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.

28 comments:

  1. My brother worked on this documentary and told me that for the crew and all at the BBC Paul Yates was more mysterious than Kendo. Someone high up the management chain had said Yates was very senior in some kind of esoteric organisation. Throughout filming he never revealed to anyone any background details about himself and was often observed by BBC staff coming and going from the office in chauffeur driven black limousines with blacked out windows, if asked about it he would only say it was a friend giving him a lift. My brother also said that after the documentary was broadcast he saw a copy of the original proposal presented by Yates to the BBC and was astonished that virtually every detail in it was present in the finished documentary. Something unheard of in his thirty years experience with the BBC. Yates apparently declined the opportunity to develop further projects with the BBC, refused to attend any follow-up events and to this day has never commented in any detail on MASTERS.

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  2. Excellent review! I Have recently watched the documentary (again?) & thought it was superb! Very surreal & strange, I think I may of originally watched it back in the early 90s but it passed me by & the 25 year old me probably hated it back then! But 30 years later its much more appealing to my critical eye which also takes in the look & feel of the times back then. Very interesting comment by 'Anonymous' above about Paul Yates. He does come across as almost as mysterious as Kendo Nagasaki himself. If I didnt already know the Kendo story I may of thought Kendo & Peter Yates were the same person! But Yates did a superb job and like you say in the blog the filming is also fantastic. I Have Google searched Peter Yates other work but again the comment above is correct, he has faded almost into obscurity & is now an artist based in NI. Bit of a shame he didnt make even more documentaries.
    One shot near the end I'd of loved to of seen properly photographed was Kendos head from behind looking at the finished painting of himself. The camera only lingers on it for a few seconds, shame it wasnt longer.
    Kendo definitely has a calm but also menacing aura around him, almost the Mike Tyson of wrestling! I Was never a wrestling fan but I remember watching the wrestling on World Of Sport on Saturday afternoons while waiting for the football results to come on. It was all very jovial, tongue in cheek. But whenever Kendo Nagasaki was on it was much more serious, it seemed more raucous & violent, the crowd were well up for it, you could feel the electricity coming through the TV screen.
    I Have seen the recent TV interviews with Peter Thornley aka Kendo Nagasaki. He speaks and looks very, very well for his age and seems like a nice man too although he does seem to have violence lurking behind his dark brown eyes. It was great to see him talking to the audience, taking questions from them, but in a way all that mystique and some of the aura has now been lost...

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  3. Between 2004 and 2006 my wife and I knew Paul Yates in the south of France, we were regulars at dinner parties and sailed together. At no time did Paul Yates ever mention that he had any connection with television or the arts. After he left to live in Scotland we discovered his paintings in an art gallery in Monaco. He had been painting the whole time we knew him and never mentioned it. We knew him as a 'retired civil servant' from Edinburgh! A local hotelier who bought his villa found in his wine cellar an enormous punch bag packed with sand and stones that took three men to carry away. Paul Yates was always very self-contained but friendly and the first to buy a round of drinks. Now we and our circle of friends who knew him have watched the Arena documentary on BBC IPLayer we are all astonished. Definitely the same man but with longer steel grey hair and a mahogany tan, last time we saw him. He must have found all of us very boring but he was never anything other than kind and considerate. On reflection we now realise how little we actually knew about him. I suppose there was an air of mystery about him which we sensed was shyness. Where ever he is now we wish him well, love from Alec, Muriel, Sally and all from the Sunday Lunch Club, Nice.

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    1. Paul Yates was at Odessa Zoo in Ukraine two months ago, reading a poem to a tiger! He was escorted by some very heavily armed Americans who pushed ITN BBC and others aside to take him to other locations for a documentary he was making. I recognised him because
      we both used to kayak at Windsor in the 1980's. He pretended he didn't know me, but maybe he had to.

