This programme about the golden age of TV wrestling, on this week, was a bit of a Proustian madeleine for me:
The wrestling always reminded me of Hans Christian Anderson’s fable ‘The Emperor’s new clothes’. Who was going to be the little boy who pointed out the obvious: that the whole thing was a gigantic sham?
Official confirmation came in 1980 when, in response to complaints from some viewers about the violence of the bouts, Mary Warnock and other members of the complaints review board of the Independent Broadcasting Authority sat down to watch World of Sport for several weeks. They found no case for stopping the wrestling on the grounds of violence because, they said, it was largely faked. The bouts were not viewed primarily for the violence and in any case, they noted drily, this did not seem to cause any lasting damage to the participants.
Of course, people did not want to know, and didn’t care whether or not it was authentic. As Roland Barthes wrote in a famous essay, wrestling was ruled by an ‘immanent justice. The baser the action of the “bastard”, the more delighted the public is by the blow which he justly receives in return … A light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve … At such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself … what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. This emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art.’
Most hated of all by the viewers were not the ‘bastard’ wrestlers like Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus or Adrian Street (who dressed like a glamrock star and camped about the ring, straightening his tights and pouting his lips between grapples) but the World of Sport presenter, Dickie Davies, who appeared whenever a bout was late or a match had to be interrupted to go to the football scores. He received regular angry mail from viewers for whom the 4-5pm slot was sacrosanct. Perhaps they had guessed correctly that Davies loathed the wrestling, except when he found it unintentionally hilarious.
‘I must admit, I’m not the greatest wrestling fan there is,’ he told the Daily Mirror in 1969, ‘but there are times when I watch someone like Les Kellett and tears stream down my face. He gives me more amusement than anybody else. It’s like watching Charlie Drake.’