Thursday, August 3, 2017

"Primitive, Revolting and Obscene" – Roller Derby on ITV, 1966-67

The Bay Bombers, 1968
On Saturday 8th October 1966, ITV broadcast roller derby for the first time. Billed as “Roller Skating” in TV listings[i], it was run as a segment on the Saturday afternoon magazine show World of Sport, preceding coverage of horse racing from Redcar and a rugby league fixture between Leeds and Hull. Roller derby would go on to feature sporadically over the following months – appearing at least another six times between November 1966 and April 1967,[ii] before selected regional broadcasters ran highlight packages on Sunday afternoons in the summer of 1967.

The inclusion of roller derby, featuring both men’s and women’s teams from the United States and Australia, may have seemed a strange programming choice but was an early example of World of Sport’s eclectic mix of sports drawn from across the globe. Throughout its 20-year run, from January 1965 to September 1985, the show would augment its schedule with such minority sports as international canal vaulting, log-rolling and target diving. While this programming has come to be regarded as a nostalgia-ridden figure of fun,[iii] it was, in no small part, ITV’s attempt to turn a necessity into a virtue.

Since its inception, the network had struggled to compete with the sports coverage offered by the BBC. As Garry Whannel has written, the BBC “had established close relations with many major sports, based around long-term contracts, and this, coupled with the built-in handicaps ITV suffered as a result of the regional system, gave the BBC a powerful position in sports coverage.”[iv] When World of Sport was launched in direct opposition to the BBC’s flagship sports programme Grandstand, it inevitably suffered from these constraints. Dickie Davies, who became the full-time presenter of World of Sport in 1968, said, “We knew we were up against it with the BBC having all the rights”.[v] Despite ITV’s recognition of these facts and attempts to change the situation – the network announced the formation of a Central Sports Unit to focus on the acquisition and presentation of sport on ITV in December 1966 – the conclusion remained that “[i]n organisational and institutional terms the dice were always loaded in favour of the BBC”.[vi]

In this context, the inclusion of roller derby during World of Sport could be seen simply as an attempt to fill the Saturday afternoon schedule. Yet there was good reason at the time to believe that roller derby might attract a sizeable viewership in the UK. Growing out of the fad for endurance skating in the 1930s, roller derby had achieved something of a cult following in the United States and, to a lesser extent Australia, in the 1960s. During the 1940s and 50s, the roller derby promoter Leo Seltzer, and latterly his son Jerry, would reimagine roller derby as a full body contact sport, involving both men and women.[vii]

For a time, roller derby assumed the style of manufactured, contrived violence much akin to professional wrestling. However, by the mid-1950s, Seltzer changed tack and roller derby attempted to “restructure itself as a serious sport”.[viii] New rules were implemented, with players rewarded for passing opponents on the track while others acted as ‘blockers’ or ‘jammers’. There was also an attempt to build the sport around ‘big personalities’.[ix] This repackaging exercise was successful to an extent: by 1969 the “Bay Bomber’s team had their matches video-taped and sent out to 79 stations all over the U.S. (plus Japan), which schedule the tapes at their own convenience.”[x] It was claimed “their live and TV audience is matched by very few teams in any sport” and, importantly, that the “audience is predominantly female”.[xi]

It is unsurprising, then, that officials at ITV thought they had stumbled across a potential ratings winner. Not only was there the possibility that roller derby would capture the imagination of people in the UK, it might also allow the network to attract a demographic – women, or more specifically young women – who were not traditionally drawn to sports coverage on any channel. As such, the optimism of the Associated British Corporation’s (ABC) Brian Tealer, does not seem misplaced:
“There seems to be no reason as to why Roller Derby should not become as popular a spectator sport here as it is in America and Australia, and we should like to make it a reasonably frequent item in our schedules both from time to time in World of Sport and in our Sunday lunchtime OBs in the Summer.”[xii]
However, it appears that the reaction from the ITV audience was not altogether positive. On the day of roller derby’s first transmission, the Independent Television Authority (ITA) received two complaints from viewers who felt so aggrieved by what they had seen as to phone the ITA with their thoughts. The first described the match between the ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Hawaiian Warriors’ teams as being a “cross between rugby and wrestling on roller skates. Not what I call sport and when the women’s teams came on even less so.”[xiii] The second lamented that the “item showing [people] on roller skates fighting each other is neither sport nor entertaining and viewer thinks very unsuitable for young sons”[xiv]

