Give Order!

Chris Diamond on The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club

First published September 2001

’80s Britain was a place where comedy – and television comedy in particular – was alternative. It was anarchic, surreal, political, non-sexist, non-racist, avant-garde et bataclan du tralala.

But what precisely was it alternative to?

Wags will no doubt assert that it was the alternative to funny. Possibly. But if there was ever a show that was exactly what alternative comedy was not, it was The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club (13 April 1974 – 23 February 1977; Granada).

It is fair to say that the Wheeltappers is a show that could only have been made in the Britain of the 1970s, a decade which was in itself wholly “alternative” to the ’80s. It is also a show that, until fairly recently, was only watched in the Britain of the 1970s. However this is now no longer the case and the Wheeltappers has found a new home amongst the repeats of Sherlock Holmes, Ruth Rendell mysteries and The Sweeney on Granada Plus.

Granada Sky Broadcasting (GSB) have assured me that it has gained respectable viewing figures and that those viewers cover a wide demographic. Malcolm Packer, Head of Press and Public Relations at GSB, maintains that the Wheeltappers has stood the test of time and that taking the show on its own merits GSB rejected any “preconceived ideas” when they first considered showing it again. The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club is not “old-hat” he insists.

Well, to be honest I don’t know about that since, for me at any rate, it is precisely the almost otherworldly atmosphere of the show that is most attractive and that derives from its age. The set, the acts, the audience (or “members”), the singsongs, even the material is so deeply rooted in its own time that though “old-hat” would certainly be an unkind description it is certainly not “up-to-the-minute”. However its age has, far from being a burden, become its principal virtue.

It is a show that remains obstinately unknown to the greater part of the modern world. A show that was inextricably bound up with the era in which it was produced and to a degree few other programme ever managed; this forming the basis of both its rise and its fall. But, most importantly and leaving all that to one side, it is a show that remains highly entertaining.

There are few places on television now (anywhere in fact) where one can be entertained by the likes of Canadian Tina, the baton twirler who also twirled knives and indeed what looked like a carpeted wagon wheel. Or Eric Delaney, who visually resembled a cross between Sonny Bono and Bill Oddie and whose act consisted of playing contemporary numbers on a unique tubular bells and kettledrum combo whilst wearing a gold lame tasselled cowboy jacket. Where else could we be reminded of the musical delights of the estimable Buddy Greco, pianist, singer and wearer of unfeasibly large velvet bow ties? Or even, in all their splendour, The Bachelors, who were the embodiment of a 1970s club act and who performed on the show – in addition to their hit parade classics – a set in tribute to that much neglected instrument, the banjo? Or even “The Fhirst Lady of Clubland”, the very excellent Mrs Mills?

Believe me (if you can) when I say – and without a hint of irony – that the presentation of these acts within the Wheeltappers format work brilliantly. I can understand the limited appeal that such acts might have now, but then I can also understand the limited appeal to the modern audience of Flanders and Swann, The Goons or Girls on Top. Belonging squarely within one’s own time has its problems.

Of course the Wheeltappers attracted its fair share of big names. Gene Pitney guested, for example, as did Howard Keel and the immortal Bill Hailey and The Comets. I have heard comments to the effect of what such big names were doing on this show, but that merely betrays the common ignorance of the club scene in the ’60s and ’70s. Ask anyone over the age of 50 and they will tell you a tale of the big names that appeared at the local social club. In such places Tom Jones or Shirley Bassey would have happily rubbed shoulders with the likes of Tina and Eric.

The show sprang from the success of The Comedians, the hugely popular stand-up showcase that was first seen in 1971 and which was produced by John Hamp who then went on to develop the Wheeltappers.

I spoke to John Hamp and he told me of the Wheeltappers‘ origins:

The Comedians was such a huge success that we put on a stage show at the Palladium in London and at the North Pier in Blackpool running simultaneously. We introduced a format where there were themed segments instead of just straight stand-up – like a circus where they all dressed as clowns for example – and I came up with the idea of a working man’s club which became The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club and that closed the first half.”

The first of the show’s 39 episodes was broadcast in 1974 at what might be deemed the high water mark of the club scene in Britain. The Wheeltappers was essentially a variety show, albeit one with a novel format: a working man’s club and profited from that already popular format accordingly.

As Bernard Manning, who was the resident MC gently ribbing the front row and assuring the “members” of the spectacular show they are about to see at limited expense (of The Bachelors – “These lads have come a few times now for 10 quid and I know full well they can’t afford to pay it” or of Gene Pitney, “It’s a good job he was nice to me on the way up because I’ve just met him on the way down.”) told me:

“At the time there were clubs all over England that were just like the Wheeltappers. They had the Chairman and his bell, they had the compère – that was me – and they had these acts on every week. What we wanted to do was give these acts the chance to do their bit in the setting that suited them instead of on Opportunity Knocks where you were up against a trumpet player or a performing seal and only got three minutes. So we had the likes of Cannon and Ball and Paul Daniels: it was the first time they had appeared on the telly and they got the chance to do their act properly.”

