Even in Spain this week, the long arm and booming sound of Gladiators was breaking the tranquillity of a Mediterranean sunset. ‘Gladiators, ready!’ screeched one diner in a seaside bar in the otherwise sedate La Cala de Mijas. Why? Mark Clattenburg had just walked in.
The former Premier League referee has taken the whistle as part of the TV revival of the iconic Nineties show, in which ‘contenders’ compete against ‘Gladiators’ in a series of physical challenges. Broadcast on BBC One on Saturday night prime-time, it has recaptured the imagination of the viewing public. A ‘phenomenal reboot’ was one national newspaper review.
Clattenburg resists the temptation to return his line of ‘Contenders, ready!’ to the enthusiastic soul beneath the evening sun.
‘Give it a few hours and a couple of drinks and no problem!’ he says.
Earlier, we had flown from his native North-East to his home here on the Costa del Sol. A group of women had asked him to ‘do the voice’ in the airport coffee shop.
Mark Clattenburg has swapped the rigours of the Premier League for calling the shots on TV show Gladiator
The Nineties reboot has proved enormously popular since its return to Saturday’s prime time
The 48-year-old previously officiated in England’s top flight for thirteen years between 2004 and 2017
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‘It was 6am and everyone was just waking up, no chance!’ says Clattenburg, 48. ‘But that recognition is nice, it shows the reach and popularity of Gladiators.
‘I did embarrass my daughter, Mia, when we were walking out of a shop in London. I shouted, “Contenders, ready!”. A guy behind us shouted back, “Gladiators, ready!”. We couldn’t stop laughing. She’s 12 now and her street cred has gone up because all the kids at school are watching it. She’s taking the mickey because of my accent, but she’s not alone in that.’
Clattenburg’s voice has already become a sub-genre of the show. Search the internet and you will find fans wondering if he is trying to emulate John Anderson, the legendary Scottish referee from the original Gladiators.
‘I really don’t get it,’ he protests. ‘I’m in an arena with 3,000 people so I’m shouting at the top of my voice – maybe that distorts it? I don’t intend to come across as Scottish! People say I’m trying to copy John Anderson. Honestly, I’m not. But if that’s all I’ve got to worry about, then I must be doing alright!’
We’ve had a couple of drinks now and the sun has gone down. Come on, then, give us the voice. He plays along. ‘Three, two, one…’
Sorry, Mark, those viewers are onto something – it’s Ant n’ Dec meets Billy Connolly. But hey, that’s entertainment, and Gladiators is proving a smash hit.
‘On Saturday, we got a takeaway and all the family watched it together. Mia had her foam finger. My wife’s aunty is 90 years old, and she had her foam finger on!
‘It’s a different culture and it’s taking us back in time. I remember watching CHiPs, World of Sport, Dukes of Hazard. Those were my Saturdays. Then, in the Nineties, we had Gladiators – Wolf was my favourite. But you sat as a family in front of the TV. I think we’ve lost that over the years.
‘It makes you realise that your children have missed out on what we had as kids. They’re on iPads, YouTube and X-Box. Actually, they enjoy the TV with their family more, and families are watching Gladiators as soon as it airs. My friend left a Sunderland match early to get home to see it!’
Clattenburg quit the Premier League after becoming frustrated with the abuse of referees
Of the players he has officiated over the years, Clattenburg believes Wayne Rooney would present the strongest threat to the Gladiators
Clattenburg reached the top of his profession as a referee and was voted the world’s best after taking charge of the finals of the Champions League, European Championship and FA Cup in 2016. He stunned the Premier League when quitting the following year after admitting he had become sick of the abuse of officials.
So, how does Gladiators compare? After 30 years as a referee, is it nice to finally be liked?
‘Do you think?! The first couple of days I was getting applauded when I was introduced. I thought, “This is great”. Then you make a few decisions against the contenders and you’re being booed again! I’m the pantomime villain at times.
‘But I love it. It’s refereeing without the stress or fear of abuse. Saying that, I warned one Gladiator about jabbing in Duel and she ignored me. She got booed by the crowd. Then, backstage, she wouldn’t speak to me! So it’s not all that different to football!’
Clattenburg has already had a couple of on-screen showdowns with Viper. Is he the equivalent of his old nemesis Craig Bellamy?
‘Not really, because Viper doesn’t speak. Sadly, Craig Bellamy did!’ he says. ’Viper is like The Undertaker from WWE, he’s scary! I went into the dressing-room to warn him after one contest. We had a fist-bump and all was OK. Then, as I was leaving, he threw his shoe off the door!’
