The ring has seen nothing to match our enigmatic Kendo

September 28, 1985, was a black day for British television: The day when we said goodbye to a programme children like me had been weaned on.

World of Sport ran on ITV for 20 years in competition with BBC’s Grandstand.

Fronted by the legend that is Dickie Davies, it was a glorious hot-potch of sports coverage – often showing things which weren’t popular with the British viewing public such as hockey, water-skiing, stock car racing and equestrian events – back in the days when there weren’t a trillion TV channels.

Kids like me watched it for several reasons: Firstly, to avoid the black and white western film on BBC2; Secondly, for its football preview show On The Ball; Thirdly, for the half time and full time footie scores; And finally, for the guilty pleasure that was wrestling.

This evening modern-day gladiators with names like Skull Murphy, Robbie Dynamite and Rampage Brown will battle it out at the Victoria Hall in Hanley – evoking memories of the halcyon days of wrestling in the UK.

The Vicki Hall has hosted the sport since the 1950s and been witness to some truly epic contests.

It was one of the venues World of Sport would switch to at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon.

The stars of wrestling in those days truly became household names – people like Mick McManus and Klondyke Kate.

Then there was the unparalleled rivalry between the 40-stone Giant Haystacks and crowd favourite Big Daddy.

Some of the wrestlers were so good as both sportsmen (and women) as well as actors that you had to remind yourself that they were faking much of the action.

Although clearly many of the people ringside – including old ladies brandishing brollies and handbags – either didn’t realise or didn’t care as they made their feelings about the villains plain.

Indeed, it is hard to believe the atmosphere, the noise and passion generated by spectators watching something which was akin to pantomime.

Arguably the greatest British wrestler of them all from those days, and the one who was a Kendo Nagasaki – alias Peter Thornley who was born here in Stoke-on-Trent in October 1946.

Like many stars of the ring, he had a back-story. But Kendo’s character was more complex and fascinating than the rest which led to him becoming one of the most popular performers of all time.

The masked warrior claimed to be a Samurai with a mysterious past and the power of hypnosis.

He first rose to fame in March 1966 when he defeated and unmasked the legend that was Count Bartelli (AKA Geoff Condliffe, originally from Crewe) after a bruising bout up at the Victoria Hall.

For years he refused to remove his mask and reveal his true identity and would often maintain a stoic silence in public. However, five days before Christmas in 1977 he took part in a ceremonial ‘unmasking’ in Wolverhampton which caused a sensation in the wrestling world and only served to add to his reputation.

During this period, the Potteries wrestler was managed by the flamboyant and immaculately-attired ‘Gorgeous’ George Gillette.

Kendo was famed for his strength and in one televised match once lifted the 26 stone Shirley Crabtree (later known as Big Daddy) above his head before finishing him off with a trademark ‘Kamikaze Crash’.

He went on to become the WWA World Heavyweight Champion and throughout his career performed in front of royalty – including the likes of Prince Philip at the Royal Albert Hall.

Kendo claims never to have been defeated – although he was disqualified on many occasions.

He finally retired from wrestling in December 2001 – exactly thirty years after making his debut on the canvas.

However much fun the crowd has up Hanley tonight and however good the current crop of wrestlers may believe they are, I dare say none could have stood toe-to-toe with our Kendo – the most enigmatic and talented of his generation.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Alton Towers: A magnet for thrill-seekers which helped put us on the map

Believe it or not, there are some people who don’t know our city as the Potteries and don’t even know which county it is in.

Instead they refer to Stoke-on-Trent as ‘that place near Alton Towers’.

Yes, the gargantuan theme park set in the rolling Staffordshire Moorlands countryside really is what puts us on the map for many visitors.

Last year the Alton Towers resort attracted more than 2.6 million visitors – making it the most visited theme park in the UK by some margin.

This wasn’t always the case, however. In fact, thirty odd years ago there was little to indicate that the semi-derelict former seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury was to become a magnet for tourists and thrill-seekers.

During the Sixties and Seventies the grounds to Alton Towers were reopened to the public.

There was a boating lake, a small fairground and visitors were allowed to look round the empty house into which concrete floors had been placed.

Then millionaire property developer John Broome bought out the majority stake in the Towers and it was he who laid the foundations for today’s internationally-renowned attraction.

Broome installed various permanent rides and began to develop the grounds of the estate.

But 1980 was the year when Alton Towers really announced its arrival with the installation of the Pirate Ship and Alpine Bobsleigh along with a ride that was to become a household name.

