The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – 13th April 1974

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Tonight’s Turns:

Ukranian Cossack Brotherhood
Lambert and Ross
Barbara Law
La Vivas
Freddie Garrity
Tessie O’Shea

Wheeltappers is a fascinating series for several reasons.  Although the club was a studio mock-up, by all accounts it’s a pretty accurate recreation of a typical club of the era – and therefore it gives a good impression of the sort of environment that the majority of the Wheeltappers acts would regularly perform in.

Many up-and-coming performers honed their skills in clubs like these, appearing on the bill alongside popular acts from the 1960’s (like, for example, Roy Orbison), who found success harder to come by in the 1970’s and were therefore happy to find regular employment in the numerous clubs dotted up and down the country.

I can’t put my hand on my heart and claim that everything in the Wheeltappers is good, but there’s certainly some gold there.  Alas, there’s plenty of god-awful singers and unfunny comedians as well – but for those hardy souls prepared to sift through the series, there’s quite a few nuggets of interest.

And for those who lack the stamina to watch it all, and because Network rather annoyingly don’t list the performers on the DVD sleeves, I’ve decided on this rewatch to put an artist listing on each entry, as well as highlighting those acts who are worth seeing (or are best avoided).

The Ukranian Cossack Brotherhood were quite good fun, although I’m not sure whether they were actually Ukranian or not – seems a long way to come just to appear on the Wheeltappers.  Their performance is particularly impressive considering the small stage they have to perform on – one false move and they’d be sitting in somebody’s lap!

Lambert and Ross were certainly no Morecambe and Wise – or even Little and Large.  Their’ USP seemed to be that one (Ross) was camp and one (Lambert) wasn’t.  Sample gag: “We could appear in a film. What film? Ben Hur, I’ll play Ben. And I’ll play Her”.  Although there’s little evidence of it here, Willie Ross would go on to have a successful career in television, on the stage and in films such as Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Riff Raff and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, before his death in 2000.

Barbara Law belts out her song quite well.  It’s worth watching the man directly behind her at the start – was he a plant or was he genuinely that drunk?  La Vivas indulge in some knife-throwing, roping in a lady from the audience and Bernard for good measure.

Freddie Garrity has plenty of energy – that’s for sure.  The former lead-singer of Freddie and the Dreamers would return to the Wheeltappers in the future and he’d be even more deranged – so this performance, by his standards, is fairly restrained.

Headliner Tessie O’Shea was something of an entertainment legend.  Born in Cardiff in 1913, she was a popular music-hall act during the 1930’s – 1950’s and she’d go on to pick up a Tony award in 1963 for her appearance in Noel Coward’s musical The Girl Who Came to Supper.  Another notable American appearance was on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, where she shared the bill with a young up-and-coming beat combo from England called the Beatles.

On the Wheeltappers she plays a paper bag and invites the audience to join her in a good old fashioned sing-along.  It’s the sort of thing that we’ll see a lot of at the Wheeltappers (the sing-along that is, not playing with a paper bag).

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – 20th April 1974

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Tonight’s Turns:

The Three Degrees
The Krankies
Brandy Di Franck
Bill Haley and the Comets
Martin and Sylvia Konyot
Ronnie Hilton

The first turn up on stage tonight are The Three Degrees who perform I Like Being A Woman.  The group had formed in 1964, although the 1974 incarnation didn’t include any of the original members (over the years the line-up would see quite a few changes – some fifteen women have been one of the Three Degrees at one time or another).

The 1974 line-up consisted of Fayette Pinkney, Valerie Holiday and Sheila Ferguson. Shortly after this appearance, When Will I See You Again would top the UK charts for two weeks and it would herald a run of successful singles which would continue for a number of years.  It’s a pity then that their Wheeltappers appearance wasn’t later in the year, as I Like Being A Woman is nice enough, although fairly forgettable.

There are two points of interest though, first is at 1:35 when they all bump into each other (they won’t be the only act to find performing on that tiny stage to be a bit of a problem!) and the second is the interesting spoken-word section, which must have gladdened the hearts of a certain section of the audience.

You know, women’s liberation is cool.
I mean, it had it’s good points and it’s bad points.
But you know sometimes… I just want to be loved,
And that’s why I become your slave.
I don’t want to be your equal, I just want to be a part of you.
All you gotta do is treat me like you treat yourself.

Next up are The Krankies.  They’d spend the 1970’s working clubs like the Wheeltappers before moving onto mainstream television in the late 1970’s and 1980’s.  They always seemed to be a staple fixture on Crackerjack (CRACKERJACK!!) at one time, for example.

