John Coombes Interview

John Coombes was the creative vision behind many of the events we saw on Gladiators. From the gruelling Sumo Ball, death-defying Pole-Axe to the mysterious Cyclotron, John helped to make the events on UK Gladiators some of the most exciting in the world! Gladiators TV caught up with the artist and independent filmmaker who lives in West Yorkshire, England, to chat about his time behind the scenes on the hit show. Here's what he had to say:

John, the first question has to be: Did you have a favourite event on Gladiators?

JOHN: Hang Tough was my favourite game from the original series, where they swung out across the arena on the rings, then grappled with the Gladiators. It was very graceful and it was as much about timing, agility and speed as pure strength.

Original sketch and CGI visualisation of Cyclotron

Many of the loyal fans heard about an event called Cylotron, which was due to feature in 1997 alongside Tightrope. It was even featured as a 3D model in the opening title sequence. What was the mystery behind Cyclotron and why was it axed from the filming of Series 6?

JOHN: Cyclotron was too heavily reliant on mechanics for it to operate, and although Kimpton Walker (who built the set and all of the events on Gladiators) are superb engineers, mechanics can go wrong. Also I felt that it didn't have a spectacular pay off so it was dropped just before the recording.

What was the process behind designing the events for Gladiators? Did the producers give you suggestions for the type of events they wanted?

JOHN: I was given free reign to come up with ideas for the events, but I often worked closely with Alan Walker at Kimpton Walker. I tried to come up with games that were fair and could be won in different ways - rhythm, speed, timing, strength. I designed Pursuit, the game of chase on a balance bar with obstacles, so that the often smaller and lighter Contenders would have an advantage on the corners and obstacles. The Gladiators would have the advantage of familiarity and confidence.

Were there any Events you felt were disappointing once they were produced and on TV?

JOHN: The construction and production of the games and the shows was always excellent, my games always looked spectacular in the arena.

Did you design the Events in favour of the Gladiators or Contenders?

JOHN: I always tried to give each competitor, be they Gladiator or Contender, a fair chance. It is easy to design a game that lasts a few seconds, or one that lasts ages. The trick is to design a game that lasts for a minute or a minute and a half and has a spectacular and definitive ending.

Sumo Ball
Sketch of Sumo Ball (originally known as Demolition Ball)

What do you think are the main aspects to creating a good event on Gladiators?

JOHN: A game should be seen to be fair and to have a definite and indisputable ending where it is visibly clear who the winner is. I think all the events had successful elements, each one played in a different way. I designed Sumo Ball after seeing a Japanese sumo contest where a relatively small wrestler won by making use of the weight of his opponent. In Sumo Ball the weight of the ball can be used in a similar way.

Did you ever design an Event that you wish had made it into the show?

JOHN: I always tried to turn the pre-conceptions of Gladiator v Contender on its head. I once thought up a game with a huge tank full of syrup, one metre deep. The Gladiator had to chase the Contender through the viscose syrup, waist-deep. It would have played out in slow motion. It never got more than an idea because of practical difficulties - not least that it would have weighed over 10 tons.

The Gladiator had to chase the Contender through the viscose syrup, waist-deep.

John Coombes

Who was your favourite Gladiator?

JOHN: I didn't have a favourite Gladiator, but I enjoyed watching Wolf, Hunter and Amazon.

Did you ever test out any of the Events?

JOHN: I always tested the events. Usually as they were being constructed at Kimpton Walker's workshops. It wasn't in competition, just a physical check to ensure what I wanted was possible. The games were adjusted as they were built.

Pole-Axe sketch featuring the original ropes

In the later years some of the Events such as Pyramid and Pole-Axe had to be amended for health and safety reasons, what did you think about this?

JOHN: I haven't seen the re-worked version of Pole-Axe, but I was very aware of the dangers of the original version. In my drawings I always specified that the Gladiator and Contender were on ropes which would slow their fall. But the producers decided on a free-fall onto air bags. I really wasn't happy with this.

Tags: Events Hang Tough Sumo Ball Pursuit Pole-Axe