The Corkscrew was officially unveiled on April 4 that year and was the first rollercoaster yours truly experienced.

Back then there were relatively few steel rollercoasters and the Corkscrew was unique in that flipped you upside down twice (a double inversion in rollercoaster-speak).

The ride did wonders for Alton Towers’s profile in Britain and those who tried it, like myself, wore the experience like a badge of honour.

During the Corkscrew’s first year of operation the waiting times for the ride frequently reached five or six hours – forcing the park to close early.

For many years the Corkscrew was the iconic rollercoaster in this country – used for the opening title sequence of ITV’s The Chart Show (1989-1991) and even the cover image of a single by dance outfit The Prodigy.

The Log Flume, which was to be enjoyed by the likes of Diana, Princess of Wales and her then young sons William and Harry, was unveiled in 1982 and two years later the park’s second rollercoaster, The Black Hole, became operational.

The Eighties was the decade when Alton Towers cemented its reputation as the number one theme park in the UK as more rides such as the Congo River Rapids (1986), attractions and areas were added.

These included Towers Street which is the first area visitors encounter and includes the famous ‘jumping frog’ fountains, a lawned area where seasonal events take place and refreshment and merchandise shops.

The renowned monorail system which transports visitors from far-away car parks to the main entrance and ticket booths was launched in 1987 by non-other than Star Trek’s Captain Kirk – alias actor William Shatner.

Also unveiled that year was the Skyride cable car attraction which transports visitors between different areas of the park.

Since the 1980s Alton Towers has continued to evolve and innovate – adding new ride experiences such as Nemesis, Air, Th13teen and Rita: Queen of Speed to draw in the crowds.

The park also boasts no less than two hotels – one of which has a themed, tropical water park where even our inclement weather can’t spoil the fun.

Of course, Alton Towers hasn’t been entirely free of controversy in the last three decades.

Given the fact that the park can receive up to 28,000 visitors each day, there were bound to be odd technical hitches, fires and accidents.

There has also been a long-running battle with a few local residents who bought their homes prior to the park’s incredible expansion and object to the noise and traffic it generates.

However, there is no doubting the importance of Alton Towers to the region’s economy and the fact that it really does put our city – and the wider North Staffordshire conurbation – on the map.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

The sorry state of the UK’s dumbed-down TV is forcing me to watch period drama

That’s it then. There’s nothing for it. I guess I’m going to have to watch Downton Abbey.

Having set my stall out long ago against costume romps, the latest viewing figures for British TV are so depressing that they leave me with no choice but to cave in.

How did it come to this? Well, the sad truth is that ITV’s flagship period drama – the most successful since 1981’s Brideshead Revisited – is actually the only proper programme in the top 10 most-watched shows of 2011.

According to figures just released by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (Barb), reality TV and ‘talent’ shows account for six of the top 10 slots.

The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent each grab two places while Strictly Come Dancing and I’m A Celebrity (Get Me Out Of Here) also chart.

Now, as a staunch supporter of our very own Stoke’s Top Talent, I’ve got nothing against variety competitions. If they do what they say on the tin, that is.

But the X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent aren’t anything of the sort.

They are, first and foremost, entertainment programmes and anyone who doesn’t understand that simple conceit is being emotionally mugged.

Let’s face it: If they were genuine talent competitions then the likes of Jedward and Wagner would never have got anywhere near a television camera.

They were put through to the finals in order that we would all sit around asking each other why they had made it to the finals.

As one of the few people in the UK not under the spell of PJ and Duncan – sorry, I mean Ant and Dec – I have to say I’m A Celebrity (Get Me Out Of Here) also leaves me cold.

Morecambe and Wise they are not and if I want to watch people eating a kangaroo’s testicles I can observe the queue for pies at any League Two stadium that Port Vale visit.

As for Strictly (I’m told you’re supposed to shorten the title) I have no real objection other than the fact that it seems a tad self-indulgent of the BBC to throw its own presenters into the mix with the so-called celebrities.

For example, no sooner had Alex Jones finished fawning over the latest guest on the unfathomably random One Show than she was all sequins and cleavage doing a rumba.

When you take out the boring annual Coronation Street set-piece and the yearly Eastenders misery-fest that leaves only Downton and the Royal Wedding – which topped the chart with an average of 13.59 million viewers but doesn’t really count as it’s a one-off event.

I’m afraid to say that, had it not been for William and Kate’s nuptials, Simon Cowell’s empire would have reigned supreme once again.

What a depressing thought.

