‘Greetings Grapple Fans!’
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. Wrestling was first broadcast on the new ITV station in 1955 but a decade later its established slot became 4pm - 4.45pm (just before the football scores) on ITV’s World of Sport.
Part sport, part entertainment, wrestling garnered audiences of over 12 million at its peak, and ITV seemed like a fitting home for a pastime that had emerged from the traditions of the music hall. In many ways, the balance between sport and entertainment that wrestling presented was always an uncertain one. The pull towards celebrity and spectacle that the commercial element of the sport demanded would eventually be wrestling’s downfall in Britain. Its presence on British TVs would last for 24 years as a key part of ITV’s sports programming until it was axed in 1989 due to falls in audience numbers.
Curated by design historian Kerry William Purcell Grunts & Grapples profiles the golden age of British Wrestling from the 1950s until the 1990s. Wrestling was a central part of British national life in this period with iconic figures such as Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy appearing in hundreds of UK town halls and theatres night after night as well as featuring on TV. The exhibition explores how the showmanship of wrestling drew on earlier traditions of public entertainment such as music hall and circus and how this informed the development of the cast of characters, storylines and audience participation unique to the sport.
Through posters, photographs, souvenirs and costumes the exhibition reveals the origins of wrestling’s interplay of sport and spectacle and the development of personas. The portrayal of wrestlers as baddies (heals) or goodies (blue eyes) would be combined with prevailing social narratives of otherness and racial and sexual stereotypes. This play of characters across the hundreds of venues that hosted the wrestling and TV screens across the country was a carefully choreographed storyline with long running grudges, feuds, and resentments. They were all stage managed by the wrestling promoter Joint Promotions, who held a near monopoly on the management of the wrestlers, the bouts and their presentation during the heyday of British wrestling.
ITV’s broadcasting of wrestling was cancelled in 1989 and many argued this was due to the contrived storylines, larger than life characters, and manufactured bouts – the entertainment side of wrestling’s heritage - had begun to overshadow the sporting aspect. For many, the protracted battle between Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks throughout the 1980s confirmed this. Judged as a mockery of ‘real’ wrestling, many fans and wrestlers 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, TV audiences for British wrestling fell. Wrestling continued in town halls, seaside piers and theatres well into the 1990s, but it never loomed as large in the public consciousness as it had throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
The exhibition features the original costumes of the legendary wrestlers Big Daddy and Adrian Street together with a mask from the mysterious Kendo Nagasaki. Also featuring in the exhibition is So Many Ways To Hurt You, The Life and Times of Adrian Street, 2010; a film by Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller.
Curator: Kerry William Purcell
Exhibition Designer: Jessica Harris
With thanks to Adrian Street, Peter Byrne and Jeremy Deller.
Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery
15 Sept 2016 - 14 Jan 2016
Doncaster Museum & Art Gallery
1 April 2017 - 9 July 2017
Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester
13 April 2018 - 27 May 2018
Are you interested exhibiting Grunts & Grapples? If so, just drop me a line via the 'contact' button above. In the meantime, click on this link for a PDF outlining the exhibition.