One Man's Obsession With The Golden Age Of British Wrestling

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 29 months ago
One Man's Obsession With The Golden Age Of British Wrestling

British wrestling: that brutish cartoon of a sport, jeered on by the London masses — from Fairfield Halls in Croydon, to the Albert Hall. But what was it all about? Did people realise it was 'fake'? And did our obsession with it actually ever go away? We talk to wrestling dote Kerry William Purcell, interspersed with stills from his planned book, Grunts and Grapples: The Golden Age of British Wrestling.

Crusher Mason. Try telling him wrestling is fake

What's your obsession with wrestling?

My real obsession is with the culture of wrestling rather than wrestling per se (although I am clearly drawn to the sport). I see real artistry in the everyday objects produced by the sport. My first interest was the old bill posters. Amongst other things, I teach and write about design, and I saw real beauty in these ephemeral throwaway objects. I started to collect them about 10 years ago.

Giant Haystacks. His real name was Martin Austin Ruane. Like many wrestlers, he changed his stage name (once known as Haystacks Calhoun amongst others) but he was always a heel. Before the long running feud between him and Big Daddy, Haystacks actually formed a tag partnership with Daddy himself.
Kendon Nagasaki. The artist Peter Blake once made a strange BBC documentary on him

As I also write about photography, it was not long until I started collecting photographs as well. The portraits are my favourite. Some of them have the quality of the typologies of August Sander, shot against a white background they foreground the individual characters of the wrestlers. From photographs it was then costumes, magazines, handbills, fan merchandise — you name it, I collected it!

What was the best match you ever saw?

I don't think I have a single match, more single wrestlers I'd always be excited to see. Les Kellet was amazing to watch. He could be really tough, but there was real stage craft to his performance. People should check out some of his matches on YouTube, and they'll see there was an almost balletic feel to his bouts.

Rollerball Rocco. The question of whether wrestling was fixed was hidden in plain sight. However, while the fights were staged managed, they were still incredibly tough. Broken bones, bloody noses, and black eyes were more than common.

Also, as a young lad, just being close to Big Daddy (although I think many purists in the wrestling community didn't like him) was very exciting.

How long did it take you to realise wrestling was 'fake'?

Clearly, the whole issue of it being fake was hidden in plain sight! As noted, some performances were more choreographed than others, it all depended on the agility and craft of the individual wrestlers (and the direction given by Joint Promotions). But we should not underestimate how hard it was. It would be like someone saying to me: "You have to go eight rounds with Anthony Joshua. But don't worry, he will fall down in the ninth round". You would still have to go eight rounds with him...

Gaylord Steve Peacock

Did most punters find it as funny as they did thrilling?

Yes, of course. It was like a soap opera. As a form of public entertainment, wrestling emerged from the earlier traditions of the music hall and circus ring. This heritage played a key role in the development of the characters, storylines, and audience participation, which were all unique to the sport. However, towards the end, the manufactured bouts — the entertainment side of wrestling's heritage — began to overshadow the sporting aspect.

Big Jim Harris. Born in the US, Big Jim Harris came to prominence in the UK in the late 1970s, but became a fixture on the wrestling scene in the first half of the 1980s and engaged with many of the great names such as Mal Kirk and Pat Roach.

For many, the protracted battle between Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks throughout the 1980s served as prima facie evidence in the case for the prosecution. Judged as a mockery of 'real' wrestling, many fans and wrestlers alike considered the absence of skill and technique a step too far.

Bobo Matu. The portraits of the wrestlers (taken most probably by a non-professional photographer) were produced in this minimalistic manner, because it would enable them to be transferred to a poster with nominal difficulties. The outcome however is that they have the quality of a Richard Avedon portrait or August Sander picture. Grouped together they make for a taxonomy of wrestling characters.

What was the quintessential London wrestling venue and why?

Just for the spectacle of the occasion, it has to be the Royal Albert Hall. The contrast of the supposed 'high' cultural venue and 'low' cultural tradition (although this is a distinction I fully refute) was quite marked. HRH Prince Phillip, The Duke of Edinburgh, would often attend the matches there.

Pat Roach and Mick McManus prepare for a bout

Why are people getting into wrestling again?

I don’t think the desire for the type of shared experience wrestling offers ever really went away. As I said, wrestling comes from a long heritage going back hundreds of years. Unlike football, rugby or other sports, where the media often build narratives around the teams and players, wrestling produces its own stories. It manufactures the grudges, feuds, and partnerships; but it's a form of theatre in which the audience can participate, and in that sense it feels very democratic. There are some great small companies around the UK who have totally got this unique element of the sport and are promoting it in the right way.

Who's your all-time favourite wrestler?

Adrian Street. "I designed the whole thing myself. I was looking for a reaction and expecting a reaction, like, 'Oh, wow! What a metamorphosis! What a transformation! Doesn't he look great?' But it was like, 'Give us a kiss, Mary. Oh, isn't she cute?' That reaction stuck in my mind. I thought, that wasn't what I was looking for, but I’d never got a reaction like that before. So I said, Well, if that's what you want, that's what you're going to bloody get."

This is an easy one: Adrian Street. In the UK and US, he wrestled until he was 70!

There are ads for women wrestling too — was this empowering for women at the time?

I'm not sure what is meant by 'empowering' (there's probably a PhD thesis in that)? However, while one could argue that many of the iconic figures from the golden age of wrestling were men, to ignore the significant presence of women in the sport would be a mistake. Just as certain stereotypical characteristics of men were foregrounded in their ring persona, so it was with female wrestlers. To the contemporary eye, many of their nom de plumes are clearly sexist.

Ricki Starr. Like many wrestlers, Starr (actual name Bernard Herman, although he is no relation to his namesake, the American film composer) started life as a boxer. But unlike most, he turned to wrestling, to transfer his passion to ballet. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he would in time combine his ballet skills with his wrestling prowess on the canvas, becoming famous for moves that were part Swan Lake and part headlock.

However, while not condoning such nicknames as 'Lady 'Miss Boobs' Emma' or 'Sizzling Suzy Keegan', it is important to understand that they descend from the tradition of suggestive and sensational titles adopted (often at the encouragement of male managers) by female music hall acts. However, the ability of such wrestlers as Klondyke Kate or Miss Busty Keegan (clearly no longer 'Sizzling') to put on a performance and work the crowd was no less practiced and perfected than their male counterparts.

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Last Updated 05 February 2018