undoubtedly repetitive, but there was a simple pleasure in watching Dave from Rochdale trying to scramble up a large wall with a 6ft 5in 18 stone monster on his tail.

The greatest challenges were the simplest ones; Wall, Duel, the ludicrously hard Hang Tough (you basically had to hold yourself up on some rings while a large man yanked at your legs) and the rather amusing Danger Zone, which was essentially an evil version of dodgeball that involved being chased around the arena by Gladiators hurling tennis balls.

The early rounds were fun, but basically meaningless and as always came down to a final head-to-head in The Eliminator (a monster-sized assault course with balancing beam, rope wall and zip wire) for the two contestants.

Classic Saturday night TV: Gladiators

The crescendo in the Eliminator was the dreaded Travelator, which inspired a whole generation of children to foolishly try running up downward escalators.

Running for an impressive eight years, Gladiators had a decent stint at the top. Ultimately, it’s limited scope and the arrival of new reality and celebrity-based TV formats would kill it off, but when it was at the peak of its powers, very few shows could compete with this muscle-filled monster.

What are your memories of Gladiators? Let us know in Comments below.

Image Credit: Rex Features

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