The Big Time – The Original Tough Enough!

Imagine a TV show where you took an average member of the public and tried to turn them into a professional wrestler. No, it’s not Tough Enough, it’s The Big Time, a BBC series from the late seventies/early eighties, which is probably most famous for launching the career of Sheena Easton. In this episode from 1980, teacher and church organist Keith Rawlinson gets to go through a transformation and rub shoulders and trade forearms with the stars of British wrestling from the World of Sport days.

(First part above, second and third parts at the bottom.)

Keith is shown playing the organ at his local church in Burnley. Keith, age 27, is married to Judy and tries to live by the word of the bible, but hopes that going into a wrestling ring will force a transformation – “It’s got to!”, he says, if he wants to survive. He trains youngsters at his school in amateur wrestling but has never wrestled himself and lives vicariously through the wrestlers he watches on TV. It lets his frustrations out. On the subject of how real it is or not, people he’s told he’s doing the programme have said that it’ll be “a good laugh”, but he thinks he’s got a rough road ahead of him.

“I don’t give a damn what the doctor says! He MUST be there!”, says hard-ass wrestling promoter Max Crabtree, brother of Shirley, AKA Big Daddy. He talks about any wrestler who wants to have a chance has got to have a lot of “bottle”, meaning courage and toughness. He’s going to promote the match with Keith and has set him up with veteran Peter “Tally Ho!” Kaye, the wrestling hunter. But first, a test of his skills against the man with a face that could curdle milk, “Cyanide” Sid Cooper. He struggles to take him down from a collar and elbow tie-up. He strains, Cooper barely registers, then gets taken down. Cooper gives him a nasty shove as well to taunt him. Crabtree suggests a dropkick, so he tries some that make Erik Watts look like Jim Brunzell. “You’ll rupture me custard(!)”, mocks Cooper. Keith is already throwing up. Max promises there will be pain that comes with the job, but Keith is going to stick with it.

Peter Kaye gets to meet him and think he’ll need to add some weight immediately. He’s immediately teaching him the ins and outs of a hammerlock and front facelock. Johnny Saint goes to visit Keith too and talks about his days of training and crying all the way home when he was 16. His funny advice to Keith for getting the grappling game is that they’ll have to “Break his heart – plough him in the deck! Scurf him!”.

Former wrestler and gym owner Bob Sweeney weighs Keith at 150 lbs, so recommends adding eighteen pounds. He puts him on the high protein “Olympic diet” as well as protein and vitamin pills, plus running three miles a day and an hour in the gym. Wife Judy thinks it’s taking a lot of time away from his family, but realises he’s committed now. Kaye continues his training as Keith gains a bit of strength and a mean look as his size increases. He also goes through slam drills, which is the move he hates taking the most because it takes the wind out of you and your ribs feel like they’re shattering. He’s also enduring being Irish whipped into the corner, which he has no idea of how to take and just crumples to the ground.

Referee (and Joint Promotions booker) Joe D’Orazio, who’s still alive at the age of 98, will preside over Keith’s match and takes the approach to kayfabe of “If it’s fake then nobody’s told me, and I’ve spent a lot of time in hospital because of wrestling”. There is showmanship, he admits, with a nervous cough, but there is in football. He advises that if Keith wants to submit to not think about it, just do it. Keith’s going to have a practice match with Kaye, and takes the adorable approach of having a few moves he’s going to try, then admits he’s scared to death.

Keith immediately gets the full nelson, but just as soon as he’s got it Kaye is out and takes him to the match and applies a legbar. Keith should submit, but won’t, so takes a slam instead. That leaves him vulnerable for a hammerlock, which he gives up the first fall to. In the fourth round, Kaye goes back to it, but is saved by the bell and ends the match defeated, but not completely. A moral victory for lasting the fight.

In the debrief, Max talks about how he walked into the match a defeated man, and if the audience see it too then he’s doubly defeated. For now, it’s a three out of ten, and he’ll have to mentally prepare himself for the next fight.

Talk turns to the lack of respect for wrestling from the media and other sports, but the fans get very involved. Kaye’s theatrics and cheating get brought into question, but it riles up the audience nonetheless. Keith’s experience so far has him convinced. He gives away that Peter has needed helping out to his car before because he was in so much pain.

To Kent Walton, the legendary announcer. He recalls Don Vines getting his teeth knocked out with a forearm shot. He kept them and reveals them as a grim memento. He talks about how there are “knockers” when it comes to wrestling reality, but you can only know if you’re in there. He challenges the premise of someone taking a dive by asking why someone would take a dive when the winners rise and the losers fall and it’s only the winners who get to make the most money. But he also says it with a smile on his face.