It would have been reasonable to assume that the greater part of the audience (both in Granadaland and across the network) would have visited one of these clubs at some time or other and would easily recognise the trappings used to comic effect in the show; union reps, pompous committee chairmen, MC’s, tartan blazered barmen, officious signs declaring “Hats Will Not Be Tolerated” gold spangled glitter backdrops and so forth. The show was founded upon the gentle parody of these fixtures.

Colin Crompton was the perennial chairman taking things to the extreme with his outlandish announcements on behalf of the committee (“First prize in the raffle is a diving suit … no, it’s a divan suite”) written occasionally by Neil Shand but in the main by Crompton himself.

When I asked Bernard Manning why they had settled on Crompton as the chairman he explained:

“Well, Colin was a club chairman, had been on The Comedians and he had that gormless look about him so he was ideal.”

Concerning Crompton John Hamp told me:

“Originally [in the stage show] there was the Wheeltappers and another segment which was an old time Music Hall kind of thing and Colin Crompton was the host of the Music Hall segment – in the Leonard Sachs role if you like – and Frank Carson was the chairman of the Wheeltappers. It was in the rehearsal that we decided to switch them round and Colin became the chairman.”

A good move, I think.

“In fact,” said Mr Hamp, “Colin was criticised by real club chairmen for the way he acted. One actual club chairman wanted to appear and have it out with him on the show. He came along and met Colin, who was dressed in a very good suit, very smart, and here was this man looking more of a caricature than Colin ever did.”

There was also Johnnie Wager as the Union Rep. making pompous announcements and dreadful puns on union lingo (the strippers union was forever coming out in support, for example) but the stalwarts remained Manning and Crompton for the whole run.

One other participant went onto bigger things though. Liz Dawn, Corrie‘s Vera Duckworth, was one of the waitresses who served the audience the real beer from the working bar originating what seems to have becoming something of a beer motif for her Granada career. Unfortunately, according to Hamp, one evening she served the beer to the cast and crew and left none for the audience.

Seen now, the Wheeltappers has become something else entirely. Perhaps it seems pretentious to say that it is a social document but that is precisely what it is. It is a snapshot of a country that is our own but which no longer looks or sounds anything like this other place and now, in the 21st century, seems as distant as a Jane Austen (or more appropriately, a Catherine Cookson). What is more interesting still is that this other place is our world of only 25 or so years ago. Even 10 years after the Wheeltappers was first seen it had become an anachronism in a world conquered by The Comedy Store. 25 years on it appears as realistic – or, to be frank, as relevant – as The Good Old Days.

It seems fitting that the Wheeltappers should re-emerge now. In the recent past we have been deluged with nostalgia programming that has imparted to us what the 1970s were really like. We were shown Space Hoppers and David Soul, Simple Simon and the Sex Pistols, the Stylophone and The Sweet. All documented and dissembled and linked with comment by the freshest of faces . But to see the ’70s in the raw, to see this world in action one need only look as far as the Wheeltappers. The hair, the lapels, the ties, the frocks, the fags, the sideburns, the music, the drink, the humour, the style, the taste. It was all here all along yet, tellingly, no mention was made of it in the retrospective escapades on BBC2 (although the likes of the improbably-young-to-comment Jamie Theakston might never have known of its existence – it was never repeated on the terrestrial network).

One can look at the Wheeltappers and think, can so much have changed? Can Britain have been such a different place? Well, as Frosty would later say, the clues are there.

One of the more stark aspects of the difference between these two worlds which is highlighted most prominently by the Wheeltappers – aside from the extraordinary thickness of some of the audience members glasses frames – is the political content. Not overtly political by any means it would have been impossible to have used the working man’s club format in the 1970s and not have included allusions to the politics of the day. This in itself is an important point. The inclusion of a smattering of political material would have been mandatory but such topics are dealt with as asides and in such broad terms as to never be taken seriously or used to convey any great thrusting point. The politics were also very understated. In the Wheeltappers then we have portraits of Harold Wilson on the walls and references to “our party” (the Labour Party of course) upon which the camera alights briefly at a few points during the show most likely only to reassert the notion that this is a working man’s club and not a lodge or small theatre of some kind. Political references nowadays seem to be always cynical – reflecting our own times – but although in the Wheeltappers these are used in parody they belay the very real and strongly held beliefs of the audience both in the studio and at home.

Of course the prominence of politics in comedy was far from new and continued for some time and was even escalated to become the mainstay of the comedians who became the mainstream (or at least the most recognisable and voluble – I am perfectly willing to concede that during the ’80s for every Ben Elton there was a Jimmy Cricket) on television in the following decade, replacing the Bernard Mannings and Colin Cromptons, and who appeared on the likes of Friday/Saturday Live but they were to use politics in attack. They hectored and railed against “Thatch”. Johnnie Wager would certainly never have railed against Wilson or Callaghan, even if he could have thought of catchy abbreviations of their names. Not out of timidity or complicity but because that was not what the audience wanted to hear. The fundamental approach to politics was different and that approach was not to attempt to influence the viewer but merely to recognise their beliefs and to prod at them, not to smash their teeth in with them. To paraphrase a contemporary album of the Wheeltappers it might have been, “Colin Crompton Mocks … But Gently”. It could be argued – and fairly convincingly – that there were elements of satire in all of this but which were never to be recognised or acknowledged in such a broad and populist format. Satire is supposed to be the dominion of the rather drier and, well, more educated show is it not? Well, no it isn’t. A similar fate befell The Goodies whose show was overtly satirical but which suffered from the perception that it was a kid’s show and not at all serious in its intentions even if it was light hearted in its execution. Like all things the viewer (and commentator) takes from such shows what they wish and they wished, in retrospect, to see the Wheeltappers as pulp television; light viewing for the masses (as if there were anything at all wrong with that – only in the po-faced ’80s did this come to be thought of as a bad thing).

