Three men sporting terrifying facial hair and polka dot shirts are stood on a stage. The air is blue with Embassy Regal smoke. The trio strike up a flamenco guitar version of “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree” as a fat man in a bowtie slams a dimpled barrel pint glass on the bar in accompaniment. The audience – all big collars, sideburns and Harmony hairspray – dutifully join in on the chorus. You can almost inhale the great smell of Brut coming off the screen.
Welcome to Clubland, 1974 style. Welcome to the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club.
Of course, it wasn’t a real club – following on from the success of The Comedians, Granada TV decided to re-create the authentic working man’s club atmosphere on the small screen, complete with gravel voiced overweight racist Bernard Manning as MC (or “compere” as they were known back then) and a dishevelled and bewildered looking Colin Crompton as the Club Chairman.
Crowd participation is not so much encouraged as insisted upon.
Manning, in an off-stage role, is remarkably restrained, confining himself to “big hand please” style intro’s for the turns and only the occasional off-colour aside. It’s Crompton who cuts the most outrageous figure, looking like Mark E Smith’s ghoulish great uncle who’s stumbled into work after an all night amphetamine binge, ever present fag clutched between bony fingers, yelling his introductions and announcement like a pissed up platform announcer at rush hour in Manchester Piccadilly Station. His proclamations all carry a curious yodelling intonation on the final syllable of each word and are delivered at strident foghorn volume, despite the fact that he has a huge old-fashioned BBC announcers style microphone jammed under his nose. As a double act, Manning and Crompton are spot on, serving up equal measures of wry sarcasm and droll ineptitude with a side order of earthy innuendo.
From a modern perspective, the turns themselves are little short of mesmerising. It’s hard to tell which ones are serious and which are simply taking the piss. Variety is the name of the game here – and not the lame arsed end of the pier freak show variety served up by the likes of Britain’s Got Talent – the range of acts are truly diverse and jaw droppingly bizarre. German Oompah Pah Pah bands are followed by female Charlie Chaplin impersonators who then make way for beaming middle aged pianists playing obscure cruise ship polkas and glove puppets performing card tricks. Crowd participation is not so much encouraged as insisted upon – SING! barks Bernard, and they do, every man and woman dutifully raising their hands in the air and clapping along like they just don’t care, revealing under-arm sweat patches on polyester. This lot make the Bullseye studio audience look like hardcore ravers at The Ministry Of Sound. They’re nearly as entertaining as the acts.
Peppered among the more obscure artistes are the occasional legends – Roy Orbison, The Three Degrees Bill Haley and The Comets – and the acts who at the time of filming were just making their way in clubland but went on to become household names; people like Cannon and Ball, Little and Large and Dustin Gee. Amazingly, most of them are funny. The Wheeltappers and Shunters Club is totally unlike anything you will see on television this century and, tragically, totally unlike anything you can go and see in a modern live environment. For this reason alone I urge you to buy this DVD, crack open a party pack of Double Diamond and settle in for a night of proper entertainment, to a time where people weren’t afraid of proper jokes and smoking wasn’t bad for you. Best of order, and a big hand please. They literally don’t make them like this anymore.
Buy it if you fancy some comdedic time travel
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