Good afternoon, grapple fans
29 Jan 2013 8 comments. tbs.pm/2328
For over thirty years, there was only one place to be at four o’clock in the afternoon of a Saturday afternoon. Like most other people that was in front of a television set watching a phenomena, some might say a battle between good and evil. The place, a ringside seat at the weekly professional wrestling show on ITV. The slot made stars of people who were usually half dressed, but the battles were treated as seriously as any of the other sports surrounding it in World of Sport or that afternoon’s or evening’s schedule.
But a sport so personified with ITV actually had its first television roots on the BBC. In 1947, a series of exhibition matches were filmed at Alexandra Palace. Though it was a far way away from what the sport was to become, with just a mat placed on the floor in a bare studio with no actual ring itself, and each of the moves performed being described as the wrestlers went through holds and submissions moves before putting them into a match.
With the advent of commercial television, the new ITV companies looked towards the United States for inspiration regarding sports output, offering alongside the more traditional sports new and exciting sports to the viewers at home and giving a whole new wider audience to existing sports. Wrestling itself had seen a boom before the Second World War, but when television came into the equation, it took the sport to a new level. To go with this bright, new sport, there needed to be a new voice to match the sport itself.
Kent Walton, born Kenneth Walton Beckett in 1917, surprisingly with his transatlantic accent, which led some people to believe he was Canadian, was born in Cairo, Egypt where his father was a finance minister in the government of that country. After studying at Charterhouse School, he enrolled at the Embassy School of Acting based in London and became a repertory theatre actor.
The transatlantic accent he was to become famous for was picked up when at the outbreak of the Second World War joining the Royal Air Force as part of Bomber Command and mingling with Canadian airmen who had been seconded to fight in the Battle of Britain. Come the end of the war, a return to repertory theatre occurred but his sight was a new medium, radio. Walton became a household name as one of the disc jockeys on Radio Luxembourg whilst working for the fledgling Associated-Rediffusion as both a football and tennis commentator, later presenting shows on both Luxembourg such as ‘Swinging USA’ playing rare US import recordings, pop music programme ‘Cool for Cats’ and also ‘Honey Hit Parade’. But one phone call in 1955 was to change his career forever.
In November 1955, Kent Walton was given a message to call the head of sport at Associated-Rediffusion, Ken Johnstone. Johnstone asked him how much Kent knew about wrestling and effectively told him to learn about it quickly as he was due to do to the dress rehearsal for the first ever recording of professional wrestling for ITV. A close relationship with the sport would start from there.
As the 1950s turned into the 60s, the regular wrestling slot was doing the one thing that ITV wanted it to do: take viewers off the BBC’s Grandstand. The actual fan base was more than the typical audience of the commercial channel reaching from the person on the street to the royal family being fans of the action in the ring. Both Prince Philip and the Duke of Kent were said to be fans with Princess Anne even saying to Mick McManus at a charity event that she wasn’t used to seeing him with any clothes on. The weekly slot was important to ITV in holding an audience for their sports results broadcast, and it was not a surprise when World of Sport started in 1964 with Eamonn Andrews, it was broadcast at 4pm each week meaning that ITV got a significant share of the BBC’s audience every time for the football results.
More than most it was the wrestlers themselves who were the draw, one match between Jackie Pallo, the self styled ‘Mr TV’ who was more of a showman, and Mick McManus, a hard brawler type of wrestler with jet black hair with a widow’s peak, gained an audience of over 23 million viewers in 1967. Their feud lasted over 11 years, taking in six televised fights. It started off as what appeared to be a set-up feud but over time it turned real, as in that 1967 fight, where rather then just pure wrestling it appeared to have become a brawl pure and simple such was the hatred between the two wrestlers. In the hall itself they had their fans who cheered and booed every move on each side. As time went along, there came more and more characters as wrestlers were changed from ordinary run of the mill ones to become headline performers. The gimmicks of the wrestlers got more outlandish in the wrestling halls and slowly came to television, at first plausible, but over time ideas for giving wrestlers a new lease of life were coming from anywhere.