These complaints continued through November and December of 1966. Extracts from the ITA Line Log Books record that there were three complaints lodged on 19th November 1966, where viewers were said to have “disliked having American sport” on television.[xv] Subsequently, one viewer complained that “Roller Derby was not really ‘Sport’”[xvi] and another dismissed it as “pathetic”.[xvii] Following the broadcast of a match between the Australian Thunderbirds and the Texas Outlaws a viewer phoned the ITA to say, “Let’s hope that Roller Derby does not catch on here.” Seemingly blind to the meaning and beauty of any sport, they added, “It all seemed rather pointless.”[xviii]

Aside from these general denunciations of roller derby, there were also complaints about its physicality. In December 1966, a viewer felt compelled to write to the “Controller of Programming” at the ITA:
“I have seen some vicious programmes on television in the past but your item “Australian Roller Derby on today’s ‘World of Sport’ makes most of them seem like kindergarten stuff. In fact your transmission was only slightly above BBC level – and I cannot say worse than that.”[xix]
In March 1967, another wrote to the Lord Hill, chairman of the ITA:
“These programmes are primitive, revolting and obscene, and it is a gross misuse of language to describe the staged butchery as sport. Furthermore the programmes are totally unsuitable for children…”[xx]
While these complaints represent a remarkably small sample given the (potentially) millions of people who had watched roller derby on World of Sport, they were a part of a steady trickle of negative feedback that focussed on three distinct tropes. Firstly, that roller derby should not be classified as a sport. Secondly, that the ‘violence’ of the sport renders it unfit for viewing by (young) children. Thirdly, the fact that women participated in the sport was particularly unpalatable – a view which increasingly came to reflect the position of the ITA.

Officially, the ITA practiced a cordial neutrality. In response to a letter from a viewer which contained some rather strident criticisms, Bernard Sendall replied curtly, “We have taken note of them”.[xxi] In March 1967, Lord Hill responded to concerns over the violence of roller derby by comparison to other sports broadcast on World of Sport:
“Like many sports involving physical contact – boxing, or rugby football for example – it can be rough and tough. Its presentation on television is not without its problems. Both we here, and ABC Television, are aware of this, and we are attempting to arrive at some assessment of its suitability.“[xxii]
Correspondence from the ITV viewers was being carefully monitored by the ITA and people within the network. In January 1967, a viewer’s letter prompted Sendall to contact Tealer in order to discuss the continued broadcasting of roller derby. “The receipt of the enclosed vigorous complaint about Australian Roller Derby reminds me of our earlier discussion and leads me to enquire how you now feel about this sport in the light of the coverage that has been given it so far.”[xxiii] Ten days later an internal ITV memo suggested that “We may be having some trouble with this ‘sport’, and you might therefore think it worthwhile watching the next match, which is this coming Saturday.”[xxiv]

Brian Tealer was unmoved. He (rightly) suggested that there had been relatively little negative feedback and that the sport required more airtime before any firm decisions could be made about its future:
“We agreed to wait until we had run Roller Derby and tested audience reaction for some time before we decided whether it had a future on our screens. [par] Mr. Goldsmith’s letter is in fact, one of only a few complaints we have received after four transmissions. Reaction otherwise has been favourable; not even the National Skating Association has surfaced again since their pre-transmission protest.”[xxv]
Yet behind the scenes there was a growing concern over the continued broadcasting of roller derby and it centred around women’s participation. P, Dannheisser, filing a report as the monitor for programmes on Saturday 31 December 1966 remarked, “I found women hitting each other where nature never intended them to be hit – unpleasant.”[xxvi] At the bottom of that document, written in pen, is the question: “Anything to log about Roller Derby? Any comments from any of the girls?”[xxvii]

Bernard Sendall also expressed concerns over the presence of women in roller derby, albeit in circumspect fashion: “I would not care to go beyond saying that we are content you should continue to feel your way as regards the presentation of this sport, but have some definite qualms about the involvement of women. To give any clearer indication I should need to ‘take a view’ here and it is perhaps a little early to do this a while.”[xxviii]

There is no more correspondence past this date contained within the archive. There is no record of a decision being made about the broadcasting of roller derby, nor any reason as to why any decision may have been taken. What we can say for certain is that roller derby was last broadcast on World of Sport on Saturday 29th April 1967, after which it does not feature on the programme again.

