From Gunge To Glory

How Dave Benson Phillips became a wrestling superstar

Martina is in major trouble.

The Irish fan favourite wrestler is isolated in the ring. She is surrounded. Midway through this tag team bout, the referee was knocked unconscious, and her opponents, the dastardly team of Deputy Chief Dunne and Los Federales, have quickly taken advantage of the situation. Both team members circle Martina, preparing for the beat down, and to inflict as much damage as they can while the ref is still out. The panic on Martina’s face is obvious. The feverish crowd scream and howl their disapproval at this situation being allowed to happen. Martina’s partner, who had previously been taken out by the bad guys, begins to rouse himself. Suddenly he bursts into the ring to save Martina. The crowd goes wild.

Who is Martina’s tag team partner?

53-year-old television presenter, and 1990s kids TV legend, Dave Benson Phillips.

What happens next is even wilder.

On July 19 th, Brighton-based Riptide Wrestling tweeted a match announcement for their upcoming summer weekender. Taking place during Brighton Pride, the three-night event would host some of the biggest grappling talent from both the British scene and abroad. Sixteen men and women would enter a tournament to crown the fledgling promotion’s first ever champion.

This match, however, was a non-tournament match, one that would become one of the most talked about British wrestling matches of the year, and make news in the mainstream media. Bad guys The Anti-Fun Police (the aforementioned Deputy Chief Dunne and Los Federales), would be facing the team of ‘Session Moth’ Martina, and Dave Benson Phillips.  People questioned whether it was real. Surely it was a joke?

For anyone who is either too young, or too old, to have grown up in the 1990s, Dave Benson Phillips was a mainstay of British children’s television for over a decade. Back when daytime afternoons and Saturday mornings were filled with programmes for young people and not cooking and property shows, Benson Phillips was ubiquitous. His cheery, energetic smile graced countless shows. Playdays. Playhouse Disney. Wake Up in the Wild Room. But he was forever synonymous with Get Your Own Back. Running for an incredible 14 series between 1991 to 2004, Get Your Own Back was a game show where child contestants competed in various slapstick challenges in order to win the chance to dunk a parent or teacher in gunge, that sloppy staple of obnoxious kids TV. Its appeal lay in a very universal feeling of childhood, that adults are always unfair to kids, and it offered the vicarious thrill of getting the upper hand for once. Well, that, and gunge. It was silly, it was loud, it was day-glo, and it was incredibly 1990s.

Since the show’s cancellation, Benson Phillips has remained a public figure, though much less high profile. He’s done a nostalgic live version of Get Your Own Back for adults who grew up with the show. He’s done live appearances and panto. In 2009, he was subject to a cruel online hoax that he had either died or had a breakdown or was presenting a soft porn TV sex line. He has occasional Accidental Partridge moments, like tweeting that he and Fun House presenter Pat Sharp were unable to get WiFi at an 1990s nostalgia festival. He was not someone you would expect to forge a new career as a professional wrestler.

On the phone, a few days before the event, Benson Phillips is still as boisterous and energetic as he was on Get Your Own Back all those years ago. He’s in a toy shop, and his young son keeps interrupting the call to tell him about Lego. He’s loud and friendly, though there’s a tinge of nervousness in in his voice when he talks about what the bout will entail.

Obviously, our first topic of discussion is how all this actually came about. Riptide contacted Phillips after footage of him taking part in a wresting event at the Horsham ‘family funday’ in 2017 - a regional family summer fete. In pure-Partridge form, he was there to make announcements and host the event over the PA. One of the attractions was small South Coast-based wrestling company Kapow, and they asked Phillips to be involved.

Crude camera-phone footage on their Facebook page shows Phillips walking out to a ring that has literally just been plonked in the middle of a field in West Sussex. There are trestle tables and a bouncy castle in the background. A handful of small children look on, and a burly topless man, who’s probably had too many ales, whoops and applauds. It is the quintessential British summer fete in a microcosm. Phillips clumsily bounces around then pins some anonymous grappler. The footage only left me more confused.

But it is then that Phillips reveals something that makes it all make sense: this isn’t his first rodeo, or Royal Rumble. Back before Get Your Own Back, back before CBBC, back before he was even on television, Dave Benson Phillips had a short, secret run as a professional wrestler.

It was the 1980s. Phillips was a youngster, working at the holiday camps in Camber Sands in East Sussex, dreaming of making it in the world of showbiz. Alongside the tribute acts and magicians, wrestling was one of the live shows that would entertain holidaymakers at the parks. “I was a Pontins Blue Coat, wanting to be an entertainer and a song and dance man, and one of my many performance duties was to work as a towel boy for the wrestlers,” Phillips explained. “Then they realised I was quite physical,and they thought it would be fun if they had me in the ring. I was the only black employee Pontins had - It was quite the kudos thing to have this black guy, running around in the ring. They taught me how to be a referee, then I started doing some wrestling as well.”

It was just another skill that the young Phillips was eager to learn. Another string to his bow, that he figured might come in useful in his future career. “As a Blue Coat, I wanted to know about the business. I wanted to learn about every facet of the business, [I wanted to do] the sort of things that would be outside my comfort zone. And if you want to get outside your comfort zone, wrestling will do it."

