Morton Fraser Harmonica Gang
Through the decades, the basic premise of the Morton Fraser Harmonica Gang never changed – one member of the group (Royston Smith) was somewhat diminutive in size, meaning that he was unable to get his fair share of the limelight (or indeed the microphone). Equal parts slapstick and music, they’re a decent opening act. This Pathe newsreel from 1947 shows them in earlier days.
Given a typically ironic introduction from Bernard, Mike Reid’s opening comment to him is delivered with a singular lack of warmth (“ever thought of lacing your mouth up and using it as a football?”). A genuine spot of needle or were they the best of showbiz mates? Hmm, not sure. Unlike some of the other comedians who appeared at the Wheeltappers, Mike Reid never gave the impression that he wanted the audience to love him. The jokes may be average, but it’s all about the delivery and Reid’s extraordinary vocal gymnastics makes this a memorable spot (and he does a spot of singing too).
David Whitfield, born in North Yorkshire, was a tenor who had a string of hits in Britain during the 1950’s and also cracked the American market at the same time. Straddling the advert break, he’s another good addition to the line up – clearly entertaining the audience not only with his singing but also with his convivial attitude. Drink, Drink, Drink, a whistle of the Colonel Bogey March and The Soldier’s Dream comprise his act today.
Dubbed “the Marilyn Monroe of popular song”, Marion Ryan (like Whitfield and a number of other Wheeltappers acts) had been a big star back in the fifties. She had her own television show and also notched up appearances in The Army Game and Six-Five Special, amongst many others. Multiple Royal Command Performances and guest appearances in specials featuring the likes of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby followed.
Her Wheeltappers appearance proved that she still had a decent singing voice, although having to contend with the house band (who sometimes appear to be pulling in different directions) couldn’t have been that easy. But her performances of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love and The More I See You manage to overcome any musical backing deficiencies.
Bernard. as ever, is charm personified when introducing Max Wall. “Can we have a nice welcome … probably one of his last”. Although Bernard’s genuine look of delight and hearty clapping when Wall takes to the stage suggests that he was only joshing.
Wall’s career encompassed both music hall and the legitimate theatre (appearing in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape, for example). His dead-pan delivery is spot on (although it’s slightly strange that his stream of one-liners has a musical accompaniment – this isn’t really needed). Although one of his gags (“yesterday in the city of Manchester, I saved a lovely girl from being sexually assaulted. I controlled myself”) hasn’t aged well, the rest of his act is a joy.
Best known from The Champions (indeed, Bernard introduces him as such and his walk-on music is Tony Hatch’s familiar theme tune) Stuart Damon bounds onto the stage to entertain the audience with a handful of familiar songs. With a number of Broadway musical appearances under his belt from the 1960s, he obviously knew how to belt out a song. He kicks off with Bad Bad Leroy Brown before finishing up with The Yellow Rose of Texas and a snatch of The Battle Hymn of the Republic (where once again the band, led by Derek Hilton, goes somewhat off-key).
Damon’s performance style is best described as “full-on”. He certainly gives his all (and then some) and also can’t resist moving into the audience from time to time. A curious turn that’s for sure, but whatever else it is, it’s certainly not dull.