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The Wrestling - On The Fringe With A Sports Entertainment Battle Royal

Last weekend in a pub in Kent, a couple of hundred burly-looking men and women plus a smattering of fans took part in the twenty-fourth British Wrestlers Reunion. The event, attended by survivors of the 1960s and 1970s golden era of British wrestling rubbed shoulders with fans of an era that was as much showbusiness as sport.

A week before, in Portobello Town Hall in Edinburgh, a packed audience watched a younger generation of grunt and grapple stars more influenced by the high-flying antics of the American WWE superstars who began to redefine wrestling for an arena age around the same time British wrestling was taken off television in 1988 by ITV's then head of sport, Greg Dyke.

Two shows on at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe look set to trade on the revival of professional wrestling in the UK. While An Audience With Gorgeous George harks back to a pre WWE era through the eyes of a character who arguably kick-started the ongoing pantomimic cartoonification of such white trash Greek tragedy, for one night only, The Wrestling puts some twenty comedians in the ring fore a battle royal that marries the crudely choreographed spectacle of sports entertainment scene tostand-up make a glorious hybrid of low-rent light entertainment.

“If you drew a Venn diagram, you'd see that wrestlers and comedians pretty much occupy the same worlds,” says Ivan Gonzalez, who with Max Olesker form Ivan and Max, who first brought The Wrestling to Edinburgh in 2011. “They're both extroverts who travel all over the country, and will analyse what they've done after every show. For someone from a non-wrestling background like me it's fascinating to watch, and with no experience of wrestling at all I was a bit scared to begin with, but you realise the better the comedians are at wrestling then the better the show. It also taps into the psychopathic competitive nature of comedians.”

The roots of The Wrestling lies in Olesker's background as Max Voltage, who, aged fourteen, was the youngest pro wrestler in the UK.

“When Stone Cold Steve Austin and The rock came up in the late nineties, wrestling had a big cultural moment” says Olesker, “and for most people it was a passing phase, but a wre3stling school opened up close to where I lived, I signed up and that was that.”

Alex Brockie, the writer and performer behind An Audience With Gorgeous George, also trained as a wrestler, going under the name of Mr Charisma. Brockie had been a wrestling fan since an early age, also during the Austin/Hogan era, and brought another wrestling-based play, El Britanico!, to Edinburgh in 2014. That play was loosely based on the life of the Dynamite Kid, aka Wigan-born wrestler Tommy Billington, who became a star in America before becoming confined to a wheelchair. Gorgeous George similarly looks back at the life and times of the artist formerly known as George Wagner, who became a sensation in the 1940s and 1950s after dyeing his hair blonde and adopting an effeminate image.

“It's set during the last year of his life after he's retired from wrestling and opened a bar in L.A..,” Brockie explains. “Like a lot of sports stars George took a one-man show to Las Vegas, but now his bar is going out of business and he's telling his life story.”

A 1978 film, The One and Only, saw Happy Days star Henry Winkler play a wannabe actor loosely based on Gorgeous George in a feelgood feature directed by Carl Reiner, the New York born comedy writer and contemporary of Mel Brooks and Neil Simon. It was John Capouya's 2008 book, Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture, that Brockie drew material from.

“The title of the book is a big claim to make,” says Brockie, “but Gorgeous George influence3d Muhammed Ali and James Brown and even Bob Dylan in the way they presented themselves so theatrically.”

Fusing pro wrestling with comedy and theatre isn't a new idea. In it's UK heyday, characters such as Bradford hardman Les Kellett would have audiences in stitches with his prat-falling antics, with at least one televised match against Leon Arras, aka actor and playwright Brian Glover, boosted the ratings of World of Sport among a demographic who wanted entertainment rather than Saturday afternoon results services.

As the son of a masked wrestler called The Red Devil, Glover went on to appear at the National Theatre in Bill Bryden's production of The Mysteries, and knew enough about drama in the ring to put wrestling at the centre of his 1977 television play, The Wild Bunch. The opening stand-alone episode of a series called Send in the Girls, which focussed on a female sales promotion team led by Scots actress Annie Ross as Velma, The Wild Bunch featured real life wrestlers Kendo Nagasaki, Giant Haystacks and Glover himself in a gritty tale of difference and diversity in a reactionary environment.

