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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

Wrestling with mother

I was brought up to think that any day now capitalism would exhaust itself. The antagonism of its own contradictions was, apparently, its fatal flaw. Of course, that was before the days of The World Wrestling Federation.

Last year alone, apparently, capital generated $1.7 billion by selling plastic models of fat men in make-up and shiny shorts to small children. Now I will admit that the arms of these models do move up and down, making a pleasing salaaming motion but even so, this is quite a heist. In my Co-op, you can get Hulk Hogan biscuits and Captain Slaughter bed linen for your nursery.

It is probable that you have never heard of either of these gentlemen (or of The Undertaker - who hands his opponents latex tombstones with their names on before each bout) because WWF wrestling can only be seen on Sky. Sky TV is full of those exhausting contradictions which were supposed to lead to Jerusalem. People who have Sky tend to have nothing else. Let's face it, only someone who is totally alienated from the aesthetic of the property owning democracy would ever disfigure their real estate with the Badge of Murdoch just so they could watch The Love Boat all over again. Both the organised left and the bourgeoisie have made a pariah of Sky and so - for perhaps the first time in history - the international lumpen proletariat has a visible cultural identity, of which the WWF is a key factor.

With the general election under way, I got very into American wrestling. Being taped three thousand miles away there seemed little chance of having to watch a swingometer or hear a celebrity endorsement (though it would be good to know which way The Undertaker swings). Of course, I haven't got Sky. I have to make do with World Championship Wrestling on Granada Nightime instead. The World Championship is a cheap rip-off of the World Federation. If a wrestler appears on Championship, you can bet he is not available in blown plastic or on bed linen.

I was first introduced to wrestling by my English teacher. That was in the days of Mick McManus and Jackie Pallo, a straight contest between Good and Evil which went out on ITV just after Crown Court. It was aimed explicitly at the elderly and institutionalised. From the minute 'The Freebirds' tag wrestling team enter on World Championship Wrestling you know that times have changed.

The Freebirds enter in a blitz of heavy metal, accompanied by bimbos and roadies. Their leader is Michael PS Hayes a man with a long, dry vestigial perm who does a little moonwalk every time he decks the opposition - in this case, Big Josh. The crowd loves this. But when Big Josh decks Hayes, they love that too. Hayes responds by encouraging the crowd to applaud his opponent and offering to shake Big Josh's hand. Amazingly, Big Josh falls for this one and is soon back on the deck. When he gets back to his feet, he is thrown out of the ring. Both Freebirds follow him and start kicking him round before throwing him into the audience while the referee protests with theatrical ineffectuality.

Soon, The Freebirds' bimbo Lady Blossom is at the ringside trying to scratch out Josh's eyes. Then The Freebirds are declared the winners and all the anger and outrage evaporates, and the audience turns its attention to The Hardliner versus Rapmaster PM News - a blubbery blimp whose speciality is climbing on to the top rope and divebombing his wide buttocks on to his opponent's head. Thus seated, and decked in gold like an ancient fertility idol, he shouts the illuminating phrase, 'Yo baby Yo baby Yo' at the audience and they shout it back. The commentator says, 'And the Hardliner is toast'. He also says that the Rapmaster moved like a cat. If your cat ever sits on your toast yelling 'Yo Baby' and shaking his chains, do let me know.

The spectacle of oiled fatties flying through the air and sitting on each others' heads has obvious appeal. The great rise of interest in wrestling is more or less entirely down to the fact that Vince McMahon - head of the WWF - decided to pitch it at children instead of geriatrics. He encouraged the wrestlers to dress up like comic book superheroes and grafted on the MTV rock and rap presentation. The merchandising success was only a matter of time and it is interesting that the franchise on Hulk Hogan's likeness is held by Marvel.

But the most important skill a wrestler can master is the manufacture of moral outrage. The rules of wrestling really are there only to be broken. Chasing a wrestler out of the ring gives the impression that the fighter is really angry and things are getting thrillingly out of control. The reason that this is so entertaining is that the bout itself is a kind of balletic pantomime. Everybody knows they aren't really fighting. The paradox is that when they get out of control, it looks even more camp than the 'real' fight. It's a more human, more sophist-icated version of the crowds that hang around the most dangerous corners in a motor-racing circuit, hoping for a crash.

In the days of Jackie Pallo, there were good guys and bad guys. The bad guys were the pantomime dames. They cheated, wore make up and were too big for their silver boots. In the end, they always lost. Now both sides cheat, both sides strut and preen and the most marketable side wins. The contest between Good and Evil has become a formalised, spectacular but empty ritual. There is nothing riding on victory. The audience does not care who wins as long as on the way they get the chance to shout their synthetic outrage and as long as the loser is truly humiliated (there is no victory on points in wrestling).

When the last contestant swanked off the 'square circle', the News came on. I couldn't find the remote to switch it off with. The story was another instalment in the War of Jennifer's Ear. Where the last election had been fought out on TV, this one was fought about TV, and more specifically about the ethics of investigative journalism. There was lots of moral outrage. This I hasten to point out was about the Bennetts getting late-night phone calls, not about the little girl's ear.

Then the Bennetts appeared in person. They looked cheerful and slightly chuffed with themselves. Their questioners soon lost interest in the health service and started in with some bemused questions about how a Tory lady ended up married to a Labour man. And how the man got on with his father-in-law (a Tory of such obnoxious hue that he referred to his own granddaughter's distress as a 'sob story'). 'It doesn't bother us, John [Patten]', said Mrs Bennett, now, on thrillingly, first name terms with a minister. 'Why should it be so surprising?' And I wondered if I would be surprised if Lady Blossom up and married Big Josh instead of a Freebird, and I thought, probably not. The general election was a WCW bout without the kinky boots.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992

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