We don’t use the F-word. We never use the F-word.” So says SoCal Val, commentator for ITV’s reboot of the classic Seventies/Eighties TV property ITV World of Sport Wrestling. And the F-Word in question? Fake.
In the era of “Fake News”, perhaps this is the time to bring the confected, choreographed sport of professional wrestling back to terrestrial UK TV. Sportspeople cheat, con the referee, take drugs. Politicians lie and twist. Celebrities sculpt their images with obsessive attention to detail.
Even what were once called members of the public spend hours curating their personal brand online, applying filters, trying to present the most successful, most fun, most desirable aspect of themselves. Why not go the whole hog and make everything up?
SoCal Val (as in “Southern California”) is a wrestling manager, commentator and occasional competitor from the United States. She was born in Texas, not SoCal, but when she first entered wrestling, the producers of the show gave her the character of Valerie, a kind of diva-ish, glamorous camp-follower.
Now she is over here, a gifted sports commentator with humour, showbiz chops and a great delivery. “I don’t know if I can emulate Dickie Davies, but I am going to try,” she jokes, before explaining how she got hooked on wrestling as child.
“My family is all female: I’ve got my mom and two older sisters,” she says. “We were never into sports at all. I caught some of the wrestling on TV one day, and I just loved it. The storylines, the pomp and circumstance. I especially liked the strong female characters.”
Those characters are all part of the package: goody wrestlers, baddy wrestlers, “managers” who support their fighter in the ring and goad rivals … a whole universe of fabricated alliances and enmities to go with the choreographed moves in the ring.
The circus reached its peak, like other types of excess, at the end of the 1980s with the WWF (now WWE) stars like Hulk Hogan as the US exported the product around the world to wild commercial success.
But for fans in Britain, the glory days were already over. ITV’s flagship Saturday afternoon World of Sport had featured teatime wrestling throughout the 1970s and 1980s, making the likes of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks household names.
It became a staple for many sports fans from 1965 until its demise in 1985, although in truth it was clinging on to the ropes at the end. And grass-roots wrestling in the UK, by the time the show came off air, was flat on its back.
In a more crowded entertainment marketplace, the 2018 version will be doing well to produce stars of the Daddy, Haystacks or Kendo Nagasaki wattage, but has a reasonable shot at occupying the same place in the teatime TV public’s imagination as Gladiators did for many years.
And fans of the original will be delighted, or feel old, to see that British Bulldog Junior, son of the original British Bulldog, is among the competitors.
Joining SoCal Val to front the reboot is Stu Bennett, the 6ft 6in, almost 18st wrestler who has been all the way from his native Preston to the WWE big-time in the US, and now back here as the frontman and on-screen boss/impresario of ITV’s reboot, which starts today at 5pm.
“I am a career bad-guy,” he growls at The Telegraph, theatrically. At least, The Telegraph hopes that it is theatrically. There is plenty of Bennett to go around.
He is excited for UK wrestling to show off its capacity for entertainment, and the excellence of some of its athletes.
“I am turning 38, and I grew up a complete wrestling nerd, but the UK wrestling scene when I was coming up was abysmal. There were maybe two or three good wrestlers in the country. By about 2003, if you got a hundred people at an event, you felt like it you’d sold out Wembley.”
He knew that he had to go to America. “I’d started out as a goody here, but the second I got to America: English accent, bad guy.
I loved it. On the rare occasions I have been cheered, I have not found that rewarding. For me, to get a negative reaction, get people’s backs up, I love that.”
A tremendous athlete, eager to learn, and a born grafter, he did well. “I main-evented a SummerSlam, which is the WWE’s second-biggest show. Being in the ring with John Cena, The Undertaker, guys I had watched as a kid: that was a seal of approval. They doubted that it could happen to an English kid.”
He was cast in roles of varying dastardliness, including one who had a back-story as a bare-knuckle boxing hardcase who had only just escaped Budapest with his life after a brutal prizefight ended with him being stabbed for the purse. Barrett laughs: “Yeah, but I had another character who was called the King of The Ring who came in with a crown and a sceptre, and I would say that my bareknuckle boxing credentials are about as legitimate as my claim to the throne.”
Professional wrestling has been termed as sports entertainment, sometimes disparagingly. How would Barrett defend it?
“Professional wrestling is an art form where we try to get emotions out of people. The truth is that to have a good guy, you need a bad guy. Or everyone is just a shade of beige. The problem professional wrestling had in the past is that it pretended to be a legitimate contest. We are not pretending that any more.”
SoCal Val agrees: “It’s the epitome of good versus evil: without the storylines it would be somewhat entertaining, but it’s not about what is happening in the match. It is about score settling. Revenge. A bully getting their come-uppance.”
If you cannot accept that the viewer can be led by the nose and still have powerful emotions, then you should not watch ITV’s wrestling, and you probably should not watch coverage of Donald Trump and Brexit either.
As the news sinks into a swamp of lies and polarisation where facts mean nothing but feelings are everything, it is hard not to feel that wrestling’s time is now.
And Bennett believes that he may have located the crossover star who could really put ITV World of Sport Wrestling over the top.
“If we can get Neymar in, I think he would be very good. He’s already great at pretending to get beat up anyway. Although he might actually get beat up a little more with us.
“And if you look at the World Cup, so many people in England who normally don’t care about football allowed themselves to be carried away by, essentially, a storyline about this English underdog team, they’re young lads, they’re not supposed to do well, lots of people hadn’t heard of some of the players.
“But they did not have the arrogance of the past so they ended up over-performing.
“And people bought into that storyline. If you can allow yourself to watch football when you’re not really a football fan then you can allow yourself to watch wrestling. All entertainment is about storylines. If you watch this, I guarantee you will enjoy it.”
WOS Wrestling: Saturday, 5pm, ITV