K: Les Kellett & Arthur Kellett
Sharp as a Pin!
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.
"I've always thought it would be great to have a real piece of wrestling art in my home. I have old posters and collectables, but I thought a painted piece of wrestling art would really be great for my collection."
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.
"I saw that Rob was a greatly skilled artist and also had the love for pro wrestling. This kind of portrait is always something I've wanted of Les Kellett. I couldn't wait to commission a piece."
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,
"I also remember one fight where Les Kellett inspecting the wrestlers before a Ghoul fight said that The Ghoul's nails, were too long, sent for some scissors. When these scissors came into the ring and they were about18 inches long. Yes Kellett did cut the nails and you could see bits fly off from the ringside seats."
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, 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,
"Les Kellett was such a strong person for a man of his size,with feet and hands that belonged to a giant. Full blown heavyweights were scared of him. He's given me some good hidings and strong kicks in the back, he would really hurt an opponent and whisper in their ear, 'Look at the fans, they think I'm kidding.' Mind you I used to knock hell out him too. I've hit Les Kellett harder, much harder, than I've hit anyone else. And then he would just smile back."
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,
"Les made himself a star. He started out for Morrell. There were some great wrestlers coming out of Morrell's gym. No one made Les a star, he did it himself through his own hard work. A hard man, wicked at times, with a dry sense of humour, even after the night in the West country when I'd had had a bit too much to drink and accidentally slept in Les's bed. 'Some people will take anything', complained Les the next morning at breakfast."
Meru Ullah, who shared many a dressing room with Les, told us,
"Les was a great wrestler, friend and teacher. I still miss him."
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.
"He was a quiet, private man, but then again most rural, farmer types are. His use of the space (the ring) was as good as anyone and a lot better than most. He would sit about a dressing room sizing up everybody, especially the folks he did not know, or had not met before. He obviously believed in first impressions, and trusted his instincts! Les was very particular about who he shared a room with, and for some reason I was one that Les would share with. On a personal level I really, really liked the man!"
Johnny Saint 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.
"When I was paying Kellett at the end of the night, he stopped me halfway through counting out the money and said, 'You've had a bad house tonight, this'll do.' I explained to him that it was a 'bill money job' so there was no loss to me and I could pay him what we agreed, but he refused to take any more." (A 'bill money job' was one where the promoter was paid a fixed sum by the management irrespective of ticket sales).
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 again,
"He was always the consummate Professional. And always a gentleman, all of the time! He was an extremely meticulous man, if there were no showers, he would fill a sink with water, then put his towel down on the floor, then stand on it, and using a small flannel, he would wash himself, including the parts of his back, he could reach. He was really 'Old School,' and would forever test you, sometimes take some liberties; to try and keep your feet on the canvas and your head out of the superstar clouds!"
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,
"Am I the only person to doubt these stories? I think that other wrestlers and certainly the promoters would have clamped down on this behaviour. Surely this could damage a promoter's assets. Imagine a really good fighter being hurt and unable to go on. I could believe that this happened once and then became folklore as someone told someone else and it got exaggerated over time."
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!"
William Kellett was an engineer, and on leaving Bradford Moor School, aged 14, Les followed in his father's footsteps, into engineering.
Unlike most sportsmen Les always claimed his interest in sport as a youngster was slightly less than neglible. Encouraged by one of his bosses, an amateur wrestler, Les reluctantly joined an amateur wrestling club for a short time but soon lost interest.
With his apprenticeship completed Les joined the merchant navy, travelling the world with little thought about wrestling. In various ports Les would seek out the local shows and watch wrestling, but he had no aspirations whatsoever to become a professional wrestler himself.
Back in Britain it was a chance meeting with his friend, Bradford wrestler Joe Hill, and the opportunity to earn good money, that led to a change of heart and Les's decision to pursue a wrestling career. Joe taught Les the basics of the professional style; enough to earn an introduction to wrestling promoter George deRelwyskow Sr. Les was given his professional debut by deRelwyskow in 1938, not the greatest of timings with the hostilities of World War Two looming on the horizon.
Les had never been really committed to wrestling, but a world war can change a few perceptions, and come 1945, with opportunities limited, he was ready to make a go of it in his chosen sporting career.
