A passion for men in tights

Have you heard the one about the Barnsley wrestler who kept a lion for a guard dog? It's all true and it's going in Milly Johnson's little book. She explains why she began it.

Darren Ward has wrestled all over the world as Tarzan Boy but when his back was severely damaged in a head-on crash with a boy racer last year, it ended his career when he was in his prime.

Darren, 42, needed a diversion from the boredom his debilitating condition imposed. So he picked up the collection of British wrestling memorabilia started as a boy and built it into one of the biggest in the world at his home in Leeds. "Obviously, I'm not used to an inactive life but this at least has given me something to focus on," he says. "Wrestling remains a great passion and there's very little in this business I know nothing about."

It's not a conventional subject for a woman to be passionate about, but I am and that's how I met Darren. Wrestling and I go back a long way. I was never anywhere but home on a Saturday afternoon at 4pm, in front of our old black and white telly waiting for Dickie Davies with his badger hairdo to introduce that afternoon's bouts. The likes of Giant Haystacks, Catweazle and Mick McManus would entertain 15 million viewers in its heyday.

Now there's a new generation of fans. The world stops revolving for my sons when the WWE American wrestling is on our television at home (full colour these days). But it's all gone up a few notches from the Seventies.

Today's American stars such as The Undertaker and Dave Batista aren't flexing their enormous biceps to supplement their incomes down the mines. Nor will they finish their contest and go straight out to their "proper job" for a double shift without any sleep. But it remains a fascinating sport to me – you could say, it's in the blood.

As well as being a pitman, my grandad George Hubbard (who had the rather modest stage name of Joe Williams) was a part-time wrestler. He and his mate Lol Palmer would clear the front room of furniture and experiment with fancy moves and throws. Grandad fought Les Kellet among others, but always refused to fight the London boy Bert Assirati – even though he had a tempting offer of an fiver extra in the wage packet. The reason was that Bert Assirati was a renowned sadist in the ring and wasn't happy unless he left his opponent bleeding. And after fighting him, a man would bleed a lot.

Grandad certainly wasn't going to risk being off work for weeks by climbing into a ring with the 5ft 6in (square) powerhouse who terrified men twice his size and was arguably the world's strongest man in the 1930s.

Whatever you hear about "fixed fights", Bert Assirati – and he wasn't on his own in this – would fold a fight for no man. Yes, some bouts were as choreographed as slickly as Swan Lake and were all the more boring for it.

The most skilled wrestlers with their clever, but yawn-causing, moves weren't good entertainment. Punters loved "the characters" then and they still do today. They loved hating the bad guys and seeing them lose and were in virtual paroxysms watching the good guys get battered to a pulp only to rise, like Lazarus, in the last round to victory and they adored the clowns dancing around in ballet pumps and furry, flamboyant costumes. Wrestling is theatre, stage-managed to a degree, but when a seven- foot, 400lb giant throws you in the air, can you really guarantee a designer landing?

Yes, the men really did get hurt. Their knees and hips and backs soon started going and the punters were often far more dangerous than the opponents. Old women with handbags loaded with bricks are not a fallacy. Wrestlers often had to run a gauntlet of women armed with their umbrellas and stiletto shoes in their hands, heels at the ready.

Even tin trays were used to batter performers en route to the stage and lighted cigarettes were stubbed out on their backs. Local wrestler Sam Betts was once injured by a member of the audience but carried on with the bout before going to hospital where he needed 16 stitches in his head. He couldn't afford the time off to go back to hospital and get them taken out, so his wife Sheila did it with the scissors at home.

Remember that if you think it was all kidology.

It was when my dad's friend Herbert died last year that I first thought how little had been written about our local wrestling lads. Too many of them are now Boston Crabbing up in Heaven's ring and I decided that I'd be the one to collect as many remaining stories. I could and put them all into one little pamphlet and sell it for a few bob to get some money for Barnsley Hospice, in memory of Herbert – aka Wilson Sheppard – who damaged his back and ended his career literally picking up Big Daddy.

I didn't realise at the time exactly what I was taking on. Now my little leaflet is a full-size project. It's all fact which is lucky because you really couldn't make it up.

