There was one of those long silences. Pregnant, I believe, is what they’re generally called. Aunt looked at butler. Butler looked at aunt. I looked at both of them. An eerie stillness seemed to envelop the room like a linseed poultice. I happened to be biting on a slice of apple in my fruit salad at the moment, and it sounded as if Carnera had jumped off the top of the Eiffel Tower on to a cucumber frame.
P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)
I first heard the name in the context of a Sandy Powell comedy sketch, ‘Sandy the Burglar’ (1933), which my dad had on a 78rpm record, and which I listened to constantly as a child.  In this routine, the ever gullible Sandy gets tricked into helping a burglar break into a house, only to be abandoned when a policeman arrives. It then transpires that, lost in the fog, he’s ended up robbing his own house, but he still insists on being arrested. As he explains in the closing ditty:
So I’m coming to the station ‘cause I know I’ll be alright.
I’d rather fight Carnera than face my wife tonight.
Being interested in such references to a world beyond my knowledge, I looked up Primo Carnera and found the basic facts. An Italian boxer, nicknamed the Ambling Alp, he held the world heavyweight title back in the 1930s during a career that saw him win 89 professional fights, 72 of them by knockout. He was also physically huge by the standards of 20th-century pugilism. He was exploited by Mussolini for propaganda purposes but was not himself a fascist.
But that didn’t really address the question of why he was considered a reasonable punchline for a working-class Yorkshire comedian. And when he turned up again in the second Jeeves and Wooster novel (in the quote above), I got interested in why he had such a strong presence in British culture.
Primo Carnera first came to England in October 1929. He’d been fighting professionally for just over a year by this stage, and had a record of thirteen wins from fourteen bouts. None of them were against particularly impressive opponents, but it wasn’t his boxing prowess that attracted attention. It was his size. Widely reported to stand 6ft 10in tall (four inches taller than his actual height), he was a giant at a time when the average height for a British man of his age at the time was just 5ft 6in.
‘He was hit up by his exploiters more as a circus turn in the early days of his career rather than as a serious challenger,’ the British press reflected in later years. ‘He looked so big and awkward in the ring that the spectators laughed.’ And indeed much of the coverage did seem to regard him as a freak rather than a fighter:
Primo Carnera’s physiognomy exhibits many characteristic signs of the hyperpituitary, the prognathous jaw, the heavy lips. The jutting nose, unusually long arms and an unusual thickness across the thigh. If my theory is correct, Carnera’s organism is likely to militate against his chances in the ring.
For all sufferers from acromegaly – I believe without exception – are slow-witted and lymphatic by nature. The new heavyweight is reputed to be exceptionally fast on his feet. The point is, are his brains equally swift? 
He seemed happy enough to play along with this, though, and when he got his chance in the ring, he did demonstrate some serious potential, even if it was still raw. He had good footwork, he could take a punch and he hit hard, even if not quite as hard as his size might suggest.
At the Royal Albert Hall, he beat Jack Stanley, a British ex-policeman, in under two minutes, and professed himself disappointed because ‘I know that I still require experience’. But, he added, perhaps in deference to his hosts: ‘I do not wish to speak disparagingly of Stanley, far from it. I think he was a very game fellow to have come up so many times as he did.’ (For a 22-year-old Italian boxer, who’d spent much of his life in France, his reported comments displayed an impressive grasp of the English language.) In turn, Jack Stanley laughingly referred to him as ‘a boxing murderer’.
He returned to the Albert Hall a month after the Stanley fight, this time taking on the American Young Stribling in front of a 10,000-strong crowd that included the Prince of Wales. Stribling was generally considered the better boxer, even though he was giving away nearly seven stone in weight, and he knocked Carnera down in the third with a right hook. The Italian, it was reported, was somewhat riled by this. ‘The demon of wrath seized him,’ wrote one reporter, while another spelt it out even more clearly:
His face underwent a marvellous change. From the innocent expression of a lamb it turned to tigerish ferocity.
It was a change that few will forget. I have seen nothing like it in the past. From a sane man he turned almost to a madman.
The end came in the next round, when Stribling again put Carnera down – ‘the ring shook as it an earthquake had been experienced’ – but this time with a low blow that saw the American disqualified.
While in England, Carnera also fought some exhibition bouts. He knocked out Pat Tarling, a London bus-driver, in two rounds, and appeared at a charity evening in aid of the Pro Patria Day Nurseries at the Stadium Club, London, again in the presence of the Prince of Wales, with whom he had previously dined. His contribution to the event was to fight one round with each of four heavyweights – amateur champion E.V. Chandler, Kenneth MacLaglen, Bob Carvill, and the Royal Navy champion, the 6ft 3½in Lieutenant E.H.G. Gregson – and then one with Young Dunn, ‘a little flyweight who hardly came up to Primo’s waist’.
In fact, he’d already worked on a double-act with the latter, making his debut on the music hall stage at the Alhambra Theatre of Variety in Leicester Square, where: ‘He gave an exhibition of sparring with the flyweight Young Dunn, and did some very amusing “stunts” which displayed his amazing strength and agility’. He was also offered a bout in Belfast, though his demand of £400 for three two-minute rounds was too rich for the promoter’s taste.
