‘Oh, you mean Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks!’
By Dr Claire Warden, reader in Drama at De Montfort University
How can we account for the dramatic resurgence in British professional wrestling? How does it relate to the nostalgic history of wrestling in this country? And, most importantly, how can we understand this professional wrestling history as both performance art and sport? Claire Warden tells us about a live wrestling event which lifts the curtain on the history and current popularity of British professional wrestling by exploring its performance conventions.
In Simon Garfield’s 2007 book The Wrestling, artist Peter Blake bemoaned the decline of professional wrestling, saying it was ‘something very British we’ve lost’. Overtaken by the glitz of the American WWE, dropped from television schedules, British wrestling seemed to have died. But, in recent years, this has been entirely reversed. Suddenly British wrestling is popular again, commanding large audiences and, through online platforms, sharing its shows with the world.
This rise, fall, and rise again has inspired us to host ‘Live British wrestling: history and resurgence‘, responding to Being Human’s ‘lost and found’ theme for 2017. This is a pro-wrestling show… but it is more than this. A collaboration between humanities academics (Claire Warden and Ben Litherland), Attenborough Arts Centre (Sam West and John Kirby), Prototype Theatre Company and wrestlers/referees/promoters, it is a practice-based reassessment of British professional wrestling history.
When we tell people about this event, most have a story to tell. ‘I watched World of Sport with my Granny. She enjoyed booing the baddies’. ‘I loved Big Daddy. He was my hero as a kid’. ‘I remember watching wrestling at the local working men’s club with my dad’. ‘It reminds me of holidays at Butlins’. ‘I tried to tombstone my brother once. My mum gave me such a row’. These are the sort of nostalgic reminiscences we hear.
Professional wrestling has a long history in Britain, right back to the music hall theatres of the early twentieth century. Sitting on the borders between sport and art, competition and entertainment, it has always faced charges of fakery. It has been criticized as ungodly, not suitable for women, corrupting for the working classes, dangerous for our children, connected with shadowy promoters and underground violence. It has been dismissed as popular culture, as melodrama, as opium for the duped masses. It has been rejected as not a sport, not appropriate for afternoon television, not exciting enough to keep up with the American product. But right now it leads the world.
Contributing to the on going history of British professional wrestling performance, after the live action we’ll be chatting to the wrestlers to get a sense of their influences, practices and training. The audience will intentionally be a mix of wrestling fans and wrestling newbies, performers (dancers and theatremakers) and sporty types, older World of Sport-lovers and younger devotees of contemporary wrestling companies such as Progress, Eve and ICW. There will be space to ask questions, and share experience and memories. The aim is to create a new, experiential history of British professional wrestling through the shared experience of engaging with a show.