However, from May to July roller derby is broadcast on Sundays in certain ITV regions. Unsurprisingly ABC lead the way, showing seven programmes over a three-month period. Other regional broadcasters – Anglia, Ulster, Scottish, Border, and Tyne Tees – also offer the programme in the same time slot, but with the occasional variation. For instance, on Sunday 18th June 1967, it only appears in the ABC (North and Midlands) listings; Border and Ulster are hosting a show on farming while Anglia carried the Suffolk Military Tattoo. Similarly, on Sunday 25th June 1967 roller derby is shown on Scottish but not on Tyne Tees.

It is impossible to say with certainty why roller derby was dropped from the ITV schedule. Certainly, there is evidence that roller derby offended male sensibilities about women in sport, with both viewers and administrators voicing their displeasure at women taking part in contests of such physical intensity. However, one might also speculate roller derby was the victim of poor ratings or lost amidst the institutional reshaping of the network’s sports coverage in the late 1960s. What we do know is that the sport makes its final network appearance on Sunday 30th July 1967. The next time it appeared on ITV is as the backdrop to an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man in April 1978.[xxix]



[i] TELEVISION AND RADIO. (1966, Oct 08). The Guardian (1959-2003) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/185164342?accountid=10472
[ii] There is a slight confusion over the number of broadcasts. TV listings record three roller derby segments broadcast between October and December 1966. However, correspondence contained in the archive suggests there was another broadcast during this period. Given the occasionally ad hoc nature of World of Sport at this point in time it is reasonable to conclude that there are a number of discrepancies between the sports advertised and the sports that made it to transmission.
[iii] “ITV World of Sport Tribute Part 1 of 5”, YouTube video, posted by “Sid N”, accessed 3 August 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6P0tq0mFMw
[iv] Gary Whannel (1992) Fields in Vision: Television Sports and Cultural Transformation, Routledge: London, p45
[v] Dickie Davies quoted in Martin Kelner (2012) Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV, Bloomsbury: London, p150
[vi] Bernard Sendall (1983) Independent Television in Britain, Vol 2: Expansion and Change, 1958-1968, MacMillan: London, p238
[vii] Maddie Breeze (2015) Seriousness and Women’s Roller Derby, Palgrave MacMillan: Basingstoke, pp2-3
[viii] Frank Deford (1971) Five Strides on the Banked Track: The Life and Times of the Roller Derby, Little, Brown and Company: Boston, p73
[ix] Barbee J and Cohen A (2010) Down and Derby: The Insider’s Guide to Roller Derby, Soft Skull Press: New York, p21
[x] Frank Deford (1969) “The Roller Derby” in Sports Illustrated, 3rd March 1969, available at https://www.si.com/vault/1969/03/03/558511/the-roller-derby
[xi] Frank Deford (1969) “The Roller Derby” in Sports Illustrated, 3rd March 1969, available at https://www.si.com/vault/1969/03/03/558511/the-roller-derby
[xii] Letter from Tealer to Sendall, 16th January 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xiii] Extract from HQ Monitor’s Reports, Saturday 8th October 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xiv] Extract from Lines Log Book, Saturday 8th October 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xv] Extract from Lines Log Book, Saturday 19th November 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xvi] Extract from Lines Log Book, Saturday 3rd December 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xvii] Extract from HQ Monitor’s Reports, Saturday 3rd December 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xviii] Extract from HQ Monitor’s Reports, Saturday 19th November 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xix] Letter addressed to The Controller of Programmes, ITA, 31 December 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xx] Letter addressed to Chairman, ITA, 11 March 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxi] Bernard Sendall, Reply to viewer’s letter of 31 Dec. 1996, 6th January 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxii] Lord Hill, Reply to viewer’s letter of 11th March 1967, 20th March 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxiii] Letter from Bernard Sendall to Brian Tealer, 6th January 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxiv] Memo from HPS to DDG, 16th January 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxv] Letter from Tealer to Sendall, 16th January 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxvi] Headquarters Monitor Report, Saturday 31st December 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxvii] Headquarters Monitor Report, Saturday 31st December 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxviii] Letter from Sendall to Tealer, 23rd January 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxix] TELEVISION/RADIO. (1978, Apr 25). The Guardian (1959-2003) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/186024492?accountid=10472

Friday, June 30, 2017

Thoughts on Structuring a Thesis

When I began researching the history of sport on commercial television (1955-92), I had a vague notion of how the finished work might be structured. While I cannot claim to have thought through every detail of format and layout, my original conception (if that’s not too grand a phrase) envisaged a historical piece laid out along chronological lines. This would be broken down into four distinct sections, a periodisation based on key public policy interventions: the 1954 TV Act and the subsequent committees chaired by Pilkington (1962), Annan (1977) and Peacock (1986).

