Jackie Pallo

Pantomime baddie of wrestling

Jack Ernest Gutteridge (Jackie Pallo), wrestler: born London 12 January 1926; married Trixie Wilson (one son); died Ramsgate, Kent 11 February 2006.

Jackie Pallo died a thousand deaths in his villainous career, and all but the last were for the benefit of a braying public. Pallo understood as well as anyone that wrestling was an entertainment best served loud and obvious, and he was one of the most skilful and reviled in the business. In his heyday, no one made people madder.

Pallo specialised in the back-breaker, a submission move that invariably had his opponent writhing in agony; its instigator later revealed it to be no more painful than a child's kiss. For Pallo's other trademark was revelation, and 20 years ago his tell-all memoir You Grunt, I'll Groan (1985) delivered the last rites to a magical passing world. Everything in wrestling was bent, he said. If his career as a fighter and would-be promoter wasn't over before, it was certainly finished on publication day.

He was born Jack Gutteridge in 1926 in Islington, north London, above the boxing gym managed by his father. He was an amateur boxer and a useful garage mechanic (he once built his own car), and he became a professional wrestler at 26. Pallo was the name of a brother-in-law, and Jackie thought it provided a certain flair.

To the name he added striped trunks, golden bouffant locks tied in a ponytail, and the extreme schtick of the pantomime baddie. He was expert in doing awful things behind the referee's back, and in inciting the crowd to indignant fury (his worst injuries were usually hatpin indentations and handbag bruises incurred as he exited the ring). His battles with Mick McManus in the 1960s filled the Royal Albert Hall, and drew millions to ITV's World of Sport on Saturday afternoons, and his abilities as an actor earned him spots on Emergency Ward 10 and The Avengers (as a gravedigger who wrestled Honor Blackman). He was an old-fashioned entertainer, and seldom a modest one.

A few years ago I spent a wonderful but complicated afternoon with him and his son Jackie Junior (JJ). He picked me up at Ramsgate station in his Saab, and I told him that I drove the same model. "Simon," he said in a measured tone, "I have lots of Saabs." This turned out to be true. There were eight or nine Saabs parked in the undergrowth by his house, each with a different level of rust. He couldn't bear to part with them.

As his wife Trixie prepared tea, I noticed a huge hole in his garden, the result of an ambitious, incomplete DIY pool-building programme. Pallo senior told me he had been ill with flu. "Also, we got the wrong bloody tiles."

The pair then explained why wrestling had died in Britain - too many fat men, not enough "dolly fellas" like them. Pallo senior said that even at his peak, say at a televised bout attended by the Duke of Edinburgh, he earned no more than £80 a fight, and it was usually much less. But, without Pallo, we might never have learnt of the Boston Crab or flying head-scissors at all; it was Pallo who had sat beside the inexperienced commentator Kent Walton during the earliest television broadcasts of wrestling in the 1950s, instructing him on the names of the moves and inventing some of his own.

Despite the match-fixing, Pallo said, much of the pain was real, and only hard men survived the gruelling schedules. JJ had followed his father into the ring, and for a while they fought as a tag-team; both of them hobbled round their garden with inflamed joints. They spoke about the "heat" they generated in their best fights. "It was nice in those days to think people came just to boo you," Jackie Senior reasoned.

Towards the close of his life, Pallo felt nothing as much as a sense of betrayal. For several years he tried to promote bouts by himself. A rival once took him to dinner and told him he didn't have a chance as a promoter. "Well, buy me out," Pallo suggested. "No," his rival replied, "we're going to destroy you."

Many of Pallo's fellow wrestlers had harsh words for him while he was alive, although most of their stories were tinged with delight. Adrian Street, who rose to fame by playing a mincing queen in the ring, was convinced that Pallo only made it because he once mistimed a dropkick during an early televised contest, his legs flying either side of a corner post. "He mashed his Christmas crackers," Street recalled. "Nobody had ever seen that on television before."

Pallo claimed everyone was just jealous. He said that no one inspired so many letters of complaint to a television station for violent behaviour. "I have that sort of razzmatazz," he told me. "When I walk into a gents' toilet, everybody turns round and looks."

On the morning his death from cancer was announced I happened to be in a photographer's studio with Dickie Davies, the former host of World of Sport. Davies had already heard the news. "It's the only time he's not faking it," he said.

Simon Garfield

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