Another chance to see… The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club 

28 October 2021 tbs.pm/73629


Granada

Granada, 1974-1977

They just don’t do ‘Variety’ shows on the telly any more, do they? They certainly hadn’t done one like this before 1974 and they haven’t really done one like it since.

Based in Manchester (since 1956) and serving the north-west (since 1968), Granada were the golden boys of ITV, supplying a grateful network with the types of programmes the other companies shied away from making themselves. Hard serious journalism (World In Action, What The Papers Say), intelligent quiz shows (University Challenge, Criss Cross Quiz) and gritty northern dramas (Sam, A Family At War, Coronation Street). Whatever the rest of ITV was doing, Granada had the knack of doing it differently, with defiance and gravitas by the bucketload.

Their weak spot however was light entertainment. They did put out the odd sitcom but generally left it to the other ITV companies to provide the lightweight stuff. So in the Spring of 1974 when the opportunity arose to fill a Saturday night network slot, Granada just had to be different and simply did what they did best, namely ‘exporting’ the north to the rest of the network.

The Wheeltappers And Shunters Social Club was Granada’s take on TV variety. Set in a fictitious northern working men’s club it was almost ‘fly-on-the-wall’ television, the studio audience sitting at tables with waitresses serving them beer and snacks, often walking straight in front of the cameras momentarily blocking the view of the stage, all of this being viewed through a light haze of cigarette smoke.

Standing at the bar and introducing the ‘turns’ (northern clubspeak for ‘acts’, so I’m told) was one Bernard Manning who really was the perfect club host. The ‘turns’ themselves were a mixture of acts regularly appearing on the Northern club circuits, novelty acts, ventriloquists, magicians, emerging singers and groups alongside some well established performers who were still successfully doing the rounds in clubs and theatres, but rarely seen on TV. This also included visiting American artists such as Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison, Johnnie Ray, Bill Haley and the Comets and The Three Degrees.

 

TVTimes cover

 

Central to all of this was the most endearing memory of the show, the club chairman played by comedian Colin Crompton, sitting at a small table in the corner watching everything with a distinct lack of interest. He was armed with a manual fire bell which he would ring abruptly at the end of each ‘turn’ (DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING “Thank you PLEASE around the room…”) in order to make announcements of club notices “on behalf o’ the commit-tee…”, all delivered with his own indefensible sense of self-importance.

“Would members please note that the notice in the gents toilet that says ‘WET PAINT’ is NOT a request!”

Sometimes actually ringing the bell and announcing during the ‘turns’ such as this in between songs from a rock and roll act:

“PLEASE would members of the audience REFRAIN from hand-jiving! We have a deaf and dumb waitress who thinks you’re all ordering a round of drinks”

The brilliance of this show was that it simultaneously mocked and celebrated the Northern club scene. Venturing into a British Legion Club in Blackpool in the seventies where everyone was invited – in fact almost expected – to do a ‘turn’, confirmed my belief as a young southerner that the ‘Wheeltappers’ could easily have fallen into the previously mentioned ‘fly-on-the-wall TV’ genre. It was a show that could have only come from Granada.

The first series of seven 45-minute shows was networked around the 9pm slot on Saturdays from 13 April 1974. Sadly and despite the show’s success the second series was syndicated rather than networked, notably with London Weekend and Southern Television relegating it to a midnight slot on the grounds that it didn’t quite fit in with their (perceived) more upmarket demographics.

It has to be said that the show did lose some of its sparkle over time, having its slot cut from forty-five to thirty minutes. The final series in 1977 was shunted around the schedules, relocated to Friday nights after News at Ten, then onto Thursday nights and missing some weeks altogether, usually due to sports coverage. Then the regions simply showed it at the times that suited them with Anglia giving its final terrestrial broadcast outing on 25 June.

It had a brief repeat run on satellite TV in the ‘nineties and is now available on DVD where if you care (or dare) to take a look at the early shows the buzz of the Northern Club circuit comes back to life. You can taste the beer, the pies and the snacks, you can even smell the cigarette smoke (if you want to). Better still, watch it on a Saturday evening, pour yourself a light ale, sit back and be seduced…

DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING-DING “QUIET around the room PLEASE!…”

▶︎ Buy The Wheeltappers and Shunters Club on DVD at Amazon

You Say

3 responses to this article

David Heathcote 30 October 2021 at 12:05 pm

What a lovely article! You’ve captured the atmosphere that “Wheeltappers” in turn captured of Northern Clubs, Geoff. It was a fantastic show, introducing many very talented Northern comedians to a national audience. (And Bernard Manning. Though to be fair to Manning, it was his material that was awful, not his timing.) I fear many of the jokes would not work well in 2021, but of its time, for its time, it was as good as “Sunday Night at the London Palladium” (ATV) and “Ready Steady Go” (Rediffusion) – and “Live At The Apollo” (BBC) is a worthy successor.

Paul Mason 6 November 2021 at 5:24 pm

I dont remember this but ten years before Wheeltappers ITV had a series called Stars and Garters with a
similar social club setting Anyone recall this show?

Paul Mason 6 November 2021 at 6:12 pm

Stars and Gàrters I have just learned more about, It ran between 1963 and 1965 from ATV but I am unsure whether from London or Birmingham. S&G had a fixed list of guests,Kathy Kirby, Vince Hill among them.

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Liverpool, Tuesday 30 November 2021