Granted, I’m not your archetypal television watcher: If a programme doesn’t contain space ships, the supernatural, an archaeological dig, cricket, Port Vale or Bon Jovi then it’s unlikely to be on my radar.

However, once in a while a fine piece of drama or a brilliant new comedy will grab my attention.

For example, programmes such as the excellent Band Of Brothers or current hit shows such as Boardwalk Empire or Game Of Thrones made the cut.

Of course, the aforementioned sweeping epics were made by U.S. network HBO because neither the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 nor Channel 5 have the resource or the gumption to pull off anything so cinematic.

The truth is I haven’t watched terrestrial telly for a long time and so I have to ask: Did IQs drop sharply while I was away?

Along with the shows I dismissed earlier there is even more vacuous tripe to avoid like Big Brother, Geordie Shore and The Only Way Is Essex.

I’ve clearly turned prematurely into a curmudgeonly old git because it seems to me that warm and engaging family programmes (Auf Wiedersehen Pet/The Darling Buds Of May) and non-offensive and clever comedies (Only Fools and Horses/Blackadder) are now considered too bland.

Meanwhile brainless is the new mainstream as we continue to worship at the cult of celebrity.

We’ve got more channels to choose from than we’ve ever had yet the only time the nation properly comes together is to watch warbling non-entities or Z-list celebrities wretching over a plate of cockroaches.

It’s so bad I’m almost looking forward to the Olympics. Yes, OK, and Downton Abbey.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Tonnes of snow… and a Christmas to savour with my family

On Christmas Eve 1981 the snow lay three inches thick across the Potteries. It wasn’t the Slush Puppy stuff we’ve been having in recent weeks, either – it was proper, deep snow.

In fact, we were in the grip of the record-breaking, snowiest (I am told there is such a word) December of the 20th Century.

It was an exceptional month, weather-wise. During the night of December 12 to 13 temperatures plummeted to below minus 18 across the UK.

Even the Queen did not escape the snow – ending up stranded for several hours in a Cotswold pub on December 14.

High winds caused havoc on coastal waters and on December 19 the Penlee lifeboat capsized off the Cornish coast as it went to the aid of crippled cargo ship Union Star. Sixteen lives were lost.

After a heavy snowfall on December 21 a blanket of the white stuff covered most of the country – up to 33cm deep in parts of the Midlands.

Yours truly was only nine at the time and my brother Matthew was five. We were off school and the weather was perfect.

We were beyond excited.

Not only was Father Christmas due in Sneyd Green but we had enough of the white stuff to build whacking great snowmen, have snowball fights and – because we lived on a hill –
go sledging down the road.

As usual, Christmas Eve involved Matt and I getting an early-ish night and doing our best to get off to sleep while wondering what new toys we would wake up to.

It is interesting to note that the average wage at the time was £6,000 per year (the equivalent of around £19,000 in today’s money). Petrol was 28 pence per litre, bread was 33p and a pint of milk 17p.

Meanwhile my dad’s festive pint down his local would have cost him and my grandad 35p.

In truth it was to be a sparse Christmas for many as the recession tightened its grip on Britain.

December 1981 was actually the month that a certain Arthur Scargill became President-elect of the National Union of Mineworkers. And we all know what happened after that.

Despite this austere backdrop, Matt and I came downstairs on that frosty Christmas day morning to find that Santa had once again delivered two sacks crammed full of presents.

They included a version of the top-selling toy of the previous year – the Rubik’s ball or snake puzzle – but not 1981’s must-have: Lego’s first electric train set. Not that Matt and I cared, like.

My nan and grandad, Ethel and Frank, arrived from Bentilee mid-morning and we stuffed our faces with turkey dinner, mince pies, Christmas cake and After Eight mints before grandad fell asleep in front of the fire.

It may have been the food, the couple of pints he’d supped down the Holden Bridge pub, or more likely the Queen’s Speech which finished him off.

Her Majesty told us all of her joy at seeing her eldest son tying the knot with Lady Diana Spencer earlier in the year.

She also underlined the importance of the International Year of Disabled People and made a special mention of her subjects in Northern Ireland who were living through the troubles.

Another television must-see that year was, of course, Top Of The Pops which boasted a performance of the Christmas number one – Don’t You Want Me? by The Human League. (A proper pop song in the days before the X-Factor dictated which pretty boy or girl got to number one).

BBC1’s other festive delights were shows by mad-cap comedian Kenny Everett and impressionist Mike Yarwood while its Christmas day highlights included Jim’ll Fix It, The Two Ronnies, The Paul Daniels’ Magic Show and Dallas.