Post war the promoter with whom Les became mostly associated was Norman Morrell. Les trained at Norman's gym alongside George Kidd.
Adrian Street recalls the oft quoted story of how Les refused to submit to a finger lock applied by Arthur Belshaw during a trial for Norman Morrell, inviting the wrestler to break his fingers. It was the start of a long and successful professional relationship between Norman and Les. Les was soon working on Morrell bills as both a wrestler and promoter, as well as doing a lot of "back room" work for Morrell.
Bernard Hughes remembers Les as the regular referee at the St James Hall, Newcastle, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Not just any referee, but the best referee Bernard has ever seen. Les would often substitute for any wrestler who failed to turn up.
From his earliest days Les was regarded as a very tough wrestler, but the comedy style developed in the late 1950s. It was a style that was to turn him into one of the biggest names in wrestling. Les's style was perfect for television, where the camera could focus on his facial expressions, capture his "accidental" rule infringements followed by an immediate instruction to the referee to "Tell him the rules referee," and zoom in on those elaborate knitting together of limbs and the expression of the referee as he tried to unfathom the chaos caused by Les.
We confess that for a man who was such an important figure in British wrestling it has proved difficult to pinpoint specific career highlights. We could list numerous television appearances, Royal Albert Hall outings, a pre-Mountevans British championship, or whatever, but the fact is that the highlight of Les's career is that for twenty years he was just about the most popular wrestler in British rings, making thousands of fans happy whilst preserving the integrity of British wrestling.
Not a bad achievement.
The climax of the Les Kellett career came in the late 1960s.
More than twenty years after turning profesional Les was nominated for the title ITV Sports Personality of the Year. Between 1969 and 1972 he appeared on television an average of twice a month, more often than McManus, Pallo, Logan or Royal. Despite leaving Joint promotions in 1972, sixteen years before wrestling left our screens, only six wrestlers appeared on television more often than Les Kellett.
His weight of around fourteen stones saw him billed against lighter men, such as Bobby Barnes, to fully blown heavyweights like Klondyke Bill, with just about everyone else in between. Les Kellett was also honoured to be one of the small band of wrestlers selected to wrestle at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Les was quoted that he disliked the travelling required to fulfil his wrestling commitments. If that was true then all the more credit is due to him for his commitment to fans around the country. Les Kellett was truly a national star, as likely to appear in Aberdeen as he was in Brighton or Plymouth. He must have travelled hundreds of thousands of miles every year, at a time when his huge popularity would have enabled him to restrict his travelling and still work as often as he would like. Even in the twilight years of his career when he really should have been taking life easier Les still travelled up and down the country working for the opposition promoters.
In 1975, still at the height of his popularity Les made the transition from Joint Promotions, a pertnership going back over twenty years since the group's formation in 1952, to begin wrestling and promoting (with Eric Taylor) as an independent. We suspect he may have made a few low profile appearances for the independents before making the final break in November 1975.
There is certainly some mystery surrounding his departure from Joint Promotions. On 4th November Les faced Bobby Barnes at Hastings. Four days later he was pulled from a televised show at Woking (against Bobby Barnes) and sent on a lower profile job to face Steve Logan at Corby. Between the two matches Les had worked for the opposition promoters, at Rochdale, against an old adversary Peter Preston. In those days Joint Promotions rigorously applied their rule that wrestlers were contracted to work exclusively for them. Many rivals from the Joint camp were already working for the opposition and Les was soon resuming hostilities with old foes Bobby Graham, Lee Sharon, Adrian Street, Jackie Pallo and Steve Haggetty.
Les was to continue wrestling for almost a decade longer, nearing 70 by the time he retired. For most of that time he continued to give the fans just what they wanted, but by the time of his retirement age was catching up with him. What motivated him to go on so long we do not know, but if that's our major criticism following more than forty years of giving enjoyment to millions then we can certainly forgive him.
Bradford's Arthur Kellett was brother of Les Kellett, born in Bradford in 1920 five years after brother Les. He survived being taken prisoner of war in 1942 to return home and follow Les into wrestling. It was a short wrestling career sometimes tagging with his famous sibling in the 1950s. Arthur Kellett died in 1980.