      Jamie Shelby

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  4. Likewise, my sons and I knew Paul Yates in Marbella, we looked after his boat, 'The Suddenly,' one day we saw him at a cafe leading to the old town, having morning coffee with Leonard Cohen! Some afternoons he would clay pigeon shoot from his boat! Very friendly, supported local charities, never mentioned any art he did at all, very quiet guy. Arthur Morris

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  5. I knew PY when he lived at Oakamoor for two years, Kendo's estate in Staffordshire. I met the painter Sir Peter Blake there, he said PY wanted to fight and defeat Kendo in the ring! His plan was to provoke Kendo into casting his hypnotical spell but at the last moment he would produce a hand mirror so Kendo would hypnotise himself! The actor James Ellis also visited and filmed there for a promotion of the Mooorland Trust. He showed me a Daily Mirror article on PY from 1987 revealing PY had a black belt in karate when working on a documentary about John Gardiner writing LICENSE RENEWED - a James Bond novel - Ellis said he had seen PY brake a brick with a karate chop on several occasions as an army mess room bet. He also said PY had nothing but the highest respect for Kendo's very real fighting abilities and indeed of all the wrestlers who had to throw themselves about night after night. PY would never have been disloyal to them. He respected them all. PY was fiercely loyal to Kendo and never revealed any inside information he may have had. He also
    went shooting on what I think was the nearby JCB estate and was told not to come back because he was just too good! I once gave PY a lift to East Midlands Airport and heard on his speaker phone, the Prime Minister of the time ask him to come to Downing Street for dinner! He was a truly strange man but he absolutely respected British Wrestling and never would have said a word against it. I don't know where he is now but nothing would surprise me.

    Alan [ the go-for!] He will know who I am!

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  6. Sorry Alan - you are a bit mixed up- Paul Yates had a friend who happened to have the name Margaret Thatcher! She used to invite him to dinner and it was a standing joke that he was dining at Downing Street! I do agree he had nothing but the highest regard for British wrestling, his fascination with Nagasaki was based around Kabbalistic notions of materialising one of the many selves each human soul is made up with. He explained this to me one
    lost evening in the Eton Wine Bar, at the time he lived in Tangier Drive. I still work in television production management and am convinced that either he or his double was reading poetry to a tiger recently! His Arena film was outstanding, truly special, but I do think Nagasaki has rather thrown it all away with his recent revelations.

    Jamie Shelby

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  7. May will be be Jamie, I may have misunderstood. I do know that when we had a royal visit to Derby a special invitation for Captain Yates was delivered and PY said it must be a mistake, he then disappeared for the rest of the day, whether Mararet Thatcher was involved or not I do not know. I met him years after he left Oakamoor, my daughter bought a house in Stafford from him. He bought two houses while he was working in the area apparently. Someone told me his cousins had businesses in Manchester. He was always very nice to people, the only time I ever saw him angry was when a workman calling with us made the mistake of making jokes about Kendo's wrestling, if looks could kill PY would have been up for murder, the workman realised his mistake and left with his head bowed.You had the real sense that lovely guy as he was you did not mess with him, bit like Kendo really! We won't see characters like this again!

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  8. Actually Alan, just chatting with a former producer and telling him about your comments, yes he witnessed PY breaking a brick but said he always had to cover the strike with a tea cloth so suspected something was going on! PY could also take a handful of cutlery apparently, roll it in a napkin, have dinner with you, keeping it in plain view then bet the bill that all the cutlery would be bent Geller style, and yes it was time after time! To be fair PY never claimed it was special powers of any kind. This chap also said PY is now living in the Cotswolds near Dalesford with an office in Summertown, Oxford. He met him in London about three months ago by chance at a memorial service in the Actors Church in Covent Garden. He mentioned the ongoing fascination with Kendo and PY replied that Kendo was not just the best British masked wrestler of all time but the best global masked wrestler of all time! If they ever get together again I want to produce it! Give me a call Paul ! Jamie Shelby

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  9. Sirs, the speculative exchanges on Paul Yates, events in the past etc., are all incorrect. Your commentators seem to be confusing him with someone else of the same name, he has never lived in France or Spain, has not visited Ukraine, was never a member of the British Army. I manage several projects on on Mr. Yates' behalf and have met with him regularly over the past five years and can assure you he leads a very simple and private life. I am aware of past art and television projects Paul Yates has engaged in but that life has been left far behind. For the record he has great respect for the wrestler Kendo Nagasaki
    but having given his word never to reveal any knowledge he has concerning
    MASTERS OF THE CANVAS, he will keep it. On his behalf I would ask for this unfounded speculation to desist . W.P. - L.R. Esq.