Meanwhile, over on ITV we all thought Sarah Kennedy, Henry Kelly and Jeremy Beadle were Game For A Laugh.

Matt and I went to bed happy, full to bursting and knowing the snow would still be there on Boxing Day. Along with a pile of turkey.

Even against a background of enormous economic uncertainty – not dissimilar to that which we face today – the memories of Christmas 1981 remain golden for me and I know exactly who to thank for that.

Merry Christmas, mum and dad.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Our performers could teach Simon Cowell a thing or two

The queue for Stoke's Top Talent auditions at the Victoria Hall, Hanley.

The queue for Stoke’s Top Talent auditions at the Victoria Hall, Hanley.

Sunday was a long day. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Even as we neared the finish and the clock struck eight o’clock, I didn’t want the auditions to end.

At that point, the frantic early morning registration for this year’s Stoke’s Top Talent competition was a distant memory.

Yet people were still huddled in groups around the auditorium, cheering and clapping enthusiastically: paying punters who had sat there for the best part of 10 hours and wanted to see it through to the bitter end.

I didn’t need to be there. I don’t start judging until the week of the heats when 50 finalists will battle it out in Hanley for the ultimate prize.

I was on a reconnaissance mission. I know that, come the week of September 7, this competition will be on everyone’s lips, and I want to be ready.

Sixteen months ago, the idea of having a variety contest here in the Potteries was just that… an idea. But anyone who witnessed last year’s dramatic climax at The Regent theatre will tell you that this concept, this show, is here to stay.

Even our Editor was left genuinely speechless by the standard that night (and that’s saying something).

Yes, the world and his dog might have gone potty recently over a certain Susan Boyle who came a close second in the final of Britain’s Got Talent.

Not me. I’ll let you into a secret. Whisper it quietly, but Stoke’s Top Talent is better.

OK, we may not have the pyrotechnics of ITV’s ratings winner and the trousers of our resident ‘Mr Nasty’ – Kevin Wood – may not be quite as tight as Simon Cowell’s.

But, by the same token, audiences who pay good money to watch our final 50 acts later this year will certainly get their money’s worth.

There will be no deluded, talentless individuals selected for the judges to belittle; no blokes who think that chucking wheelbarrows around qualifies as entertainment; no random picks to be humiliated in front of a live theatre audience.

Every single one of the finalists will be there on merit.

Of course, for many entrants, the auditions themselves represent their moment in the sun.

For countless youngsters, their minute-and-a-half in front of Jonny Wilkes and the other judges is just the spur they need to carry on singing or dancing – and to maybe try to improve for next year.

No-one leaves in tears. Everyone exits the stage with endorsements, advice and applause ringing in their ears. Which is just as it should be.

Take it from me, it takes some bottle to stand on that stage at the Victoria Hall and belt out 90 seconds of vocals or throw yourself into a street dance routine in front of hundreds of people you don’t know and judges who do this kind of thing for a living.

I saw every act and all the emotions etched on the faces of young and old alike.

I sat on the side of the stage and yet I confess I still have absolutely no idea how Birches Head magician Ben Cardall could predict which playing cards the three judges would choose out of his pack of 52.

I’m also not too proud to say I shed a tear when six-year-old Magenta Lee, of Madeley, sang Where Is Love? from Oliver!

You could have heard a pin drop.

Apparently, they’re doing a similar competition in Milton Keynes this year where the local theatre is owned by the same group.

I wish them luck. They’re going to need it.

I dare say the spies from down south who were watching our auditions on Sunday would have hit the M6 with their tails well and truly between their legs.

Why? Because nowhere else in the country can do what Stoke-on-Trent does with a competition like this.

We may be an introspective little city comprised of six disparate towns, but by God we know how to come together to champion the underdog.

When the final 50 are announced in next Monday’s Sentinel, I suggest you book your tickets for The Regent pretty sharpish.

Even if you never normally visit the theatre, it’s time to shop local and support the acts from your communities.

It’s Sneyd Green versus Kidsgrove, Longton versus Alsager, Tunstall versus Biddulph – and it’s bloody marvellous.

In fact, I’d like to extend a personal invitation to a certain Potteries pop superstar who just happens to have moved back to the UK.

Come on, Rob. Get yourself up Hanley with Jonny and your dad for the finals night on September 12.

You’d be really proud and we’d all love to see you.

Just for once, let us entertain you, Mr Williams.