In a time before Cowell, Ant and Dec, ITV’s Saturday night prime time schedule had a big three all of its own. Baywatch. Blind Date, and at the top of the shop, was Gladiators. From its first broadcast in October 1992 to its finale 147 episodes later on January 1 2000, the show which pitted members of the public against the Gladiators became as much an emblem of the era as Britpop, New Labour and the Spice Girls, pulling 14 million viewers at its peak.
And of all the 34 Lycra-clad characters who became national celebrities, the one who is still remembered most fondly, is Jet – aka Diane Youdale. Nearly 30 years on from the first show, she has launched the GladPod celebrating the glory days of one of the biggest shows on British TV of the 90s, and learning about the characters and stories who made Gladiators what it was, and their lives before, during and after the show.
The idea for the GladPod came up after a 25th anniversary reunion of some of the original team, and future episodes will focus on their stories, as well as other people who worked on and around the show. And as the 30th anniversary moves closer, the prospect of another relaunched version also grows.
“A little bird has told me that there is something on the table that looks gladiatorial and will possibly be around for our 30th year. Maybe there’ll be a version of it,” she said. “But you couldn’t pay me enough to go back and do it again. I think the concept of having these larger-than-life superhero Gladiators is timeless. And I think that’ll always work. I wouldn’t change a thing about my time as a gladiator.”
The Gladiators torch continues to burn brightly through a thriving fan community, and most famously one hugely famous fictional fan: Alan Partridge – or does it?
The scene of Partridge, played by Steve Coogan, dictating into a Dictaphone the programme idea of “Jet from Gladiator to host a millennium barn dance at Yeovil aerodrome, properly policed it must not, repeat not turn into an all-night rave,” is one of the show’s most famous moments, and restored her to public consciousness.
“I remember the scene where he’s jumping around on the bed, with a signed picture of me in his hands. I felt kind of flattered as it was so iconic, but if you go on Twitter and follow the Alan Partridge character, he’s only following one person, Shakira. I suppose I’m not that popular for him any more.”
Now aged 50, Diane has retrained as a psychotherapist and in that capacity has appeared on television shows including Trisha and Big Brother’s Little Bit on the Side. And were there to be a chance to step in front of the camera again, Diane would love it.
“Dancing on Ice or Strictly would be my absolute dream,” she said. “It’s always usually youngsters who win, but I think I could do something for ladies of a certain age.”
But even today Diane admits fame isn’t an easy fit for her. Reflecting back to when she was 21 and suddenly found herself in the primetime spotlight and public property, a situation that took some getting used to. In pre-email days, people wrote letters. Lots of letters.
“Literally, big sacks of mail kept coming to my parents’ house and my mum used to help me go through them,” she said. “I told her that if there was something where someone had done or made something that was a bit special to put it to one side, and that way I ended up meeting some people who were genuine fans who’ve gone on to become good friends. I really hated being recognised, though. Fame wasn’t an easy fit for me, it still isn’t really.”
Of the 12 original gladiators who started out in 1992, just four - Saracen, Cobra, Lightning and pantomime villain Wolf – made it through to the final show in 2000.
Despite still being the most memorable name and face of the show 20 years after it finished, Jet crashed out in 1996 after a serious neck injury sustained not during the television recording, but in one of the live shows, when she fell off the pyramid.
“I heard a snap and I’ve heard those noises before, when you break bone or ligament,” she said. “It’s quite loud and it came from my neck area, but as I could breathe I knew I hadn’t broken my neck. That was it for me, though, I didn’t want to go back into the arena.”
The fear of serious injury had always preyed on the mind of the gladiators, and when it was Diane’s turn, she did not need a second warning. She walked away, grateful that she was still able to walk at all.
“I always felt very nervous because it was quite dangerous, and high falls were where most of the accidents happened. Each year there were more of them, because the contenders got fitter, stronger and sharper, so we had to up our game. My memory is mainly one of ‘am I always going to be able to walk away?’