There was a rudimentary logic behind this.  Firstly, it was influenced by a number of works read during the early stages of literature searching. Both introductory texts (Crisell, 2002) and subject-specific books (Black, 1972) explored the history of television chronologically. Moreover, the ‘official’ histories of ITV produced by the IBA (Sendall, 1982; Potter, 1989; Bonner and Aston, 1998) each dealt with specific periods of commercial television’s history in such a fashion.

Equally, thinking about the research in strictly chronological terms afforded certain benefits. It allowed me, as a relatively novice researcher, to organise key details within the broader historical picture. It is then possible to appreciate historical developments, and to differentiate between short-term experimentation and long-term trends. It was the simplest way of familiarising myself with the period and organising my thoughts.

As the research has progressed, and my thoughts have turned to questions of structuring my thesis, so the linear model seems increasingly redundant. Put simply, it does not feel as though this approach is sophisticated or nuanced enough to deal with the complexity of the subject. Already it is obvious that there are potential themes and case-studies which cannot be easily addressed within such a structure. One may point to ITV’s competition with the BBC, the long-running Saturday afternoon magazine show World of Sport, and the network’s coverage of professional wrestling.

There is a further consideration. Although the research has a distinct focus on ITV, any history of sport on commercial television must include discussion of Channel 4. Launched in 1982, the channel had a distinct remit, and its sports coverage a definite identity. There are specific questions concerning the sports covered by Channel 4, its presentation style, and how the ideas of Americanisation can be used to explain its programming.

In revising my thoughts on the structure of the thesis, I found myself influenced by Andreas Fickers’ book review and what is described as the “rapprochement between the textual and the contextual tradition in television historiography” (2009:568)

“It is only in the last decade that television studies have witnessed a growing interest in the historical nature of the medium and that media historians have moved from a reconstruction of the past based on written archives to a more integral historiography of television, translated in a serious attention for the audiovisual tradition of the medium.” (ibid.)

In this conception, television historiography is not simply reducible to a “reconstruction of the past based on written archives” – as important as this remains. In addition to the political, economic and social contexts of the programming, one might also consider such factors as the audience, technological innovation, and the relationship between broadcaster and advertiser. Perhaps most importantly, the programming is the key text from which analysis flows – elements of which appear, do varying degrees, in works of sports history (Whannel, 1992; Buscombe, 1975).

One can see thematic structuring in various works. Wheatley’s edited collection of essays (2007) on television historiography – the subject of the review – is broken down into four separate themes: “Debating the Canon”, “Textual Histories”, “Production and Institution” and “Audiences”. Something similar occurs in the book ITV Cultures (Johnson & Turnock, 2005). In this work, chapters fall under one of three themes: “Histories”, “Institutions” and “Texts”.

Even if one does not exactly reproduce these themes – and, obviously, a thesis does not follow the same framework as a book – they offer a useful starting point from which to develop my writing. With this in mind, I’m proposing the following as a working structure:

1.            Context
                                 I.           The historical link between sport and the media
                               II.           The position of the BBC as an established broadcaster
                             III.           The birth of independent television; its political and social context
                            IV.            The unique structure of the ITV network
                              V.            An overview of how sport has been broadcast on independent television

2.            Programming & Audiences
                                 I.           A chapter rich in quantitative data examining what is shown, how often, at         what points in the schedule.
                               II.           Viewing figures for sport on commercial television
                             III.           This may be the best place to address the question of ITV’s relationship to       the BBC

3.            Histories
                                 I.           World of Sport
                               II.           Wrestling
                             III.           Football
                            IV.            Channel 4

4.            Identities
                                 I.           National identities: What differences in programming do we witness in Wales and Scotland? How does the position of Scottish Television (STV) – separate from the rest of the independent network – affect sports coverage? To what extent does sports programming recreate, reinforce and shape ideas of British identity?
                               II.           Regional identities: What regional variations are to be found in programming? How do these translate to the national picture, if at all?
                             III.            How does the sports coverage of ITV and Channel 4 intersect with        considerations of gender, race and class?

