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When Did British Gameshows Become All About Laughing at People?

Ten years ago, 'Takeshi's Castle' was an oddity on British TV. Now, the schedules are packed with ridiculous physical gameshows, all chipping away at our humanity.

by Jack Savidge
07 March 2016, 8:00am

Total Wipeout/BBC

For a long time, Brits had a smug sense of superiority when it came to physical gameshows. We wouldn't air Takeshi's Castle, for instance, until we'd added some piss-takey commentary courtesy of Craig Charles and reworked it as a sort of pseudo-documentary of how wacky Japanese telly is.

Brits tended to favour the utopian techno-cerebration offered by The Crystal Maze, a show that celebrated cooperative problem-solving, skill and dexterity. It pointed towards past cultures and our history of innovation through its medieval, Aztec and industrial zones. Takeshi's Castle was just people falling in the water with ploppy sound effects.

But in the last few years we too have come to embrace the simple pleasures of watching humans fail. We'd always had shows like Gladiators, but they at least had the illusion of a narrative: ordinary humans pitting their bodies against the Gladiators, underdogs who could overcome the elite. But then came Total Wipeout, a British version of an American gameshow hosted by Richard "are you sure I've fully recovered?" Hammond. Wipeout was the first UK show not to create the illusion of a purpose. It revelled in its tireless repetition of a one-note gag: people falling over. For series after series, they showed the same shot of someone bouncing off a big red ball and into a muddy pool below. It was an unstoppable success.

Since then, the physical gameshow has returned as a weekend telly institution. A ream of new shows emerged – Hole in the Wall, The Getaway Car, even The Jump – all with their own spins on making workaday folk feel like the sporting Ubermensch. In all these formats, the stakes of glory and humiliation in front of the watching millions are exaggerated far beyond those of squillionaire sportspeople. For Lionel Messi, victory could be a Champions League medal and another few million added to his playing and sponsorship contracts; failure could be a slightly more pensive night in the warm lap of obscene luxury. For the physical gameshow contestant, victory could mean a hatchback, a shit holiday and 13 minutes of fame, while failure could be tumbling into a canal with your leotard snagged on an obstacle while Dermot O'Leary pisses himself.

I wonder, then, how we got here; why we've boiled down the physical gameshow format to people just falling over, again and again and again, however entertaining and profound that might be. Are there any positives we can take from such a futile genre?

Take Ninja Warrior UK, an Eliminator-meets-parkour-obstacle-course show with a format imported from Japan, which just finished its run on ITV. NWUK's heroes are the kind of provincial protein shake enthusiasts who clearly don't care about the lack of a cash prize, because the show is finally giving the platform to demonstrate how good they are at swinging on ropes.

I watched one South African house-husband conduct a tearful interview, framing his participation as a plea for his children and wife to respect him. He emerged at the beginning of the course bare-chested with a kitchen apron over his short shorts. As the timer starts, he rips off the symbolic pinny with a primal roar before tearing into the course. After negotiating the easy angled platforms he falls ankle-over-eyebrow at the paddle boards, and the director cuts to his wife looking on, face etched with shame, embarrassment and profound disrespect.

A little later on we see an army veteran dedicating his participation to his late brother, before missing the rope swing and coming a cropper. Jehri-curled football fall-guy Chris Kamara illustrates it all from the commentary box with his yelps, witters and ocean of total confusion, while, at almost the same time, Ben Shepherd tries to describe the deep military dignity of splashing around in two feet of water. There is no consistent message; the good guys get humiliated, lauded, derided and lionised all within a minute.

To reach the full giggle factor on people failing at these challenges, these shows also have to outdo each other to appear more and more dangerous. I'm sure they are health and safety compliant, but on screen there are no crash mats, and contestants are largely left to stack and crumple while an umpire declares "fail". It's Dark Souls designed by Dave Benson Phillips, or The Road were it conceived by Zig and Zag.

But all that is nothing compared to The Almost Impossible Gameshow, a new ITV 2 pratfall extravaganza that starts next month. The show takes these time-honoured guidelines and exaggerates them until the competition aspect of the show collapses in an ecstasy of scuffs and falls. It is a physical gameshow ad absurdum, a meta-commentary on the meaninglessness of human endeavour: there are no heroics, underdogs or story arcs – just the slip of plimsole on speeding conveyor belt, the crack of knee on tarmac, the wrench of wrist under body weight again and again and again.

Its USP is that each contestant starts with 50 lives and loses one each time they fail one of the tasks. They must somehow complete five of these in order to win, and the tasks range from the maddeningly tough to the pointlessly impossible. My favourite is attempting to ride a wonky bike a few feet down a narrow plank. It's obviously going to result in a handlebar to the face, but does that stop the the show's village idiots? Are they even legally in a position to stop now they've signed a waiver? How much does it hurt? Who cares! Another lycra-wearing sap into the muddy puddle.

The show is staggeringly puerile, and while on one level I'm madly in love with it, I'm also troubled by what it tells us about the human condition. The joy we find in The Almost Impossible Game Show comes from a place of deep cynicism. Even the contestants' attempts at zanily getting into the spirit of the show are mocked. Despite the window dressing there's no way this is meant to be fun. One round has our competitors shouting at a candle in order to put it out, and invariably the flame stays lit, ridiculing their shrieks of anguish.

It is the universe mocking our achievements and pride, our petty power structures, our pain and wanton destruction of our own species. At least Takeshi's Castle seemed like someone else's problem.

The Almost Impossible Gameshow starts next month on ITV2

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