Sport on TV: How the daddy of screen personalities lost his grip
Sunday 16 December 2012
Tonight's BBC Sports Personality of the Year award may never have had a more accomplished list of contenders and yet, Wiggo's sideburns aside, how many of these brilliant performers actually have a personality?
Then there's the opposite end of the scale. When Wrestling was Golden (BBC4, Thursday), subtitled "Grapples, Grunts and Grannies", told the story of a sport in which success was secondary to showmanship. When it was on TV every Saturday afternoon it was all about the cult of personality. The best fighters didn't always get on the box and just faded away – unlikely though that may seem in the more heavyweight cases.
We know far too much about the excesses of TV stardom in that decade, but few personalities were bigger, in every sense, than Shirley Crabtree, aka Big Daddy. He never won the SPOTY award, though, and anyway he wasn't that good at wrestling. A few "belly butts" does not make a wrestler, and his contests with Giant Haystacks were actually the nadir of the sport as well as the peak of its pulling power. The Wembley showdown of 1981 lasted a mere two minutes 50 seconds, and public disaffection for this pantomime was not far behind. It wasn't just the giant tummies that were being rumbled.
Yet wrestling had always been a performance more than a sport. "It was incredible theatre," said artist Sir Peter Blake, an aficionado of the grappling game. With its "blue eyes" heroes and "heel" villains, its choreography and fixed results, it was a case of suspending disbelief – though if the vicious reactions of the crowd were anything to go by, the "grannies" at ringside were taking it very seriously indeed. Some stubbed cigarettes out on the fighters' backs as they went past. All that was missing was the knitting and the guillotine.
Before Big Daddy there had been skill aplenty, and to get the fix just right you had to be good at what you did. But some just never knew when to let go, so to speak. Take Kendo Nagasaki, the Samurai warrior who still wears his mask today. In the interview he didn't speak; "his answers are spoken through his spiritual advocate", a lady called Atlantis Chronos Goth. "He has gone through past-life regression," ACG told us, which sounds as painful as Nagasaki's infamous "kamikaze crunch".
There is still residual bitterness over the axing of TV wrestling by Greg Dyke after 33 years. The final blow came towards the end of the Eighties, and many believe its working-class image did not suit the yuppie culture of the time. But wrestling was still as huge as Haystacks. They should have stuck the yuppies in the ring. Someone could have inflicted a "credit crunch" on them there and then, and saved us a lot of trouble later.
* Giant-killing might have got Haystacks a little worried, but former Bradford Northern rugby league player Big Daddy would have enjoyed Bradford City's victory over Arsenal (Sky Sports 1, Tuesday). Like wrestling, it was David versus Goliath, except you couldn't foretell the result.
Ben Shephard was beside himself with excitement in the studio as he described "a thrilling night of cap uction". Ouch, that sounds like a particularly unpleasant grappling manoeuvre.
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