When wrestling hit the television screens in the 1960s, Dale Martin, part of Joint Promotions, was the sole supplier of wrestlers for television. They promoted their own favourites, which is why you'll have heard of the names Kendo Nagasaki and Rollerball Rocco, but maybe not our Barnsley boys.

These Barnsley men were far removed from the lard-barrels that have become the figurehead for wrestling in the UK. They were showmen, talented enough to read their audiences and produce what the punters wanted and the comedians among them were naturally funny in and out of the ring. They might not have had faces that fitted on television, but they travelled the world and filled stadiums. They fought early Bollywood stars, such as national hero Dara Singh, in India where wrestling was huge and fans would travel four days on foot in order to watch.

British wrestling died in the end because it was reduced to little more than obese heavyweights, hardly able to climb into the ring, bumping each other around with their enormous guts. But the lesser-knowns from Barnsley stood up for themselves. They refused point blank to work for peanuts and be treated as stooges for television top-billers in matches that were as predictable as pantomimes.

A body blow to the way British wrestling was run was delivered by the sudden death of Mal Kirk. He died of a heart attack in the ring after Big Daddy "body splashed" him in 1987. It was later revealed by Mal's widow that he had only received 25 for his match – when the promoters were earning thousands.

From this, the closed-shop business of British televised wrestling emerged looking even more sullied. Comparisons were made with the Americans who paraded their wrestlers like super-heroes. These huge creatures with muscles like sacks of walnuts turned wrestling into a multi-million dollar industry. While they pulled in audiences by the state-load, wrestling slid towards an undignified death over here.

There was a final nail in the coffin when the wrestling slot on television was switched to one o'clock on Saturday afternoons, a time when lots of fans were still working. The audience dwindled and it was finally axed from the schedules in 1989. That should never have been the end of the story in Britain. We in Barnsley had our clowns and heels and heroes and central to the story of the local wrestlers was actor Brian Glover's dad Charlie, who fought under the name The Red Devil.

Charlie ran the gym for wrestlers, when most gyms favoured boxing training. Charlie's gym was akin to a social club where youths could make friends, get fit, learn a skill which would supplement their driving/window-cleaning/pit job incomes and maybe allow them to see a bit of the world. All for the reasonable fee of three shillings a week.

In Charlie's gym, the lads would practise their throws and falls and learn how to make a bout interesting to watch. Stage personas were crafted, with exotic names. Charlie's son Brian became Leon Arras (The Man from Paris).

It was in Charlie's gym that Catweazle's character was born. Wives made costumes and masks (out of their suspender belts) and Charlie would fix up the lads with bouts worldwide. He made them throw their frying pans away, told them to eat fruit and proteins. Had any of them as much as touched a steroid, he'd have launched them so far through his doors that they'd have gone into orbit.

Charlie was a fair but tough bloke, typical of the Barnsley type. It was his great friend Dennis Higgs who kept a lion called Ben as a guard dog in a part of the town known as Klondyke. Ben was effective in stopping the spate of thefts from the yard and liked to play football with a wooden crate in the garden in the evening with Dennis and his dog. Until, that is, the council made Dennis cage Ben in the mid-Seventies.

The more I researched, the more the anecdotes kept coming. Gordon Allen, whose ring persona was Pedro the Gypsy, had a job training dolphins – although he couldn't swim. Harry Bennett, who wrestled as Casey Pye in a tag team with his brother Dominic Pye, once travelled home on the train from a bout in Blackpool wearing nothing but a pair of tights because his car had been stolen.

I found out that Bert Assirati – for all his reputation – was always first to help the Barnsley ringmen assemble the stage.

This is a book that I am enjoying researching and writing as much as any romantic comedy I've written. It's not just about the antics in the ring. It's about these wonderful husbands and fathers that I've grown up with.

I also think we still have a chance to get our wrestling house in order. Wouldn't it be grand to see gyms opening up again, lads paying fees to get fit and train to the American standard? It would be even more wonderful to see the wrestling renaissance start up in Barnsley.

Milly Johnson is the author of The Yorkshire Pudding Club and The Birds and the Bees (Pocket Books). Listen to her talk about her work in our exclusive OutLoud interview>>

Darren Ward would like to hear from anyone with wrestling memorabilia, telephone him on 07920 048 499.