So why did a show like the Wheeltappers – enormously popular in its day – come to be buried and forgotten? The answer lies, I think, with the advent in the ’80s of the aforementioned “alternative” comedians and their rendering of many of those who came before them as the “unpersons” of comedy.

The fundamental difference with the alternative comedians was symptomatic of each of the two camps’ respective times. During the 1970s Britain was a highly politicised country with outlets aplenty for the expression of one’s own militancy or otherwise. Politics was a matter for the union branch meeting or weekly Rotarian harrumph. Strikes, marches, pay claims, party conferences, corner speakers and a host of other sprightly activities contributed to a general outlet for fervour, a safety valve on the radical consciousness. So there was neither the need nor desire to express such views in the forum of entertainment whose function was to serve as a release from such cares. Fun and laughter, songs and dancing girls were the tonic for a world of industrial involvement. Thus shows such as the Wheeltappers remained largely free of such workaday issues.

By the time of the early ’80s however, almost the entire infrastructure of a whole class had been decimated: both their employment and their forum for expression – their unions – had been emasculated leaving no public arena for the proclamation of their fears, loathings, aspirations and demands. At that time this role came to be filled by television and by a new rank of comedians who were to resurrect the (apparently) sleeping giant of satire. Jokes were replaced by comment. Comedy came to be an editorial upon the burning issues of the day. There had been political comment in comedy for aeons but this time the new wave had rebranded itself as “alternative” and actively despised what had gone before it. Not seeking to understand it deplored the comedy it replaced as not merely old-fashioned but offensive. The formulation of Political Correctness began and traditional comedy was turned on its head, not to regain its position for nearly another 20 years and the boom in stand-up comedy. Ned Sherrin might have found a place for Frankie Howerd on TW3 but there was to be no welcome at the inn for the old guard in the brave new world of the early ’80s (and yes, Peter Cook may have been on Saturday Live but that is hardly comparable with Howerd on TW3. Ben Elton would have had to welcome Les Dawson, Ken Dodd or Bob Monkhouse on to his platform to match that which, sadly, he never did).

The principal function of the Wheeltappers was to entertain and nothing else. There were no points to be made. No “issues” to be handled. No great debates to engage in. Politics was very much a background noise. The main order of the day was entertainment. If there were comments to be made they would be introduced as asides or in ways rather more subtle than might otherwise have been expected. In one episode the show was rejoined after the break with the audience rising to their feet to sing Land of Hope and Glory whilst being accompanied by an accordionist wearing a silver spangled jacket and ruffled shirt and billed as Valentino. In the course of this the camera trains upon a portrait of the queen. Nowadays this would be associated with jingoism and right-wing nationalism but in the next shot the camera shows a photograph of Harold Wilson complete with pipe and Gannex raincoat and the character of the scene is changed entirely. Suddenly it seems self-deprecating and frivolous. The situation is reinforced. Jingoism in such a setting cannot be sustained. In fact there are so many things going on in that sequence, between the audience and performance, that it would keep a sociologist in chips for months. Such incidents confirm the naïveté and even innocence of that time and the cynicism and sensitivity of our own.

So up against all of this The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club was lost in the mists of televisual history, it’s format anathema, it’s content derided and decried, it’s participants shuffled off to the great Pennine Suite in the Sky where eventually, happily, all shows live a second day.

The demise and eventual resurrection of the Wheeltappers has come to represent much more than merely one once-popular series. It has become indicative of the ebb and flow in British comedy and television. The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club (along with The Comedians and a very few others) were to be the last hurrah of light entertainment in its pre-”alternative” guise in such a popular and prominent format. Variety struggled on manfully with Tarby at the Palladium, or perhaps even with Des O’Connor on his long running Tonight show, or the odd Christmas special but became the exception as opposed to the rule. Light entertainment was left to manifest itself as a series of game shows and sitcoms which came ever more under the eye – and the axe – of the Politically Correct. Only now has enough progress been made so that room has been found for all shades of comedy once more and jokes and “turns” find space alongside comment and observation.

It seems also that the Wheeltappers may be in line for reincarnation with plans afoot for a Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club in Blackpool.

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club is light entertainment in almost its purest form, in the form the gods of television intended. Not preaching, not informing, not motivating, not thought provoking, not challenging, not politically correct, not politically incorrect for that matter – just entertaining.

Well, that’s my opinion and if you don’t agree you can take it up with the committee. Give order!