Friday, 25 February 2011
How an Admiral saved wrestling.
I think that it was Christopher Isherwood in Goodbye To Berlin who said regarding the Weimar nightclub scene and the rise of Nazism, "a people who believe in wrestling could believe in anything". A bit harsh on wrestling fans perhaps but certainly one of the problems confronting promoters in the hundred year history of pro wrestling has been how to keep the show believable and convince fans that they are witnessing a genuine contest. People who only know the game from the ludicrous world of WWE might be surprised to learn that the grunt and groan business was ever anything but a form of children's entertainment; a kind of tasteless Blue Peter without all that milk bottle top collecting. The modern day promoter knows that the multi-million dollar product is just a bit of nonsense and knows that we know as well; and doesn't care. But there was a time when the industry bent over backwards to convince the punters that they were witnessing a genuine contest. Huge efforts were made to keep the secret including a wrestlers language that could be used to exclude outsiders . As late as the 1980's British wrestlers were using the expression "queens" (Queens Park Rangers = strangers) as a warning if an uninitiated member of the public was within earshot. If in this country the secret lingo was based on rhyming slang, on the other side of the pond wrestlers used kafabe, the old hidden language of the carnivals. Wrestling was on the one hand a tough world of highly skilled athletes and at the same time a massive con that operated in a no man's land between sport and burlesque. For the promoter the challenge was always to put on shows that had enough gimmicks and esoterica to keep the fans interested while at the same time sending them home happy in the knowledge that they had just witnessed some genuine wrestling. It was never an easy task.
The business had a number of tricks up it's sleeve. One was to keep the press on side and this was successfull right up until the 30's when the excesses of many promoters persuaded sports writers to jump ship and transfer their loyalties to less contentious sports. Another was the fact that very many professional wrestlers were, no matter how choreographed their nightly exhibitions, very much the real deal and every bill would include at least one "hooker", a master of crippling submission holds who could be relied upon to uphold the integrity of the sport. You think it's all fake? Step right up mister and have a go. Finally,no matter how many expose there might be regarding the pre-arranged nature of wrestling it could always be argued that although that particular form of the sport was as bent as a nine bob note, this was the genuine article and the kind of wrestling that had been the norm in the "old days" before "the fall" and the bringing into disrepute of the game by dishonest promoters. The precise historical time of this supposed wrestling Garden of Eden could be adjusted to suit.
The style of wrestling that came to be both loved and despised was very much an American invention but it's roots lay in the catch wrestling of the Lancashire pitmen. But Britain can claim not only the mother lode skill base but also credit for one of the game's most outrageous scams. By the mid 1940's the British wrestling scene was in trouble. Such had been the depths that pre-war All In wrestling had sunk to and such the disregard for the public that the London County Council had finally banned it from the capital. If there was to be a post-war revival it would have to take the form of a born again wrestling that could cleanse itself of the recent past and by showing itself to be linked to the golden age of real wrestling, enter the halls in a cloud of sporting integrity while the product remained essentially the same as before. Could the promoters pull it off? Yes they could and a group of them put their heads together and came up with a plan.
A committee would look into wrestling and although this committee would be made up in the main of the promoters themselves, people from outside the business, and people of some standing, would be needed to give the proceedings authenticity. Admiral Lord Mountevans KCB DSO was approached and agreed to chair the committee. Mountevans was a naval hero, had been second in command on Scott's ill fated Antarctic expedition and was not the sort of chap to have any truck with fake wrestling. Commander Cambell, a popular radio broadcaster at the time also agreed to join this august body. Cambell did a sort of common sense, man of the people type act on The Brains Trust, predecessor of Any Questions. There is some doubt if Campbell was ever actually a Commander and some would have it that his seagoing career was as a purser on passenger ships. He would fit in a treat. Labour MP Maurice Webb was to complete the non-wrestling element. The Lord Mountevans Committee as it was to be known couldn't very well meet in the upstairs room of a pub so the boys went for broke and hired a room in the Houses Of Parliament. The committee discussed and decided on rules, weight divisions, championship belts (Lord Mountevans Gold Belt nach) and at the close the Admiral shuffled his papers together, thanked the members for attending and disappeared once more into the margins of history. The designated champions were authentic Wigan shooters, the masks and clowning around were kept to a minimum, the LCC lifted it's ban and for a while some semblance of respectability was bestowed on the grappling game. It couldn't last of course. Public taste is too fickle for that. In a few years the promoters would be forced to return to their old ways. Was Mountevans an innocent dupe or a willing accomplice? Perhaps he was a star struck fan who just wanted to hang out with the boys. We will never know but can be grateful I suppose that His Lordship would depart this mortal coil in 1957 and was thus spared the embarrassment of having to watch Big Daddy on World Of Sport.