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    1. I beg to differ Sir, whoever you are, but I know better than to cross PY.
      You should too! If you truly represent him and he wants to maintain his privacy so be it. Please pass on my sincere regards to him as a friend from the past. My address and mobile number have not changed since I knew PY so he can knows how to contact me if he wants to. My only interest was in celebrating his wonderful film making. Jamie Shelby

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    2. Kendo used to go to the Excalibur club. He was always dangerous, but a nice bloke. AA

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    3. Regardless of all the speculation, Paul Yates and Kendo Nagasaki are truly characters of distinction, we just don't see people like this anymore - Love Island - I'm a Celebrity - Easy Watching T.V. , quiz shows, all that shit, these guys were/are originals, the real thing- whatever their modus operandi, wherever they are now, whatever they are doing, they stand above and outside the mainstream. If I ever do half as well I will be very content. BBC Production Intern. Anonymous because I have to eat!

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    4. Last week on the promenade in Nice Paul Yates was present at a rally
      for Ukraine, he was being filmed by an American crew one of whom, 'Caroline,' said they had been to Cannes and were on their way to the
      Frances Bacon Foundation in Monaco. Yates had just parachuted into the Bay of Angels to win a bet with the producer! Trust me I am a London Cabby who often drove Paul Yates about on a BBC account,
      now retired to Cagnes Sur Mer, - He was a generous tipper in cash and always asked me to add on an hour of waiting time for myself, a real old fashioned gentleman, God bless him whatever he is at!

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    5. I once bought a job lot of three paintings from a gallery in London, two by Chan Canasta and one by Paul Yates, formerly owned by a member of the Royal Family. Sold them on four years ago to a Libyan collector.

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    6. Twenty years ago I met Paul Yates at a charity event for Bentley cars
      in Telford - introduced to me as MD of a property company. A few years later I met him again in Birmingham, he didn't remember me. My wife adored him, I must admit he is a charmer! At no time did he mention
      art, wrestling or Nagasaki! He used to drive a Saab 900 turbo without lights in the early hours of the morning with night vision goggles on,
      he took my brother out one night and he returned a nervous wreck!
      My brother went out with his sister, she had a South African accent,
      his was Scottish! Lovely people, don't know where they are now. Met Pat Roach once and he definitely knew Paul Yates, said he was someone wrestlers trusted and a very good card player! Michael Blane.

      goggles on

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  10. I agree Michael - I met PY , his sister and Pat R. in Croydon when Kendo wrestled Haystacks. All very friendly but wouldn't say a word about Kendo! All had great respect for Kendo. And yes, strange that PY'S sister had a South African accent! I didn't really think on it at the time. PY had a definite Scottish burr but I heard him take a telephone call in German that Pat Roach joked was the big boss checking on them. PY told my wife that both Kendo and Pat were
    seriously expert in unarmed combat and it would be a big mistake to make light of them because of their wrestling careers. We waited behind to try to meet Kendo but of course it was impossible!

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  11. I am a young ambitious documentary maker and am fascinated by all I have read here. I have just tracked down a contact number for PY and intend asking him to agree to come together with kendo again for a look back at everything, if he agrees I will seek to crowd fund the production, I have already sounded it out with the BBC but they just can't see what I see in it. I know PY was contacted a few years back to write a script for a 'life of Kendo feature film' and declined. If there is a way forward I will report here and seek financial backing from all those interested in the strange 'true' story of PY and Kendo. The more I find out about both these characters the more I am determined to try to make this happen. AJ.

