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‘We dialled up the superhero’: how Gladiators became the BBC’s biggest entertainment hit in years – best news

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Do you feel the power of the Gladiators? Do you have the will and the skill?

Or if not, will you at least be humming along with its gleefully bombastic theme tune on Saturday evening, as the show reaches the final episode of its comeback series a mere 32 years after it first stormed on to British television?

When one male and one female contender are named series champions after 10 weeks of Lycra-clad jousting, they will not be the only ones celebrating. There were some groans when the BBC announced its revival of the decades-old ITV format, originally fronted by Ulrika Jonsson and John Fashanu. But the decision has been more than vindicated.

The launch episode in January, presented by father and son duo Bradley and Barney Walsh, was watched by more than 6 million people; with catchup TV viewers, that figure is now 9.8 million, averaging 8 million across the series. In the multi-channel era, that’s a smash hit, and the BBC’s biggest entertainment launch in seven years. For a broadcaster forced to continually prove its broad appeal in the face of assaults on its funding model, it could scarcely be more welcome.

Kalpna Patel-Knight, the broadcaster’s head of entertainment commissioning, admits even she has been surprised by the scale of the programme’s success. When the idea was first pitched by producers Hungry Bear “it definitely wasn’t a yes straight away”, she says.

That was partly down to cost – she says “physical gameshows are very expensive [to produce]” – but also because “my ambition is always to find new UK original shows”. (“Look what’s been on in January: Gladiators, a show from 1992,” Channel 4’s chief executive Alex Mahon remarked. “We shouldn’t be doing those shows.”)

What persuaded Patel-Knight, she says, was a conversation with another producer. “We were just talking about our weekends and I mentioned that my two daughters love watching Marvel films.

“And that is when the penny dropped as to why now – because superheroes were back. Action films were back. As soon as that clicked for me, I was like: ‘All right, I’m going to go and get that commissioned.’”

In casting the Gladiators, as a result, they have tried to “dial up the superhero”, she says. Like their 1990s predecessors, the new crop of muscle mountains have faintly silly, teen deodorant-adjacent names (Bionic! Nitro! Sabre!) and costumes that locate them somewhere between WWE wrestlers and comic-book characters.

Prime time at teatime – (l-r) Fury, Fire and Electro. Photograph: James Stack/BBC/© Hungry Bear Media Ltd

There are pantoesque baddies and goodies in the monosyllabic Viper and the knowingly boastful Legend, and a preposterous man mountain in 1.95m (6’5”), 120kg (20 stone) Giant. And, says Patel-Knight, after audience research underlined the importance of representation, the series has a disabled Gladiator (Fury, AKA professional rugby player Jodie Ounsley, is deaf) and the first with south Asian origins in former Team GB powerlifter Karenjeet Kaur Bains, AKA Athena.

That aside, it is striking how little the 90s format has been tinkered with, says TV critic Scott Bryan, a huge fan. “Normally when there is a relaunch, they tweak it for modern times or maybe adjust the whole format entirely. But what stands out with Gladiators is that if you put the old one and the new one side by side, they are virtually the same. Half the challenges are the same, the opening titles, the music, the catchphrases are exactly the same.

“For a whole generation of viewers who watched the show in the 90s, it immediately sparks nostalgia.” And for a broadcaster, that means unbuyable word-of-mouth PR as millions of sentimental parents insist their kids stick around for the final Eliminator assault course.

Should we brace for a rush of similar retro revivals as broadcasters seek to repeat the Gladiators magic? Possibly, says Bryan. “It’s very hard for new formats to be a success instantly. There are some exceptions to the rule, of course. But TV channels bring back existing programmes because it’s easier than having to introduce audiences to a whole new format.” Patel-Knight insists, however: “If you look at the overall unscripted slate at the BBC, only 1% is reboots.”

Why does this format work so well? One person uniquely placed to answer is James Crossley, who bestrode the original Gladiators’ stage, and the 90s tabloids, as floppy-haired fan-favourite Hunter. Crossley was a 19-year-old bodybuilder when he was cast in the show, and remembers “hectic” years after it made him a star. “One minute I’m turning on the lights at EuroDisney, the next minute I’m doing a video with the Spice Girls. It was an incredible experience.”

Crossley, somewhat unexpectedly, is now a gong bath healer and teacher. “It got to a point where I had to put that energy into something that wasn’t tearing my body apart. So all the effort that I put into training and nutrition and diet I now put into gongs and playing the hand pan.”

How does he account for the show’s renewed success? “It’s family entertainment; rather than one person upstairs in the bedroom, one in the kitchen … [everyone] on phones and tablets. It’s a family competition, and I think people always like to see David versus Goliath, where there’s that possibility somebody can come through and beat the bigger person.”

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