Les Kellett may have acted daft as a brush, but the reality was far from it. When it came to providing the fans with just what they wanted this man could deliver every single time.
In the 1960s everything did, more or less, stop at 4.00 on a Saturday afternoon. It was around that time that the close on hundred thousand supporters who had attended live wrestling shows during the week were joined on the nation's sofas by millions of armchair fans to watch the Saturday afternoon wrestling. Just about everyone had at least a passing interest in the goings on in the grunt and groan world and a handful of names were known to even those with no interest whatsover, and probably to their cats also. The next door neighbour, the favourite aunt and everyone's grannie created a national appetite for the come-uppance of McManus and Pallo, the unmasking of The Outlaw and the sainthood of Bert Royal.
It was however, an unlikely looking middle aged Yorkshireman who was the television fans' undoubted favourite. No one would describe Les Kellett as young and glamorous, but he was, by miles, the most charismatic and popular wrestler amongst armchair fans.
It was a popularity that spread far and wide. Certainly further than we had anticipated until we heard from American heavyweight Colt Cabana, a former WWE worker and NWA World heavyweight champion. He told us that it was on a visit to Britain in 2004 that he became aware of what he described as "the genius of Les Kellett." By then Les had already passed away, having died in a nursing home in Ilkley on 9th January, 2002.
Few that saw Les Kellett in action would disagree with Colt Cabana's assessment of the Yorkshireman.
So great was the impression made by Kellett on the young American that he took the step of increasing his wrestling memorabilia in a rather unusual way.
Colt contacted Rob Schamberger, a Kansas City born and bred artist with a lifelong love of comic books, illustration, cubist artists, street artists, quality crime dramas, and professional wrestling.
Rob is shown handing over the portrait of Les to it's new owner. To say that Colt was thrilled by Rob's work of art is something of an understatement, and we think you will understand why.
Other fans have only memories of Les Kellett, but what memories they are.
We all have our favourite memories of the larger than life character, be it his insistence on taking a photo of his opponent prior to their contest, the feigned deafness as he extracted every ounce of revenge on his rule bending antagonist whilst the referee screamed "Break the hold," the tremendous whacks across the cheek to put a wrestler firmly in their place, or ridiculing an opponent by feigning semi-consciousness and deftly sidestepping a blow at the last minute, leaving the hapless victim to fall flat on his face. Or what about the bending of a foot to try and get the to touch the heel, or the exaggerated boxing stance?
The list goes on.
For many the over-riding memory will be the eagerly anticipated occasion when Les would fall backwards between the middle and top rope, halting his descent by catching himself on the top rope and propelling himself back into the ring to launch an attack on a seemingly unsuspecting opponent. See, you're smiling already, aren't you? It must have taken enormous courage to perform such a dangerous stunt, with a misplaced foot or untaught ropes causing the potential for serious injury.
Whilst most of our long term memories remain in monochrome, memories of Les often stand out in full colour. Bernard Hughes remembers from half a century ago when Les was refereeing in Newcastle,
Les Kellett's routine was built around making his opponent look foolish, and so the ideal opponent was anyone that the fans wanted to see humiliated. In wrestling this left many opportunities and rivalries with Mick McManus, Steve Logan, Steve Haggetty, Jackie Pallo and Bobby Graham have been recalled by members of this site. It was a routine that required some co-operation and artistry on the part of Les's opponent to make the contest plausible. Not that Les was a man without skill. He was a skilfull and very hard wrestler, and it is this juxtaposition of clown and iron-man that has made him such an enigma amongst wrestling fans.
Sadly, in our opinion, fans too young to have witnessed Les Kellett in the flesh, rely on his portrayal in Simon Garfield's book, "The Wrestling." Garfield uses Les as a theme throughout his book, a troublesome character who he has difficulty tracking down and consequently relies on second hand descriptions that are less than complimentary.
