ONCE upon a time, everyone knew about The Wrestling. Mick McManus, Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks, Kendo Nagasaki. Once upon a time they were household names, these larger than life cartoon characters with cauliflower ears, bad tempers and, judging by the punishment theyappeared to be soaking up back when ITV's World of Sport beamed these battle-royals into living rooms across the land, unfeasibly high pain thresholds. Saturdays at four o'clock were sacred, and everyone had their favourite, even if it was only to poke fun at the parade of sweaty, overweight men in ridiculous costumes who looked like they'd be more at home on a building site than in a gladiatorial arena.
Then there was the hard-core, the ringside Johnnies and the little old ladies who flocked to the live shows week in, week out, travelling the country like a bad impression of a football supporters club. TheFairfield Halls, Croydon; Manchester Belle Vue; Liverpool Stadium: top venues all, where, unlike on the telly, you could feel the ring shake as beer bellies crashed about it and the adrenaline from the crowd united into a mighty roar. But that was the Seventies, and once incoming TV boss Greg Dyke unceremoniously removed The Wrestling from our screens in 1988, everything changed. Too lowbrow they said, while the age-old rigged-or-real debate clinched it.
All this was highlighted in Simon Garfield's brilliant piece of social history, The Wrestling, which presented the tragic tale of the sport's rise and fall, told through the words of those in the thick of it. Forthirtysomethings with fond memories of idle Saturdays cheering on Big Daddy it struck a chord, while for anyone younger, it opened them up to the hidden world of what silky-voiced commentator Kent Walton used to call the "grunt 'n' grapple game".
"I sent copies of the book to everyone I spoke to, but I never heard from any of them," Garfield says two years on, and in Edinburgh to oversee the final stages of rehearsal of the book's stage adaptation,performed by actor Alex Lowe. Lowe takes the role of Scott Bradley, a wrestling blue-eyed boy disillusioned with the British scene and about to decamp to America. His character, according to Lowe, is "an amalgam of Robbie Brookside and James Mason, men who came into the wrestling game quite late, and who both feature in the book."
Lowe was attracted to both the book and the sport by its theatrical nature, and, as an actor, appreciated its play-acting edge. "Because of these personas they take on, you start thinking, who is Kendo Nagasaki, and who is the person behind the mask? As an actor too, playing a role, you think, well, who am I?" The French semiologist Roland Barthes, who penned an essay on The Wrestling in Mythologies, couldn't have put it better. But what of the real thing?
Croydon's Fairfield Halls still has monthly wrestling shows, but they aren't exactly buzzing these days. Promoter Brian Dixon, who's been putting on wrestling since the early Seventies, is flogging tatty programmes and cheap American merchandise in the foyer. The bar houses a motley crew of old-timers polishing up old legends and kids weaned on Gladiators, The Wrestling's alleged natural son and heir, hoping to be party to new ones. Fat chance.
Tonight there's Tag, as an overweight masked man and his well-toned partner Black Magic mix it with the inexplicably named Canary Kid (he wears blue, has long dark hair and baby beard) and his boyish partner, the Lightning Kid, named presumably because of his out and out scrawniness. Within minutes you realise that the theatrical aspects of things are a shockingly crude example of bad theatre. The constant mugging to the audience, the cod histrionics, the performers' desperate need to be loved, hated or worse, to be a somebody. And it goes on every night in far smarter Arts Council funded centres of excellence than the Fairfield Halls. At most there are about 300 people in the audience. Empty seats are in abundance. It may not be Wembley Stadium, but 300 is still about 290 more than your average Edinburgh Fringe audience.
Brian Dixon tries to liven things up with spotlights, badly-cued music and even a raffle, not to mention his Wheeltappers and Shunters patter. "We've got Miss Croydon here," he jokes after inviting a girl from the front row to make the prize draw. "Gerremoff!" shouts someone sportingly. Meanwhile, two sociology students hooked on irony provide a running commentary as a child wanders past in a Power Rangers mask.
The main event is an Over The Top Rumble, an idea imported from America, which sees 10 men in the ring, every man for himself as they attempt to get their multiple opponents over the top rope. The last man standing is the winner. Most familiar face is Marty Jones, a one-time light-heavyweight favourite who has turned to lard since he last hurled himself around on TV. The most "over the top" thing of all, though, is Brian Dixon's commentary. "The louder you shout, the harder they hit," he says, a crowd-pleaser only marginally more effective than Jones's catchphrase "Shut it!" S
omeone from the stalls rises to the bait and rushes ringside to take a swipe. He's ushered gently but firmly to his seat. "Push! Push!" shouts Dixon, as if young buck Gary B Ware was about to give birth. Dixon is no Kent Walton. And yet, in the heat of the moment, which lasts 20 minutes or so, it almost works. Almost. Jones eventually wins, but is immediately set upon by Skull Murphy, a villain eliminated earlier. Jones grabs the mic and lays down a challenge. Murphy is away to the dressing room by then, but the groundwork for a grudge match has been laid. Just in time for the winter season, too.