As ITV went into colour in November 1969, wrestling demanded more colourful characters. Both the goodies known as ‘blue-eyes’ and the baddies known as ‘heels’ had cultivated their own image and others who had been given one themselves by the promoters. 1971 saw the television debut of Kendo Nagasaki, a name to become synonymous with wrestling itself. The self-styled Nagasaki had been wrestling in halls since 1964, but it was only in the early part of the 70s when such a wrestler was considered to appear both due to his appearance and also style of wrestling which was more violent then other ones. Alongside Kendo came Adrian Street, a wrestler for the glam rock age. Street had been a wrestler since the late 1950s but had changed his image from a young Tarzan look-a-like to applying make up and donning sparkly wrestling tights.
A new age had well and truly arrived. Teaming him up with Bobby Barnes in the new-to-television tag-team wrestling raised their profiles together and giving the fans both in the halls and at home a talking point as their style matched the period, with the likes of glam rock dominating the charts. Johnny Kincaid, along with Johnny Kwango, Honey Boy Zimba and Masambula, were trail-blazers for black wrestlers, although when Kincaid first appeared on television, he himself wanted to be known as ‘The Coloured Cockney’ as he was from Battersea. The promoters were to eventually bill him as being from Barbados. He took promoting himself to a new level and becoming even more recognisable from the rest of the black wrestlers, on one occasion when he bleached his hair blonde just before a recorded television match.
Television influenced wrestling in more than one way, with a wrestler taking the gimmick of appearing as ‘Catweazle’, though this seemed to be more a tribute to LWT’s magical wizard, and the wrestler himself, Gary Cooper, came from Doncaster rather than the middle ages. Thames Television’s ‘The Sweeney’ influenced a tag team of wrestlers who seemingly were like the type of villains in their characters and looks that Regan and Carter would collar in the series of that name. But much like that series, anti-violence campaigners were rounding against wrestling over the content of matches shown on the television, plus some of the idea which were being put out by the promoters, which seemed good at the time, were with hindsight not particularly wise. How realistic the wrestlers themselves were as characters led to viewers writing to the IBA feeling sorry for any wrestler who looked in pain.
The IBA and its predecessor, the Independent Television Authority, had strict guidelines about what could been seen to be too violent such as abrasive moves between the legs, swearing and any other incidents such as insighting a crowd by the performers antics in the ring. But such with wrestling, it was controlled violence where the wrestlers themselves would lose their tempers, but if there was any blood drawn in the matches they would either not be shown or stopped immediately and the slot itself would end rather quickly to maximise the number of complaints, such was ITV’s deal with the promoters, they called to the IBA’s London headquarters at Brompton Road every month to explain incidents which had occurred during that month’s set of broadcasts.
With the new found stardom for wrestlers, it was not uncommon to see the likes of either Jackie Pallo or Mick McManus on other television programmes of the era, making cameos in sitcoms, appearances on game show or being interviewed on chat shows. It was not long before television wanted to capitalise on this away from the televised bouts. ‘Arena’ looked at the work of pop artist and wrestling fan Sir Peter Blake, and there was a documentary about Klondike Kate, one of the leading female wrestlers of the 1980s. But with success high for the sport, people wanted to see what it took to become a wrestler, the training, the sweat and toil. Esther Ranzen’s programme, ‘The Big Time’, had already by this time shown Sheena Easton becoming a star in her own right. In one edition, it took schoolteacher Keith Rawlinson from Burnley and had promoter Max Crabtree train him to become a wrestler within six months to wrestle at the Royal Albert Hall with the aim to challenge a man called John Naylor from Wigan.
