'Greetings Grapple Fans’, Kent Walton
Curated and compiled by writer and historian Kerry William Purcell Grunts & Grapples profiles the golden age of British Wrestling from the 1950s until the 1990s. This book is a stunning visual history of the outrageous outfits, the often genuine antagonism, the holds and moves, the larger-than-life characters, the role of women wrestlers, and the audience itself, showcased via photographs, original posters, magazines, flyers, the costumes, and much more. These images, painstakingly collected and tracked down over years, sit alongside insight and interviews with fans and key figures from British wrestling.
For those of a certain age, Kent Walton’s welcome will evoke the routine of Saturday teatimes in front of the TV, anticipating an exciting 45 minutes of grapples, grunts, and the ubiquitous granny scolding a wrestler. Part sport, part entertainment, British wrestling garnered audiences of over 12 million at its peak, and was a central part of our national life for nearly half a century. In this period, iconic figures such as Kendo Nagasaki, Mick McManus, and Big Daddy, appeared in hundreds of UK town halls and theatres night after night, as well their weekly Saturday slot from 4pm - 4.45pm (just before the football scores) on ITV’s World of Sport.
Each wrestler brought his (or her) own distinctive style to the 20ft x 20ft ring, but this ring was also a perfect canvas for the photographer. The men and women who captured the nightly scenes were often jobbing photographers working for local newspapers, wrestling magazines, or the promoter Joint Promotions. Like a choreographed ballet, the photographers came to know that ‘heals’ such as Giant Haystacks would, leaning heavily on the sagging ropes, provoke the crowd; or in a bout featuring a masked wrestler, the ‘blue eye’ would eventually seek to reveal his mysterious identity by pulling the mask off. Knowing the storylines, the photographer could position themselves for the decisive moment. In a split second, the burst of the flashbulb served to accentuate the physicality of the wrestlers, the sweaty facial expressions contorted in pain or exertion. This book will explore these images, which are not the work of a fine-art photographer, but wonderfully grainy reportage, capturing a moment of pure entertainment. They are documents of another night in another town hall; another night of grunts and grapples.
As a form of public entertainment, wrestling emerged from the earlier traditions of the music hall and circus ring. This heritage played a key role in the development of the characters, storylines, and audience participation, which were all unique to the sport. Grunts & Grapples will also explore this influence in the posters produced to promote the wrestling matches. Like the bill posters created for comedians, singers and conjurers in the world of vaudeville, the wrestling poster used a variety of graphic techniques to attract the eye. Names such as ‘Rex Strong’, ‘Ivan the Red’, or ‘Billy Two Rivers’, were mostly printed in red and black, always in bold, and set in capitals. Below the names, set in a smaller type, there was often a quote from the wrestler or additional information about their physiognomy. The earlier works consisted largely of type, but in time photographs were included of wrestlers executing poses that communicated a feature of their assumed name. Produced by the anonymous printer, these ephemeral objects were frequently requested at short notice, but the outcome were works of enduring graphic beauty.
While one could argue that many of the iconic figures from the golden age of wrestling were men, to ignore the significant presence of women in the sport would be a mistake. Just as certain stereotypical characteristics of men were foregrounded in their ring persona, so it was with female wrestlers. To the contemporary eye, many of their nom de plumes are clearly sexist. However, while not condoning such nicknames as ‘Lady “Miss Boobs” Emma’ or ‘Sizzling Suzy Keegan’, it is important to understand that they descend from the tradition of suggestive and sensational titles adopted by (often at the encouragement of male managers) female music hall acts. However, as Grunts & Grapples delves further into the role of these women and the ability of such wrestlers as Klondyke Kate or Miss Busty Keegan (clearly no longer ‘Sizzling’) to put on a performance and work the crowd was no less practiced and perfected than their male counterparts.
As wrestling starts to make a resurgence across the UK, Grunts & Grapples tells the story of the sport’s true golden age, from its 1950s beginnings, through its televisual heyday, and finally to its decline in the ‘90s. Through original posters, photographs, souvenirs, and costumes, it is a celebration of this interplay of sport and spectacle, seeking to represent this important and much forgotten element of both local and national cultural history.
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