Britain’s Strongest Man 1979

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Some images are so overloaded with festive sense-memory that a mere whiff, no matter the time of year, sends you tumbling through a blur of green and red, back to the Christmases of yore. Victorians skating on frozen ponds on the front of a biscuit tin; a Radio Times so thick, you could concuss an elephant with it; and in particular for those who grew up in 80’s Britain, great big fellas with red faces pulling an aeroplane with a rope. Traditional Christmas viewing for decades, modern World’s Strongest Man is a proper legislated sport, with rules, records, and safety measures, but its place as a seasonal stalwart had to begin somewhere. That somewhere, at 1979’s inaugural Britain’s Strongest Man, was Woking Leisure Centre, in a bizarre television curio that mashed up a school sports day dads’ race, BBC’s Superstars, and Indoor League on six big dinners.

Like all the best finds, surviving footage is ripped from a VHS tape of truly appalling quality, with wobbling scan-lines, frequent dropouts to black, and a constant crackle in the left speaker — this is hauntological heaven. The live audience is mostly kids, all with frightening late-70’s haircuts done by mum in the kitchen chair, groups of cub scouts in uniforms, and older youths in donkey jackets who look like they just got sprung from borstal after bashing up a newsagent. The fashions and wide-eyed appreciation at a day’s cheap entertainment gives me visceral childhood flashbacks to jumble sales in smelly church halls, and rough boys from juniors who warned you that their brother knew the Devil.

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Shown on Thames Television over three nights, Britain’s Strongest Man 1979 was presented by Derek Hobson, host of ITV’s New Faces, following the popularity of the newly-formed World’s Strongest Man, which made its debut in the US two years earlier. I always check the credits of these things, and must note the name of director, Bob Service, which sounds like a Bob Mortimer creation. “More than 2,000lbs of flesh and muscle,” contestants are introduced as “eight modern gladiators,” heralded by a dirge of circus music, and led into the gym by fire-breathing ‘circus strongman,’ Gunga Din, aka some white bloke in an Ali Baba turban.

Just like Bloodsport, there were no qualifiers, and contestants come by way of invitation. There’s a couple of highland games competitors, a weightlifter, hammer thrower, and a powerlifter who looks like an inflated Kevin Keegan. My personal favourite is the phenomenally named Tosher Killingback, a lorry driver from Surrey, whose only qualification seems to be a drunken bet, referred to in commentary like local pub legend, that saw him pull a 3-ton truck half a mile. A trucker named Killingback should be going mad with a hammer in a grindhouse flick, and with sideboards like a nest of spiders, spaghetti arms and a beer belly, I’ve not got high hopes for his chances.

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In fact, much of the field would struggle in today’s notion of an athletic contest. While each has credentials in strength-related endeavours, two are PE teachers on the side, and one’s a town planner. Pat Roach is in by qualification of being a wrestler, but carries the kind of soft physique you’d never see on television these days, in a culture where even weathermen have to be jacked before they’re allowed onscreen. Reminiscent of those first UFCs, full of toothless bikers and mulleted karate guys, this is a line-up of part timers, who all look how men looked in 1979; that is, old as fuck. Bill Anderson, former world caber tossing champion, is 41, but legitimately could be 65, like those black and white photos of child miners, with haunted faces simultaneously eight and fifty years old all at once.

The one stand-out is Geoff Capes. Only 29 here, the young Capes resembles Hercules, with a thick beard and thicker body, stuffed into a dark singlet over a red top, like Desperate Dan. Capes demonstrates the classic strongman shape, before they evolved from the fatty type to more ripped creatures like Mariusz Pudzianowski, eventually settling into a kind of mid-point between the two. This show is Capes’ ascension, soon to become a national icon, and dominating his opponents by finishing first in 8 out of the 12 events. Although such was his amateur status at the time, he wasn’t allowed to keep the prize money, which had to be stuffed in the coffers of his athletic club.

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Appearing throughout to introduce each round with a brief skit, is Barbara Windsor. In her forties with Sid Justice hair, and still playing her Carry On character, every moment she’s not reciting the script, she’s completely dead behind the eyes. Babs’ introduction sees her yelling “ta-ra!” at the top of her lungs while tottering across frame to backstage, where she’s going to “warm up the competitors,” basically inferring she’ll be cranking on their willies like someone starting an old car. Babs’ duties include both physical humour — a comedy trouser-split sound when bending to lift a car — and the dishing out of puns, e.g., following a barrel event, “we’ve rolled out the barrel!” or “I do feel tired!” while hiding inside a stack of tires. There’s much flirtation, getting Roach to demonstrate his favourite hold “the rummage and bump,” and asking another contestant about his big muscles. “Well,” he replies “just like you (or more specifically, your knockers), they grew and they grew and they grew.” The constant allusions to tiny Babs hornily eyeing up the massive hunks makes me uncomfortable, and for some reason, puts me in mind of one of those troll dolls sitting on the top of a pencil.

