GamesMaster IV: The Gladiators

[GamesMaster: Part IGamesMaster Part IIBad InfluenceGamesmaster: Part III]

In my role of dissecting 90’s TV which seemed fine at the time, but now feels completely unhinged, Gladiators sits as the suspiciously-vascular elephant in the room. On the surface, it’s an odd omission, as there’s nothing more on-brand, as a hybrid of two regular points of reference; pro wrestling and John Fashanu. But the actual show is too on the nose; too over-discussed. Tabloids pump out cast reunions and ‘Where Are They Now’s on a weekly basis, and pictures of Wolf are now at home in Facebook memes with a million likes; his straggly hair and claw-like hands cited alongside playing out after dark, Ro-land, and cheap Freddos as iconography from the pre-snowflake Britain when everything was great, which “if you remember this, you had a brilliant childhood!” Yes, the past was weird and I like to pick it apart, but I’m not Richard Blackwood on Channel 5’s Telly We All Loved, Didn’t We, Mate? Fortunately, there is another way in without having to sit through hours of bodybuilder school sports day, while trying really hard not to be lecherous over Jet humping a fitness instructor off some rings. Such was their massive popularity, the Gladiators made a ton of guest appearances on other shows, many of which occurred on GamesMaster.

To my great distress, we first must return to the era of Victorian goblin, Dexter Fletcher, who pushes through the live audience and down the steel gantries of Oxford Prison with the manner of a man being rushed out of court with a jacket over his head. He slides the last few feet down the bannister on his arse, as kids toot air-horns and bang metal cups against the bars, like they’re just back from throwing a face-full of boiling sugar over a nonce. After calling for quiet with one of those loud whistles where you bite down on your lip, the way you’d signal the 5-0 are coming, Fletcher informs us this is a “special sports edition.” The Gladiators were the premier athletes of their day, and opening challenge is James Pond’s Crazy Sports on the SNES, which I believe is set to be an event at the next Olympics.

Fletcher does the old “argh!” and dropping to his knees in mock agony when shaking hands with the biggest teen (who looks about 30), and our presenter’s very presence — Artful Dodger via someone banned from every ground in the country for throwing batteries — seems to engender an aggressive atmosphere. Young players cut cocky promos on each other; the little kid bragging “I’ve got an Amiga at home, I’m a dab hand at it… I can rock and roll now,” the girl replying “I’m gonna stuff him,” and big lad simply waggling his fingers with a promise “these two are gonna do it all for me.” And not so much as a look to camera from Fletcher, as was guaranteed with Dominik Diamond; eyebrows raised to imply that fingers might also go inside a lady or up a bottom. Similarly, his co-commentator’s lines about steady rhythm and peaking too soon go whizzing past, exposing such a blind-spot for innuendo, I’d be shocked if Dexter Fletcher’s even aware of his own nob. “Bleedin’ ell, guv, wos that in me grundies?! Some kind of sausage wot’s alive? It’s spraying all hot yellow water out the end! Tastes disgustin’, bettah get a cork…”

Gaming commences with a cry of “ARE YA READY, SUNSHINE?” and some controversy. There are times GamesMaster feels oddly fake, demonstrated here when Big Boy uses a cheat to fire himself halfway down the track in a cannon, before proceeding to hit every obstacle and come dead last anyway. In the post-game humiliation, Little Kid fumbles over the zinger “I proved that steroids just isn’t the answer, Ben Johnson!” and for the shame of cheating and losing, Patrick Moore (whose bits are all pre-recorded ages ago) orders the cheat “off to the furnaces with you,” as he’s led away by a Mad Max-looking muscleman in a welder’s mask.

But we’re here for the Gladiators Supreme Challenge, which plays out over three episodes, in a tournament of Clayfighter for the SNES. We lead with Shadow verses Falcon, and ITV’s finest are in their work outfits, with Shadow in a lovely sports bra over his pecs, Gladiators emblem medallion, and cock and balls visibly jiggling as he jogs down the stairs. He’s also wearing a bumbag, I guess in case he needs to pop an emergency steroid in the five minutes he’s onstage. Falcon’s mullet is absolutely spectacular; the classic ‘your GCSE German teacher in the 90s’, and she seems especially underdressed next to the jumpsuited Fletcher, in one of those high-cut (and low-cut) leotards rendering her a woman stood in swimwear in the middle of a grotty prison. Shadow’s got experience here, having triumphing over Jet in the previous series, and wins in straight sets, with the same wide-eyed death-stare that made postmen and part-time children’s football coaches shit themselves on the Duel platform. When they stand up out of their gaming seats for the walk back to Dex, the camera’s so far up their cracks, it’s basically an endoscope.