On the Fringe, while ex WWE superstar Mick Foley sold out the Assembly Rooms two years ago with his stand-up act, back in 1998 actor Alex Lowe presented a one-man adaptation of The Wrestling, Simon Garfield's verbatim social history of the rise and fall of the UK scene. In the bar of the Traverse Theatre, meanwhile, a framed poster can be found for the new writing theatre's 1981 production of Claire Luckham's play, Trafford Tanzi.

Originally produced by Liverpool's Everyman Theatre as the equally localised Tuebrook Tanzi, Luckham's play was a kind of Educating Rita for the squared circle, as its eponymous heroine, played by original Shirley Valentine Noreen Kershaw, grappled with her partner, parents and rivals over several rounds in her struggle to become a female wrestler against all odds. With the cast trained by real life ladies champion Mitzi Mueller, Tuebrook Tanzi toured Liverpool pubs and clubs before being filmed by the BBC at Liverpool Stadium in front of the venue's regular Friday night wrestling crowd.

In London Tanzi was played by Toyah Wilcox, while on Broadway Blondie front-woman Debbie Harry stepped into Tanzi's leotard. Also in that production playing the referee was comedy legend and star of TV sit-com, Taxi, Andy Kaufman. This was fitting, as Kaufman had begun to wrestle women as part of his act, and proclaimed himself Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World. He employed performance artist Laurie Anderson as a stooge for a while, and later stage-managed a public feud with male wrestler Jerry 'The King' Lawler that saw the two men brawl on live TV on a 1982 edition of Late Night With David Letterman.

In 1968, American ballet dancer turned wrestler Ricki Starr appeared in The Touchables, playing a wrestler nameds Ricki alongside a trio of swinging ravers led by actress and Peter Cook's wife Judy Huxtable in possibly the grooviest movie ever made. Based on an idea by Donald Cammell, who would go on to make Performance with Mick Jagger, The Touchables' elaborate plot involving a kidnapped pop star was scripted by Ian La Fresnais. With writing partner Dick Clement, La Fresnais had already co-created classic sit-coms The Likely Lads and Porridge, the latter of which featuring Brian Glover in a supporting role, while the pair would go on to create Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

This comedy drama about a gang of migrant British labourers in Germany made stars of Jimmy Nail, Tim Healy and Timothy Spall, and also featured Christopher Fairbank, a key collaborator of theatrical maverick Ken Campbell, who briefly ran Liverpool's Everyman Theatre in 1980 having produced work there throughout the 1970s. Also in the Auf Wiedershen Pet cast was wrestler Pat Roach, whose character, Bomber, became a major character in the series.

More recently, Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller made So Many Ways To Hurt You, a filmic study of British wrestler Adrian Street, whose camp image based in part on Gorgeous George made him a sensation in the 1960s and 1970s before he moved to America. Singer Luke Haines had already put a picture of Street posing in costume posing with his Welsh miner father in front of a mine-shaft on the cover of the debut album by his band, Black Box Recorder. In 2011, Haines released the self-explanatory concept album, 9 and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and early 80s.

While Micky Rourke's star turn in the film The Wrestler gave the wayward actor's career a boost, a less likely feature film is in development based on the life of Les Kellett. It isn't all about nostalgia, however.

“The simple fact is that wrestlers now are better than they've ever been,” according to Olesker. “The great thing about professional wrestling is it's a live event that's very physical with a lot of audience inter-action, with the audience registering their displeasure and so on. Comedians and a comedy crowd get that, because it's the same in their world. That's why it works. It's infectious. It's unique.”

An Audience with Gorgeous George, Clouds & Soil, Aug 8-18. 3.30-4.15pm. The Wrestling, Pleasance Grand, Aug 18, 11pm-1am.

The Herald, August 17th 2015



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