Best of British – Arena: Masters of the Canvas

I got one or two votes recently in the Doomies and have had some nice comments for my previous British wrestling reviews, so I thought I’d look at something I’ve had in mind for a while.

1991 – British wrestling is effectively long gone from TV, having been cancelled in 1988, but the legend still lives on, and the promotions still active probably were thankful for the WWF having exploded on the scene, meaning that the average punter would just see ‘Wrestling’ on a poster and go see it again regardless of whether it’s Hulk Hogan or Robbie Brookside.

There’s a reason why when you talk about British wrestling it’s still equated to Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, because those were the big stars during the TV era, but not far behind was the likes of Kendo Nagasaki. In this episode of the long-running BBC arts show Arena (and check out how cool that intro and theme tune is), reporter/producer Paul Yates seeks one of the most desired and hard to get commodities in all of wrestling – a recorded interview with the masked samurai warrior.

A quiet opening shows Yates preparing for his interview with Kendo at his hotel before departing to an unknown car park to await him. After the credits, we see him trying to get as much info on him as he can. In an article four years before, the artist Peter Blake, the man responsible for the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, admitted that if he hadn’t been a painter he would’ve wanted to have been Nagasaki.

A sneaky bit of editing juxtaposes archive footage of Kendo wrestling, with Kent Walton on commentary, with more recent footage of Blake in the audience at a wrestling show. Blake admits his interest is mostly with people on the fringes of entertainment, like wrestlers. The fascination with masked wrestlers comes for him from who is under the mask, be it a prominent person in society or someone hideously scarred. There was also the fun of it being a repackaged wrestler, so you could look out for distinguishing features and say “That’s… !”.

Yates calls Kendo’s manager, drummer Lloyd Ryan, who is very evasive and hard-arsed from the start, and if he wasn’t prepared then he’s a guy that’s always in character. After some conversation, he’s up for an initial meeting to discuss ideas, but non-committal.

(It’s also worth noting that Ryan replaced the late Gorgeous George Gillette, who died of AIDS in the eighties, and was the composer of the awesome Kendo’s Theme, which he was coming to the ring to from the seventies.)

Blake fantasy books himself as a member of a tag team called the Beatniks, with black tights and a leather jacket, but after seeing Kendo he loved how distant he was from everything else. Yates goes into a weird correspondence with Nagasaki with a biblical and mystical element via Ryan. Yates proposes Kendo sitting for a portrait painting, then sit for his first interview. Ryan says maybe on the first thing, but absolutely not on the interview. Yates tries to pull a few details about Kendo from Ryan, while creepy secret footage through Kendo’s window of him at work in his office with normal clothes plus mask on, plays over the top. Ryan starts to close down when the questions go beyond Ryan’s relationship with him as his manager to more personal details like what is his accent like (North Staffordshire, for those not in the know).

Not getting an interview with one masked wrestler, Yates speaks to the retired and elderly Count Bartelli, the “original” masked wrestler, who Kendo defeated, forcing him to unmask. In reality, he was his trainer and mentor, and he put him over when he was finishing his career. He talks about the difficulty of being a masked wrestler but also the heartbreak of losing in the end, then puts Nagasaki over as a tough and dangerous wrestler, someone who he gets “not very good” vibrations from him.

Yates continues his research, including the famous match with Big Daddy where Daddy unmasked him, Yates purposely obscuring any unmasked shots of him. This comes as he passes on news to Blake that Kendo has agreed to a photo session with Terence Donovan ahead of their portrait sitting. After the shoot, Donovan talks about his own time in Japan and his respect for the samurai and how he met a judoka who had part of his finger missing, which matches Kendo. Fun, mythologising of the man. Blake takes the photos to prepare a canvas to paint, with a cool shot of Kendo reflected in his glasses, suggesting that he has the man himself in his eyes.

Kendo arrives for the portrait sitting with Ryan and his manservant (and lover) Lawrence Stevens along with him. Kendo removes his suit of armour and sits statue-like while Blake converses with Ryan. Blake talks through his process, like painting a brown background behind him instead of the actual white, while Ryan talks about the problems of finding opponents for him “because he’s beaten everyone”, then talks about his history of managing him and how he first met him, when he saw him lift up Big Daddy for a slam, “which takes quite a lot of strength” (Blake: “I bet it does!”).

Then, out of the blue, Kendo agrees to an interview with Yates with some strict conditions in place. Ryan: “I’m not happy about it, but if you’re a minute late we’re going.” He would’ve made an awesome WWF manager with how grumpy he is.

Prior to the interview, Kendo wrestles Giant Haystacks for the vacant CWA World Heavyweight Championship in Croydon. Not shown is Ryan kicking up a stink about special guest referee Pat Roach, so Steve Grey is drafted in while Roach observes from the outside. Kendo draws his sword and goes right up to Haystacks with it, who doesn’t flunch. Nagasaki goes through his salt ceremony, while we cut back to Blake completing the painting with incredible skill and detail. Back in the ring, Haystacks goes to rip the mask off as he had done years before in their matches.

At an art gallery, people schmooze with one another, including former wrestler and actor Brian Glover, who’s best known from Kes, but for an American audience it would be An American Werewolf in London or Alien 3. Back at the match, Kendo puts the boots to Haystacks, including going low, and rams his head into the corner post to draw blood, even using the ring bell. His second, Blondie Barrett, gets his shots in. As they get back inside, Grey tries to break them up but goes for a ride via the Kamikaze Crash. Pat Roach comes to attend him and stands off with Kendo, who Haystacks comes up to from behind and rips his mask off again. This was a pretty big deal at the time. Backstage, Ryan rants about it and the injustice of there not being a disqualification.

Finally, as in the intro, Yates prepares for and heads out for the interview. One final twist when Kendo arrives – no microphones, so you get a muffled interview with subtitles over top in the back of a limousine. Kendo talks about how he appreciates the effort Yates has put into pursuing him, but that Kendo Nagasaki in some respects isn’t him and is instead a persona that manifests itself with him. He’s evasive on the missing finger and how his eyes “turn red” in the wrestling ring. He talks of his hypnotic powers, which were utilised to corny effect in his later matches, as well as the contradiction of being a faith healer outside the ring. He attributes his popularity to the idea that anyone could be behind his mask if they wanted to be.

At the conclusion of the interview, we cut back to footage of the art gallery, where Nagasaki arrives in normal clothes, but cut together with separate footage of him walking in wearing armour, and the room goes silent as he arrives to view the picture approvingly. We then cut to “Kendo” against a dark background, masked face only in shot, before a hand comes into shot, one finger partially removed, and removes the mask, revealing… Peter Blake, who has symbolically at last been able to feel what it is like to be Kendo Nagasaki.

The Bottom Line: It’s not going to be for everybody, and it’s dated badly with some quite obvious and corny dramatised parts of the documentary, such as the banter between Yates and Ryan, but at the same time, in a kayfabe era, it was a fascinating insight into this renowned character. Definitely worth a look if you’re of the right sensibility.