The golden age of grunt'n'groan

It bore no similarity to wrestling as depicted on Greek urns, yet by the 1970s we were hooked on the half-nelsons and Boston crabs of ITV's 'World of Sport'. As Jackie Pallo, the hero of the ring, loses his final battle, Brian Viner remembers when Saturday afternoons meant one thing: 'Greetings, grapple fans'

At least, it was for those of us who would no sooner miss the wrestling on ITV's World of Sport than forget to breathe. For my generation, the recipe for a perfect Saturday evening - with or without a plate of spaghetti hoops followed by a Wagon Wheel - was a Jackie Pallo or Mick McManus fight followed by Dickie Davies introducing the classified football results, then over to Brucie getting Anthea to give him a twirl, The Duchess of Duke Street and The Two Ronnies. So, even though the pony-tailed Pallo was the baddie we loved to hate - a baddie, moreover, who would have been rejected by most pantomime directors for preposterous over-acting - we now wish him everlasting peace, and hope that it's not too long before he gets a celestial tag act going with Giant Haystacks.

In truth, Pallo, born in 1926, was strutting round the wrestling rings of England long before the 1970s, and long before World of Sport. But it was World of Sport, the programme that began in 1965 as ITV's rival to Grandstand, which made him a star.

For television snobs, however, the fact that the commercial channel showcased such downmarket fare as wrestling merely emphasised the intrinsic superiority of the BBC. Clive James, the television critic of The Observer, asked: "What is it about Dickie Davies that makes you feel less wretched about [the Grandstand presenter] Frank Bough? By any rational standards, Frank ought to be definitively awful: the whole time that his stupefying ebullience is sending you to sleep, his RANDOM use of emphasis is JERKing you awake. Dickie doesn't do any of that. On the contrary, he speaks with exactly the same degree of measured excitement about every sporting event that turns up on a Saturday afternoon anywhere in the world. Perhaps that's the trouble. Understandably keen about the World Cup, Dickie Davies folds his hands, leans forward and smiles at you from under his moustache. Equally keen about the World Target Clown Diving Championships, he folds his hands, leans forward, and smiles at you from under his moustache."

Almost every week from 1968, when he took over from Eamonn Andrews as World of Sport's main presenter, Davies folded his hands, leant forward, smiled at us from under his moustache, and introduced the wrestling from Brent Town Hall, Wolverhampton Civic Hall, or some other salubrious venue.

It later transpired that his measured excitement was as much of an act as Pallo's villainy, that he didn't rate wrestling one bit. Indeed, as Simon Garfield reported in his obituary of Pallo in these pages, when Davies heard the news he said - doubtless affectionately, but perhaps also waspishly - that it was an unprecedented example of Pallo not faking it.

Yet Davies and his paymasters recognised the value of wrestling to ITV. Slowly but surely, it began to exert a vice-like grip on the nation that was worthy of Pallo himself. Everyone knew that it bore almost no kinship with the noble art of wrestling as depicted on ancient Greek urns, but by the 1970s we were hooked, even though it was strongly rumoured that Pallo's bouts with his arch-enemy Mick McManus were no less choreographed than Pan's People on Top of the Pops. When Pallo wrote his autobiography, in 1985, we knew it for sure. The book was called You Grunt, I'll Groan.

But even then there were impressionable schoolboys and gullible grannies who refused to believe that a Boston Crab was anything other than the most painful physical predicament known to man. And among the gullible grannies was the Queen Mother, no less - said to be a particularly avid fan. So too was Margaret Thatcher. Whether they preferred McManus to Pallo, or Les Kellett to the fearsome Kendo Nagasaki, is, regrettably, not on record.

Whatever, much of the credit for wrestling's popularity belonged to an Englishman, born Kenneth Beckett, who served with a Canadian squadron during the Second World War, cultivated a Canadian accent, and changed his name to the racier Kent Walton. Cleverly recognising that he needed a niche if he was to succeed in sports broadcasting, Walton became the Voice of Wrestling in the same way that Dan Maskell was the Voice of Tennis and Eddie Waring the Voice of Rugby League. And in a decade of huge industrial unrest, his mellifluous tones were rather reassuring; his ritual Saturday sign-off "Have a good week ... till next week" was a sign of stability even if the week ahead was a three-day one. As for the belief that he was Canadian, it followed him to his grave: when Walton died in 2003, aged 86, one obituary bracketed him with his "compatriots" Bernard Braden and Hughie Green as having made an impact on British television.

