K: Les Kellett, Arthur Kellett, Dave Barrie
Daft as a Brush? 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 near 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 whatsoever, 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."
Other fans have only memories of Les Kellett, but what memories they are.
Unlike most sportsmen Les always claimed his interest in sport as a youngster was slightly less than negligible. 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 sort out 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 partnership 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.
Memories of Les
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.
Page added 13/12/2012
Page reviewed 25/04/2022