“By the late 1980s the interests of the working class had changed dramatically, and we wanted to capture part of where they’d gone to, rather than where they’d been. Wrestling was stuck in a timewarp – it personified the old English working class sitting around the telly, staring blankly. That was the image we were trying to kill, so we decided to kill the wrestling.”
Greg Dyke, Head of ITV Sport
“Why did it come off TV? Because it was crap! The young person wasn’t interested anymore. We lost an audience, the younger element, because it was all big fat horrible men. You don’t go to see big fat horrible men. You go to see dolly fellas.”
At 4 o’clock most Saturday afternoons in the early 1970s you’d know where to find me, along with millions of other British people (including the Queen apparently): parked in front of the telly watching the wrestling on World of Sport. Introduced as always by commentator Kent Walton with the salutation “Greetings, grapple fans!” this version of wrestling was very different to the slick, hyper American WWF that we know today, it was rather more low-budget, Bingo Hall shabby than glitzy Madison Square Garden spectacular, meat pies and Pale Ale instead of Big Macs and Coke.
But that’s not to say it lacked showmanship and characters. There were bad guys to boo like Mick McManus and Jackie Pallo, the flamboyantly camp glam-rocker Adrian Street, the great Johnny Kwango (one of my favourites) with his lethal flying headbutt move, the man-mountain Giant Haystacks and, most exciting of all, the mysterious, masked man Kendo Nagasaki whose ritual unmasking on television had me riveted – he had a tattoo on the top of his head! And red eyes! It was brilliant. I thought he was like a superhero (or villain) with his costume and secret identity (turns out his name was Peter Thornley and he was from Stoke — not very exotic really.)
Watching old fights on YouTube it can seem painfully cheap and creaky now (though not without a certain low-rent charm), a relic of an England that was vanishing into the past along with our factories and coal mines. Then when American wrestling was first shown in the UK in the 1980s it must have made our home-grown version look really tatty — especially when the biggest English star at the time was the middle-aged tub-of-guts Big Daddy who looked like the only training he did was lifting pints. I’d stopped watching it myself about 10 years before but if I’d been a teenage boy in the late 80s faced with the choice between some fat old man who beat people by falling on them belly-first (his famous “splash” move) and a Hulk Hogan who didn’t just dress like a superhero but had the muscles of one too, it wouldn’t even be a contest, called by the referee after a total KO — the “referee” in this case being Greg Dyke who took wrestling off the air in 1988.
A similar thing happened to English cafes when McDonald’s came to the country, it was a cultural bliztkrieg we didn’t have the ammo to defend against and wrestling was the equivalent of a stewed, chipped mug of tea in a run-down greasy spoon.
And, yes, I know it was all fake.
Download: Nutted By Reality – Nick Lowe (mp3)
Quotes from The Wrestling by Simon Garfield (terrific book)
More posters here.