It was ironic that Walton should have encouraged such artifice, because even though he knew better than almost anyone that the Terrible Turk and the Masked Madagascan both came from Rochdale, he always insisted that wrestling was a proper sport and not a circus act. "Let's see if we can get a close-up of those red eyes, if you're lucky enough to be watching on a colour set," he used to say of the masked Nagasaki, sounding very much as though the prospect excited him enormously.

In all this he was helped by the wrestlers themselves, Pallo notable among them as one of the most convincing. The snarling might have been fake, but the pain looked real. Pallo, in fact, once ended up in Walton's lap at ringside, having been "hurled" over the ropes in front of the usual crowd of histrionic pensioners baying for blood.

Many of the stars invented little idiosyncrasies and nurtured them devotedly. McManus used to pretend that his Achilles heel was his ears, not such an improbable image when you consider the extraordinary contortions into which these beefy men got themselves, and each other. "Not the ears, not the ears," he would cry. For his part, Pallo used to hate it when anyone grabbed his ponytail, which in those days was a rather more outré hairstyle than it might be considered now.

Some of them had stranger ring personas than others. As a 13-year-old schoolboy, my own favourite, for reasons that I'd rather not try to analyse here, was the peroxided and mincingly camp Adrian Street. In reality, almost inevitably, he was unequivocally heterosexual.

Adrian Street, Les Kellett, Catweazle, Kendo Nagasaki, Jackie Pallo ... those of us who come from the 1970s mutter these names with nearly as much reverence as schoolboys of the 1950s talk about Denis Compton and Len Hutton, or Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews. At any rate, there is a decidedly elegiac quality to any consideration these days of wrestling as a British television institution, and a concomitant disdain for America's Worldwide Wrestling Federation, which achieves the impossible by making our own version, as championed for over 20 years by World of Sport, look understated, very nearly refined.

It died a sudden death in December 1988 when Greg Dyke, the controller of ITV Sport, decided that it presented the wrong image of the channel to advertisers. Like Benny Hill a year later, it no longer suited the times.

But what times they were, all the same.

The ringmasters

Jackie Pallo

The look: striped trunks and long, straggly hair tied back with a velvet ribbon

The reputation: The Man They Loved To Hate

Trademark move: his devastating double-arm submission

Afterlife: trainer and promoter, as well as playing panto and appearing in The Avengers, and was fight director at the Old Vic for As You Like It. His 1985 autobiography, You Grunt, I'll Groan, lifted the lid on wrestling's secrets. He died this week aged 79

Mick McManus

The look: "The Man in Black" - black shorts, cropped black hair. He was only 5ft 6in, but ferocious with it

The reputation: The Man They Loved To Hate

Trademark move: short-range forearm jab

Afterlife: "The Dulwich Destroyer", as some called him, settled into a quiet life as a public relations officer for an American telecommunications company. Later, he made a living hosting business lunches and corporate golf days. He was 78 last month

Giant Haystacks

The look: Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The reputation: The 50-stone Man They Loved To Hate

Trademark move: "The Splash", which entailed dropping on to his horizontal victim from a great height

Afterlife: lost all his money after investing unwisely in a car business, then ran a debt collection agency (he said he never had to use a baseball bat). In 1995 he signed a deal to fight Hulk Hogan in the United States, but soon after was diagnosed with cancer, of which he died in 1998, aged 52

Big Daddy

The look: Demented 26-stone circus master, in his lamé cape and top hat

The reputation: The Man They Loved To Hate

Trademark move: "The Splash" (see under Giant Haystacks)

Afterlife: In 1987 at the Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth, his "Splash" move hastened the death of Mal "King Kong" Kirk" (who had an undiagnosed heart condition), and Big Daddy retired. He ran his own gym in Blackpool until he died after a stroke in 1997 aged 60

Kendo Nagasaki

The look: Samurai warrior

The reputation: The Man They Loved To Hate

Trademark move: The Kamikaze Crush

Afterlife: Having forfeited the British heavyweight championship because he refused to confirm his identity, he voluntarily unmasked in 1977 before 12 million television viewers, and retired soon after. He returned several times, however, most recently for charity in 2001. He has devoted most of his time to running a care home for disabled children in Wolverhampton

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