They want to win, then?
‘If you’re watching on TV, maybe you think they’re playing along with the show. But it’s so competitive. The Gladiators do not want to lose. If they do, they’re teasing each other backstage. They’re expected to win, so they’re under a bit of pressure. I remember the auditions, there are lots of people who want to be Gladiators.’
A few of them have backgrounds in sport – could Clattenburg be a Gladiator?
‘No chance! But there is one game, Duel, I would love to have go at. You’re on a platform with a stick. I’ve often stood there thinking, “I could win this one”, especially against Giant. I’ve got a tactic in my head to get him off balance early, a full roundhouse swipe.’
The former referee has revelled in becoming a bit of a ‘pantomime villain’ in his new role
Clattenburg has already had a number of on-screen showdowns with Viper (pictured centre)
But the Gladiator bears no comparison with his frequent on-pitch adversary Craig Bellamy
The one contest where Gladiators have struggled is Edge. They are raised 30 feet in the air on a criss-cross grid of narrow walkways and, so far in the series, contenders have come out on top by avoiding being pushed into the safety net below. It’s not only the Gladiators who find this one tough.
‘I really don’t like heights,’ says Clattenburg. ‘I’ve got a harness on, but as I’m going up the Gladiators know I don’t like it, so they’re bouncing on the platform, especially Legend. Listen to my voice ahead of that game…. Gl-a-a-a-a-diators, re-a-a-a-dy!
‘It’s actually hard keeping the voice going. You see one hour on TV, but each show takes eight hours to record. You’re shouting over and over. I’ve had to take honey to soothe my throat and I’m constantly drinking water to help my voice. That’s not easy when your hand is shaking 30 feet in the air!’
But Clattenburg’s role is more than just ceremonial starter.
‘I was on the train to Sheffield ahead of filming and read the rule book over and over. It was like revising for a driving test! But I’m also there for safety and to help the contenders. For example, one contender started dancing when the Gladiator fell off the Edge. I’m shouting, “You’ve got to keep going to get the points!”.
‘I’d be gutted if I got something wrong. We’ve got VAR to help, too. There was one decision I got wrong in Powerball and corrected it by using the replays. Yes, it’s a game and it’s for TV, but it’s also a sport – these guys really want to win.’
To that end, from the footballers he refereed, Clattenburg knows who would make the best contender.
‘Wayne Rooney,’ he says. ‘He was powerful, quick, clever and never knew when he was beat. I’d fancy Wayne to get the better of the Gladiators.’
Earlier in the day, Clattenburg wore his black-and-white referee jersey – at Mail Sport’s request, he doesn’t ordinarily – as we chatted by the pool. Like on Gladiators, it revealed the tattoos on his arms which, over the years, have been a source of controversy. He has inked mementos of the finals he has refereed and the collection has become known as ‘Clatt’s tatts’. He has always laughed about the subject.
‘People still talk on social media about the tattoos and get worked up,’ he begins. ‘I can do what I want with my body. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. Sometimes, when you’re having a bad day, you can look down and remind yourself of what you did. It’s memories. I don’t tell other people what to do with their body. They think, “Oh, it’s Clattenburg, he loves himself”. I find it strange how it bothers them. But imagine if I got a Gladiators tattoo? It would send social media into meltdown!’
Are you going to?
‘I might now!’
Clattenburg’s Gladiators shirt is also a nod to his boyhood team, Newcastle United. He admits he could not have done it in red-and-white stripes. Not that he was so willing to declare his allegiance early in his career.
‘I was still a Northern League ref when I got a call to be fourth official at St James’ Park in 1998. Graham Poll was referee. He was asking me, “Who do you support?”. I kept saying, “I’m just a football fan”. He was saying, “Come on, everyone has a team?”. So he asked me whose result I looked for first. I said, “OK, it’s Sunderland… but just to make sure they’ve lost!”.’
The former referee has a number of tattoos commemorating his career, including one from the London 2012 Olympics
The Newcastle fan was able to plump for a black-and-white uniform rather than sport the red-and-white of Sunderland
Clattenburg joined the Football League as a linesman the following year and his rise – coupled with the tattoos and fast cars – made him one of the first celebrity referees. But he does not miss the game he left behind.
‘It’s nice to be out of football. If they wanted my help in a coaching environment, I’m always available. I think I could help young referees. But I’m happy at the moment. Gladiators has been brilliant and taken me into a new world.
‘I could come out of retirement as a referee, I’m still young enough. Although you can imagine the comments if that news broke… “Stick to Gladiators!”.’
Given the love for show, he certainly intends to do so.