"A seamless blend of sport and entertainment," was how the writer Simon Garfield described British professional wrestling, the subject of Wrestling's Golden Age – Grapples, Grunts and Grannies, a richly nostalgic Timeshift film about Saturday afternoon grappling. Which rather raised a question really. Quite a lot of people, after all, felt that those two fabrics couldn't easily be stitched together.
And even some of those who did were curious about precisely where the seam lay. When Mick McManus slammed Jackie Pallo to the canvas, how hard did he hit and how much did he know about the move in advance? Will Hodgson, former wrestler and stand-up comedian, put it this way: "Wrestling is not fake. Wrestling is fixed." The point being that while the outcome was known ahead of time, a lot of dangerously physical ad-libbing went on between the first round and the final count. Max Crabtree – promoter and creator of Big Daddy – set the question aside altogether. For those that love wrestling, he said, no explanation was necessary. For those who didn't no explanation would satisfy.
Timeshift's film wasn't really about fakery but about fans, and the way in which wrestling went from being a discreditable music-hall spin-off, so authentically violent that it was banned by the London County Council, to a hugely popular television fixture watched by millions. And the answer to that was storytelling, of a primary-colour crudity that made the Mr. Men books read like Henry James.
Under the aegis of Joint Promotions, the company that effectively ran wrestling in Britain, the grapplers were divided up into "blue eyes" (the goodies) and "heels" (the ones everyone loved to boo) and their encounters carefully scripted to blend adversity and condign triumph. "It was incredible theatre," someone said of these sweaty passion plays. "It was like seeing a good play," said another. Which, given the dull predictability of the plots, made you wonder a little what they'd actually seen on stage recently.
Crabtree gave a better clue as to the appeal: "Life can be very low-keyed and miserable without a little... panache," he said, hesitating momentarily before that unexpected final word. And pro-wrestling didn't lack for panache, particularly as it became clear that a pair of Speedos just wasn't going to cut it as ring-wear anymore. Adrian Street started his career as Kid Tarzan but found it lacked a little oomph, publicity wise. So he turned himself into "The Exotic One", a startling combination of glam-rock metrosexuality and Welsh miner.
To watch him blowing air kisses at enraged opponents or skipping girlishly out of reach of a countermove was to be convinced that wrestling, if it wasn't sport, occasionally reached the heights of performance art. Sadly, in the end, it wasn't very good art, this bare-chested panto concluding in the spectacle of Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy, two wrestlers too big to do anything much except bounce off each other. Greg Dyke, small, wiry and half the size of any of them, got the conclusive pin by kicking it off air.
I hope someone at Channel 4 watched this cautionary tale of how increasingly desperate gimmickry killed off a television favourite, because they seem hellbent on undermining their own best assets in a similar way. Jamie and Jimmy's Food Fight Club is the latest example, a tag-team affair in which the two Essex lads run a pop-up café at the end of Southend pier, lark about with celebrities and spearhead an assault by traditional British foods on famous continental rivals.
If it was a sausage (the subject of this week's challenge), it would be about 10 per cent prime meat to 90 per cent bulk filler, long sequences being padded out with witless comedy routines and bafflingly pointless stunts (an eating contest on a roller-coaster, for example, or a beauty parade for pigs). If it was a sausage, I'm not really sure you'd want to eat it.Reuse content