Kids in the sports challenge final go hard on the banter. The smallest one brags “I’m the pioneer of joystick waggling,” before his opponent burns him with “say hello to Napoleon when you see him,” like it’s bloody 8 Mile. Again, imagine what Dominik would’ve done with the joystick waggling line, as we’re left with Dexter Fletcher chuckling a “well, there ya go!” Fletcher’s patter is dire, with zero ability to improvise, and all banter coming off like small talk with your neighbour when you’re putting the bins out. He asks one kid if he’s got a computer at home, and they reply yes, a Sega Megadrive. “Sega Megadrive? Is that quite good?” Alright, Johnny Carson. So lacking in response is Dex, “good stuff” ends up being an inadvertent catchphrase. In watching multiple episodes, his shortcomings stick out like a bee-stung beller, with even his links first-draft basic, like “somefing for everyone in those reviews!” (in more than one episode). Even though he’s in his twenties, he’s that meme of Steve Buscemi with a skateboard, and when saying stuff like “we all like to spend a little while on the old games console,” it sounds like a mate’s uncle telling you he’s just downloaded an app called ‘eye-something-or-other’ that lets him listen to Paul Weller on his phone.

Dexter’s lone personal stamp is the weekly sign-off, in the form of celebrity quotes, and this week’s is “in the words of Andre Agassi, ‘always keep your eye on your balls, man’ bye!” The following episode opens with speedruns of Mr. Nutz on the SNES, with the youngest contestant I’ve ever seen; a tiny, tiny boy, dubbed Tom Thumb by Fletcher, who’s so terrified when a mic’s poked in his face, he can barely speak. With Dave Perry watching on — stars ‘n’ stripes bandana, gold earring, sleeveless shirt tucked into jeans — Tom Thumb chews his own lip with concentration before getting eliminated, and post-match, mumbles “shut up, stupid” to Fletcher, who responds “d’you wanna fight, mate?!” The self-serious Perry is a heavy presence this series, carrying himself like he thinks girls are watching his every move, and too cool for babyish stuff like Fantastic Dizzy — “I mean, the guy’s an egg, how interesting can that get?” Yeah, I bet he’s never even popped a wheelie.

Everything’s broken up with your weekly GamesMaster weirdness, like a Consoletation Zone child with an American accent who pronounces SNES as “suh-ness.” The tips sections are where you’ll find the subversive moments, with Tom Thumb returning to nervously ask for a shortcut on the game he just lost at — Moore: “a pity you didn’t know that earlier on, eh?” — to another kid who’s only visible as the top of a head until Moore adjusts his viewing eye. One man’s forced to repeatedly beg for help on Mortal Kombat, told to go away until the GamesMaster relents; “oh, that’s excellent, GamesMaster, fanks!” There’s a small feature about a home automation system, which is merely a four-way extension lead with an on/off remote — it’s the space age! — and ‘Games Animal’ Perry bemoans a poor Gameboy adaptation of Garfield, which really lets down fans of the comic. Hey, come back girls; where are you going?!

Second round of our Gladiators challenge sees “colossal” Cobra versus “sexy” Scorpio (to be fair, she is outrageously attractive, although anyone would look their best stood next to Dexter Fletcher). Like Shadow, Cobra’s got a bumbag too, which suggests a deliberate attempt by production to cover up the male Glads’ genitals. However, the way they sit right above the bulges just further highlights them, like balancing a hat on it, while the females are afforded no such luxuries to shield their cameltoes. Cobra’s role in Gladiators was class clown, with a great line in quips and eyebrow-raising reaction faces, as second favourite of all the mums, behind that big unit, Saracen. He demonstrates why he was the jacked-up 90’s James Acaster by quipping that “if we was boxers, she’d be Mike Tyson, I’d be Julian Clary!” Indeed, he’s got the give-away non-gamer stance of holding the controller right up in the air by his head, and Scorpio beats him by spamming a low kick. “I was about as fast as a paraplegic tortoise!” says Cobra. Channel 4 must still have his number; get him on Taskmaster!

