The Rifleman in Leeds is not the sort of pub you'd have walked into ten years ago ago. Tucked away in the Little London enclave of the city, the crowd that now gather here on most nights are a friendly bunch, but the bar and it's surrounding streets once carried a dark reputation. Little London's notoriety centred on it's drug crime; a corpse was even found slumped in the pub's darkened car park in 2000.
It's in this roughhouse boozer that the pilot for comedy show, Walk Like A Panther is currently being filmed. Created by writer and director, Dan Cadan (previous credits include Snatch, The Devil's Wedding) and starring Stephen Graham (The Damned United, This Is England), Sean Pertwee (Dog Soldiers, Goal!) and Corrie's Ian Mercer, Cadan's latest work is a six part series which draws from the same well of grubby, pint pot-and-fag ash humour that previously worked so well on Paul Abbott's Shameless and Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights.
The twist is that this production carries a more muscular plot, quite literally: Cadan's scripted heroes comprise a group of retired British wrestlers who decide on one last royal rumble around the country, drumming up some much-needed cash along the way. "It's The Full Monty without the stripping," says Cadan, taking a break from the cameras. "The story starts in The Rifleman at the wake of Ginger Frost, an old wrestler. All the old wrestlers are in the pub for a drink and then a gobby kid starts a brawl. "They all join in, but rather than chucking pint glasses around and using their fists, they sort the bloke out with a Boston Crab. When all the punters in the pub start cheering, an old fight promoter called "Popsy" Wilson decides he can take the lads on a reunion tour. So off they head, into the sunset, to reclaim the glory. It's a bit like The Magnificent Seven."
Certainly The Rifleman's rough around the edges vibe suits Cadan's spaghetti western vision, though the cast on show here are considerably cleaner cut. In one corner of the saloon bar - dressed in tight-fitting trousers and a flouncy, David Ginola-style wig - sits actor Pertwee, aka wrestler Tony "Sweetcheeks" Smith. Elsewhere, Graham - who was last seen playing a brooding Al Capone in Martin Scorcese's Boardwalk Empire - challenges a gang of locals to a game of pool; Tom Meighan, Kasabian's motormouth frontman and acting debutant, swigs from a bottle of sambucca. This could possibly be the strangest Green Room of 2011.
Somebody mentioned...World of Sport - previously the home of British wrestling and the springboard into superstardom for a raft of previously unheard of gladiators. It proved to be an inspirational spark.
"It is weird, I know, but everyone's done a job," acknowledges Cadan. "And everyone has been really up for it. At one point Noel Gallagher and Marco Pierre White were down to be in the show. Noel was going to play a DJ at the wake and Marco Pierre White was casted as a coach driver. Noel couldn't come because he moved his holiday to watch the FA Cup game between Man City and Leicester, which then clashed with filming and Marco didn't turn up. But then, having him driving around the estate would have been a nightmare. He hasn't got his HGV licence." Meanwhile, the deceased Ginger Frost is played by Jason Flemyng, he of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels fame. Well, kind of. "Actually it's a cardboard cut out of Jason Flemyng," admits Cadan. "And I can tell you, he's much better in Walk Like A Panther that he was in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button."
Rocco, first made hay in wrestling's TV boom in the late 70s, early 80s, later fighting in New York's cavernous Madison Square Gardens. He became a minor sensation in Japan when he appeared as The Black Tiger ("One of the bad guys"), grappling in front of 50,000 screaming fans in the Tokyo Superdome. "I've come from six generations of wrestler and I've got to say, the fight scenes in the show look great," he says. "The actors have been really enthusiastic and it looks so realistic."
Cadan was first struck by Walk Like A Panther's nostalgic potential during a late night conversation with Stephen Graham, ten years ago. The pair became friends after the making of Guy Ritchie's Snatch. Over a drink, somebody mentioned ITV's saturday lunchtime show, World of Sport - previously the home of British wrestling and the springboard into superstardom for a raft of previously unheard of gladiators. It proved to be an inspirational spark.
