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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

Gladiators don't wear jumpers

Saturday evening TV has changed. When the Normal family were allowed on to The Generation Game in the seventies, they remained grateful and shy while the host chaperoned them through his good-humoured, non-competitive games. At no point did any Mr Normal say 'you're going to get your ****ing head kicked in, Brucie', nor did the little Normals ever express the desire to 'kick ass' while learning to make noodles. This sort of behaviour is expected, however, on Gladiators, an American import hosted by John Fashanu and somebody called Ulrike.

Ulrike is blonde to the point of abstraction. She has the presence of ectoplasm. Fashanu interviews the players with the bored, unhearing grandeur of royalty ('So you think I'm going to get my ****ing head kicked in. Great. Super. And over to you, Ulrike'). But, unlike traditional Saturday night game shows, Gladiators is about the competitors, not the hosts.

This time the members of the public are not introduced via apatronisingly jokey interview with the star; they address their remarks directly to camera in a pre-shot interview, as though they were championship boxers. This is only fair because they aren't going up against the Cardigan family of Crinkley Bottom. They are going up against the Gladiators. On the night I watched, one of the competitors was called Derek. Derek weighed in at ten and a half stone. His opposition was the Cobra (20 stone). Derek v the Cobra. Really, you feel that Derek should have guessed.

Derek and his co-competitor Terry had to climb inside huge metal cages (Atlaspheres) which they had to roll around a kind of huge pinball table picking up points. The Gladiators' job was to stop them, which they did more or less immediately. When Fashanu came up to interview the competitors, however, they had still not learned their lesson. 'The Gladiators are scared now', they said, 'we'll beat them with the poles'.

This is a game in which you stand on a narrow platform on top of a pole and the Gladiator whacks you with a padded shillelagh. It's a sort of Blade Runner pillow-fight. One clout and Derek was down. The crowd roared - in another astonishing departure from Saturday night tradition, the audience sticks up, not for Derek and Terry, but for the Cobra and his cohorts.

After this, Derek and Terry were replaced by two women called Carol, and the Cobra gave way to Lightning, a female Gladiator. The audience chanted her name and stamped their feet, in robotic unison, as though at a Queen concert or the Nuremberg Rally. Lightning wiggled her bottom and did a somersault in response, and the crowd went crazy. She either had an awful lot of relatives in the stadium or the warm-up man had fancied her.

In the newsagent's the next morning, it became obvious why the adulation was being directed towards Lightning and not Carol. Gladiators merchandising is already available. Posters, chewing-gum cards and little models are on sale - of Lightning and the Cobra (and the Scorpion and Flame), but not of Carol or even of Derek (who did shoot down the Cobra with a tennis-ball bazooka).

I should have known this from watching the show. Most of the Gladiators are body-builders who have built their bodies to resemble blown-up plastic stocking-fillers. When Lightning wiggled her bum, it was oddly asexual. Her gesture was honed to the point where it could be easily replicated with a ball and socket joint. She was recommending her body not to randy viewers, but to corporate toy manufacturers.

What have the BBC put up against this Judge Dredd/Jeux Sans Frontières? Noel's House Party, brought to you from Noel's house in Crinkley Bottom. The name says it all, a pungent stew of heritage, Englishness and smut. Despite the cosy name, the House Party is a far cry from the Tupperware jollity of, say, The Big Breakfast. For a start, the house is no semi, but a stately home. This Toad Hall comes complete with low beams and oaken doors through which the guests are admitted.

Noel does not come on as the friendly neighbour but as the squire, indulging the local peasantry in a few revels. The games are designed to emphasise the client status of the competitors. In one of the games, the guests are asked to guess the identity of the celebrity who sings to them from the cellar. I could see the celebrity on my screen and I still couldn't guess who she was.

In another game called 'Wait Till I Get You Home', a little boy was asked about his parents' shortcomings. One of these was spending too much time examining 'page three'. So here we had a child accusing his father of masturbation on primetime TV, while Noel chortled indulgently and the father blushingly admitted it. In case you don't get the message at any point, Noel turns to camera, arching his eyebrows and pursing his lips, to clarify his contempt for what Coriolanus called the 'mutable, ill-scented many'; of course, being looked down on by Coriolanus is one thing, being looked down on by a guy with aseventies haircut and a hideous jumper is quite another.

In fact, for most of the show, Noel doesn't have to share air time with 'the many' at all. 'Grab a Grand' and other spiritually uplifting mainstay games of the show are played via a phone-in, as though on the radio. I can think of no more eloquent statement of the BBC's current attitude to the mainstream audience than this - we are expected to pay to be humiliated by an ageing DJ in a feudal setting. The Corporation was always patronising, but there was a time when it had something to be patronising about. Being patronised by Noel Edmonds is like being given advice on self-motivation by a two-toed sloth.

Gladiators on the other hand has the fundamentally democratic thrust of films like Beethoven or Home Alone in which a helpless child or woefully inadequate parent is suddenly faced with incredible odds, and wins through. The scoring system of Gladiators (you get points for simply enduring the beating), coupled with the costume (knee pads, football helmets) means that most people come out of it looking good. Indeed, when Carol knocked Flame off the pole, and when Derek took out the Cobra in one shot, they looked more than good; they looked heroic.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992

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