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THE WHEELTAPPERS AND SHUNTERS SOCIAL CLUB - THE COMPLETE FOURTH SERIES
DVD region 2. Network.

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club Seies 4As we’ve commented before, 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 for several years in the middle of that decade. In fact, your writer recalls watching the show as a child, waiting for the excellent – and long forgotten – ITV drama The Hanged Man, a glorious show I’d love to see again. Back then, I was hugely amused by it. Now, older and wiser… possibly less so.

The concept of the Wheeltapppers was to recreate the feel of a traditional working man’s club – already in decline in the 1970s and now terminally endangered. I only ever visited such places myself on rare occasions, and found them to be desperate, hellish experiences, and I have to say that the show does a good job of recreating the feel – albeit of a rather more upmarket than usual venue. With an audience of most middle-aged-plus punters – all dolled up in cheap suits, big hair, fake jewellery and frumpy frocks – the show certainly captures the desperate air of the places that I recall from childhood family parties.

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 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.

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social ClubThe ‘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. This season sees 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), 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 (unless you were being all ‘ironic’, in which case you’d be fine) but at the time, they were seen as entirely inoffensive.

The musical acts include an endless stream of anonymous soul acts (there is some amusement to be had seeing Manning heaping praise on black performers) as well as old-timers like Gene Pitney, Russ Conway, The Hermits and Ray Ellington – all of whom were too famous to really be playing the spit ‘n’ sawdust club circuit in the mid-Seventies, though many of their less successful contemporaries were doing precisely that every week.

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. It’s impossible to imagine something as defiantly working class and middle-aged as this having peak-time exposure today. That alone makes it worth a look, as a slice of long-dead social history. Whether or not you’ll think its demise is a good or bad thing is another question….

DAVID FLINT

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