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Against all the odds, Gladiators is the most radically kind show on TV

Strength, speed and the figure-revealing elasticity: ‘Gladiators’ star Sabre (BBC)
Strength, speed and the figure-revealing elasticity: ‘Gladiators’ star Sabre (BBC)

Culture tends to move at such a pace that it’s rare for you and your children to have the exact same televisual epiphany. However, I’m fairly sure my kids and I have all had a form of awakening watching our respective eras of Gladiators: the musclebound game show that has tested strength, speed and the figure-revealing elasticity of Lycra every Saturday night on BBC One since mid-January.

I never thought the series, a reboot of the Nineties ITV mainstay, would work in 2024. I honestly thought it would be an irrelevant joke; a show out of step with modern sensibilities; something that sensitive, tut-tutting woke liberal parents like me would instantly find fault with. After all, it’s competitive, there’s a gender binary, it had the aura of a racist past back in the day (thanks to Black Gladiators being crassly named things like Shadow or Nightshade), plus it generally flies in the face of body positivity by only having a hegemony of lean gym people on show. And yet, something quietly revolutionary has happened with this latest BBC version: they’ve reinvented sports to be radically more respectful, joyful and essentially nicer than anything I’ve ever seen before.

Most reviews of Gladiators have been a springboard for adults to revel in their own nostalgia, from The Guardian’s Joel Golby evoking eating ham and pineapple pizza to The Spectator’s James Delingpole railing against the old show having “Queen’s excruciating ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ thumping on auto-repeat”. But in its bedtime-friendly slot of 5.50pm, Gladiators is very clearly a family show, made for kids and their grown-ups to enjoy together – making a solo adult review feel a bit awkward, like a 36-year-old reviewing a soft play centre.

I’m keen to stress therefore just how much my own children, aged six and nine, have loved the show, from the title sequence of episode one onwards. Yes, the sheer skimpiness of the Gladiators’ clothes made me urgently order a copy of Let’s Talk About the Birds and the Bees, but despite the anatomical detail the show is coated in an innocence that’s so finely balanced and well-played that I’m genuinely in awe of the team who made it, for making family telly that’s wholesome but not bland or worthy, and not slathered in irony either. By comparison, we watched seven minutes of a first-generation Gladiators on YouTube, at which point the commentator made a crass remark about host Ulrika Jonsson’s cleavage, prompting me to leap up, turn off the screen and do a quiet shriek while we got the Uno cards out.

Kids aren’t stupid. They know that much-maligned father-and-son hosts Bradley and Barney Walsh are making deliberately awful jokes. They know too that the excellently vain, perma-pouting “baddy”, Legend, is laying it on like a pantomime villain. Incidentally, well played again by the BBC for a timely skewering of a narcissistic man, especially in the context of a show that could otherwise pong of gym culture self-absorption.

Of course, there’s still a natural credulousness among young viewers, but there’s also an implicit believability to the show that feels genuinely rare for such big-budget, high-spectacle telly. In this debut BBC series, this mostly came from the fact that two contenders – Finley in the quarter-finals and Chung in the recent semi-final – were injured to the point where they sadly had to be replaced by runners-up, a truth about the potential danger of this stuff that was thankfully not airbrushed or reshot out of existence, but left in to show the vulnerability of the athletes competing.

Thus because Gladiators is believable, its most radical aspect really shines. It’s that everyone (except cartoon villains Legend and Viper) is unfailingly nice to each other, whether they’ve won or lost. Contenders will praise the strength of a Gladiator who’s just prodded their groin with a pugil stick. Gladiators will talk with conviction about an opponent’s courage and skill at the end of a game, no matter the result. Both might dramatically tumble into a safety net, but they’re rolling around laughing seconds later, not scrapping or hurling abuse about each other online. The contenders, right up to the gruelling Eliminator round, support each other with such sincere grace and respect – never lapsing into schmaltz – that the show elevates itself into a strange undiscovered headspace where competitive sport is actually, y’know, quite pleasant and not a toxic maelstrom of ultra-competitiveness. The fact that the show is bolstered by two figures from mainstream football – match commentator Guy Mowbray and former super referee Mark Clattenburg (branded by his iconic Euro 2016 tattoo) – feels almost retrograde since football could learn so much about what family-friendly entertainment should look like.

Sheer skimpiness: Giant, Steel and Apollo of BBC One’s ‘Gladiators’ (BBC)
Sheer skimpiness: Giant, Steel and Apollo of BBC One’s ‘Gladiators’ (BBC)

There’s still room for improvement. After so many iterations (Sky also relaunched the show back in 2008), the show is crying out for a female “baddy”, for instance. While Sabre occasionally came close, literally hissing at the microphone once as she stormed off post-defeat, there’s never been a sense that the females are allowed to be as funny, camp and comically contrived as the men. The show would also benefit from explaining why there’s an ambient camera in the dressing room, something that even my kids thought was a bit creepy.

But it’s been nothing short of a brilliant reinvention for a modern era, one that I can attest makes kids very happy and makes analogue parents like me a bit – OK, I’ll admit it – nostalgic for the days of must-watch Saturday night terrestrial TV. In this Olympic year, who would have thought that a show with Bradley Walsh, some foam fingers and a soft-rock theme song would best uphold the event’s credo – that it’s not about the winning, but the taking part that matters?