On Saturday night, I was transported back to my childhood living room by a bunch of buff, Spandex-wearing warriors with superhero names who variously pounced on contestants like panthers, swung into them like pitiless Tarzans, and battered them round the head with giant Q-tips – all with a winning combination of pro-wrestler faux-swagger and a very British sense of fair play.
Yes, Gladiators is back. And judging by the viewer reaction, I was far from the only nostalgic fan making comparisons between this latest BBC reboot and the original 1990s ITV show. Happily, it looks just like I remember, and features many of the same games and tropes, from the giant foam fingers to Another One Bites the Dust – although Bradley Walsh is no Ulrika Jonsson, and his son Barney is no presenter at all.
But the question I saw being asked again and again on social media was: “Can anyone be the new Jet?” It’s testament to the affection for the OG Gladiators star that she’s the benchmark by which this new cast is judged by viewers – who numbered an impressive six million on Saturday.
Jet, aka Diane Youdale, was a standout of the programme’s first four seasons, from 1992-5. She brought a lithe elegance to this tough contest – her signature entrance involved an aerial cartwheel and playing air guitar with her raised leg – and, with her model good looks, she was introduced on the show as “our very own Wonder Woman”. But, just like Diana Prince, you underestimated Jet at your peril.
“They used to call me ‘the smiling assassin’,” chuckles Youdale, 53, as she speaks to me over the phone from her home in Stockton-on-Tees. “People would say ‘Oh, she might look cute, but when that whistle goes, you won’t know what’s hit you.’”
Surprisingly, Youdale never pictured herself as a Gladiator. Brought up in Billingham, in County Durham, gymnastics was her original dream. “From the age of seven to 14 I was in the GB North squad, and I was the reigning North of England junior champion for four years,” she recalls. “I would have loved to be in the Olympics but I wasn’t the right age – I had a really bad ankle injury just before it and I had to retire.”
But Youdale couldn’t stop moving, she says. “I’d been wriggling and somersaulting around my whole life. My mum has pictures of me upside down, standing on my head, while in my nappy!”
So, she switched tack, moving to London aged 16 to train in dance and performing arts at the London Contemporary Dance School. It was there that she met her flatmate-to-be Louie Spence (later the flamboyant star of TV series Pineapple Dance Studios). “I was always pirouetting from room to room, and he did exactly the same – it made me feel like I’d found my tribe.” Youdale seemed on track for her new chosen career as a choreographer.
But everything changed when she was contacted by a producer from London Weekend Television. “He said: ‘We’ve seen some footage of you, we’d like to ask you to come in and do an interview for this new show called Gladiators.’ I’d seen the American show and thought ‘Oh, they want me as a contender. I’m not big and beefy and muscle-y like that.’ I wasn’t keen: I was only 5ft 6in, about 9st 6lb – I thought those Gladiators would flatten me.”
Still, the 22-year-old agreed to do their fitness test: the assault course at Woolwich Army Barracks. Youdale aced it – as did broadcaster Gabby Logan, then Gabby Yorath. “She was one of the two or three of us from that tryout who got through, but she turned it down because of a family issue. Then she was snapped up by Sky Sports, so it all worked out.”
As for Youdale, she was reassured by the team explaining that they wanted the UK Gladiators to be different, but she had no idea that the show would come to dominate her life. “I was a jobbing actor and dancer; this was just another gig.” However, that combined skillset – the elite gymnastics background and the performance training – turned out to be perfect preparation for this mammoth TV hit.
The shows were filmed in front of thousands of cheering fans at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena. It must have been an extraordinary atmosphere. “When you’re an athlete you’re super-focussed, so you blot all of that out during the events,” says Youdale. “But once a game finishes, and you’ve got a triumph on your hands, you look around and think ‘Wow, where did these 9,000 people come from?’ All the foam fingers, posters… You feel like a rock star.”
How did she create her character? All the Gladiators play a role, or a heightened version of themselves. “It was a reality show and a game show blended into one,” muses Youdale. “I’m not sure why they called me Jet – maybe because I had dark hair, and they said I was super-fast in the tryouts. I liked it because we’ve got Whitby jet in the North East!”
Her warm persona came naturally, she explains. “I couldn’t be anything different. I wasn’t going to pose and flex my muscles – I didn’t have big muscles! That’s just not me. So I smiled at the camera.”
As well as becoming the show’s pin-up (and a reason that many dads tuned in), Youdale was a positive role model for young girls. Her strength was an intrinsic part of her femininity; she never sacrificed one for the other. “Honestly, it wasn’t a planned thing, but I am proud of that,” she says. “There weren’t many girls in the public eye who looked like the Gladiators. It showed that women didn’t have to be just one thing.”
