Theatre show Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks explores shift in power in UK society
Wrestling-themed show at 2013 Edinburgh Fringe on north/south power shift between 1976 and 1988
This article is from 2013.
Once upon a time, wrestling was the sport of choice for Britain’s working class. As a play celebrating two legendary fighters lands in Edinburgh, Neil Cooper reflects on the golden age of grappling
When British professional wrestling legend Mick McManus passed away in May at the age of 93, it was the end of an era that this cauliflower-eared villain helped to define. Two other icons of the original sports entertainment no longer with us are Shirley Crabtree and Martin Ruane, better known as larger-than-life kings of the ring, Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks.
When 25-stone Big Daddy (named by his promoter brother Max Crabtree from Tennessee Williams’ thundering patriarch in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and 33-stone Giant Haystacks clashed in the ring, the earth moved, even as the white-trash Greek tragedy they played out became a microcosm of a little Britain that was itself being killed off.
This rise and fall is poignantly captured in Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks, a new play by comedy writing duo Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon. This is just the latest example in a resurgence of interest for a spectacle still mocked by many, even as it gave way to the far glitzier fare propagated by WWF (now WWE). Yet before ITV’s head of sport, Greg Dyke, removed UK wrestling from our TV screens in 1988, it was essential viewing for millions of fans. It was too low-rent, claimed Dyke, ignoring an audience that existed beyond the chattering classes. In this respect, Dyke was making as much of a political statement as Daddy and Haystacks themselves.
‘There’s really a much bigger story to tell,’ insists Mitchell. ‘Essentially, the play is the story of Britain, and those very significant years between 1976 and 1988, when the shift in power between north and south became more prevalent. In that way, Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks came to symbolise aspects of the British character. There was something going on there about the war of the roses, and the image of the working-class Tory, as Big Daddy, with his Union Jack top hat, effectively became John Bull. So, it’s a play about people who set themselves up to be their own symbols.’
The revival of interest in such old-school spit-and-sawdust entertainment began with the 1996 publication of Simon Garfield’s seminal oral history, The Wrestling. Since then, Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller has made a film about Adrian Street, the Welsh miner’s son whose feather-boaed image disguised a brutal expertise in the ring, and a website, Wrestling Heritage, provides an exhaustive look back at some of the sport’s unsung greats.
While Garfield’s book was dramatised in 1998, WWE icon Mick Foley has turned into a stand-up, and writer/performer Rob Drummond trained himself for a show that culminated in him taking part in a fully fledged bout of drop-kicks and flying buttresses. Also at this year’s Fringe is the return of The Wrestling, a show produced by comedy duo, Max and Ivan. As for the wrestling itself, it’s still there if you look hard enough in shows promoted on the summer holiday camp circuit by Crabtree’s arch-rival, Brian Dixon. ‘It’s not a huge revival,’ Mitchell observes, ‘but people have noticed that it hasn’t gone away, which is a good thing. I approve of a country that allowed the wrestling to exist more than the one that didn’t.’
Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks, Assembly George Square, 0131 623 3030, 3–26 Aug (not 13, 20), 12.15pm, £10–£12. Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £7.