Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club (The): Complete First Series (TV)
R2 - United Kingdom - Network
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (6th October 2009).
The Show

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club (Granada, 1974)

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In 1971, the Granada series The Comedians aimed to bring the culture of club and pub comedy to the medium of television. To this end, the series featured a range of stand-up comedians who had honed their talents on the working-men’s club circuit. The Comedians was a landmark show inasmuch as it was the first attempt to capture the spirit of pub and club comedy for a television audience (see Littlewood & Pickering, 1998: 297). The show proved to be very popular with television audiences, running for a number of series during the 1970s before being briefly revived in the late-1980s; its attempts to capture the experience of stand-up comedy paved the way for such current stand-up shows such as the BBC’s Live at the Apollo (2004- ) and, even more recently, Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow (BBC, 2009- ).

Featuring contributions from comics such as Charlie Williams, Stan Boardman, Frank Carson, Mike Reid, Jim Bowen and Bernard Manning, The Comedians was often notoriously un-PC. The comics would deliver their routines to-camera, in front of a live studio audience, and the producers would use the then-relatively new technology of videotape editing to piece together the best jokes: as Louis Barfe notes in Turned Out Nice Again: The Story of British Light Entertainment (2008) approximately eighty per cent of the material was not used in the show, and producer Johnnie Hamp’s ‘stroke of genius was to take only the very best gags and use the new technology of videotape editing to create a quick-fire comedic assault’ (245).

Dave Russell, in Looking North: Northern England and the National Imagination (2004), argues that The Comedians ‘did much to cement the notion of the “club” as a core institution of northern comedy’ (196). By the mid-1970s, the culture of working-men’s club comedy became a mainstream topic, escaping its trappings of region and class: Trevor Griffith’s 1975 play Comedians (televised in 1979 as part of the BBC’s Play for Today strand) featured a dramatic take on the life of a comedian on the club circuit. By the early-2000s, the culture of Northern working-men’s clubs was so embedded in popular consciousness that Peter Kay’s situation comedy Phoenix Nights (Channel 4, 2001-2) could provide a comfortable deconstruction of it for a mainstream television audience. Having been pushed aside during the 1980s by the alternative comedians and their focus on character-based humour and sketch shows, the popularity of club-style stand-up has throughout the 2000s been revived through the ‘old school’ stand-up of comics like Peter Kay and, more recently, Jason Manford; today, a number of television shows feature mostly traditional stand-up routines, including the aforementioned Live at the Apollo.

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Riding on the coattails of the success of The Comedians, The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club (Granada, 1974-7) took place in a fictional working-men’s club. Rather than just being an outlet for stand-up routines honed on the club circuit, The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club made an attempt to capture the environment of a working-men’s club both for both the television audience and the live audience in front of whom the acts were filmed. The series featured a fictional club setting, and a mixture of comedy routines, magic and live music. The acts were often interrupted (to added comic effect) by stooges in the audience. Colin Crompton played the club chairman, and Bernard Manning featured as the club’s compère, introducing the acts and occasionally singing. As chairman, Crompton bridges the acts by calling the room to order with his fire bell and reading out fictional notices from the club’s committee: ‘Anybody going on the Territorial Army weekend, réveiller is at six o’clock. If you don’t like this Italian food, take some butties [sandwiches] with you, eh’.

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The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club offers an additional pleasure to The Comedians: the responses of the audience who, for example, seem genuinely surprised when, in one episode, Bobby Ball masquerades in the audience as a heckler, interrupting the act of his comedy partner Tommy Cannon. (This was apparently Cannon and Ball’s first appearance on television, so it is entirely probable that the members of the studio audience did not recognize the loud heckler sitting amongst them.) According to producer Johnnie Hamp, the audience ‘were lulled into forgetting they were on television by an absence of the procedures that usually characterize television recordings’: for example, the shows began without a countdown (Barfe, op cit.: 246). Hamp’s successor David Liddiment once noted that ‘What was clever about The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club [was that] when you went into studio 6 for a recording of the Wheeltappers you were not in studio 6. You were in a club. It was four walls, it ran uninterrupted, they never stopped. If something went wrong, Bernard [Manning] would come on, do a bit of banter with Colin [Crompton], the show never stopped’ (quoted in ibid.: 246-7).

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The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club was an affectionate parody of the culture of Northern working-men’s clubs that offered a platform for both established performers, such as singers Roy Orbison and The Three Degrees, and new stars such as The Comedians Cannon and Ball and magician Paul Daniels. However, as noted by Dave Russell, the show’s satirical approach to the conventions of this type of environment may result in different interpretations of its intention: ‘While northern viewers might see as affectionate satire a club chairman constantly interrupting proceedings with announcements “on behalf of the committee”, cries of “now give order” and introduction a bingo sessions [sic] where all cards carried the same numbers, there was always a danger that the non-initiated viewed it more literally’ (op cit.: 196).

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In its deconstruction of the tropes of the Northern working-men’s club culture, The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club is a clear antecedent of Phoenix Nights. However, the key difference is that where Phoenix Nights features acts written by the series’ authors Peter Kay and Dave Spikey, The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club features some amazing genuine acts from the club circuit of the 1970s.

Disc One:
13/04/1974 (37:17)
20/04/1974 (38:39)
27/04/1974 (39:05)
04/05/1974 (37:45)
11/05/1974 (38:36)

Disc Two:
18/05/1974 (37:53)
26/05/1974 (38:17)

Video

This first series of The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club is presented in its original broadcast screen ratio of 4:3. The break bumpers are intact.

Shot on videotape in a studio environment, these episodes look very good but display the limitations of videotape-recorded material of this vintage. However, there is a surprisingly pleasant level of visual detail evident in these shows.

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The episodes do not appear to suffer from any cuts; all of the routines and musical numbers appear to be present.

Audio

Audio is presented via a two-channel mono track, which is entirely functional. Laughter and ambient noise from the studio audience can occasionally bury the sound of the performers, but no more than is to be expected of a show shot in front of a live audience.

There are no subtitles.

Extras

There is no contextual material.

Overall

Immensely satisfying, this series is a landmark in its attempts to capture the environment of a Northern working-men’s club. Anyone interested in the culture of working-men’s clubs or the history of club comedy will find this series massively rewarding. This release comes with a very strong recommendation.

References:
Littlewood, Jane & Pickering, Michael, 1998: ‘Heard the One About the White Middle-Class Heterosexual Father-in-Law?: Gender, ethnicity and political correctness in comedy’. In: Wagg, Stephen (ed), 1998: Because I Tell a Joke Or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference. London: Routledge: 291-312

Russell, Dave, 2004: Looking North: Northern England and the National Imagination. Manchester University Press

Tulloch, John, 2006: Trevor Griffiths. Manchester University Press

Barfe, Louis, 2008: Turned Out Nice Again: The Story of British Light Entertainment. London: Atlantic Books

Logan, Brian, 2009: ‘The new offenders of stand-up comedy’. The Guardian (27 July, 2009): en

Slott, Andrew, 2005: Comedy. London: Routledge


For more information, please visit the homepage of Network DVD.

The Show: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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