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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 April 2005, 10:02 GMT 11:02 UK
ITV wrestles for Saturday ratings
By Tom Bishop
BBC News entertainment reporter

Celebrity Wrestling contenders
Celebrities were trained for three weeks for the TV competition
The latest celebrity reality show pits stars against one another as they literally wrestle for the attention of Saturday night viewers.

Celebrity Wrestling hopes to revive television interest in the sport - as BBC One's Strictly Come Dancing did for ballroom dancing - by making 12 performers fight each other in a variety of battles.

In doing so it brings the hot air and razzmatazz of US wrestling to ITV's prime time schedule, reviving the flamboyance of hit 1990s game show Gladiators and challenging Doctor Who's dominance in the process.

"It's very theatrical," says Kate Thornton, who hosts the show with US wrestling star "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. "It's like a violent pantomime."

Professional wrestlers

Ex-EastEnders actor Marc Bannerman, former tennis star Annabel Croft, Liberty X singer Michelle Heaton and reality TV regulars James Hewitt and Jeff Brazier are among those taking part.

Perhaps it is a logical TV progression after a rash of reality shows which have seen celebrities put in underground chambers containing rats and asked to eat pies filled with insects.

And programme-makers Granada were keen to emphasise that participants had three weeks of intensive training from professional US wrestlers during the filming of the series.

Jenny Powell
We were not just thrown in there - we were pretty well-prepared
Jenny Powell
But are participants not disturbed by the fact that viewers want to see them hurt each other?

"I think it's human nature," said presenter Jenny Powell, who adopts the fighting name The Avenger for the eight-week series.

"At the end of the day we were properly trained, we were not just thrown in there. We were pretty well-prepared."

Nevertheless Thornton admits that more injuries were sustained during the filming of the series than she had anticipated.

Children's TV presenter Mark Speight was among those hurt, breaking his right finger during filming.

"It hurt a bit but luckily I am left-handed," he says. "I didn't realise the show was going to be so full-on."

Celebrity Wrestling
Kate Thornton (centre) co-hosts with "Rowdy" Roddy Piper
He denies Celebrity Wrestling sets a bad example to children, however, saying it merely presents a recognised sport in a "controlled environment".

Thornton is equally adamant. "If you are talking about encouraging violence then don't make boxing a sport and take the football fans out of the terraces," she says.

"Whatever genre of TV you are making, there will always be a couple of people who spoil the party."

Single-sex bouts

Celebrities say it was the physical demands of the show which encouraged them to take part, although their wages and the boost to their public profiles were no doubt additional factors.

"For a lot of us the initial attraction was to get fit," says Brazier, who used to play for football team Leyton Orient. "We just fell into this amazing experience, we did not know it was going to be as good as it was."

Bannerman, who played Gianni di Marco in EastEnders until 2000, agrees. "I turned up on the first day as this 15-and-a-half stone chubby actor, when everybody else was toned and ready to fight. Our trainer Joe Legend helped me a lot."

Of course male viewers are going to want to watch women fighting each other in these little outfits
Michelle Heaton
With celebrities split into two opposing teams - the red Crusaders and blue Warriors - the show consists of a series of short single-sex bouts.

The first episode features Powell and model Victoria Silvstedt attempting to tear at each other's costumes in a challenge known as Rip Wrestle.

Are female contestants concerned that their contests will be regarded as mere titillation?

"Of course male viewers are going to want to watch women fighting each other in these little outfits," says Michelle Heaton, "but when they see it they will realise it is hard work.

'Raw competition'

"We are not playing - it's real wrestling, we are getting hurt and injured. I think people will respect that."

Model Leilani Dowding adds: "After they have watched us fight they won't dare come near us again."

The celebrities lived together for a fortnight as the show was filmed, germinating the explosive tension that reality show viewers have come to expect.

There's a massive appetite for shows like this - the viewing figures will tell you that
Kate Thornton
While all participants seem to have enjoyed the experience, talking about the camaraderie encouraged by its "raw competition", they are aware that it follows a slew of recent celebrity reality shows.

Thornton, who also presents talent show X-Factor, says it will soon become obvious if viewers are tired of the format.

"There's a massive appetite for shows like this," she says. "The viewing figures will tell you that.

"Television is all about spectacle and drama. If audiences continue to grow for shows like Celebrity Wrestling then more will be made."

Celebrity Wrestling begins on ITV1 at 1900 BST on 23 April.

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