Belfast Telegraph

ITV parties like it's 1979 with a jump back into ring

By Billy Weir

A Happy New Year to one and all but for ITV it was in with the old as two long forgotten auld acquaintances that should never have been brought back to mind grappled and galloped back onto our screens.

For most of us it was a welcome to 2017 but on ITV it was more like hello again to the Seventies as wrestling and racing returned to a channel that has suddenly caught on that one or two people like watching a bit of sport on the telly.

Of course this is where it gets tricky, with many politically correct people pointing out that it is nothing short of shameful to subject beasts to having to perform for our entertainment, but, away from the wrestling, it can't be much fun for our equine chums either.

Much has changed since past its sell-by date wrestling exited our screens in 1985, mainly because wrestling becoming a multi-million dollar industry in the States a few short years later, and finally ITV have jumped back in the ring.

As a huge fan of wrestling as a child I approached it like Big Daddy approaching a salad, with a mixture of fear, trepidation and salivation, but it is no longer 1979 when a man called Shirley ruled the wrestling universe.

Back then it was a staple of World of Sport, but if we were expecting Dickie Davies to hand over to Kent Walton at Bridlington Town Hall then we were very much mistaken.

It is now called WOS Wrestling (World of Sport, clever) and we were at the World of Sport Arena where health and safety, a concept not even thought of when Creamola Foam-filled children across the UK, bouncing up and down, overdosed on Spangles, Tudor Crisps and sweetie cigarettes and hurled cushions across the living room, made an appearance.

"All WOS wrestlers are highly trained professionals - never try any of the stunts performed on this show," warned the caption on the screen, but I hadn't seen that and ended up in traction - not from performing any stunts, but from trying to put on my lycra jumpsuit when the wheelbrace slipped in the Swarfega.

When I came round there was a strange man called JR in a cowboy hat. Perhaps this was all a dream? But no, like the lycra, I pinched myself and it was real, Jim Ross, legendary voice of WWE wrestling, calling the shots alongside a very excited Cockney geezer called Alex Shane, aka The Showstealer in his own wrestling days.

"All new fights, all new superstars, welcome to the new era," JR said as we then spent an awful lot of the show meeting up with the stars of yesteryear who were still with us before we finally had some 'fight' action.

Here's where it gets tricky. Let's be honest, it's not real, never was, never will be. The clues are there when it is on in that Saturday evening timeslot dominated by Geordie tag-team Ant and Dec and is staged on a repainted Gladiators set, but perhaps the first bout would put those fears to bed.

Up first was a 17 stone man from Scotland' and you wondered had Ally McCoist got fitted up with some work but no, this was a man called Grado, a man with a catchphrase. Well, it is Saturday primetime after all.

So 'It's yersel' was up against the most ridiculous specimen to enter a room in shoulder pads since Joan Collins but let's not be hasty here, he may have a sensible name. Welcome, Dave Mastiff.

Funnily enough given the new timeslot, it didn't mention that Mr Mastiff's nickname in his time in ICW (Insane Championship Wrestling, I swear I am not making this up) was B*****d, and he lived up to that billing by telling Grado "to shut your filthy gob". If this keeps up a fight could break out.

It did, and the miniature version of Giant Haystacks duly beat Grado with some hoodwinkery and bad boy antics but fear not kids, there was a chance later on for revenge in the Battle Royale.

In between times there was a succession of scuffles, the first won by a man called Kenny Williams and it was all a right carry on and to be honest if Linda Evans had turned up for a rematch with Joan Collins it would have been more believable.

And Alexis did indeed show up, Ms Rose in an all-ladies encounter (feminism has come on leaps and bounds in that 30-year hiatus) against Viper, described by Shane as "a wrestling monster".

Onto the Battle Royale, a one-legged Grado by now barely able to stand up against Dave, with Shane not holding out much hope of an unlikely win.

"There's more chance of me finding hummus and rice cakes in the fridge of Dave Mastiff than Grado has of winning this," he said, but like I said earlier, this is 2017 not 1979, when we didn't even have a fridge never mind hummus, and dreams can now come true as a 17 stone Glaswegian ruled the world.

We can but hope that this one-off special will remain that, but for ITV's other New Year offering, this is not a five furlong gallop, this is a long haul slog on heavy ground, as racing found yet another new stable on the terrestrial channels.

The equines bolted from ITV some 32 years ago but they went even further back for a new presenter in Mister Ed, which was taking the horsey theme a bit far I thought.

Ed Chamberlin, once of Sky's football coverage, has hurdled across to pastures new, accompanied by a few old faces from Channel Four in the likes of Mick Fitzgerald and Alice Plunkett, and some new in the shape of Victoria Pendleton (cyclist who rides horses) and Matt Chapman (John McCririck without silly hats).

So it was surprising then that the first people we got to see were Brough Scott, Lord John Oaksey, Derek Thompson and Dickie Davies, but as Ed said, "after more than 30 years it is great to have the sport back on ITV".

"How are you feeling? Well at least we got a nice day for it," he started off, as the rain cascaded down his brolly at Cheltenham, accompanied by Sir AP McCoy (Tony stayed at home because of the weather. New Year, same old jokes) and Luke Harvey, a former jockey and At The Races regular.

"It's wet, it's miserable, but it is going to be wonderful," Ed promised but with a resident 'ITV Racing Weather Expert' in Lucy Verasamy and the likes of Pendleton and Chapman, it all had a feel of slapstick when punters, who let's face it, will make up 99 per cent of the viewers, want expert guidance not for someone to tell us it's raining when they are standing up to their knees in water.

On the plus side they have Gabriel Clarke who did a lovely piece with Jonjo O'Neill but McCoy is their safe bet, as was shown when he was asked whether his old pal could ever win the Champion Trainer crown.

"In sport anything is possible, who would have thought Leicester would have won the Premier League?" he mused.

"Who'd have thought you'd have gone from a nice warm studio working with two great pundits in Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher to standing out in the rain at Cheltenham with Luke Harvey and I?"

Who indeed. It was tough going, and I'm not just talking about the turf, as the racing came to an end for the day. There will be plenty more to come, a new version of the Morning Line on a Saturday morning and perhaps a realisation as they settle back into it that less is more.

So Mister Ed et al, no need for long faces, just remember it's the racing we're here for, keep the slapstick and fluffiness for real sports, like wrestling.

The good, the bad and the ugly

THE GOOD: Well done to BBC NI and Stephen Watson-Live for a great wallow down memory lane from the Euros with a cracking show on Northern Ireland’s campaign in France. You see, I can be nice to those folks in Broadcasting House.

THE BAD: So Final Score then and nice to see resident Santa, Mark Sidebottom, not only modelling the lovely new school jumper he got for Christmas but clearly getting two watches as well and, not wanting to offend anyone, wearing them both on the show. “We wish you peace and love wrapped up in a big dollop of happiness,” he ended, but those of you saying it’s time for a change, watch yourself.

THE UGLY: Gordon Strachan rightly outing those sick individuals who are a scourge on human decency ahead of the Old Firm encounter on Sky. “A strange ritual, people turn up two hours before it just to boo a bus,” he said. It may have helped had Rangers parked it in their goalmouth rather than shout at it.

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