The late 1980s was the beginning of the dark of ages for British wrestling. The iconic World of Sport was taken off air, and the tradition of ITV Saturday afternoon grappling was killed off. It went from a beloved national pastime to a summer camp sideshow. Still, Phillips got to work with legends of British wrestling, including Giant Haystacks. He reels off fantastical names. “The Tarantula, he was lovely, a massive geezer with tarantula tattoos. The Mighty Chang was another one. Sadly they are no longer with us. They were part of British wrestling history.”

I’m still trying to get a handle on how it is all going to go down. Celebrity involvement in wrestling is hardly uncommon, but it rarely goes well. The President of the United States Donald Trump, of course, famously got involved at Wrestlemania 23, and was about as athletic as you’d expect a man who guzzles down McDonald's and KFC every meal to be. And there’s been a few recently in the UK. X-Factor loser Wagner did a run-in at RISE: Underground Pro Wrestling, where his son was competing, and former Norwich striker Grant Holt is currently training for a bout in 2019.

What training was Phillips doing? “A lot of it is just cardio really, a lot of walking around in my particular case. A lot of stretching. A lot of what I’ve been doing is just getting my heart rate backup. The last time that I wrestled before I did the match in Horsham was about 25 years ago, a long old time. I never thought I’d do it again in my lifetime.”

Was he looking at actually becoming a regular wrestler? Were there any more bouts on the cards? “I want to see how this one goes. It’ll be good fun.”

A few days later. It is a sweltering late Friday afternoon. The train down to Brighton from London is packed with those looking to make a cheeky getaway to the seaside. The streets outside Brighton Station are filled with revellers, already in the Pride party mood. More than a few are already half-cut.

Riptide Wrestling’s shows take place in a church and community centre in the centre of the city. British wrestling is booming at the moment. For years, the UK landscape was dominated by nostalgia acts, past-their-prime American stars flying in for a lazy performances and an easy paycheck. But over the last half-decade or so, upstart companies like Progress in London and ICW in Glasgow have put British talent front and centre, and build a vibrant scene full of young, exciting guysa nd girls. Streaming video has meant that wrestlers can learn from the best matches out of Japan and the American indies – and also given British companies exposure worldwide. It is now arguably the hottest wrestling territory in the world. World of Sport has returned to regular ITV for the first time in three decades, and WWE have launched their own UK-based sub-brand.

Innovative boutique local promotions have popped up across the country, and Riptide exemplifies this. Far from the dark smoky bingo halls of old, it is young and progressive. Signs around the venue tell punters that any racist, misogynistic or homophobic chanting will not be tolerated, and vegan hot dogs are for sale. The main villain of the promotion is Spike Trivet, a Bullingdon Club, Tory-themed wrestler who bills himself as the “King of Strong and Stable Style”. He gets booed out of the building.

It is about an hour until the doors open. The house lights are up in the venue. T-shirts are being laid out on the merch tables. The wrestlers warm up and joke around and run through their matches in the ring. They are not in costume, just their regular gym gear. The good guy wrestlers and the bad guy wrestlers hang out and laugh. I feel like I’m seeing something I’m not supposed to. I'm watching the sausage get made.

And there Dave Benson Phillips is, amongst them. To be honest, he looks a bit out of place. Alongside all these fit twentysomethings, wearing track pants and Japanese wrestling shirts, is this short fifty-something-year-old dad. He’s wearing a turquoise long sleeve shirt, black slacks and dad trainers. He bobs around, drenched in sweat. He looks more like a local council worker who’s had to run for a bus than a professional athlete.

He not short of energy though. He’s bouncing around like an eight-year-old. He a total motormouth and won’t stop gushing about being blown away by the attention the match has received. Various national newspapers have been on the phone to him. He is incredibly friendly, and he stops to say hello to everyone who passes him. He’s buzzing, but there’s still a little nervousness in his voice.

I let him get back in the ring with his fellow wrestlers, and they decide to go through the match one more time. It’s clear the match is going to be incredibly rehearsed. Pro wrestling is a lot like stand-up comedy, in that they go out in front of the audience with a rough script, adding ad-libs and the finer details as they go. The greatest wrestlers can do it all on the fly, but this will not be one of those bouts. It looks like it has been planned out to a tee.

One thing that is noticeable though is how well Phillips communicates with his fellow wrestlers. While the internet has opened it up in recent years, wrestling is still a clandestine art, with its performers knowing the unwritten customs and lingo – they can smell an outsider in a second. It is a world you have to be ushered into. And Phillips paid his dues all those years back. Margaret Thatcher might have been Prime Minister the last time he did this, but the young kids clearly respect him as he trots across the ring, blocking out the action.

An hour or so later. Three hundred or so wrestling fans, most of whom could be broadly described as ‘millennials’ have filled the venue. The heat is overpowering, and the bar soon runs out of cans of cold beer. The atmosphere is raucous. British wrestling crowds are well known for their energy and humour, twisting football songs to fit the competitors on show. We are treated to a breath-taking contest between two international high flyers dressed like neon EDM warriors, and an excellent display of mat-based technical wrestling from David Starr and Chris Ridgeway.