"Everyone of a certain age remembers watching wrestling with their nana," says Graham. "I used to do that on a Saturday afternoon and I loved it, everyone did. My character in the show, Mark Bolton is one of those fans - his dad was a professional wrestler, and at 16 he thought he was going to follow in his footsteps, too. Just as he was about to get his shot TV pulled the plug on wrestling, but when the gang decide to try again after Ginger's wake, Mark realises he's going to get a shot."
Cadan figured that a wrestling drama was potentially rich with comedy value; high camp and nostalgia were key. In 2009 he began working up the script. By 2010, and with the help of several high profile investors, including Kasabian's Serge Pizzorno, he'd drafted in a cast of heft British acting talent - Pertwee, Graham, plus Steve Furst and Ian Mercer. Work on the series pilot took place in January 2011, and Cadan is hoping his work - with the backing of as yet decided TV channel - will be screened by the end of the year.
"It's a nice story," says Graham. "It's about a group of friends and the dreams and aspirations that had when they were young but they didn't come off. They've stuck together and they have a real sense of family and community. And the script is hilarious."
Graham's assessment is bang on. During the pilot's pivotal scene, two cast members - jilted admirers to Tony "Sweetcheeks" Smith - go toe-to-toe in a bar brawl. "You're a penis fly trap," screams one girl. "A dirty tractor beam!" Walk Like A Panther's greatest strength, however, is its realism. From Pertwee's coffered wig to The Rifleman's treasure trove of props (old wrestling photographs, a ringside bell), Cadan has ensured his cinematic production values carry the authentic musk of old gymnasiums and grandma perfume. He's even enlisted former wrestling titan, Mark "Rollerball" Rocco to choreograph the show's realistic fight scenes.
Graham paints a more colourful image of the show's action scenes. "All the actors were raring to go in the pilot," he laughs. "Rocco showed them the moves they would have done back in the day. He got this bloke in a half-nelson, threw him on the floor, and banged his head on the table. Everyone got rowdy."
Cadan has ensured his cinematic production values carry the authentic musk of old gymnasiums and grandma perfume.
Further novelty value is provided by Britrock heavyweights, Kasabian, who loom large in the production. Songwriter-in-chief, Serge Pizzorno has contributed the soundtrack - a reworking of the theme tune to the kids' TV show, The Littlest Hobo. However it's his bandmate, Tom Meighan who takes centre stage in his cameo role as trainee bouncer, Terry Graham - a character Cadan describes as "a soft lad. He gets taken on by a security firm who look after Stars In Their Eyes contestants and pantomime actors. Terry suffers from panic attacks."
Meighan, by all accounts, slipped into his role quite comfortably. Today he wanders round the set in costume: a black suit and black roll necked jumper. A cheap chain dangles around his neck. He looks like an extra from the 80s sitcom, Minder.
"I met Dan through mutual friends," he says, still clutching a bottle of samba. "After he had this idea about doing a wrestling comedy drama - a bit Phoenix Nights, a bit working class - I wanted to be in it. When he asked me to get involved I was made up. It's not a massive part, it's a nice little character part, rather than a ten minute long, Oscar-winning performance, but it's cool.
"The set is amazing, Gorgeous George from Snatch is here, Sean Pertwee and Stephen Graham… It's a fucking serious cast. Stephen Graham is proper. When I was filming my scene, I kept saying to the crew, 'How do I sound compare to those guys?' I kept putting myself up against the real deals, but my character is only a fun part. I was told to chill out and just get on with it. Hopefully it's worked out alright."
Graham, for one, seems suitably impressed. "Tom's a natural," he said. "He put the shoes on and just walked it."
Cadan, meanwhile, hopes his stellar cast can ensure telly success. "My expectations were high for the filming, but we've surpassed them," he says. "Making Walk Like A Panther has been uber exciting, everything has fallen into place and it feels very real. I'm hoping to do two series of six episodes and then kill it. I don't want people getting bored, but I think the show has the potential to be massive. It seems to have captured people's imaginations already. Let's get some British wrestling back on the telly!"
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