Total Wipeout: totally awesome

What's not to love about the slapstick BBC1 game show?

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I spotted my friend Jacki enthusing about the weekend’s telly on Twitter earlier today, noting that the presence of an all-new episode of Total Wipeout on BBC1 would make Saturday 27 August 2011 “the best day ever”.

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She’s got a point. Total Wipeout’s a work of genius, from its sublimely cruel format to its scheduling (it’s perfect Saturday-teatime fare) – and heck, it even manages to make Richard Hammond seem genuinely likeable. Result!

The show’s such a compelling watch for three reasons: its high-energy physical challenges, the merciless ribbing of its participants, and its post-production slapstick comedy. For those who’ve never seen it, the programme’s basically Takeshi’s Castle, “but less fuzzy” (thanks again, Jacki).

If you’ve never seen that either, Total Wipeout’s a game show in which a group of contestants attempt to overcome a series of cartoonish obstacle courses arranged over mud or water, each more fiendish than the last, with the group being whittled down throughout proceedings until only one remains to bag a cash prize.

Make no mistake, it’s big, brash, primary-coloured entertainment, but delivered in such a way that it’s positively mesmerising.

First off, the challenges are nearly impossible. They’re designed to ensure as many comedy tumbles into the drink as humanly possible. Very few contestants make it from one end of a course to the other without at least a few swims along the way, giving the viewer at home ample opportunity to wince, gasp and guffaw at all the well-padded calamity on the screen.

Of course, the programme-makers know that while giggling at spectacular failure is fun, it’s an experience that’s enhanced by a few big dollops of TV silliness.

Cue Total Wipeout’s catalogue of wacky sound effects, boing-ing away with every false step, and its crude, computerised hand-drawn overlays. Cue its jukebox of ironic music designed to induce knowing groans from the audience (a recent episode featured a soldier falling off a series of pillars to the strains of Status Quo’s In the Army Now, for example).

And the contestants themselves are the icing on the cake. As you’d expect from a bunch of people who’d willingly sign up to be soaked, caked in mud and smashed around by a lot of heavy objects, they’re an agreeably eccentric bunch, dutifully mugging for the cameras and screaming their way through co-host Amanda Byram’s interviews.

Everyone on the show is asked their occupation and both Byram and Hammond make something a meal of their responses, sticking nicknames on the wild-eyed contestants like GI Jane, Rock God John or Joystick Pete, depending on what they do to earn a living. But this tactic’s a good one; by presenting them as individuals rather than just faceless try-hards, we start to root for the “characters” at home (or else start screaming at them, willing the annoying ones to be flattened by the Dreadmill).

The show pretends to be dumb but it’s so well edited that anyone with an iota of nous realises that it’s actually Bamber Gascoigne-clever. OK, so you’re not going to come away having learnt anything, but that’s not the point. Total Wipeout is the very essence of Good Mindless Fun. 

It’s a bit mean, perhaps, watching deluded middle-managers from Kettering being smacked in the face by animatronic boxing gloves, but only the most stony-faced moralist would be able to mount any kind of case for the show being offensive. Total Wipeout invites viewers to turn off their minds and wallow in the sheer silliness of it all, like a contestant splashing about in the first stage mud puddle.

So do yourself a favour and set aside an hour for Total Wipeout. You won’t regret it. Though be warned: watching too much of it can corrode your sense of perspective. As my tweeting friend put it, “the show’s amazingly cruel, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to go on it.”

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All-New Total Wipeout Celebrity Special airs tonight at 6:10pm, BBC1