|© National Portrait Gallery, London|
Contained within the ‘wrestling’ files of the ITA/ITV archive are a number of letters from disgruntled grapple fans. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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 - and it is no secret that both Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip enjoyed the wrestling. It is also well-documented that Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a fan of legendary grappler Big Daddy. 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.”
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.”
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
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.
Sir Lancelot Keay
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.
Gillian Keene, Press Office
 ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive:1954-1990, ‘Sporting Events “Wrestling”’: File: 5010/1
 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
 itvwrestling.co.uk. (2017). [online] Johnlisterwriting.com. Available at: http://johnlisterwriting.com/itvwrestling/ratings.html [Accessed 23 Feb. 2017].
 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.
 (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
 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
 See Litherland, B. (2012) ‘Selling punches: Free markets and professional wrestling in the UK, 1986‐1993’, Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, 4(4), pp. 578–598
 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]
 Quoted in Stephen Armstrong (2012) The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited, Constable & Robinson Ltd.: London. Pp.189-190
 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
 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