Of course, this is only a provisional structure, likely to be revised as my research and writing continues. There are, I think, some areas that remain problematic. Despite my best intentions, the history of sport on Channel 4 still feels like an adjunct to ITV. While it certainly fits into the ‘Histories’ section, it may be the case that it requires a stand-alone chapter. The ‘Audiences’ chapter looks sparse, but could be bolstered by the including a discussion of televised mega-events (specifically the Olympics and FIFA World Cup). But, for now at least, this is a sound platform on which to build.

 -------------------------------------------------------------

Black, Peter (1972) The Mirror in the Corner: People’s Television, Hutchinson: London

Bonner, P. & Aston, L. (1998) Independent Television in Britain, Vol 5: ITV and the IBA 1981-1992: The Relationship Changes, Macmillan Press Ltd: Basingstoke

Buscombe, C. (ed.) (1975) Football on Television, British Film Institute: London

Crisell, A. (2002) An Introductory History of British Broadcasting (2nd addition), Routledge: London

Fickers, A. (2009) Re-Viewing Television History. Critical Issues in Television Historiography, Helen Wheatley (Ed.), Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 29:4, 567-570

Johnson, C. & Turnock, R., (eds.) (2005) ITV Cultures: Independent Television over Fifty Years, Open University Press: Maidenhead

Potter, J. (1989) Independent Television in Britain, Vol 3: Politics and Control 1968-80, Macmillan Press Ltd: Basingstoke

Sendall, B. (1982) Independent Television in Britain, Vol 1: Origin and Foundation 1946-62, Macmillan Press Ltd: Basingstoke

Whannel, G. (1992) Fields in Vision: Television Sport and Cultural Transformation, Routledge: London

Wheatley, H. (ed.) (2007) Re-Viewing Television History. Critical Issues in Television Historiography, I.B. Tauris: London




Thursday, February 23, 2017

Sir Lancelot Complains About the Wrestling

© National Portrait Gallery, London
Contained within the ‘wrestling’ files of the ITA/ITV archive are a number of letters from disgruntled grapple fans.[1] Through the course of the 1960s and 70s some viewers had written in to complain about the network’s scheduling, others to protest results that saw the blue-eyed baby faces bested by the monstrous heels of the time. In those wonderfully innocent days – pre-kayfabe-savvy, pre-internet smark – people would take the time and trouble to write to ITV and bemoan the lack of sportsmanship on display and the ineffectiveness of the referees. Some letters, however, stand out more than others – especially ones penned by the ITV press office that begin with the words “Dear Sir Lancelot”.

Who was this Sir Lancelot? Was this a work? A gimmick? Was this a fan with Arthurian delusions of grandeur or a genuine knight of the realm with a love of Mick McManus?

Each option seemed unlikely, but the last one particularly so. The origins of ‘professional’ wrestling are to be found in carnivals and town halls and, as the title of a BBC documentary suggests, it was a world of grapples, grunts and grannies.[2] Certainly, wrestling was a ratings winner for ITV. Broadcast for the first time in 1955, it was described as television’s most popular sport by the TV Times in 1958, and would claim that its FA Cup Final day specials in 1962 and 1963 had “more viewers than the Cup Final” itself.[3] It was the entertainment of the poor, the post-war working class.

This was a trend that continued into the 1970s. While not fully understood by those who commissioned sports programming (a point to which I will return in a future post), ‘the wrestling’ was a key component of ITV’s Saturday afternoon magazine show World of Sport. By 1974 viewership stood at an average of 7.5 million, although it would decline gradually through the latter part of the decade.[4] When Dobie and Wober conducted research into the audience for ITV’s wrestling programming in 1978 they found viewers were far more likely to be from a working class background.[5]

But this doesn’t tell the entire story. While wrestling may have been rooted in working class communities it also attracted a number of fans from the upper echelons of British society. Such associations, of course, are not unknown - even on the other side of the Atlantic[6] - and it is no secret that both Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip enjoyed the wrestling.[7] It is also well-documented that Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a fan of legendary grappler Big Daddy.[8] Sir Peter Blake, most famous for co-designing the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s, would recall the appeal of the wrestling. Sir Lancelot may not have been a gimmick after all.

