Grunts and Grapples: These are the stars who made wrestling great for four decades in Britain

By Culture24 Reporter | 25 September 2016 | Updated: 23 September 2016

It's been almost 30 years since wrestling was cancelled on ITV. But the stars live on in a new exhibition featuring a film by Jeremy Deller

A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
Just before the football scores, on the then-new station ITV from 1955, wrestling – introduced by inimitable commentator Kent Walton – heralded a new teatime age of grunting beefcakes being scolded by grannies and stylised athleticism.

A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
In its World of Sport slot, it became a ratings winner. More than 12 million people would tune in at its peak.

A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
This was part sport, part entertainment. Wrestling had emerged from music hall traditions.

A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
But the celebrity, spectacle and commercial sides of the sport, according to a skin-baring exhibition opening in Tunbridge Wells, were part of wrestling’s downfall in Britain.

A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
Design historian Kerry William Purcell’s exhibition circumnavigates the golden age of wrestling between the 1950s and the 1990s.

A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy would appear in hundreds of town halls and theatres night after night. The posters are artworks full of big names, stacked shows, fierce posing and interesting font choices.

A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
Wrestlers were portrayed as baddies (heels) or goodies (blue eyes) against prevailing social narratives of otherness and racial and sexual stereotypes.

A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
Theirs was a carefully choreographed storyline. When ITV’s broadcasting of wrestling was cancelled in 1989, many argued that the contrived storylines, characters and manufactured bouts had drowned the sporting side of the action.

A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
Although it was never as successful, wrestling continued in town halls, seaside piers and theatres well into the 1990s.

A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
The costumes once worn by Big Daddy and Adrian Street, two of the original wrestlers, are part of Grunts and Grapples.

A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
There’s also a mask used to conceal the features of Kendo Nagasaki, the possible samurai whose cutting edge saw him tour Japan under the name Mr Guillotine.

A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
A photo of a bygone wrestler in profile, part of grunts and grapples at tunbridge wells
© Courtesy gruntsandgrapples.com
Street was the subject of a 2010 film by the ever-inquisitive Jeremy Deller. So Many Ways To Hurt You, The Life and Times of Adrian Street (“I’m a sweet transvestite with a broken nose…have you ever seen muscles on a rose?”) is screened in the exhibition.

Another film – this time a Pathé one from 1964 - shows women’s wrestling at the Victoria Hall in Hawkhurst, a village near Tunbridge Wells.


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Three museums to see television history in

Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester
The Connecting Manchester Gallery tells the story of the development of communications in the Manchester region. Among the more familiar objects on display are classic radios, such as the Ferranti Lancastria, and a 'Space Age' Keracolor television.

National Media Museum, Bradford
Who invented television and when did it begin in Britain? What does a vision mixer do? What did television sets look like in the sixties? Why do we have adverts on television and how much are we influenced by what we see? Find the answers to all these questions and explore the exciting world of television in the interactive Experience TV gallery.

M Shed, Bristol
The current exhibition, The Story of Children's Television From 1946 to Today, traces the fascinating history of children’s television, bringing together seven decades of iconic objects, memorabilia, merchandise, clips and images.
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