Even though wee Jimmy Krankies’ cross-dressing antics only has a limited amount of comic potential, you have to admire the career they were able to build out of it.  This Wheeltappers appearance is fairly typical of their comic shtick – Ian Krankie is attempting to tell a few jokes and sing a song but he’s prevented from doing so by a small boy in the audience.  This is our Jimmy, who clearly has the audience’s sympathy as he tells them his mother doesn’t love him (awwww).  The closing part of their act (where Ian treats Jimmy as a ventriloquists doll, swinging him around) is quite impressive and does raise a few laughs.

After somewhat fading from view, the revelation that they used to be swingers put them back into the spotlight a few years ago – and the fact that the likes of The Telegraph reported it is an example of how times have changed (it would be hard to imagine them running showbiz stories like that a few decades earlier).

Following the stripper Brandy Di Franck (yes really!) there’s the main treat of the show – Bill Haley and the Comets.  Although Haley’s time at the top was quite short (his main chart success came between 1954 and 1956) his influence was far-reaching and thanks to a handful of classic singles he remains a significant figure in the development of rock and roll.

He gave the audience at the Wheeltappers exactly what they wanted – two of his biggest hits (Shake, Rattle and Roll and Rock Around the Clock).  The only mystery about his appearance is why he wasn’t the headliner – c’mon it’s Bill Haley!

Next act on stage are Martin and Sylvia Konyot, who attempt to provide a touch of class with their dancing, although this is somewhat sabotaged by the fact the one of them is usually face-down on the stage.  Not a bad spesh act which obviously took a good deal of training in order to execute the moves.

Tonight’s headliner is Ronnie Hilton, who rather cruelly (but accurately) is introduced by Bernard like this.  “Ladies and gentleman, if there’s ever a nuclear attack then it’s all round to the next artist’s house.  Because he’s never had a hit for years”.

Ronnie Hilton had a successful recording career in the 1950’s as a middle-of-the-road crooner.  He built his career on recording cover versions of successful American songs.  Hilton wasn’t the only artist to do this as back in the fifties it was the song – not the singer – that was king.  His biggest hit, No Other Love (originally recorded by Perry Como) made number one in 1955, but by the early 1960’s the hits had dried up – so like many others before him, he took to touring the club circuit.

On the evidence of this appearance, he had become a decent club singer – although as he never had any particularly identifiable songs it does mean that the show ends with a bit of a whimper.  Alas, if only they’d put Bill Haley on last!

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – 27th April 1974

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Tonight’s Turns:

Stephane Grappelli and Diz Disley Trio
Little and Large
Tony Brutus
The Barcias
Terri Rogers
Lonnie Donegan

Another typically eclectic Wheeltappers show opens with Stephane Grappelli.  His lengthy career saw him play with a wide variety of fellow musicians – including Pink Floyd, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Paul Simon, Yo Yo Ma as well as Yehudi Menuhin (the pair recorded several well-received albums).  It’s hard to imagine a less likely artist to grace the bill of a working man’s club, but once you accept the incongruity of his appearance, it’s a very enjoyable (albeit brief) turn.

From the sublime to the, well, rather less sublime.  At their peak (during the late seventies and well into the eighties) Little and Large were one of television’s top-rated attractions – their BBC shows generated very good ratings which turned the pair into major stars.  But in the decades since, their stock has plummeted – so much so that today they’re mostly forgotten or held in barely disguised contempt by those who do remember them.

Does their turn here hint at any forgotten greatness?  Not really no, although it’s probably an accurate snapshot of the act they’d honed playing many similar club gigs during the years prior to their big television break (they formed in the 1960’s, so the pair had spent a long time slogging around the unforgiving club circuit).  Syd attempts to sing a song but finds himself interrupted by Eddie in numerous ways (Quasimodo impressions, using his electric guitar as a sledgehammer, etc).  Personally, I saw them live in 1985 and thoroughly enjoyed their show, so maybe they were an act that worked better in the live environment.  On television their limitations were possibly more easily exposed.

Strongman Tony Brutus attempts to lift both Bernard Manning and the local Mayor off the ground.  This is an impressive, albeit brief, feat.  The specialty acts continue with the Barcias, who display some decent feats of agility.

Next up is vent act Terri Rogers.  Rogers was an interesting character – she was born male but underwent a sex-change operation in the early 1960’s.  This naturally enough generated a certain amount of publicity, but it didn’t prevent her from enjoying a lengthy career as both a magician and a ventriloquist – mainly in the clubs, although in later years she notched up appearances in Las Vegas and on American television.

The contrast between the highly coiffured Rogers (complete with tiara) and the somewhat tatty, slightly foul-mouthed doll is the best part of her turn, even though she may not be the greatest technical ventriloquist ever (I suspect the large microphone was strategically placed at times to obscure her moving lips!).