“With Gladiators, there was no acting – you had to do it for real, and when (the accident) happened, I just thought ‘it’s not worth it.’ Some of the others lived for being a gladiator, but for me, it was another job I was fit enough to do. But I could re-identify with my life not being over just because I stopped being a gladiator.”
But where did Jet’s journey to becoming a Gladiator begin?
“I’d been the North of England junior gymnastics champion four times, and from the ages of nine to 14 I was in the national zone squad, with high-level training every night except Tuesday, but then I had a really bad injury to my left ankle and decided to retrain as a choreographer,” said Jet.
“I auditioned for quite a few schools in London and without really wanting to be a front person, I actually made a fluid transition into being a performer. I’d seen this bizarre US show called Gladiators in the wee small hours of Friday morning, then one day I found a message on my answerphone from Andy Norgate, one of the British show’s producers, who’d been given my number by someone, asking me for a showreel.
“I really don’t know where they got me from. I’d done some figure fitness work for a bodybuilding magazine, and they were headhunting for a small pool of girls because there weren’t too many ways to select people, as former athletes weren’t too keen to do it because of the risk of injury.”
Little did she know it, but that bizarre US show in the wee small hours was about to change the course of Diane’s life.
“We went to Woolwich Barracks, where we were filmed doing some gym tests, then put on an outdoor army assault course which I absolutely loved, and while I was doing it one of the producers called Kenny Warwick walked up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder and said 'I hope you’re going to be free in the summer'.
"Someone next to me said ‘that’s it, you’ve got it,’ but I didn’t take it for granted until I got the call a week later.” And just like that, Jet the gladiator was born.
Diane is not sure where the name came from – “probably because I was so fast on the tests” – but despite impressing right from the start, the woman who was to become the show’s face and biggest name was full of self-doubt.
“We trained downstairs at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, where the show was filmed, and before we started, I was useless – I couldn’t do anything,” she revealed.
“I hurt my ankle badly again, my back went, I couldn’t do hang tough (a challenge involving swinging from overhead hoops), I remember crying thinking I’d be so useless. But when you’re weak at something, it makes you work harder.”
Shows were filmed twice daily, two days in a row, before time off for recuperation, and in the days before the instant response of social media, it took a while for Jet and her fellow gladiators to realise just how much the public were embracing the show.
“The show was so different to anything that had been on before, except maybe something like It’s a Knockout,” she said. “We couldn’t comprehend what was to come, but it started getting ratings pretty quick.”
Diane’s gymnastic background came to the fore as her flicks, aerial poise and vaulting became her onscreen trademark. But the reason was less prosaic than fans may have realised. “I didn’t want to stand and pose,” she said. “I wanted to keep moving because then you can’t see the cellulite!”
Whilst the show may have been primetime entertainment for viewers, including the thousands who packed the venue for the live recordings, for the gladiators, it was a serious business.
“There was a lot of scrutiny of things like win rate – if you didn’t win a lot, the producers would want to know if there was something wrong with you,” she said.
But familiarity meant that gladiators always had an edge over the 200 public challengers out of 100,000 applicants who made it through the selection process and actually got to take part in the show as contenders to battle the gladiators.
“The contenders got very little training time on the events,” she said. “Over the years you can build up more familiarity with an event like The Wall, so you have to work really hard to get excellent at the events.
“I felt sorry for them as they didn’t have that much exposure to training on the events so they couldn’t be a match for many of us.”
Although she may have stopped being a gladiator in 1996, and the show itself stopped on ITV at the turn of the millennium, there was a short-lived revival on Sky in 2007, where Diane served as one of the behind the scenes reporters.
“I thought they did it well, using water and the elements to make it look tasty,” she said. “Having the high falls going into water meant less injury, too. I think the gladiators were far superior athletes (to us), but it was a bit overproduced. We were left to get on with our own personas, maybe they could have been left to do it themselves a bit more. I’d like to have seen it go on for longer.”
To find out more about Diane’s time on one of the shows that defined the 90s, what she has done since – and what she wants to do next – search and subscribe to the GladPod through your usual podcast suppliers. Or click here.
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