Keith needs an opponent, and strongman Alan Dennison is considered, but he’s far too strong for Keith. Sid Cooper has the advantage of having Keith’s measure already, so he’s left out of the conversation. Talk comes to John Naylor, a young, handsome wrestler, a pretty boy in wrestling circles, but someone with experience. Keith is also considered to be a poor name for a wrestler, so they go for the alliterative Rip Rawlinson. Presenter Paul Heiney hopes it won’t be R.I.P.

Keith is now up to his target weight and able to more easily lift 155 lbs. Weighing more than twice that is the biggest star of British wrestling, figuratively and almost literally, Big Daddy, who had a grandmother who weighed almost as much as he did, and his mom wasn’t far off. He recalls being terrified before his first match, but gave it a go and glad he did. His advice to Keith is to do his best and that if he only has one match, at least he had the courage to do so.

Keith gets his last bit of training in with Peter Kaye’s son, Tony, an experienced amateur and a guy who even as a tackling dummy here shows tremendous presence, stature and finesse. Keith does have a bit more tenacity and killer instinct by this point. Three months have given him enough to go from three out of ten to seven out of ten. It’s enough to earn his place on the poster. He’s also got his boots, trunks, and a red robe with his name in white letters on the back. He can widen his back enough now to spread them out.

Off to the Royal Albert Hall with his wife, Kaye, and some kids from his wrestling club. Brian Crabtree welcomes him in, fag on the go and cuppa in hand. Keith’s curly hair has been cut down for a more serious luck. Big Daddy sits him down and treats him to a neck rub to relax him while quoting Mussolini (“Better to be a lion for a day than a lamb for a lifetime!”). Judy hopes he doesn’t get permanently injured. Keith’s nervous about not letting people down.

A wrestler comes back from the first match with an injured neck, adding to Keith’s nerves. Big Daddy jostles with him to take his mind off it before they go out for the third match. Rip heads out, with Judy taking a deep breath as he passes. The crowd applaud him as a newcomer, while the ref gets the customary teasing boos!

John Naylor, his more experienced opponent, gives him no easy breaks. Rip gets an armdrag, but Naylor has not intention of staying in it. He twists his legs, but Rip’s not giving up so he releases the hold. Rip is limping, though, clutching his thigh. He gets to the bell and the second comes in to massage his leg, while Naylor just takes a swig of water. In round two, Naylor gives him a scornful kick, so Rip attacks, but has bitten off more than he can chew and quickly submits when Naylor goes back to the leg.

The second returns to massage the leg. The crowd boo, seeing that it’s a mismatch. Peter Kaye comes to ringside to give him advice, telling him to keep the leg out of Naylor’s reach. “Shift yourself, shift yourself!”, although with his broad accent it sounds like “Shit yourself, shit yourself!”. Naylor’s straight back on the leg, though. Rip can’t get to the ropes, so the ref shows mercy and helps him to them. Another go at the leg, with Rip fighting for his life. He goes for a full nelson and snapmare, but can’t take it further and gets to the end of round three just about. He’s obviously ready to be sick and despite Kaye encouraging him otherwise he decides to concede and let Naylor take the victory. “Load of bloody rubbish!”, yells a granny at ringside. Rip gets a round of applause for his effort.

Back in the locker room, Kaye talks about how he forgot everything when he went in there. Judy’s not very happy and hopes his first match was his last. Nothing broken, luckily. Max reckons he’s got a lot of bottle and has earned his respect. Kaye can’t fault him for his performance because that’s the nature of the business, your first match is always your hardest. Keith has been able to live his dream and got ten out of ten for his effort.

The Bottom Line: A serious and credible attempt at showing someone entering the wrestling business, allowing both him and the business some dignity. There are attempts to question the legitimacy of it, which isn’t groundbreaking, but Keith lives as testament as to how hard it can be.

Of course, bringing up the word legitimacy does open it up after the fact for questioning. Max Crabtree revealed in Simon Garfield’s The Wrestling that Naylor was offered up as an opponent because his looks disguised that he was as hard as nails and there was no way that Keith was ever going to get one over on him. Naylor was one of the Dynamite Kid’s mentors from Wigan, which should say all that’s needed, but Crabtree took the position of having to protect his business even when opening it up, which you can’t fault. A fascinating book itself, and a fascinating episode here.

Keith is a thoroughly nice guy, so it is good to see his progression and he comes across and is presented in a very genuine way. Nobody comes out of the show looking bad, with Big Daddy appearing friendly and supportive, Kaye being the tough-but-fair trainer, and Max Crabtree, despite his initial hammy acting at the start, being critical without criticising.