The man in question was Sir Lancelot Keay, someone who combined the title of architect and a love of wrestling long before Seth Rollins was a twinkle in the eye of WWE’s development scheme. Born in 1883, Keay’s father was a bookseller and mayor of Eastbourne on seven separate occasions. Having studied at the Brighton College of Art and Technology, Keay would go on to take the position of chief architectural assistant to the city of Norwich. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us something of his outside interests: “A keen theatregoer, he was also an early member of Nugent Monck's Guild of Norwich Players, formed in 1911.”[9]

However, Keay is perhaps most famous for planning the development of the Speke area of Liverpool. From the late 1920s until after the second world war, a village of no more than 400 people was transformed. By the end of the 1950s it was home to 25,000 people. Keay seems to have practiced a charmingly progressive approach to town planning. His plan was that Speke would be a self-contained economy replete with art gallery, library, community centre, concert hall and open-air theatre. “I feel that what we need,” said Keay, “is something different from the old methods of building cottages without any playgrounds and without any spaces for recreation.”[10]

Perhaps this love of, and commitment to, theatrics and playful spaces was behind Sir Lancelot Keay’s passion for wrestling. Amongst the very many letters of complaint in the wrestling archive are two absolute beauties from Keay who, by this time, was well into his 80s. I reproduce one of them below along with the response from Gillian Keene of the ITV press office. Two things, I think, are worth noting. Firstly, while Keay’s letter falls short of “the sneer of cold command” that Shelley wrote of, it is dripping with a wonderfully sarcastic, entitled condescension. Secondly, Keene’s response, whilst polite, carries such an air of restraint one can almost hear the exasperated sighs as it was composed.


24th August 1968

Dear Sirs,

I look forward to watching wrestling on your Wednesday and Saturday programmes. This afternoon I switched on at 4.0.p.m. and unless my clock was wrong the programme started late. The programme was interupted [sic] for a news flash to tell us that the stand at the football ground at Nottingham was on fire. If Nero fiddled why Rome burnt why should wrestling stop?

Then an eight minute suspension while we saw Clark beat his own world record and listened to the monotonous voice of a commentator some of whose remarks seemed to have little bearing on the race.

In the little time left for wrestling four cuts were made for commercials. We were most grateful to the commentator for two impointant [sic] pieces of news. The wrestling referee had just opened a pub and it was the birthday of one of the wrestlers nieces.

Yours faithfully

Sir Lancelot Keay[11]


9th September 1968

Dear Sir Lancelot,

Further to your letter of the 24th August we regret very much that you have been upset by the programming of wrestling particularly on a Saturday.

However, we feel you must appreciate that there are other people who are also very interested in different aspects of sport and it is not every day that one see world records on television.

Wrestling is a sport which has a great deal of coverage and it is not often that it is interrupted for other sports news.

We hope you will view the situation more tolerably on reflection.

Yours sincerely

Gillian Keene, Press Office[12]




[1] ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive:1954-1990, ‘Sporting Events “Wrestling”’: File: 5010/1
[2] Nelson Pereira (17 December 2012) When Wrestling Was Golden: Grapples, Grunts and Grannies (BBC - 2012) [video file]. retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILQmWal2Dus
[3] itvwrestling.co.uk. (2017). [online] Johnlisterwriting.com. Available at: http://johnlisterwriting.com/itvwrestling/ratings.html [Accessed 23 Feb. 2017].
[4] Ibid.
[5] Dobie, I. and Wober, M. (1978), The Role of Wrestling as a Public Spectacle: Audience Attitudes to Wrestling as Portrayed on Television, Independent Broadcasting Authority, London.
[6] dagalagas (12th August 2015) Donald Trump bodyslams, beats and shaves Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania XXIII [video file]. retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMKFIHRpe7I
[7] See: Garfield, S. (1996) The Wrestling: The Hilarious True Story of Britain’s Last Great Superheroes, Faber & Faber: London, p55; Moran, J. (2014) Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV, Profile Books: London, pp86-87
[8] See Litherland, B. (2012) ‘Selling punches: Free markets and professional wrestling in the UK, 19861993’, Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, 4(4), pp. 578–598
[9] Matthew Whitfield, ‘Keay, Sir Lancelot Herman (1883–1974)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/64036, accessed 21 Feb 2017]
[10] Quoted in Stephen Armstrong (2012) The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited, Constable & Robinson Ltd.: London. Pp.189-190
[11] Keay, Sir Lancelot (24th August 1968) Letter from Sir Lancelot Keay to ITV (Sporting Events “Wrestling”’: File: 5010/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[12] Keene, Gillian (9th September 1968) Letter from Gillian Keene to Sir Lancelot Keay (Sporting Events “Wrestling”’: File: 5010/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University