IF the names Les Kellett, Jackie Pallo, Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki mean anything to you, it’s a fair bet that you used to spend your late Saturday afternoons plonked in front of the telly.
From 4pm until the football results, ITV’s World of Sport was given over to professional wrestling, where larger-than-life characters would apparently pound each other into oblivion, to the joy and anger of little old ladies in the audience always ready to plunge a hatpin into the nether regions of their favourite hate figure.
The commentator was Kent Walton, a Canadian actor whose previous gig was presenting a pop programme called Cool For Cats. In Simon Garfield’s fascinating book The Wrestling, he quotes Mick McManus as saying that Walton ‘had a very good voice that lent itself to the wrestling scene, as opposed to someone who was an Oxford type of bod that frequented the television companies in those days. But the problem was that he’d never been to a wrestling match before he got the job. So I took him down the gym with a few others and we had to run through some holds and throws to acquaint him with what went on, what constituted a fall or a submission.’
Walton obviously learned his lesson well because he held down the job for 33 years, between 1955 and 1988. He said: ‘Wrestling provided a TV programme that almost everybody went for. A well-known psychiatrist came up with a neat theory. He said, in effect, that wrestling showed men the type of men they’d like to be and women the type of men they’d like to meet.’
Frankly, I can’t imagine that many men would have wanted to be like Big Daddy, who boasted a 62-inch chest and whose speciality was throwing himself on top of a prostrate opponent and flattening him in a move called ‘the Splash’.
Then there was Giant Haystacks, whose weight often topped 40 stone and had a struggle even to get in the ring.
There was the odious Jimmy Savile who, you will be devastated to learn, lost his first 35 bouts and almost all the other 72.
By comparison, the likes of Kellett, McManus and Pallo were passable athletes with a mean streak who delighted in raising the audience’s ire.
Was wrestling fixed? Suffice it say it was one sport you couldn’t put a bet on. Bouts were certainly choreographed, particularly in the cases of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, but the bent and crippled bodies of retired grapplers bear testimony to the damage done.
McManus again: ‘People used to say it was fixed, but you should have seen the injuries. Sometimes it was impossible to get out of bed the next day because you’d been battered so badly. I broke my collar bone and wrist falling out of the ring. And the cauliflower ears were so painful, people don’t ever realise. Cauliflower ears are caused by the breaking of little blood vessels in the ear and the ear fills up with blood. A single blow can do that.
‘Or when you see rugby players, especially fellas in the pack, in the second row or something, it’s the rubbing and bending of the ear. By bending it, you break the blood vessels inside. That’s why you see a lot of rugby players with headbands. It keeps the ear back so they don’t get the bending.’
Between six million and seven million grapple fans were glued to the screen every Saturday. On FA Cup Final Day, ITV wooed viewers with pre-match wrestling programmes which attracted audiences of 12million, who almost all turned over to the BBC come kick-off.
Despite wrestling’s working-class image it attracted fans from all walks of life, including royalty. Prince Philip and the Duke of Kent were frequent attenders at some of the 40 venues in the capital, while McManus recalled meeting Princess Anne at a charity event where she said: ‘I’m not used to seeing you with your clothes on.’
In his Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, Richard Crossman’s entry for July 12, 1968 read: ‘At midday I had to shoot off to Buckingham Palace for the first of our new-style Privy Councils. The Queen was in tremendous form. After the Council, when the drinks were circulating, she began to describe to me a television programme she had seen yesterday of a wrestling match, at which Philip had been present. An all-in wrestler had been thrown over the ropes, landed on his feet, and after writhing in agony had suddenly shot back into the ring, seized his opponent and forced him to resign. She said what tremendous fun that kind of wrestling was. “Do you want a Royal Charter for them?” I asked. And she said: “No, not yet.” It was interesting to hear what a vivid description she gave of the whole scene, writhing herself, twisting and turning, completely relaxed. It was quite an eye-opener to see how she enjoyed it.’
The death knell for ITV wrestling was sounded in 1988. According to Giant Haystacks, ‘what it boils down to is this. A guy called Greg Dyke took over World of Sport. He never played a sport in his life . . . he put on f***ing silly darts, things like that, but he took off the wrestling. A lot of people were very disappointed. They ran opinion polls and there were ten million people who wanted wrestling back on. If we weren’t living in such a democratic society, I’d have gone up and broken his neck.’
Dyke himself said: ‘At home, I’ve got a cartoon I bought from the Sun which shows me being strangled in the ring by Giant Haystacks. When I took over the sports in 1988, ITV was losing badly in the ratings to the BBC. We were stuck in about 1955, and the world had changed, and we were too downmarket. Wrestling was clearly never a proper sport – that was part of the problem. It was so tarnished with the old-style look of ITV that it had to go. We got rid of a lot of the old game shows for the same reason. We started putting money into drama, stuff like that.
‘Wrestling was stuck in a time warp, it personified the old English working class sitting round the telly, staring blankly. That was the image we were trying to kill, so we decided to kill the wrestling.’
Wrestler Jackie Pallo was more succinct: ‘Why did it come off TV? Because it was crap! We lost an audience, the younger element, because it was all big fat horrible men.’
Old Jokes’ Home
I went to the lost-property office to enquire about my missing luggage but was told: ‘We cannot discuss individual cases.’
A PS from PG
Blizzard was of the fine old school of butlers. His appearance suggested that for fifteen years he had not let a day pass without its pint of port. He radiated port and pop-eyed dignity. He had splay feet and three chins, and when he walked his curving waistcoat preceded him like the advance guard of some royal procession.
PG Wodehouse: The Heart of a Goof