Popular art forms tend to have a hot period, when art and commerce coexist to create something unforeseeable. Pop music peaked in the 1960s; Hollywood hit a sweet spot in the 1970s; TV might be too all-encompassing to go in phases, but arguably the best stuff was seen by the most people in the 1980s.
The big news in When Wrestling Was Golden (Thursday, iPlayer) – a documentary under BBC4’s rock-solid Timeshift banner – was that wrestling was the same. Stupid, fixed, coarse British wrestling: in the 1970s, it was brilliant.
With unashamed BBC4 thoroughness, however, we started between the wars, when wrestling progressed from a curio at the bottom of music-hall bills to its own industry, built around chaotic “all-in” bouts where people were actually hurting each other. Then in the 50s, wrestling as we know it was born: a theatrical spectacle beloved of shouting middle-aged women, with a management company creating heroes (“blue-eyes”) and villains (“heels”) and deciding who won.
The programme was charmingly reluctant to say outright that bouts were fixed. They were, but then again there was genuine animosity between top heel Mick McManus (tiny black briefs, boot-polish widow’s peak, a regular on Wogan and The Generation Game) and popular blue-eye Jackie “Mr TV” Pallo (butterscotch curls, spangly robe). Their 1967 bout was stopped after repeated headbutts cut Pallo’s forehead open. Wrestler turned comic Will Hodgson put it best: “If I put you in the ring with Floyd Mayweather and said don’t worry, I’ve fixed it, go down in the twelfth round, you’d be rightly concerned about the preceding 11.”
This mix of physical prowess and basic theatrics was potent. By the 70s, wrestling was on ITV on Saturday afternoons. It was huge – so huge that it became distorted and marvellously weird, delivering legends like Adrian Street, a Welsh miner’s son who came on with platinum hair, a wobbling hood made of tinsel, and heavy glam make-up giving him the brickie-in-lippy look of a lost member of Sweet. He would taunt opponents and the crowd by mincing round the ring.
For working-class dreamers like Street, the way to escape the pit was to become either a pop star or a sport star. Street had done both at once. When he “won” a title bout, he returned home and posed for an astonishing photo in a coal mine: Street in an ermine coat, parading the belt to the evident alarm of his dad and a gaggle of sooty miners in a cage lift. His reinvention was unequivocal.
King of the contrived, pop-star persona – the documentary seemed to recognise the echo with its unnecessarily cool soundtrack featuring Joy Division, the Jam, the Velvet Underground and the Creation – was Kendo Nagasaki, a masked Japanese samurai warrior who learnt that mystique was crucial. Who was he? Where did he come from? The programme scored an interview with his spiritual adviser, Atlantis Chronos Goth. “Kendo Nagasaki has had lives in the earthly plane… he perished in the siege of Kamikura in 1333.” In his best life, though, he was massive on World of Sport. His real name was Peter Thornley.
The start of the end was Big Daddy, a failed wrestler reinvented by his promoter brother, who took the sport to new heights of popularity but, like Oasis or summer blockbuster franchises, was rubbish. He was just an enormous man who pushed people over and sat on them. His showdown with the even bigger Giant Haystacks, at Wembley Arena in 1981, lasted less than three flabby, money-spinning minutes. Wrestling was no longer golden.
Everyone in the sad and frightening Panorama: Britain’s Hidden Housing Crisis (Thursday BBC1) had made mistakes. They’d got things wrong.
Nick and Rachel had fallen behind with rent on their council house after he lost his job. Patricia had £9,000 in mortgage arrears following her divorce and cancer diagnosis. Lee and Sharon had taken out a 100% mortgage on a family house when his business was booming. Kevin, an investment banker, had put all his own money into his Wall St firm after the crash.
Now homelessness was looming or, in the case of park sleeper Kevin, already here. So this new class of vulnerable people – no more deserving than the stereotype of filthy lone stragglers cut adrift by addiction or family unrest, but more shocking for being unfamiliar – fell into the safety net society provides for people with nowhere to go. This net is full of holes. Down there, among the people who didn’t cause the recession but are suffering because of it, mistakes are ruthlessly punished.
In many ways the film was strikingly apolitical. Benefits cuts were not directly made an issue. Nor were a national lack of social housing, low wages or unemployment statistics. What the programme simply did, a little like BBC4’s The Year the Town Hall Shrank, was to turn a few numbers into people, to bring remote scenarios – wouldn’t it be awful if our family lost its income, couldn’t pay the mortgage and was turfed out of home? – closer.
Under the unique pressure of losing everything, these people kept getting things wrong and kept being crushed for it. One of Nick and Rachel’s four kids cracked a glass panel in their hostel, so they were thrown out. Kevin was half an hour late for the food van, so he didn’t eat that day. Patricia, whose chemotherapy commitments cut no ice with the doubtless individually very nice people at the Barclays repossessions department, signed up for temporary accommodation without seeing it first, and then refused to live in a stinking flat that scared her. Thus she was “intentionally homeless” – as were Nick and Rachel.
The council had discharged its obligations. These people were on their own.