Monday, 23 May 2016

Grunts & Grapples Exhibition

Grunts & Grapples Exhibition      
Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery (15 September 2016 – 14 January 2017)

‘Greetings Grapple Fans!’ Kent Walton

For those of a certain age (and one could argue class), Kent Walton’s welcome will evoke the routine of Saturday tea-time’s in front of the TV, anticipating an exciting 45mins of grapples, grunts, and the ubiquitous incensed Granny scolding a wrestler. While wrestling was first broadcast on newly launched ITV station in 1955, its established slot (just before the football scores) came about with the launch of World of Sport a decade later in 1965, and would last for 24 years before being axed by the then Director of Programmes, Greg Dyke, in 1989. The magazine format sports show was originally intended as a direct response to BBC’s Grandstand, and ‘The Wrestling’ became a central feature of its programming. Part sport, part entertainment, at its peak wrestling garnered audiences of over 12 million, and the new commercial station seemed like a fitting home for a pastime that had emerged from the traditions of the music hall. Yet, in many ways, the balance between these two areas was always an uncertain one, and the pull towards celebrity and spectacle that the commercial element of the sport demanded, would eventually be wrestling’s downfall (at least in the UK).

Grunts & Grapples seeks to explore this much neglected area of social and cultural history. It is drawn primarily from my own personal collection of posters, photographs, programmes, and a handful of wrestling outfits. The aim of the exhibition is very much one of capturing how central the sport was to British life for most of the second half of the twentieth century and how it drew on earlier traditions of public entertainment. For example, in terms of design, there are various billposters, which in style reveal wrestling’s origins in the aforementioned music hall tradition, but also to those of the circus. The influence of these two forms of popular culture ran throughout the sport, from the portrayal of the wrestlers as baddies (‘heals’) or goodies (‘blue eyes’), to the widespread encouragement of audience participation. In terms of the wrestlers themselves, prevailing narratives of Otherness and racial stereotypes would commonly be utilised in the creation of personalities. Hence, you would have Johnny Kincaid and Dave Bond wrestling under the name the ‘Caribbean Sunshine Boys’, although as Kincaid noted in a recent BBC documentary, he had never been further than Wandsworth! Other such figures included the supposed Native American ‘Billy Two Rivers’ who would perform an “Indian” dance before each bout. And most famously, Kendo Nagasaki, who drew on popular imagery of ‘Japan’, in his use of Samurai swords and distinctive masks, all of which were frequently embellished by Kent Walton’s commentary on Nagasaki’s ‘mysterious origins’. This Otherness served as a uncomplicated signifier of badness, while in this crude worldview, ‘whiteness’ functioned as shorthand for decency and righteousness. Not that this binary was fixed, as there were many wrestlers who throughout their career switched from a ‘heal’ to a ‘blue-eye’ and back again. This play of characters across the hundreds of venues that hosted the wrestling during the week, and on the TV screens on a Saturday afternoon, was a carefully choreographed storyline, with long running grudges, feuds, and resentments. All of which were stage managed by the wrestling promoter Joint Promotions, who held a near monopoly on the sport during the period Grunts & Grapples explores (1955 – 1990).

When ITV’s broadcasting of wrestling was cancelled in 1989, one of the arguments appeared to be that the contrived storylines, larger than life characters, and manufactured bouts – the entertainment side of wrestling’s heritage - had overshadowed the sporting aspect. For many, the protracted battle between Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks throughout the 1980s served as prima facie evidence in the case for the prosecution. Judged as a mockery of ‘real’ wrestling – with the notorious 1981 Wembley clash contest lasting just 2mins 30secs – many fans and wrestlers alike considered the absence of skill and technique a step too far. With the arrival of Sky TV and the import of World Wrestling Federation (WWF) from America, it appeared such opinions were shared by Greg Dyke. Following its cancellation, wrestling continued in town halls and seaside piers well into the 1990s, but it never loomed as large in the public consciousness as it had throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  


1 comment:

  1. When I worked for NME at the end of the 70s I was stood by the lift in the reception area when Kendo Nagasaky (?) and his manager (Gorgeous George) (?) stepped out. Can't remember why they came to the office. Do remember that I wanted to write a feature on wrestling as a working class phenomenon. Sadly, never saw the light of day.