Friday, 12 February 2021

Arena: Masters of the Canvas


Back in late 1991, I experienced my first taste of live wrestling at the King's Lynn Corn Exchange. However, rather than the WWF being in town, it was British Wrestling (yes, I'm capitalising that). A world away from the glitz and glamour of Vince McMahon's US enterprise, British Wrestling had, by 1991, been shunted off of television for a few years. Nonetheless, as it travelled around a succession of decaying venues, British Wrestling could still pull in adequate crowds. And one of its crown jewels was the presence of the masked and mysterious Kendo Nagasaki. Truth be told, he almost flattened me that evening in 1991 as he angrily sent a section of empty chairs flying in my direction. But this enigmatic man of intense fury was instantly fascinating. A few months later I would see him again, but this time he was the subject of the Arena episode Masters of the Canvas.

Masters of the Canvas is a 1992 episode of Arena which is quite remarkable in its concept and objective. Esteemed pop artist Peter Blake and poet/painter/producer Paul Yates are both devotees of the Kendo Nagasaki legend. And, having read a Sunday Times article written by Blake on the masked grappler, Yates has taken it upon himself to put this enigma under the microscope of television. But rather than frame this interest in the confines of a traditional documentary, Yates wants to dig his scalpel a little deeper and at a unique angle. His strategy is to nurture a relationship with Nagasaki which allows Peter Blake the opportunity to paint a portrait of the Samurai-inspired wrestler. Yates, however, must first get through the fortified wall of hard-nosed management put up by Nagasaki's representative Lloyd Ryan.


The no-nonsense absolutism of Ryan ensures that the first half of Masters of the Canvas is a slow burn game of cat and mouse. And it's apparent, from the very first phone call between Yates and Ryan, that the mere mention of Nagasaki is enough to agitate Ryan's suspicions. "Where did you get this number from? Who did you say you worked for?" are Ryan's immediate queries in a phone call which, although cagey, is far from dismissive. But it's already apparent that everything will be done on Ryan and Nagasaki's terms. Maintaining the mystique of Nagasaki is clearly important for Ryan and one can only speculate that it has lucrative financial connotations attached. As is revealed later on, though, this enigmatic angle is equally an intrinsic element of the man behind the mask.


Despite the initial caginess, there's a captivating charm at the heart of Masters of the Canvas. The childlike admiration and hero worshipping of Nagasaki by Peter Blake is particularly intriguing. A man of immense talent and standing, this great artist is instantly transported to the realms of Saturday afternoon entertainment by the mere mention of Nagasaki. Blake may be on the sidelines throughout most of Masters of the Canvas, but his curiosity of Nagasaki's world is the catalyst which starts Yates on his quest. And it's Yates' determination and professionalism which eventually twists Ryan and Nagasaki's arm into a portrait session. Nagasaki, however, is keen to go one further and grant a face to face interview, albeit in the back of the car with no microphone and subtitles only. It's a testament to strong journalism and grants the viewer an absorbing experience to step outside the ring with Nagasaki.


The muffled tones of Nagasaki may not reveal much, but the subtitles paint a complex and enthralling story. Whereas many wrestlers trade on a showbiz gimmick to ply their trade, Nagasaki's samurai angle is much more a way of life. A staunch practicer of meditation, Nagasaki is just as well versed in the history of the samurai and his authenticity is boldly underlined by this interview. Notwithstanding these revelations, Nagasaki (or Peter Thornley as he is legally known) is keen to point out that Nagasaki is very much a persona which only exists in the ring and indeed states "I have a totally different life outside Nagasaki" Yates may do his best to peel back the layers of Nagasaki, but even this revealing interview leaves plenty of Nagasaki's intrigue intact.


The conclusion of the documentary is set at a launch party for an exhibition which features the unveiling of Blake's portrait. It's nicely intercut with a savage duel between Nagasaki and Giant Haystacks for the CWA World Heavyweight Championship (in the Vegas-lite surroundings of Croydon) which demonstrates the dichotomy of Blake's elegance and Nagasaki's rage. Nagasaki, of course, is not limited to just two dimensions at the launch party and eventually arrives, in full samurai gear, to inspect his portrait. It's an eye-catching moment and one for which the director Mary Dickinson deserves great praise. In fact, the entire documentary is packed full of beautiful shots whether it be the reflection of Nagasaki's mask in Blake's glasses as he sketches the grappler, terrifying footage of Nagasaki riding a horse through his estate and a final shot which is not worth me spoiling for you.

Wrestling is fake, yes. But even behind the most outrageous gimmicks there is a story. And Nagasaki, for whom gimmick is far too insulting a term to ever attach to him, is one of the most interesting stories. Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks may have been phenomenally entertaining, but they were mired in a world of reality. Nagasaki, meanwhile, was forever flying high in the imaginations of those who witnessed his prowess in the ring. Masters of the Canvas takes viewers as close as they can get to Nagasaki without being bodyslammed. It's a story about characters and the control their creators choose to exert over them. An excellent documentary and one that doesn't require you to know the difference between a Boston crab and a full nelson.

Masters of the Canvas is currently up on the BBC iPlayer.

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