As for her iconic hair-flip, that was purely practical. “You’d be sweating buckets from the intensity of the event, and then Ulrika comes bounding up and sticks a microphone in your face: ‘How was it for you, Jet?’ I had big padded mitts on my hands – I couldn’t use them. So I started putting my head down and throwing it back to scoop the hair off my face.”
That move has continued to follow Youdale. “I was teaching at a private girls’ school, Tormead, after I left the show and the girls would all do it – they called it ‘The Tormeadian Hair Flip’. They’d say, ‘We know who you are, Miss!’”
Youdale’s signature events on the show were Hang Tough and The Wall. “They were real agility events – all about speed and grace. That suited me more than the pugilistic ones.” She remembers a tough filming schedule of nine weeks over the summer, involving “this huge machine and a massive group effort from all the crew – the riggers, technicians, trainers, referees”.
“We’d go in and train for one or two days on all the events. It wasn’t much, but the contestants got even less time than us. Then we’d film four shows across two days, so about seven hours on each show. Sometimes we’d film until midnight. It took so long initially with all the set changes. By the end of my time there, the crew were super-slick at getting the Hang Tough rig down and getting set up straightaway for Power Ball.”
Slow set changes weren’t the only issue. Those skimpy (and rip-able) Lycra outfits often left the Gladiators bearing more flesh than intended – and Youdale had one memorable wardrobe malfunction. “I was doing a big tumbling entrance and I looked down at my halter-neck top and saw both boobies poking out! Luckily I very quickly realised and popped them back in, but I had this look on my face, like ‘Oh crap!’”
There was the odd scandal too, such as Jefferson King, aka Gladiator Shadow, being outed by the press for taking steroids and cocaine. Youdale recalls that their director, Nigel Lythgoe – whom she calls “the god of the Glads” – was particularly upset by King’s exit. “Shadow was his favourite Gladiator.” Lythgoe is now himself in hot water following recent allegations of sexual assault by Paula Abdul; Youdale didn’t want to comment on that.
However, as the host of the Gladiators podcast, she has since spoken to King about his past troubles and says: “He puts his hands up, and he now does such amazing, positive work in the community. I’m so proud of him. I felt… not weepy, but really moved, hearing him.”
Unsurprisingly, given that the cast featured a load of young, attractive, adrenalin-fuelled people all staying in the same hotel during filming, there was the odd cast hook-up – although not as many as you might think, claims Youdale. “Most people were coupled up already. But I was young and single, and when James [Crossley, aka Hunter] came in, he was young and single too – and he was from the North as well, so that was a big bond for us. We dated for a year and we knew what came with the territory. The Gladiators press office said ‘own it’, so we did a few articles together. To this day we’re still amazing friends.”
However, Youdale struggled more generally with the public attention. “We had something like 12 million watching, and I just wasn’t comfortable with everyone recognising me outside of the show. I used to walk around with a cap on – I still do. But the others, particularly the boys, would strut through the middle of Birmingham in tight T-shirts showing off their muscles until someone said, ‘Oh, are you one of the Gladiators?’”
Youdale hastens to add that the people of Birmingham were “so lovely – they really embraced us and were proud of us. I hope the people of Sheffield [where the 2024 reboot is filmed] do the same. But for me, it was another performing job – I didn’t want to live it the whole time.”
However, her popularity was inescapable. She recalls receiving “sacks and sacks and sacks of fan mail at my home. I wasn’t living in the North East then, so my mum would sort through it all, bin lots of it, and keep back anything special or really well-thought-out – letters, drawings, presents – and I’d reply to as many as I could. She’s an amazing woman; she’s nearly 90 now. I couldn’t have done it without her.”
Sometimes, though, that attention turned from flattering to downright creepy. “I came in one day from the arena to find my hotel room absolutely filled with balloons. There were balloons floating up the walls and on the ceiling. The staff had done it on behalf of some fan. Thanks, guys! It wouldn’t happen today, I’m sure – it would be a serious boundary issue.”
“Jet” even got her own action figure. “I’m looking over at it right now!” crows Youdale. “It’s so funny, I worked as a support worker for the Prison and Probation Service, and a prison officer came over to me one day and said ‘I was doing a clear-out and I found this in the attic, Diane, and I couldn’t throw it away.’ I said ‘Do you know, I don’t have one – I never got one! There was so much Gladiators merchandise – the duvet covers, the posters – but this is special.”