At the end of the night, the kids have their giant Gladiators fingers, the nutter who kept trying to get ringside is chatting up Miss Croydon. Real or rigged, who cares? The Wrestling may be cheap, nasty, low-rent fare, but, even on its last legs like this, it still manages to touch people in a way Cool Britannia never will. It's telling that, on SkySport's recent Wrestling Classics season, the closing credits are played out to Chumbawamba's suitably anthemic 'Tubthumping'. Not for the damp squib of the band's make-believe anarchism, but for the sentimentalising of a forgotten class. And once a month at the Fairfield Halls and civic centres across the land, that class that Blair's Britain won't admit to existing, comes out of hiding once again. Not just for a good night out, but for a sense of release, some affirmation of dignity in what looks suspiciously like something resembling Community.
"Six and a half quid for that crap?" declaims one disgruntled punter. And he may have a point, but talk turns to the old days before any economic argument can be developed. Of masked icon Kendo Nagasaki and his gay, bearded manager George Gillette, who "should've got back to the bloody jungle". Of how Kendo's secret identity was exposed by a Wolverhampton plumber who handed out flyers with his address on outside wrestling halls. The full story is in Garfield's book, but it's doubtful whether any of the Fairfield regulars will have read it. Word of mouth is how the old days, always the old days, are immortalised here. The corporate culture that raped other sports and made them acceptable for the middle classes passed the wrestling by. In hindsight those involved probably wished it hadn't, but it was too set in its ways, too stubborn to change. And now, despite Brian Dixon's last-gasp efforts with his half-hearted salesman-come-missionary act, it's probably too late. The Wrestling will go on, but as an end of the pier freakshow.
The hippest band on the block, Black Box Recorder, led by Anglo-centric maverick Luke Haines, recognised this, too, when they chose a picture from Garfield's book for their album cover. It shows peroxided pretty-boy Adrian Street standing proudly next to his Dad, a miner. Both wear the costumes of their trade, Street in full powder-puff regalia, his Dad black-faced and pit-helmeted. Grafters both.
Dixon is guarded once he realises there's a journalist in the hall. "I never finished it to be honest," he says diplomatically when asked if he's read Garfield's book. "But I would like a word with Simon." And that's the end of it. Remind him of the times when thousands would flock to Liverpool Stadium on a Friday night to find new heroes to look up to, new villains to hate, or just to let off steam, and his facelights up. "You can't beat them days, eh?" he beams, and you can see that in his eyes he's gone back 20 years, to the Stadium's vast, crumbling expanse, that he can smell the hot-dog stand outside as wellas the stale sweat inside. And just for a moment you're right up there with him, at the ringside. And you know that he's right.
**Roll of honour
Mick McManus - The bad guy everyone remembers, who made cauliflower ears a fashion statement alongside his immovable spiv's haircut. In real life a bit of a charmer. Garfield's book contains pictures of him with the Rolling Stones, Raquel Welsh and Tommy Cooper.
Les Kellett - The original funny man, or so commentator Kent Walton would have viewers believe as he laughed like a drain at his antics. Garfield's book blows away this myth though, exposing Kellett as a hard man, feared and despised by other wrestlers.
Giant Haystacks - The other big man everyone remembers. 6ft 11in and 33 stone, this big bear of a man might not have got around the ring much, but when he did whoever was on the receiving end of things knew about it. Rumoured to be writing his life story.
Kendo Nagasaki - Greatest British masked wrestler ever, as loved as he was loathed. Mixing eastern mysticism with cloak and dagger theatrics, his appeal lay in both his charisma and his aloofness. Now retired, Nagasaki is a successful businessman and has managed several bands.
Big Daddy - The kids favourite, aka Shirley Crabtree, was a former Coldstream guardsman who was just another heavyweight before reinventing himself as Daddy. Entered the ring to 'We Shall Not Be Moved' in a sparkly top hat like an overweight Noddy Holder, Crabtree crossed over into a much widerpublic domain, with Big Daddy annuals and souvenirs. He even made This Is Your Life, while Margaret Thatcher sent him a signed photograph. Died last year.
Mitzi Mueller - The undisputed queen of women's wrestling, and the darling of the crowd. Women's wrestling was seen by some to be some kind of titillation but Mueller did her best to make it respectable. Fought her final bout at the Royal Albert Hall and is now married to longtime promoter Brian Dixon.
Brian Glover - Shakespearian actor and British institution who wrestled under the nameLeon Arras after the genuine Belgian grappler failed to turn up one night.
Jimmy Savile - Just how Jim fixed this is anybody's guess, but the peroxide disc jockey had more than 100 fights as a pro wrestler, and lost the lot. Walking Land's End to John o' Groats was probably easy peasy after that.
Harvey Smith - Best known as a show-jumping star, the flamboyant horseman went through a spell as a pro-wrestler too. His speciality was riding his opponents around the ring, funnily enough.
Scotland On Sunday - 9 Aug 1998