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  12. I once met Peter Thornley and Paul Yates at a charity fundraising dinner. Peter was very friendly and open but no mention of wrestling, Paul Yates was equally friendly if a little more reticent. I knew both of them from the Arena programme but somehow felt I couldn't mention it!

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  13. My sister knew PY when he lived in London in the 1980's. She said he had an attic apartment behind Thomas Goodes in South Audley Street, Mayfair. She often saw him having morning coffee in Richouex Cafe. She worked in an estate agents around the corner in Mount Street. One day the Dali Lama visited the house across the road from her office and she saw PY welcome him with a Bonsai tree! When she asked him about it later he said it wasn't him but she knew it was!

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    1. Your sister is correct. Paul Yates was media director [Japan} with KT International, Mount Street, Mayfair, who did indeed prepare a Bonsai tree as a gift for the Dali Lama. The company at the time was run by a rather mysterious and somewhat sinister Irish multi-millionaire who appointed PY to oversee book publications and television series proposals. I was a junior designer with KT.int. at the time and signed a confidentiality agreement so cannot say much more except that PY regularly dined at Boodles club with members of the House of Lords, using his contacts to advance business opportunities in Japan where we eventually opened a school and chain of retail shops.
      PY also spent a lot of time with CCS supplies, spyware and security devices, in South Audley Street, we used to joke in work that we were all being filmed secretly to monitor performance! So yes, the Dali Lama story is true!

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    2. My sister and I worked there as well for a time. Paul Yates used to take us to karate demonstrations in a gym near Leicester Square and afterwards to Manzies for fish and chips!

      Louise

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    3. A lot of us from the Kenneth Turner days still meet up, at least three times a year. I remember preparing a bouquet to be sent to Kendo for his birthday when he lived in Clapham. Paul Yates had amazing contacts in Japan based on the haiku he would write and gift to business contacts. His other great friend at the time who often visited the shop
      was a certain 'Diana'. I remember our marketing man once called early one morning at Paul's apartment nearby and said he saw a gun and shoulder holster hanging on his wardrobe door. Paul explained by saying, its the mice you know, they are everywhere ! at the time we laughed but you can't help wondering. Paul also used to call on the painter Peter Blake and go on ice cream parlour crawls! One day we arrived to be told the whole business had been sold on. Kenneth Turner was a genius with flowers, very sad. Paul was a nice guy but looking back he was very private. Jane

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    4. Louise, I remember you and your stunning blonde hair. I had a summer job at Kenneth Turner when I was at Slade, I seem to remember a very realistic gun water pistol that came with a shoulder holster for chasing the wasps out of the windows and watering hard to get at displays . Kenneth Turner was a genius and I still have his books. I hadn't much to do with Paul Yates but often saw him meeting different women on the benches in Mount Street gardens at lunchtimes. I also recall the rock and roll stars that used to call at the shop, politicians too. It was very hard work but a lovely atmosphere. Hope you and all the others are well. Anna Lewis

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    5. Anna lovely to hear from you - Jim Sloan has your telephone number so expect a catch-up after Christmas! Louise

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    6. I remember Princess Diana calling at Kenneth Turner and many other famous faces, They all seemed to go for a coffee with Paul Yates, whom we all fancied even the boys! I once borrowed ten pounds from him, never paid it back, feel bad for that! Alison Morely.

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    7. Paul once paid for my taxi home from a gig in Richmond - still feel bad for never paying him back. Milly the Tea!

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  14. Further to my recent comments - I have tracked down PY and had a very brief phone call with him, he says no to all offers of filming, retired to Summertown,
    Oxford, where he is landlord of some eleven properties, still writing and painting but not for exhibition, still shooting, targets only, according to his office manager he can be found most Saturdays in the piano bar at the Ritz!
    Sends his best wishes to all from Kenneth Turner and CCS Supplies Mayfair.
    Praises Peter Blake and Kendo Nagasaki as 'true originals'.
    A.J. BBC APPRENTICE!

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