And then we reach an interval. As the crowd filed out to get a beer or have a smoke, the ring crew bring out a tarpaulin cover for the ring. And then the gunge tank. Yes, we had a gunge tank. Well, it was more an inflatable paddling pool full of gunge, placed outside of the ring on the opposite side to the stage, with a six-foot Perspex shield to protect the audience from splashback. And the gunge itself looked a lot more watery than the thick viscous gloop you used to see on TV.

The show restarts. As the compare announces the upcoming match, deafening chants of “DAVE! DAVE! DAVE!” rattle through the venue. Out first are the bad guys – the Anti-Fun Police, consisting of Chief Deputy Dunne, a five-foot-eight young man dressed like a 70s cop, complete with Aviator shades and a megaphone; and his partner Los Federales, a rotund gentleman in similar dress, but with a black Mexican luchador mask obscuring his face.

Next out is Phillips’ partner, ‘Session Moth’ Martina. For the uninitiated, ‘Session Moth’ is Irish slang for girls that, in Martina’s own words, “go out to nightclubs and they just get absolutely hammered and the next day they are so hungover and tired,that they just go to the shops for a chicken fillet roll in their jammies”. And Martina plays that gimmick to its fullest. She comes out to all-time banger “Sandstorm” by Darude, wears leopard print ring gear, and grinds with the referee. She frequently collapses mid-match, and needs a can of Stella Artois to resuscitate her. Once, when asked what her dream match was, she replied “John Cena on Tinder”. She’s one of the most entertaining people in British wrestling at the moment.

And then Dave Benson Phillips comes out, to what I think was the Get Your Own Back theme music. He stands on the stage in a bright yellow Pac-Man shirt, and puts hands in the air. The ring announcer bills him as “The Dark Destroyer”. It is actually happening. The crowd goes nuts. “GET YOUR OWN BACK” chants abound. He runs around the ring, high-fiving the audience. He poses on the top of the turnbuckle. We have entered some surreal wonderland. This is truly the weirdest timeline. 

Then the match actually gets underway. To begin with, the wrestling is left to the actual wrestlers, with Phillips left on the apron, milking the crowd. Eventually though, Martina retreats to her corner, and tags him in. Phillips, ever the showman, hotdogs for the audience, and runs the ropes. He squares up to Los Federales. They tease a physical confrontation. Federales and Dunne pull finger guns on Phillips, and he points his own back. The bad guys go down like they’ve been shot for real. It’s all a lot of fun, but there’s very little actual wrestling.

Martina tags back in, and the match continues. In standard wrestling tradition, a convoluted series of events leads to Phillips being sneakily taken out by Los Federales, and then the ref is knocked out by a stray blow. The bad guys descend on Martina, and boos ring out. As she valiantly tries to defend herself, Phillips slowly rouses himself. Surely, this middle-aged kids entertainer can’t fight off these two professional grapplers in their prime?

Oh ye of little faith. Phillips pulls Dunne and Federales apart, and in a moment that absolutely no one was expecting, he starts unloading a serious of vicious knife-edged chops on them - the kind even the legendary Ric Flair would be proud of. He is absolutely wailing on those dudes. All 300-odd people in the crowd are on their feet. Dave Benson Phillips is on fire, the Anti-Fun Police are terrified.

It gets wilder. Dunne charges at Phillips, and he replies with a thunderous diving spear takedown that a man half his age would struggle to execute. The entire venue is losing its shit. Los Federales is next, and Dave Benson Phillips delivers a goddamn chokeslam to the big man. Ok, he only gets him about three inches off the ground, but still – Dave Benson Phillips just did The Undertaker’s finishing move.

Los Ferderales bundles over the top rope and falls in into the gunge pool. Then Dunne ends up in there, and somehow Martina does as well. In amongst all the madness, Martina pins Dunne, and claims the victory. “Sandstorm” plays again, and Martina grinds in the gunge. Los Federales throws gunge on the audience. There’s another interval, and the fans stumble outside, breathlessly discussing what the hell they just saw.

The dust settles. The clean-up operation begins. One of the ring crew slips on some gunge and stacks it.

The next day I call Phillips to see how he thought it all went. He says he has a few bumps and bruises, but he sounds ecstatic. “Was that me, or did I really imagine all that noise?”

Before I can even get a question in, he wants to know how the crowd received it. “Did I live up to the hype? I could have been rubbish”. I assure him they enjoyed it, and he seems genuinely touched. “I’d forgotten what an adrenaline rush it was. We knew we were there for a bit of a fun match, but what a match it was. It was tremendous fun.”

Finally, I ask what the plan is now – after making such a spectacular comeback to the squared circle, does he want to keep it up? Does he have any more matches planned? “Funny you should say that. In the middle of the night, I’d just got home and I was about to tuck into a kebab, and my phone went off. And somebody says ‘We’re [a wrestling company] in the Midlands, we just seen this online. We’d like to talk....”

Match photography by Rob Brazier - Head Drop. Warm-up photography by Wil Jones.