Whilst fans laughed and cheered at Les's antics inside the ring stories abound of a darker side to his character outside the ring. Time and again stories have been repeated portraying a man who was, in the most generous of terms, a hard man, and in less generous terms, a cruel man. We are not going to repeat those stories here because we have empathy with Colt Cabana's words, "I've heard the horror stories from many wrestlers second hand. I'm ok with not knowing who Les Kellett was outside the ring because what he did inside the ring has brought so much joy to my career and life," and secondly we find some of the stories hard to believe. We are persuaded Les was a moody and difficult man with a fiery temperament, but some of those who told us stories about Les's character outside the ring were clearly enjoying the pleasure and perceived status of passing on stories that were, at best, second hand.
In order to uncover a balanced view about wrestling's clown prince we spoke only to those who knew him, and knew him well enough to give an honest and knowledgeable opinion. These were the men who had shared a dressing room, a car, and sometimes a room with him.
Peter Preston (left), the man remembered for beating Mick McManus on television, worked alongside Les for the best part of twenty years. Whilst Peter's opening remarks about Les were hardly complimentary, (we'd expect nothing else from the blunt speaking Yorkshireman), it was immediately clear that he had a lot of respect, and some fondness, for his fellow Bradfordian. Peter told Wrestling Heritage,
Peter Preston told us of the night at Liverpool Stadium when Les Kellett knocked out one of his teeth – before the fight had even started! Referee Carl Dane called the two men together for the pre-match briefing and Les whacked Peter across the face, hard!
Nevertheless, Peter did admire Kellett,
Dale Storm got to know Les during the ten years Les worked for the independent promoters, not only as colleagues in the dressing room, but on the many occasions Les travelled to Scotland to work for Dale's Spartan Promotions.
Johnny Saint (right) told us there were certainly "two sides" to Les and he had only seen the "flip side" once, but on other occasions had got on well with him. Johnny did tell us the story of giving Les a lift to some far flung venue with the Yorkshireman complaining throughout about the length of the journey and the route being taken. So, maybe not a great travelling companion.
Ed Hamill said many other wrestlers were wary of Les, partly a result of his reputation and partly because he was a very hard man. He also told us that Les was a loyal friend to those who he respected, and fortunately he was in this category.
Maybe you're beginning to notice a pattern here?
Without exception everyone we spoke to could tell us stories about Les Kellett's darker side, but almost without exception they concluded by telling us that they personally got on alright with the man.
From a promoter's perspective Graham Brook told readers of the Heritage forum of the one of the times he put on Les with Abe Ginsberg at Runcorn British Legion.
The picture we are building is of a complex man, a very hard man, who did indeed have moods of huge proportions, but certainly not an unkind, cruel or ungenerous man. Nor can we believe that Les was an uncooperative worker. As far as Les's attitude to fans was concerned we can only assess on our own experience; he was always generous with his time to an avid autograph collector and a teenage writer for magazines and Joint Promotions programmes.
Whatever the complexities of the private man Les at a professional level was quite simple. Dale Storm (left) again,
Les Kellett topped bills around the country for twenty years. Despite building his routine on comedy he maintained the integrity of the sport at all times. These are not the characteristics of an unreliable worker. Have no doubts, Joint Promotions called the shots. If Les Kellett had been uncooperative and caused friction in the dressing room they would have curtailed his career. Bernard Hughes respected Les Kellett for many years as he watched him at the St James Hall Newcastle. Bernard said,
We pass over to our good friend Adrian Street for an explanation of Les's complex character. Adrian knew Les as well as anyone, and acknowledged his extraordinary pain threshold. The motivation was not, as some had told us, that Les did not feel pain, but that his motivation to endure it was based on his desire to intimidate others and create a "super human" myth. Adrian said "If there was a hard way of doing something Les would do it that way because it would perpetuate the myth of how hard he was." We highly recommend Adrian's book "Sadist in Sequins" for those wanting to read stories of Les's incredible tolerance of pain. Prominent Heritage member John Shelvey considers Street to have been the perfect opponent for Les, "For an opponent to add real needle to the match, rather than a whipping boy in with Les just to make him look good, the wrestler known as... Adrian Street. The Blonde one would allow Les to do all his 'stuff' but would make him pay for each and every spot along the way!"