When British professional wrestling legend Mick McManus passed away in May this year aged 93, it was the end of an era this cauliflower-eared villain helped to define. Two other arbiters of the original sports entertainment who are no longer with us were Shirley Crabtree and Martin Ruane, better known as larger than life kings of the ring, Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. When 25 stone Daddy, named by his promoter brother Max Crabtree after Tennessee Williams' thundering patriarch in his play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and 33 stone Salfordian Haystacks clashed in the ring, the earth moved, even as the white trash Greek tragedy they played out became a microcosm of a little Britain that was itself being killed off.
This rise and fall is poignantly captured in Big Daddy Vs Giant Haystacks, a new play by comedy writing duo Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon, which is just the latest example of a resurgence of interest in a form of spectacle still mocked by many, even as it gave way to the far glitzier fare propagated by WWF, now WWE. Yet before then ITV head of sport Greg Dyke removed UK wrestling from our TV screens in 1988, it was essential viewing for millions of fans. It was too low rent, claimed Dyke, ignoring an audience that existed beyond the chattering classes. In this respect, Dyke was making as much of a political statement as Daddy and Haystacks themselves.
“There's really a much bigger story to tell,” according to Mitchell. “Essentially the play is the story of Britain, and those very significant years between 1976 and 1988, when the shift in power between the north and the south became more prevalent. In that way, Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks came to symbolise aspects of the British character. There was something going on there about the Wars of the Roses, and there was something about the image of the working-class Tory, as Big Daddy, with his Union Jack top hat, effectively became John Bull. So it's a play about people who set themselves up to be their own symbols.”
The revival of interest in such old-school spit-and-sawdust entertainment began with the publication of Simon Garfield's seminal oral history, The Wrestling, published in 1996. Since then, Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller has made a film about Adrian Street, the Welsh miner's son whose feather-boaed image disguised a brutal expertise in the ring; a BBC 4 documentary looked back the era; and a website, Wrestling Heritage, provides an exhaustive look back at some of the sport's unsung greats.
While Garfield's book was dramatised in 1998, WWE icon Mick Foley turned stand-up on last year's Fringe, while writer/performer Rob Drummond trained himself up for a show that culminated in him taking part in a fully-fledged bout of drop-kicks and flying buttresses. This year sees the return of The Wrestling, a show performed by comedy duo, Max and Ivan. As for the wrestling itself, it's still there if you look hard enough in shows promoted by Crabtree's arch-rival, Brian Dixon, on the summer holiday camp circuit.
“It's not a huge revival,” Mitchell observes, “but people have noticed that it hasn't gone away, which is a good thing. I approve of a country that allowed the wrestling to exist than the one that didn't.”
Big Daddy Vs Giant Haystacks, Assembly George Square, August 1-26, 12.15pm.
The List Edinburgh Festival Guide 2013, July 2013