Timeshift: When Wrestling Was Golden – Review

Timeshift: When Wrestling Was Golden

Thursday 13 December, 9pm, BBC 4

It’s nothing new to deconstruct professional wrestling. It goes back to at least Roland Barthes: his essay on the semiotics of the sport – its need for a good guy and a villain, a narrative flow, and for the audience to feel at first aggrieved and then vindicated – is one of the touchstones of modern critical theory. Anything is worthy of analysis, be it a painting by Titian or a pair of hairy guys groping each other in the ring.

If that seems a heavy way to start a review, well, this is BBC Four. Keep up.

Those of my generation will be more than familiar with WWE (or WWF as it was, until the grunge-rock masked psychopaths decided they didn’t want to be mistaken for pandas), than the British bouts seen here. All-in wrestling remains popular in the US, where the Undertaker, the Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin can beat each other to a pulp with collapsable chairs (forgive me, wrestle fans, if my terms of reference are out of date; like most mature human beings, I’ve not watched it since I was 12).

In Britain, we had Big Daddy and Giant High Stacks. Ridiculous they may have been, but as this film is keen to point out, they represented the tail end of the sport’s popular period. All-in wrestling’s British heyday was the 1960s and 70s. Back then, there may have been showmanship – and, yes, more than a little rigging – but not complete parody.

Yet even the supposedly classic fights between Mick McManus and Jackie Pallo – here vaunted to Thriller-in-Manilla levels – seem ridiculous. It’s just as much a result of the banality of the whole exercise as the excess. Adrian Street may be no more or less a character than WWE’s Kane, but Kane wasn’t doing his prancing in Wembley Town Hall.

Time has not been kind to British all-in wrestling and that’s something not even the most kind-hearted documentary can ignore. The documentary recognises that rampant populism can lead to some dark corners, but whilst it’s happy to admit to the treatment of the unfortunately-named ‘Caribbean Sunshine Boys’, it doesn’t get under the skin of how and why a once-so-popular sport is now so ignored. There are some too-easy swings at class discrimination, but they come across as bitter rather than informed.

As an overview of the history of all-in wrestling, the documentary’s fine, but it lacks critical bite. It feels more like an I Love The 70s special than the sort of incisive programming for which BBC Four is so well known.

Fans of the sport will doubtless enjoy the nostalgia fest, but the ignorant or critical will feel under-informed. It should’ve gone for the ears.