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When wrestling held the nation in its grip

THE dish of the day is mince and tatties, the scene is Broomhill and a wee girl is watching her granny watching the wrestling.

A flashback to 1969 . . . Picture courtesy of Linda Sands
A flashback to 1969 . . . Picture courtesy of Linda Sands

Decades on, the girl has become a woman, a television director and producer. But she is stilled gripped by the grapplers.

"I was taken into an office to be shown a list of potential films to be made. It included such fascinating subjects as the Jewish music of klezmer and other intriguing themes," says Linda Sands. "I saw the word wrestling and I immediately said: 'I want to do that'."

The result of this decision will be shown on BBC 4 tonight, but the journey into what was once central to the television culture has been a rewarding one for Sands, a graduate of Glasgow University, whose career has included credits on gardening programmes, the Culture Show and projects with historian Dan Snow, including an excellent examination of the Dunkirk evacuation.

Her take on the phoney war of television wrestling will attract a widespread and intrigued audience. The phenomenon of television wrestling can not be understated. More than 16m viewers tuned in during the 60s and the wrestlers continued to be a part of World of Sport on ITV into the 80s.

The performers were stars: Mick McManus, Jacky Pallo, Giant Haystacks, Adrian Street and Kendo Nagasaki. It faded and then disappeared off the screens to be replaced by the extraordinary world of American wrestling under the auspices of WWE that brings in hundreds of million of dollars in revenue every year.

So why did the British variety fall into a poor health that has dogged it as its vibrant American cousin dominates the channels?

"It was a sort of journey into a vanished world," says Sands who both produced and directed the documentary. "I believe wrestling suffered because it was seen as low-brow, condemned as a cheap filler for the working class in an era when the yuppy was king. It just did not suit the times and it was allowed to drift away from mainstream television."

She knew, though, that there was a story behind the energetic pantomime that was the grappling season on World of Sport. She had access to the frenetic footage but was also able to interview the athletes who held the show in place.

"I look at it as a tragedy in leotards," says Sands. Wrestling may not have been considered an art but the performers suffered for it anyway. Years of crashing on to canvas produced chronic health problems, ensured a raft of competitors needed replacement hips or suffered from arthritic joints.

There are those who argue that wrestling cannot be a sport because the results were pre-determined. Cynics would argue that drugs made the results of several Tours De France and many Olympic events similarly predictable but the result was never the point in wrestling. This was a morality play where the "blue eyes" – the good guys – were battered, robbed and cheated by the "heels" – the bad guys. The world could thus sit and root for a triumph over evil.

"The story lines are basic, but the characters were marvellous," says Sands. She has interviewed such as Street and Kendo Nagasaki. "Street is remarkable," she says simply. "He was a Welsh lad who took up wrestling to escape the pit." He was the first openly camp wrestler in Britain. This tough, heterosexual grappler discovered the reaction he created when he flounced into the ring in exotic costumes had a commercial by-product.

He became one of the biggest wrestlers in Britain and one of the best. "There is this great photograph of Adrian dressed in all his finery with a world championship belt standing in a cage down a pit with miners behind him. He told me they had all laughed when he said he was going to be a professional wrestler, but Adrian was down the pit only on that day and only to show how far he had travelled."

Sands, too, was mesmerised by Kendo Nagasaki, the man in the mask, who refused to be interviewed without his disguise and spoke only through an interpreter. This may be considered strange for a variety of reasons, not least that Mr Nagasaki was born in Stoke on Trent.

However, Nagasaki was just part of a pageant that stirred the nation, some of it to excess. The enduring image of the wrestling spectator is the old lady with a brolly who beats up the "bad guy" and Sands says there is truth in the assertion that mild-mannered pensioners could be turned into malevolent beasts.

"One of the best woman wrestlers, Klondyke Kate, knew how to work a crowd and her entrance to the ring was usually accompanied by a chorus of boos. Once, though, she felt an excruciating pain and discovered a little, old lady had plunged a syringe into her sciatic nerve."

Sands adds that this was just part of the pain that the wrestlers suffered. "One told me that it is easy to say the results were pre-determined but that did not mean it did not hurt. He explained it this way: say a boxer had agreed to take a dive against Mike Tyson in the ninth, that still involved getting beaten up for eight rounds."

The battle is over for those greats, but Sands has ensured that the memories endure.

Timeshift: When Wrestling Was Golden: Grapples, Grunts and Grannies is on BBC 4 tonight, 9pm

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