The Wheeltappers And Shunters Social Club – TV’s Working Class Variety Night

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The 1970s were a very different world than the one we live in now, and little proves that than the existence of The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, which ran on British TV between 1974 and 1977. Back then, it was a ratings hit, despite being a strange recreation of something that, even then, seemed to be a dying part of working class culture.

The show was produced by Johnnie Camp, who had already had success with The Comedians, a series that featured stand up comics mostly drawn from the Northern club circuit. For The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, he set out to recreate those working men’s clubs in their entirety. The filming actually took place on a set in Granada Studios in Manchester (though at least one episode was shot on location in Blackpool), but it looks and feels very authentic, and so is a fascinating time capsule of a world that is entirely lost, with the audience of mostly middle-aged-plus punters – all dolled up in cheap suits, big hair, fake jewellery and frumpy frocks, sat behind tables full with pints of bitter, Babychams and ashtrays overflowing with fags. I have to say that the show does a good job of recreating the feel of the desperate, unbearable places that I recall from occasional childhood family birthday and wedding parties.

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The show was hosted by Bernard Manning – shortly before he was banished from TV for being the wrong sort of offensive comic, a ban that would pretty much last the rest of his career – and Colin Crompton, who played the flat-capped, gormless club chairman, given to making announcements between (or even during) acts about decisions of “the committee” and club notices. Crompton is actually still quite amusing at times; Manning, though, seems as though he is on a leash (as he probably was) and rarely cracks any jokes. Each episode would open with Manning, standing at the bar, in mid-song (to my surprise, he can carry a tune) before he introduced the ‘turns’ – often clearly reading from autocue and with all the sincerity you’d expect from someone who notoriously hated most of his colleagues.

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The ‘turns’ themselves are a mix of middle-of-the-road ‘pop’ acts – some on the first step to never being famous, others long past their prime – comedians and variety acts. A large number of these acts were regulars from the club circuit, but not familiar to TV audiences or anyone who didn’t live in the North. As such, the show offered a genuine and valid alternative to the more sophisticated Oxbridge educated elites that dominated (and, indeed, still dominate) TV both in front of and behind the camera. There was an early appearance from Paul Daniels, still with hair and before he hooked up with Debbie McGee – who is surprisingly good, even though he does ram home his catchphrase with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the skull, and comedy from the likes of Dustin Gee (camp and unfunny), Duggie Brown (just unfunny), Cannon and Ball, The Krankies, Mike Harding and Jim Bowen, amongst others. Predictably, the gags are cheap, not particularly funny and fairly racist – the Irish being the main target for humour. You’d probably be lynched if you tried to tell these jokes today but at the time, they were seen as entirely inoffensive and – it would seem – absolutely hilarious – it should go without saying that no one was bottled off at the Wheeltappers.

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The musical acts include an endless stream of anonymous soul acts (there is some amusement to be had seeing the famously racist Manning having to heap praise on black performers) as well as old-timers and easy listening favourites like Gene Pitney, Russ Conway, Roy Orbison, Nana Mouskouri, Tessie O’Shea, The Hermits and Ray Ellington. The show would also feature the odd stripper, though avoided showing too much skin – it was more tease than strip. 

While it’s easy to mock a show like this for the bad fashions, the un-PC humour and the dated style, it is at least an example of what TV was like before it began to cater solely to the tastes of desperate-to-be-cool producers and commissioning editors, middle class TV critics and audiences who like to sneer at the unwashed who don’t care much if their comedy isn’t sophisticated. In a world where the working class are routinely dismissed as xenophobic, racist Brexiteers, it’s impossible to imagine something like this having peak-time exposure today. That alone makes it worth a look, as a slice of social history from another age – or possibly another world. 

DAVID FLINT