For a fighter who had yet to prove himself, he’d become quite the celebrity. ‘There can be no doubt that Mr Primo Carnera has captured the imagination of the public,’ wrote The Graphic, before launching into some heavy-handed satire about him really being an intellectual: ‘his favourite poet is Gabriele d’Annunzio, his favourite composer Domenico Scarlatti, and his favourite painter Carpaccio or Giorgione.’
There was a re-match with Young Stribling in Paris in early December – this time it was Carnera who lost on a disqualification – but he ended the year back at the Albert Hall with a six-round victory over the German Franz Diener. He also resumed his now familiar circuit of social engagements and exhibition bouts for good causes. ‘I do believe that in six weeks I have done more English charities than has any English boxer,’ he told the press.
And then he moved on to bigger and better things, pursuing his dream in America, where he won his first bout at Madison Square Garden in January 1930. He didn’t entirely forget us, though. He returned to beat future British champion Reggie Meen in two rounds at the end of 1930, and then, in March-April 1932, the Australian champion, George Cook (knock-out in the fourth), and the South African Don McCorkindale, bronze medallist at the Amsterdam Olympics (points decision).
All these were at the Royal Albert Hall, but his last ever fight in Britain, in May 1932, saw a move to the White City Stadium where a record 70,000 crowd saw him face the black Canadian Larry Gains, who had won the World Colored Heavyweight Championship in 1928, and who was the current Empire champion. There was a note of novelty here at a time when a colour bar still operated in much of boxing (despite Jack Johnson and Battling Siki). ‘Black and white boxing matches are provocative spectacles to many sportsmen,’ noted the Daily Herald; ‘there is always a curious fascination about these fights.’
Although Carnera had a four-inch and five-stone advantage, Gains was the superior fighter and, at the end of ten rounds, he ‘secured a great and well-merited points victory’. Carnera was undoubtedly the big draw but for once, reported the press, he didn’t have popular support: ‘It was a Gains crowd. London wanted to see the Italian beaten, and when the decision went to the coloured man there was great jubilation.’ The Canadian felt vindicated:
Nobody made me much better than a 3–1 or 4–1 bet for the fight. Carnera was going to do this and that, and if he didn’t do either, he was going to go wild and punch me out in six rounds.
The fight had been billed as a title eliminator: ‘Whoever wins will have the right to meet the winner of the coming contest between Max Schmeling and Jack Sharkey for the heavyweight championship of the world.’ But nobody was greatly surprised that when Sharkey duly won the title, his first defence came not against the black Gains, but the white Carnera. And perhaps the Italian deserved a shot. He certainly worked hard enough: in the thirteen months between facing Gains and Sharkey, he fought nineteen professional fights.
In the title match at Madison Square Garden in June 1933, Carnera knocked out Sharkey in the sixth round. He only made two successful defences before losing his belts to American Max Baer the following year, but still, he did get to be world champ. Gains, however, peaked with that victory over Carnera. It was ‘the greatest fight of my life,’ he told the press, and it was.
Carnera never fought in England again, and by the start of the 1940s, with the great Joe Louis eclipsing all other heavyweights, and with Italy as an enemy combatant nation, he’d mostly faded from public attention, though his marriage and the birth of his son did make the British press.
Because there was still a fondness for him, which was only strengthened when it was reported in 1944 that he’d been captured by the Germans, fighting for the guerrillas in Italy. And although he didn’t fight here again, he did return to play a wrestler named Python Macklin in the Wolf Mankowitz-scripted film A Kid for Two Farthings (1955), starring Diana Dors.
But it was in those few years in the 1930s that he really made his impact on Britain. It may have just been the gimmick of his size, but he was granted a celebrity status, which was why he got namechecked by P.G. Wodehouse and Sandy Powell. And, indeed, the great Robb Wilton.*
Nor were they alone. A lorry driver in John Bude’s detective novel The Lake District Murder (1935) is nicknamed Carnera, and when our hero, Inspector Meredith, encounters him, the reason is obvious:
Brute strength was the keynote of his physical appearance; accruing from a massive torso, a somewhat smallish head and a broad and prominent jowl. Mentally he looked, if not actually deficient, considerably under average quota, whilst the slow roving of his eyes spoke of a nature that was suspicious rather than credulous.
And one final Wodehouse reference from his short story ‘Open House’ (1932):
Orlando Wotherspoon was not the sort of person who, once seen, is easily forgotten. He was built on large lines, and seemed to fill the room to overflowing. In physique he was not unlike what Primo Carnera would have been if Carnera hadn’t stunted his growth by smoking cigarettes when a boy.
It’s a great line, but not strictly accurate. ‘I do not smoke, I do not drink and I have no time for girls,’ Carnera told the British press in 1932. On the other hand: ‘I dance very well. You would be surprised to see me dance…’
 Sandy Powell was the first British comedian to recognise the earning potential of comedy sketches on record. He released scores of them in the 1930s, selling millions of copies.
 As far as I know, Carnera did not have acromegaly. It’s a condition that tends towards wrestling rather than boxing as a career: André the Giant, the French Angel, the Great Khali.
* My thanks to the ever informative Pismo Tality for the Robb Wilton reference.