Max Crabtree gave Esther photos of wrestlers who could possible fight Rawlinson and she had picked Naylor herself because of his looks both physically and facially. But unknown to the public, when Rawlinson faced the bout, he was beaten. To finish the match and make it look convincing, Naylor put a submission move on his opponent trapping one leg up Rawlinson’s back and placed a face bar on him. The pain was too much for Rawlinson who could not even say ‘I submit’ to the referee, who when he noticed this, had to call a end to the bout because something was seriously wrong. He was taken to hospital due to his injuries and the film was supposed to end there. When Ranzen found out, she junked that piece of footage and re-filmed the ending with Rawlinson in perfect health fresh from the hospital where he had been for the previous few days, supposedly leaving the Albert Hall by the stage door. To protect wrestling’s reputation, Crabtree allowed that and the film was shown, but this incident proved that wrestling could go wrong and also wrestling could be manipulated for entertainment purpose as well.
By the mid-1970s came two wrestlers who would come to define British wrestling’s later years on the television. Shirley Crabtree, aka Big Daddy, and Martin Ruane, known more commonly as Giant Haystacks, originally wrestled together. But with Shirley’s image forged by new head of Joint Promotions, Shirley’s brother Max, the character of Big Daddy was one of the biggest things to happen to wrestling and revived its fortunes with the apparent feud between Crabtree and Ruane turning the wrestlers into a comic book hero and anti-hero, to the extent that Crabtree was asked to present the Saturday morning replacement for ‘Tiswas’ in Autumn 1982. Other wrestlers had made appearances on other programmes, but this was a wrestler being asked to front a programme, and the success of this catapulted wrestling to bigger heights, with one of the biggest events on World of Sport in 1981 being a final showdown match between Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. Normally the programme would base itself around a big sporting event of the day, so this was wrestling’s peak… and maybe its downfall as well.
For all the build-up to the main event, the bout lasted only two minutes and fifty seconds. It had seemed that for all the circus antics, the sport on television was running out of steam and with the axing of World of Sport in September 1985, the wrestling slot of Saturday afternoon was moved to earlier, either appearing before or after ‘Saint and Greavsie’, hoping to build or keep the audience for ITV during the afternoon. By 1987, when the ratings were tailing off, there was one thing ITV hoped would revive it: American Wrestling, with a once a month the slot showing the best action from the then World Wrestling Federation where former British performers David ‘Davey Boy’ Smith and ‘Dynamite Kid’ Tom Billington were wrestling having started their careers on World of Sport almost a decade ago. That year also saw the death of one of the wrestlers made famous by the Saturday afternoon slot in a non-televised bout involving Big Daddy and Mal ‘King Kong’ Kirk. To some this may have been allied to slumping ratings as the last straw for British Wrestling, as in 1988, Greg Dyke, head of LWT and responsible for the network’s sports output, axed wrestling. It was seen as a move which was unpopular at that time, but ITV’s sport output wanted to move away from the outlandish to more advertiser-friendly sports at this time.
Even when the sport was offered to the fledgling Sky Television to show, Sky found they had a ready alternative, the very same World Wrestling Federation action that ITV had been showing only two years previously and for British wrestling on television without a major television deal it could not survive properly at all, wrestling shows still take place in the halls up and down the country as the American product has grown from strength to strength, there have tried to be minor revivals of bringing British Wrestling back to screens with restricted service licence station MyTV in Portsmouth buying in action from a South Coast based wrestling promotion and also a whole channel on satellite television being launched to cover all aspects of the sport.
Nowadays, you are most likely to see bouts from the World of Sport wrestling era on satellite channels Men and Movies and Movies For Men, recalling the glory days of the sport as they like to put it in their promotions for it. Kent Walton passed away in August 2003 and a whole era ended as one of the most recognisable voices on radio and television disappeared into the ether. The weekly battles in the squared circle may have disappeared from screens in 1988, but the legacy lives on in a wrestler reunion held every year in, funnily enough, Kent. Walton lives on in spirit and the memories of that period are kept alive by the people who took part and also worked behind the scenes or as Kent would put it himself at the end of each wrestling broadcast, “have a good week… until next week…”
Rob Williams is a writer and research of the history of Light Entertainment, and the television industry as a whole. He has written for the Portsmouth News as their television nostalgia columnist and also writes on Light Entertainment and television at his own site Boggenstrovia’s Bit.