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The first event, the barrel lift, demonstrates the newness of a thing where nobody knows what they’re doing, with no established techniques, and everyone muddling through. You’ll see no gloves or knee wraps, no chalk to help the grip, or thick weightlifters belts to protect their spines. Everyone lifts with their back and not their knees, and when they’re done, competitors clumsily chuck the heavy items onto the floor, leaping clear before a foot gets crushed. Truly, this is strongman in its purest form; a load of dads egging each other on to pick up something heavy before one of them puts his back out.

Hobson invokes the Samsons of ancient myth, bragging of the show as a series of strength tests specifically devised to finally answer the question of who’s strongest out of a caber tosser and a wrestler, or a bodybuilder and a truck driver, effectively, inventing the MMA of lifting things. His commentary is full of weird trivia, like how the hammer thrower and his mates once lifted a Volkswagen Golf onto their shoulders, or that one contestant holds the world hod carrying championship, with 52 bricks up a 15 foot ladder. There are sporadic interludes with demonstrations by Gunga Din, bending iron bars with his windpipe, and raising all the strongmen about half a inch in the air with his feet while they’re sat on a big plank.

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The circus feel is evidence with the contests, like the race to bend iron bars over the back of their necks and top of their heads, while making horrible noises; faces beet-red and teeth clenched to the brink of shattering. As I’ve written before, there’s a real naked level of exposure about strongmen, in the facial expressions and sounds they make when pushed to the absolute limits of physical capability; unguarded moments of relinquishing all self-control, right up there with doing a big shit or ejaculating all the cum out of your nob. I wouldn’t even want anyone to see me playing on my Xbox, with the weird habit of mashing my lips together during moments of concentration when I’m headshotting fools in Overwatch. Consequently, my workouts are a private act, as I couldn’t infect a gym with my grunts, which is the only thing that’s prevented me from being crowned World’s Strongest Man.

Evidently, 1979’s idea of a strongman never strays far from the end of the pier, with one event a two-minute race of tearing phonebooks in half. Presented with huge stacks, each man has their own technique in destroying the small pink directory of London E-K. Bill Anderson bisects them with the speed and violence of a sneeze; weightlifter Andy Drzewiecki, as though it’s the Dear John letter from a wife who’s been sleeping with his brother; Pat Roach snapping them over his knee and twisting; and Tosher, poor old Tosher, just struggling to do one. Most Generation Game of all, is the contest to see who can lift the most bricks, when balanced in a long line between the palms of their hands, which feels like something played by men on a construction sites who’ve grown bored of popping to the portaloo for quick a tommy tank over a Sun double-spread of Vicki Michelle.

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The most classic strongman occurs when we head outside for the truck pull. Almost three tons of British Leyland, loaded with “four lovely ladies” clinging to the wing mirrors, the lads have to pull it 100ft uphill. Roped to their backs via a harness, they struggle forwards with the slow, flailing gait of Frankenstein’s monster reaching for a frightened villager. Bent and buckled into camera, giving us a look at their comb-overs and bald spots, enormous men are reduced to toddler-like crawls, inching up the concrete in tiny stutter-steps. Tosher can’t get it moving. Pat Roach’s shoes come off. He finishes in bare feet, under encouragement of “Come on, Pat!” from the dolly birds as they hang off the truck, wearing black knickers under stockings, with an assembled crowd of cold-looking kids and old ladies in coke-bottle glasses and thick overcoats.

The rest of the show has the feel of PE, with the lads scuffing around an echoing, squeaky-floored gym, or sat on a little bench affixed to the bare brick of the wall, like they’re waiting to be picked for shirts vs. skins 5-a-side. Lumbering bodies twirl in dainty spins for the tire toss, and by the time they announce the wheelbarrow race, you’re half expecting Pat Roach to grab Killingback’s ankles, with the winners getting a mini Mars Bar and no homework. Though it’s actual wheelbarrows crammed with weights, it’s no less frenetic, bombing to the finish at full sprint about six seconds after the elderly referee’s done firing his starting pistol directly into the audience. Anyone in the path of the wheelbarrows as they smash into the far wall would have been killed, and the day’s most anxious moment comes as Big Kevin Keegan loses control with a wild 180 spin off track, very nearly pulping the attendant dollybirds into a sexy pâté. Tosher though, is left wobbling and stuck at the very back.