It’s heartening to hear Youdale speak about the show with such affection, because her exit was so harrowing. “We got paid per show and it was decent – but it was really danger money. I literally risked my neck for entertainment,” she sighs. In 1996, between the fourth and fifth season, Youdale was competing in a non-televised Gladiators show at Wembley Arena. During the event Pyramid – which involves the contenders trying to climb the steps of the 7.5m-high pyramid to the summit, and the Gladiators blocking them – Youdale tackled a contestant and they both crashed onto the mats below, with the Gladiator falling awkwardly.
“I heard a ‘pop’ and thought ‘Oh my gosh, that’s my neck.’ I slowly moved my feet and hands and knew it wasn’t broken – I’d just trapped the nerves. But it was a huge scare. I thought ‘I’m not risking everything for a show.’”
It was far from Youdale’s first injury on Gladiators. “I’d popped one of my ankles quite badly, and severed a ligament in my ankle. Minor injuries were a part of it for all of us. But breaking your neck – that’s a different story. I decided to walk out while I still could. I know myself, I go in hard when I compete, so it was best to say ‘I’ve had four good years, that’s it.’”
Injuries continue to be an issue in the reboot too, with Ella-Mae Rayner (aka Comet) breaking her ankle during filming. The opening episode also saw contender Finley twisting his knee – although he bravely carried on.
Youdale said she had a “four-year amnesty” after her exit, when she didn’t speak to anyone from the show, “just to decompress from the whole experience”. After a brief stint as a presenter on Finders Keepers and You Bet!, she went back to university in her mid-20s – funded by her Gladiators earnings – and retrained as a psychotherapist. “I love being in a profession where you’re understanding the human mind and really getting a chance to help people,” she says.
Youdale soon got back in touch with her former castmates, and is particularly good friends with the villainous Wolf, who is, in reality, a sweetheart. “He goes from a wolf to a puppy! I’m still in contact with him and his son. Whenever I see the guys we just cry with laughter, going over our memories.”
It’s a wonderful time in Youdale’s personal life too: in July last year, she married her partner Zoe Gilbert. “I’d been married before [to TV executive George Mayhew], and when that ended we were good friends. But then I moved to the North for someone and it went really badly. I basically had 17 horrific years where I’d lost all faith in love. I was single for a long time, and I learnt to get back to me. I never really thought about relationships when I was younger and who would be my ideal partner – I was so focussed on my career.”
Now, Youdale is in a different headspace. “I do believe we change and develop from decade to decade. I’m not the same in my 50s as I was in my 20s.”
She was, she believes, more open to possibility when Gilbert approached her in their local Tesco. “I was doing ‘the mum shop’,” recalls Youdale. “I’ve been up here looking after Mum during Covid, so I had a basket with her trifle, white bread, and two pints of semi-skimmed milk. Suddenly I looked up and there were these two big blue eyes: that was Zoe. She said, ‘I think you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.’ I nearly dropped my basket!”
A very loved-up Youdale gushes about Gilbert’s “big brain”, adding: “But she’s not intimidating – she’s funny and kind and wise.” Though Youdale hadn’t dated women before, she says she “fell in love with the person, not the gender. It felt very natural. Our first date was a Sunday roast in my mum’s village, and we haven’t been apart since.”
Youdale did have a serious conversation with Gilbert about being in the public eye – and, once again, she took charge of the narrative. “My agent said ‘They’re going to start door-stepping you, so choose a journalist and tell your story.’” The couple appeared on the Lorraine show last August to discuss their wedding.
Now, they’ll be snuggling up on the couch every Saturday night – with a pizza and their cat – to watch the new Gladiators. “I’m as excited as everyone else!” enthuses Youdale.
She loves the varied stories in this 2024 cast, which includes groundbreaking Sikh athlete Karenjeet Kaur Bains (Athena); Montell Douglas (Fire), the first British woman to compete at both the Summer and Winter Olympics; the deaf rugby union player Jodie Ounsley (Fury); and former Bond villain Quang Luong (Viper), who has taken on Wolf’s heel role. Plus, points out proud northerner Youdale, two lads from her neck of the woods.
“I really hope it puts functional fitness back on the map,” she adds. That means not just getting pumped for a picture or doing a cosmetic procedure, but actually being fit and healthy, and being able to move with ease.
“I want that to be inspirational for people watching. Body image is worse than it’s ever been for girls, and now for boys too, with social media – the effect on people’s mental health, especially youngsters, is devastating. We’ve got beautiful athletes in this new series who represent a real range of body types – but all are functionally very fit.”
And they’ll have to be, believes Youdale. “The contenders today are going to come in on a par with you, so you have to be that much better. Today’s Gladiators have to be literally superhuman.”
Gladiators is on BBC One every Saturday at 5.50pm, and available on iPlayer