Obituary: Big Daddy

Shirley Crabtree ("Big Daddy"), wrestler: born Halifax, West Yorkshire 1937; twice married (six children); died Halifax 2 December 1997.

With wrestling now banished to the satellite ghetto of Sky and Eurosport, it's hard to remember a time when the sport was very much a part of the terrestrial schedules. Yet in the late Seventies and early Eighties, the wrestler Big Daddy became a star on ITV's World of Sport. Before ram-raiding and computer games, many a British child spent a not so wholesome Saturday afternoon egging on the leotard-clad Big Daddy as he ditched his glittering cape and top hat before taking on such rivals as Giant Haystacks and Mick McManus.

"Big Daddy" was born Shirley Crabtree in Halifax. According to some accounts, his grandmother picked "Shirley" from the eponymous novel by Charlotte Bronte for his father, who was also a professional wrestler, and seemed to have thought the name character-building.

In any event, the young Crabtree soon had to contend with schoolmates calling him Shirley Temple. He fought them off, built his impressive physique, became a miner, and took up rugby like his father. Shirley junior played for Bradford Northern but his temper was already getting the better of him and he never made the first team.

With his brothers Brian and Max, he became a lifeguard at Blackpool. By the mid-Fifties the Crabtree brothers were all following in their father's footsteps and had taken up wrestling. At first, Shirley used his real name but he would also sometimes be billed as "The Blond Adonis", "Mr Universe" or "The Battling Guardsman" (he had briefly served in the Coldstream Guards).

The Big Daddy persona only came to him in 1976 after he saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the Richard Brooks film of the Tennessee Williams play. Seduced by the way Elizabeth Taylor referred to the Burl Ives character as Big Daddy, Shirley took up the stage name (in the mid-Eighties, an American novelty band also adopted the Big Daddy monicker).

His second wife Eunice added an unexpected touch by fashioning her husband a shiny leotard made out of their chintz sofa. A big "D" and a few stars completed the brand new Big Daddy look. The crowds loved it from the word go. Wrestling had become more of a spectacle than a sport with fights no more than cunning stunts carefully choreographed beforehand. Youngsters and grannies alike bought into the show-biz myth, and soon Big Daddy and his various partners and opponents were attracting huge television audiences.

Weighing in at 26 stone and with the biggest chest in Britain (it was listed in The Guinness Book of Records as 64 inches), Big Daddy came on stage to a big fanfare. Playing the good guy or "blue eye", he soon demolished opponents with "The Splash", a move which required him to use his huge tummy to flatten his opponent. This momentous climax to a tag proved extremely popular and guaranteed his notoriety. Crowds would take up his chant of "Easy!"

He advertised tomato ketchup on television, appeared on Surprise, Surprise, featured on This is Your Life, was interviewed by Terry Wogan, had his own fan club and did a lot of charity work especially with children. The Queen and Margaret Thatcher declared themselves fans.

The second half of the Eighties were, however, less kind to Big Daddy. On his doctor's advice he turned down a children's television series which would have made him a household name and opened new horizons (the late Brian Glover, also a former wrestler, had made a successful transition into acting with an appearance in the film Kes).

In 1985, Tony "Banger" Walsh blew the whistle on wrestling, giving away some of the sport's secrets in a tabloid newspaper. However, on 23 August 1987, a bout between Big Daddy and Mal "King Kong" Kirk went dreadfully wrong at the Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth. Following Big Daddy's infamous Splash, his rival groaned and turned purple. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the town's hospital.

The ensuing coroner's inquest cleared Big Daddy and stressed that Kirk had a serious heart condition which could have proved fatal at any time, especially given his profession.

Still, Big Daddy blamed himself for the mock-asphyxiation's going wrong and retired from wrestling. The following year, British wrestling, judged too downmarket by the television scheduler Greg Dyke, vanished from the screens. Big Daddy concentrated on running his own gym. He would often walk along the Blackpool coast and muse on what might have been.

Sir Jimmy Savile, the DJ and television presenter who is himself a former wrestler, paid a fond tribute to Big Daddy. "He was a big, beautiful fellow, and though I never actually fought him - because he was super heavyweight and I was catchweight - in the Sixties, I was often on the same bill . . . it was always a joy because the crowd would be in super-good humour but more importantly the atmosphere in the dressing room was magic with him around.

"As two Yorkshire lads, we used to terrorise everyone. It was a laugh a minute. He had this great booming laugh and all the rest of us could do in the ring was hope and pray."

- Pierre Perrone

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: EWI / IWI Installer

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Management Accountant

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Manag...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'