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We wouldn’t see the like of Tosher’s poor performance again until bodybuilder Curtis Leffler’s spectacularly dreadful turn in the heats of 1995’s World’s Strongest Man. Leffler’s shredded physique, with 3% bodyfat and noodle-veined vascularity, stood in marked contrast to the barrel-shaped beef boys. Yet, dehydrated from cutting weight for a bodybuilding contest 2 days before, and thrown straight into 100-degree temperatures in the Bahamas, his show-muscles could barely wangle a single piece of equipment, leading to a humiliating series of dead lasts. Although, Tosher looks more likely to have seen the inside of a hitchhiker’s skull after it’s been pried apart with a paint scraper than the inside of a gym.

The third and final episode begins with Hobson kissing Babs on the end of the nose, appropriately leading into the most 1970’s test of what it is to be a man, with the literally-named Girl Lift. A long steel beam filled with concrete is straddled by an increasing number of knickers-and-heels clad lovely girls, which may sound erotic, but is most dangerous apparatus so far, with no rack, and just a piece of foam rubber squashed between the bar and the strongmen’s bodies. Even though they’ve only to raise the girls about an inch off the stand, bent-double contestants are forced to lift with their backs, in a way that workplace health and safety videos have been rallying against for decades.

“How’d you end up in the wheelchair, grandpa?”

“Well, there were about a dozen girls. Lovely they were, all in their knickers…”

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More and more girls get added, starting with six — too much for Tosher — and then eight, squealing with nervousness as the beam bucks and tips. Once ten girls are positioned on the bar, Hobson informs us that’s the weight of two grand pianos, finally confirming the conversion rate as one grand piano to every five girls. That’s going to save me so much admin in my everyday life, for reasons I’m not willing to discuss. Though for your own equations, do remember, those are girls without the weight of any trousers. Anyway, even Capes can’t manage ten girls, and Big Kevin Keegan takes it.

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The variety hobbles towards its natural conclusion, with an actual test your strength machine from a funfair. Are those accurate to a professional level?! Bring out a coconut shy or a love tester, then Tosher could finally get on the scoreboard for being “hot and horny!” While you’d think a trucker called Killingback would be good at hitting something with a hammer, perhaps unsurprisingly for such a carny event, wrestler and ex-fairground booth boxer Pat Roach finally finds something he’s good at. But by the final event, Capes has utterly dominated, setting up a tug of war between the top four that’s mostly for pride. Like many of the boy scouts who saw Barbara Windsor up close that day, the first round losers will “tug for third place.

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A roaring, bear-like Capes yanks his victim across the floor in seconds, before, much like those who watched the aerobics scene in Carry On Camping, there’s “the pull-off for first and second.” In the final tug, it’s all Capes; it’s always been Capes. The final tally, with some weirdly specific decimals, has Capes with 98.16 points, ahead of second place’s Old Bill Anderson, at 55.83. Wrestling fans may be interested in ‘Bomber’ Pat Roach’s 7th placing, with a mere 12.75, while dead last, with a point and a half, my boy Tosher, who at least goes home with £300 prize money to spend on blueys and rope.

Capes’ congratulatory kiss from Babs and Waterford Crystal Glass trophy was merely the beginning of a storied career spent lifting really heavy shit above his head, going on to place third in 1980’s World’s Strongest Man, before taking the title twice, in ’83 and ’85. Such was his success, even in a niche pursuit like strongman, Capes became a regular face on the light entertainment circuit throughout the eighties, making life-long strongman fans of legions of British kids, including myself. I’d later go onto write about it as an adult, as spectator at a couple of small live events I definitely would have won, if I’d been willing to have people suffer through my spaff-face.

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So too, following combat at Woking Leisure Centre, the sport of strongmen went from literal strength to strength, with Britain’s Strongest Man continuing to this day. 1982’s contest was co-presented by Geoff Capes and Dave Lee Travis, and though I’ve not seen it, I imagine the Girl Lift was very prominent. Personally, they should have stuck with the name from a brief mid-eighties rebranding as ‘Britain’s Most Powerful Man’. If I wasn’t already ‘Blogging’s Bad Boy,’ then ‘Britain’s Most Powerful Blogger’ would have a nice ring to it.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

~ by Stuart on December 29, 2018.

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