As Dexter sends them off, he calls Scorpio Shadow, but nobody picks up on it. When they return the following week, Shadow takes it, beating Scorp 2-1, which puts him just three awards shy of a rare EGOT, (Emmy, GamesMaster Golden Joystick, Oscar, Tony). Although, considering how his life went after getting fired for roids; recently jailed six years for kidnap and torture; it was likely either pawned off or threateningly brandished. In non-Gladiators stuff, a beat-em-up special brings together — supposedly — the four best Street Fighter II players in the country, including one nerd who’s cosplaying as David Sowerbutts and brings along a big hardback atlas — “it’s to hold my control pad.” The book is a powerful advantage, and he crushes his opponent in about half a second. Fletcher’s post-match interview with the loser is really something.

Dexter: “Was it a tough battle?

Loser: “Quite.”

Dexter: “Quite a tough battle, okay, good stuff…

The final begins with Fletcher asking; in identical tone to Linton Travel Tavern staff enquiring of Partridge whether he’s got his big plate; “got your lucky book?” to which Sowerbutts replies “certainly is.” Things take a bit of a turn in the commentary booth, when Fletcher notes the players “look very similar to their characters,” one of whom is, let’s be blunt, a great big fat fella. Book-Boy wins, and in the closing chat, Fletcher outright tells him he bears an uncanny resemblance to the character they literally just described as “the big fat character, the fattest,” and he leaves with a Golden Joystick under one arm, atlas under the other. For history’s sake, we should make note of Fletcher’s sign-offs, one from Parkinson’s sufferer Muhammad Ali — “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, end up wiv brain damage indefinitely!” — and another purportedly quoting Jean-Claude Van Damme (who is Belgian); “Ich bin ein Berliner, auf wiedersehen, baby!

Unfortunately, we must endure yet more Dexter Fletcher, with an episode from later that series, after they’d been booted from the prison, and switched filming to the cramped space of Clerkenwell House of Detention. Part of the ongoing team challenge, three rowdy trios in different-coloured baseball caps strut on like chimpanzees about to fuck each other’s eyes out for territory. In red, we’ve got the Dream Team, “a lairy bunch of lads” who give big-ups to the Canvey Posse and find the place is too small to unfurl a banner. Charlton Crew are in yellow, one of whom Fletcher steps on as they come out, while Team Perfection claim they’re gonna kick arse. “Dunno if you can say that,” says a nervous Dex, “but you just did.”

Team challenges include Empire Strikes Back on the SNES, and a pinball game bouncing balls off a pair of Amazonian warrior women in metal bikinis to defeat an evil tree, with commentary that makes it unwatchable; Perry showing off by shouting play-by-play, while simultaneously Fletcher talks to himself at the top of his lungs; “AW BLAST ‘IM! WICKED! CHOP IT UP!” and hums the Star Wars theme. But these shows move at a clip, and soon it’s the celebrities, with guest player, the Games Mistress. “Hold on?” you cry, inspired by the wild cockneyness of Dexter Fletcher, “ain’t this a bleedin’ Gladiators special? I’m gonna shove one of Dave Courtney’s straight-to-DVD gangster films right up your ‘arris for tellin’ me porky pies!” Settle down, as the Games Mistress is better known as Jet, from Sky’s Games World series, in an exciting televisual crossover.

Under her nom de plume, and with no mention of Gladiators, she’s allowed to wear an actual dress, rather than clothed like she’s rescuing a brick in the swimming gala, and enters to a cacophony of horny teenage wolf whistles. Jet shows Fletcher how it’s meant to be done, with “I like nothing better than frolicking with my consoles!” Of course, Fletcher can only laugh with an “okay, well…” Weirdly, though she gets to play, Jet’s also the prize for two audience members, who’ll be competing for a date with her. Picking the lads herself, every hand shoots towards the ceiling with a manic “ME! ME! ME!” and she selects a couple of spods who both look like a child’s drawing of Louis Theroux.

I’m not sure on the legality of a grown woman going on a date with a 13-year-old, but it’s contested over Megadrive light-gun game, Lethal Enforcers. “Don’t kill no citizens!” warns Fletcher, in the sort of American accent even Eddie Large would be ashamed of. This is 90’s tech, so players have the gun half an inch from the screen, and Jet accidentally shoots a cop within the first two seconds, followed by an innocent old man. She is terrible, but blows across the barrel as if it’s smoking, and I’ll hear no bad words against her. Quite understandably, Theroux #2 completely falls apart with Jet stood there, massacring every civilian in a panic before dying with no points, and having to watch as Jet leads the other boy away through the cheering crowd. I’d genuinely love to know what this dream date consisted of; presumably a quick burger in the green room, trying not to get a lobber with his parents sat there.

