Tuesday, June 06, 2006

They Might Be Giants …

When I was a youngster, apart from the usual public holidays, there were only two established routines in our household. Both, as it happened, fell on the weekend: the Sunday roast and ‘World Of Sport’. If any bonding went on under our roof, then my father and I did ours in front of the telly on a Saturday. We shunned BBC’s ‘Grandstand’ but flirted with the competition - ITV.

At that time, the BBC had purchased the rights to as many established events as it could, leaving minority sports out in the cold with nowhere to go. This left ITV looking for an answer to counter Auntie’s greed. They gave us Ten Pin Bowling, Go Kart Racing, Netball and Lacrosse. However, they had a card up their sleeve …

Although I was unaware at the time, there was a joke doing the rounds in which claimed that the BBC were going through the list of sports in alphabetical order and had run out of cash before it reached the letter ‘W’. Which was when ITV brought us … wrestling!

Modern day wrestling with it’s inverted pyramid puff-balls, their suntanned and muscled Adonis-like characters, just isn’t the same. We’re talking huge, fat, unfit working men, with regional accents, copious amounts of body hair and a physique not unlike a barrel of goop. These were our heroes. We cheered and booed as they threw their 40-stone hulks around the ring. We laughed at their facial expressions and winced as they sat on their opponents heads. It was all a set-up. Pure theatre, executed in an amateurish but highly entertaining manner.

The highlight of any Saturday in front of the goggle-box was ‘World Of Sport’ host Dickie Davies, turning to the camera and saying “so, we'll be back for the results of all of today’s football fixtures a little later. But for now, it’s over to the Civic Centre in Rochdale and your commentator, Kent Walton …”.

At this very moment, you could have smashed up my bike, and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Beaming from ear to ear, the high spot of the weekend had arrived. The camera would cut to a wide shot of a grotty looking hall, a wrestling ring centre stage and the great man would welcome us with “Good afternoon grapple fans …”

As far as I was concerned, Kent Walton was a demi-God. He was the authority on wrestling, he possessed a voice that could charm the birds from the trees and had a wry sense of humour. But who was he?

Kent Walton was born Kenneth Walton Beckett in Cairo on 22nd August 1917, the son of the Minister for Finance in the colonial government. A young Kenneth and his family moved back to the UK and completed his childhood in Surrey. Initially young Kent pursued an acting career enrolling at the Embassy School of Acting in London but the outbreak of war put a hold to Kent's promising career. He signed-up for the RAF and served King and country as a radio operator and front gunner. After the war, Kent returned to the stage where he met and fell in love with Lynn Smith. The two were married in 1949 and produced one son.

He joined Radio Luxembourg as a disc jockey and shortened his name to ‘Kent Walton’. He soon found himself in demand on TV particularly as a voice-over artist. Whilst acting as a compere on the pop show ‘Cool for Cats’, Walton developed an interest in wrestling through Mick McManus and subsequently became ITV's 'voice of wrestling' from 1955 until 1988.

However, lurking in most cupboards are skeletons and Kent’s was not that well locked. At the same time that he was presenting ‘World Of Sport’, he work under a pseudonym, Elton Hawke. In the early 70’s, Elton was responsible for producing a number of soft porn films; ‘Clinic Xclusive’, ‘Virgin Witch’ and ‘Can You Keep It Up for a Week?’.

The answer to the last one being “Lord knows, I’ve tried …”

Back at the wrestling, Kent introduced us to Mick MacManus, Giant Haystacks, Big Daddy and Kendo Nagasaki. These were men who were vastly overweight and as unhealthy as laboratory Beagles. Weekly feuding between these giants lead to choreographed set-pieces; body slams, head locks and full/half nelsons. The match referees ran around like whippets at a bull fight, trying to keep ‘control’ over these hulks. Kent was always on hand to describe the (possible) next move or to deliver “Haystacks isn‘t very happy with that … OOOOHH! Now let’s see him get out of that one …”

It was good, clean fun. Wrestling in the UK did have it’s share of crazy fans and unlikely sideshows. Once a wrestler had been ejected from the ring, an old dear would leave her chair, race over to the poor sod and beat him senseless with her handbag. A great cheer would echo around the hall and Kent (who was seated ringside) would drop in a wry one-liner.

As shocking as it could be, wrestling was to see it's last days on the little screen. Big Daddy (real name, Shirley Crabtree), felled Mal "King Kong" Kirk in 1987, following up with one of his trademark belly splashes. Kirk died from his injuries and Big Daddy retired from the sport. Kids all over the land adored Big Daddy and the sport suffered terribly once he had left. ‘World Of Sport’ was removed by ITV in 1988.

The Saturday show could command an audience of up to 12 million between the football half-time and full-time results spots . Reportedly, fans of the show, and of Walton, included Margaret Thatcher and the Queen. On his trips to the UK, Frank Sinatra would watch ITV’s wrestling and once described the men in shorts as “the best entertainers in the world”.

Big Daddy died in December 1997, Giant Haystacks died the following year and Kent Walton died two days after his 86th birthday, in August 2003.

Together, they brought us an enormous amount of fun and helped me bond with my father. Saturday afternoons were never the same again. They were giants who came out of a small box ... and we loved them.

So, as Kent would say, “Have a good week ... till next week.”



Anonymous Chris Joyce said...

I remember Saturday afternoons well. My favorite was a red indian and I think his name was Billy two rivers, who after taken abuse used to go into a war dance and had this "Chop" which used to announce he was back in the game. Entertainment at its best.

Chris aged 56

Monday, September 04, 2006 7:52:00 am  

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