Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery - Grunts & Grapples

Grunts & Grapples

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‘Greetings Grapple Fans!’

- Kent Walton, wrestling commentator from1955 to1988.

For those of a certain age, Kent Walton’s welcome will evoke the routine of Saturday teatimes in front of the TV, anticipating an exciting 45 minutes of grapples, grunts, and the ubiquitous granny scolding a wrestler. Wrestling was first broadcast on the new ITV station in 1955 but a decade later its established slot became 4pm - 4.45pm (just before the football scores) on ITV’s World of Sport.

Part sport, part entertainment, wrestling garnered audiences of over 12 million at its peak, and ITV seemed like a fitting home for a pastime that had emerged from the traditions of the music hall. In many ways, the balance between sport and entertainment that wrestling presented was always an uncertain one. The pull towards celebrity and spectacle that the commercial element of the sport demanded would eventually be wrestling’s downfall in Britain.

Curated by design historian Kerry William Purcell, Grunts & Grapples profiles the golden age of British wrestling from the 1950s until the 1990s. Wrestling was a central part of British national life in this period with iconic figures such as Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy appearing in hundreds of UK town halls and theatres night after night as well as featuring on TV. Through posters, photographs, souvenirs and costumes, the exhibition reveals the origins of wrestling’s interplay of sport and spectacle and the development of personas.

The portrayal of wrestlers as baddies (heels) or goodies (blue eyes) would be combined with prevailing social narratives of otherness and racial and sexual stereotypes. This play of characters across the hundreds of venues that hosted the wrestling and TV screens across the country was a carefully choreographed storyline with long running grudges, feuds, and resentments.

ITV’s broadcasting of wrestling was cancelled in 1989 and many argued this was because the contrived storylines, larger than life characters, and manufactured bouts – the entertainment side of wrestling’s heritage - had overshadowed the sporting aspect. Wrestling continued in town halls, seaside piers and theatres well into the 1990s, but it never loomed as large in the public consciousness as it had throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

The exhibition features the original costumes of the legendary wrestlers Big Daddy and Adrian Street together with a mask from the mysterious Kendo Nagasaki. A Pathé film from 1964 showing women’s wrestling at the Victoria Hall, Hawkhurst will be presented alongside posters and programmes. Also featuring in the exhibition is So Many Ways To Hurt You, The Life and Times of Adrian Street, 2010; a film by Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller.

Kerry William Purcell is a writer, theorist and historian. His first book on the celebrated art director and designer Alexey Brodovitch was published by Phaidon Press in 2002. This has been followed by his concise biography on the renowned photographer Weegee (Phaidon, London, 2004) and his comprehensive study of the Swiss graphic designer Josef Muller-Brockmann (Phaidon, London, 2006). He is working towards a PhD on the work of the philosopher Alain Badiou at Birkbeck, University of London, and is Senior Lecturer in Design History at the University of Hertfordshire.
With thanks to Adrian Street, Peter Byrne, ITV, Jess Harris and Jeremy Deller.


For information about our upcoming Grunts & Grapples events, please visit our Events page