It’s here we say goodbye to the gargoyle stylings of Dexter Fletcher, for a welcome return to Dominik, in our first visit to series 5, with an episode from November ’95. Opening titles see Dom flattened by a bus as he exits a chippy, life flashing before his eyes as surgeons battle to save his life; a bully pushing him over in school; a teacher yelling “you’ll never amount to anything!”; getting caught cheating in a nightclub and being slapped. Dom flatlines, as a green mist rises from his chest into a tunnel of light, coming out the other side to meet the giant head of Patrick Moore; big white beard, crown, and lightning shooting from his eyes. The series title is held aloft by golden cherubs, “New GamesMaster: Born Again.”

The set’s halfway between Heaven and Mount Olympus (albeit on a tea-time Channel 4 budget), with shrubbery, white clouds swirling against a clear blue sky, and hot model angels in togas, while players enter down a golden CG entranceway, lined with clone-stamped trumpeters. Dominik’s at the midpoint in his evolution here, still with most of his hair, and with stubble and a sprig of chest hair poking up above his enormous, open collar. The celebrity challenge is titled “Gladiators? Hard? Don’t make me laugh!” with the Glads facing off against members of the public in two rounds of fighting games. After the mandatory joke about spandex, out come Cobra and Panther.

Times have changed in the last two years, as they’re wearing jackets and shorts, and aren’t being forced to stand there with the indents of their urethras visible to anyone with a big enough screen. Notable here is the meeting of Cobra and Dom; the two styles of comedy. It’s Joe Pasquale vs. Bill Hicks; McIntyre vs. Manning. Dom asks how many chickens you have to eat to get that jacked, to which Cobra replies “I used to eat ten chickens a day, but it was too fowl!” before turning to the camera with a beautiful Cobra look — pre-dating Tim/Jim from The Office by some years — which Dom’s very amused by. In fact, there’s a great rapport between the three, and I’m a little blindsided, expecting sneering piss-taking, but getting a lovely chat. It’s so matey, Dom breaks kayfabe by casually addressing them as Mick and Helen, before asking Cobra for some muscle measurements, with big man reeling off chest, biceps and legs, with a cheeky “I think I’d better stop there.” Dominik does put them on the spot, asking when Wolf’s going to retire, “because he is 74 years old now,” but Cobra agrees; “he looks like Max Wall’s love child, doesn’t he?” — a joke and reference Dom bloody loves. There’s more conversation here than a whole series of Dexter Fletcher, and as he makes improv comedy magic with another great wit, one can witness the cynicism falling from Dominik’s eyes in real time.

Away from his new friends, he reverts to type in the news section. “The machine’s more fun than my mum… details for the launch are more secret than my pants,” plus another reference to pants being soiled. There’s a bit about Spielberg launching a computer service allowing terminally ill children to play games with each other from different hospitals; a CD-ROM of the week, which is another ‘edit clips together into a film’ be-the-director jobs; and an excursion to the Wing Commander IV set in LA, for sit-downs with Mark Hamill (a polite joy) and Biff from Back to the Future, during which Dom implies that he and Michael J. Fox fisted each other on set.

A teenage girl and boy contest the Gladiators challenge, as Dom tries to hook her up with Cobra, which is probably how Epstein got started. She takes on Panther in Victory Boxing for the Saturn, as Dominik refers to kidney punches as “some top lady-on-lady lower body action,” and Cobra jokingly threatens his opponent in the background. Panther gets TKOed, and in the post-match interview, Cobra simply cannot stop mucking about, leaning over and tapping the boy on the head. We return from a feature to find the Gladiators getting choked and yanked around by the teens, with Cobra doing some great comedy selling, really emphasising how he missed his true calling as a Santino Morella style comedy wrestler.

Fittingly, they must’ve heard me, as his turn is on the Wrestlemania game, playing as “a great big fat bloke” (Yokozuna) versus Doink the Clown, who he could’ve been in real life. He does the job 2-1, with Dom concluding that “Cobra is soft,” and the kids get one Golden Joystick to share between them. With one final joke about Mick’s spandex, we’ve finally tackled the cultural behemoth of Gladiators, with minimal horniness and not a single awooga.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as £1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my videos, my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on October 16, 2021.

6 Responses to “GamesMaster IV: The Gladiators”

  1. Now Dexter Fletcher is an accomplished Director.

  2. The soap Night and Day is an oddity from ITV from 2001 you thought about doing a piece about it?

  3. The late Sir Alastair Burnet looking pretty ripped in the first image…

  4. Jet is so pretty

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