In an ambitious attempt to chart the tumultuous history of wrestling in Britain over the past sixty years, director Adam Gill & Figure Four Films have produced one of the best accounts of the ups and downs of the UK wrestling industry and the struggle it has faced to keep with the times. The film features interviews with British wrestling stars of the past, present and future, broken up with photos, press clippings and a smattering of in-ring footage here and there. It’s divided into three distinct thirds: we see how British wrestling became a household institution in the first section, how that all came crashing down in the second and, in the third section, how wrestling in this country has rebuilt itself to where we are now, which many are predicting to be the frontier of another boom period for British wrestling.
With interviews from wrestlers such as Marty Jones, Robbie Brookside & ‘Gypsy’ John Kerry, as well as the likes of wrestling historian John Lister and All Star promoter Brian Dixon, the first section does a great job of emphasising just how much British wrestling had lost after the widely reviled Greg Dyke (then sports commissioner for ITV) cancelled World of Sport wrestling in 1988 and British wrestling disappeared from TV for over a decade. It covers nicely what made wrestling such a success in the first place, as well as detailing the reasons why it’s popularity began to wane. It doesn’t dwell too long on the olden days, however, as we then see how wrestling struggled to find its footing in a post-TV world, how the business had to change and adapt and how wrestlers, young and old, dealt with the changes.
One of the more interesting moments centres around the famous Robbie Brookside documentary he made for the BBC’s Video Diaries series, which gave an unflinching, behind-the-scenes look at the state of British professional wrestling in the early 90’s. We hear from Robbie on his motivations for doing the film, as well as from some of his peers who hadn’t realised the revealing film would be broadcast at all, let alone nationwide, while younger wrestlers comment on how much Robbie’s film inspired them and signalled to the public that wrestling was still alive in the UK. While wrestling was struggling along in Britain, state-side for Vince McMahon’s WWE business was at an all time high and that in turn created a renewed interest in wrestling closer to home.
The middle portion of the documentary focuses heavily on what was considered the biggest boom period in British wrestling since the TV era, when a number of young, hungry promotions sought to capitalise on wrestling’s popularity and tried to bring the sport to the masses once more. We hear a lot from the controversial Alex Shane, wrestler and promoter of the now-defunct FWA, who was a big part of British wrestling’s attempts to get back onto a major stage. Willing to take greater risks to get noticed, the wrestling style employed had more in common with hardcore promotions like ECW than it did with the British wrestling of yesteryear, while also taking influence from Japanese puroresu, luchalibre and the American indie scene, which was in the midst of its own boom period.
It’s interesting to see both Shane & Brookside’s take on this era, Robbie feeling that the product on display at that time had no connection to the catch-as-catch-can style that made British wrestling so popular in the first place, while Alex argues that British wrestling needed to evolve if it ever wanted to succeed in a world that had moved on greatly since 1988. Both arguments have merit, but my personal opinion echoes that of Zack Sabre Jr, who later on in the film says that “you’ve got to have your own identity” and in trying to evolve the British wrestling scene a lot of the identity of British wrestling was squandered, a style that as they take pains to point out was once considered amongst the very best in all of the world.
The final third of the documentary (although it’s more like the final 15 minutes) focuses on the state of British wrestling today, after the successes and tribulations of the 2000’s paved the way for a new era and a new set of promotions to front the charge. We hear from wrestlers such as Marty Scurll, Rampage Brown and Jimmy Havoc, luminaries of the scene today, as well as the head honchos behind leading promotions such as PROGRESS, ICW & Infinite Pro, and the tone of the documentary as it closes is a positive, hopeful and excited one. The impression given is one of a scene thriving and, although I would have preferred to have seen a little more love shown for the guys that are making waves today, I’m glad that they chose to cover such a breadth of British wrestling history.
Overall this is a well made, well thought out piece that does a good job of conveying where British wrestling came from and where it is headed. Although it would have been nice to see a bit more in-ring footage, especially during the first third, I felt they did a great job of breaking up the interview segments and making it feel like more than just a series of talking heads. The pacing of the piece was my only real complaint, as it meandered a bit in the middle, only to feel slightly rushed at the conclusion, but this is a minor nitpick on an otherwise engaging, informative and entertaining documentary that’s a must-see for fans of British professional wrestling, new and old.