In his famous essay on all-in wrestling, the French semiotician Roland Barthes observed that professional wrestling “is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is not more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Andromaque”. The wrestling audience, he argued, was rightly “uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not – it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle… what matters is not what it thinks, but what it sees”.
Barthes’s essay would make a decent introduction to Peter Byrne’s book of photographs, Wrestling in the North, 1980s. Some of the photos concentrate on the grunting choreography of the action in the ring. More of them focus on the faces of the crowd. Byrne was a photography student at Harrogate College of further education when he took the pictures. He spent his Friday and Saturday nights driving around wrestling venues – Barnsley Civic, Scunthorpe’s Baths Hall, the Blackpool Tower Circus and this one, King George’s Hall, Blackburn – for his final year project.
Looking back he believes the faces in this crowd must have been transfixed by Big Daddy, the 26-stone giant (real name Shirley Crabtree) who topped the bill that evening and was probably “the only wrestler on the night capable of creating that sort of audience reaction”. Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks and the rest were coming to the end of their reign over Saturday afternoon living rooms; ITV ended its 30-year coverage of professional British wrestling the following year and it was replaced with the flashier American version. Byrne saw it as a sad loss for those communities. “When wrestling came to town, for that evening, once every few months, you could escape the hardships of life. You could totally immerse yourself in pure theatre. You could scream and shout at someone twice your size and get away with it.”