The show ends with a bona fide British showbusiness great – Lonnie Donegan, the King of Skiffle.  He was an influence on virtually every aspiring British musician in the 1950’s (including, most famously, The Beatles).  His later musical career was less successful, as tastes changed, so it’s not difficult to imagine him in this sort of club setting during the mid 1970’s.  Like the rest of the turns, he’s only got a few minutes to make his mark, but his energetic act certainly brings this edition of the Wheeltappers to an impressive end.

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – 4th May 1974

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Tonight’s Turns:

The Wedgewoods
Beryl Calvert
Jimmy Jewel
Marie
Valentino
Johnnie Wager, Union Man
Buddy Greco

First up are the Wedgewoods, a wholesome singing group.  They’re a vision in blue velvet and the highlight of their song must be when the camera pans into the audience to show us a man clapping with such grim determination that it’s possible to imagine there’s a gun pointing at him off camera!

Next is ventriloquist Beryl Calvert.  She’s quite well-spoken, whilst her doll sports a broad Liverpudlian accent.  It’s a decent act, although it only attracts polite laughter from the audience.  Beryl certainly doesn’t leave any stone unturned when attempting to tug at the heartstrings of the punters though (similar to the way that Keith Harris and Orville would later work).

Buddy Greco makes a brief appearance and he’s far from impressed with the piano he’s been given.  When he tells the chairman he requires a grand piano, he’s told that it’s the grandest they’ve got.  It’s not what he wants to hear, so he kicks the piano over and leaves the stage.  This forces Bernard to fill in, with the assistance of a drunk from the audience (played by Jimmy Jewel).

Jewel was a veteran British variety performer, who had enjoyed a thirty year partnership with his cousin Ben Warriss, before they went their separate ways in the late 1960’s.  After the split, Jewel would continue to rack up an impressive list of film and television credits well into the 1990’s.  At the time of this Wheeltappers appearance he would have been best known for the ITV sitcom Nearest and Dearest, where he appeared alongside Hylda Baker (famously, the pair detested each other in real life).

His comic talents are rather wasted here, as the “joke” is that Bernard and Jimmy perform a song which appears to get a rapturous reception.  But what they don’t realise is that the applause is for the stripper who’s appeared behind them.  So they continue to give encore after encore, whilst the stripper (Marie) takes off another item of clothing.  How long can this joke be stretched out?  Quite a way, it has to be said.

After the break, we’re launched into the middle of Valentino’s act.  It’s a compelling turn – although it might just be the ever-so shiny jacket that piqued my interest.  If you’ve ever wondered how Colonel Bogey would sound on the accordion when played in different countries, then this is the turn for you.  Valentino, born Jackie Farn, has enjoyed a long and successful career, rubbing shoulders with a host of showbiz greats (including the Beatles).  His official website, modestly called King of the Music is worth a look.

After a fairly laughter-free turn from Johnnie Wager, it’s a relief to learn that they’ve found Buddy Greco a decent piano and he’s returned to close the show.  Born in 1926, Greco is still going strong – a survivor from a classic era of music.  In the 1960’s he appeared with the Rat Pack and is a veteran of numerous Las Vegas engagements.  He brings a little of that glamour to the Wheeltappers, although the performance is slightly wonky – not necessarily his fault, since the band do seem to be playing different songs at the same time!

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – 18th May 1974

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Tonight’s Turns:

Springfield Revival
Cannon and Ball
Julie Rogers
Eric Delaney
Tina Townsley
The Bachelors

The Springfield Revival open the show with a bouncy little number. They’re comprised of two white-suited gentleman strumming guitars and a lady in a blue dress shaking a tambourine for all she’s worth. There’s the odd cutaway shot to the audience who seem a little unenthused (but possibly it was early and the alcohol hadn’t begun to kick in yet). But they do manage to engage the audience in a singalong after their main number which warms them up a bit.

Tommy Cannon is introduced as a solo performer. He’s sporting an impressive brown suit complete with flares and a ruffled shirt. His sartorial eloquence somewhat detracts from his lusty attack on Summertime it has to be said. But Tommy’s moment in the spotlight doesn’t last long as an enthusiastic friend from the audience (Bobby, of course) can’t help but show his appreciation at Tommy’s star quality.

This doesn’t go down well with some members of the audience, who cry out “sit down, you’re spoiling his act”. Did they really not twig that Bobby was the other half of the double act? But it doesn’t take long before Bobby’s cheeky-chappy persona (and no doubt his politically incorrect song about a house full of Pakistanis) has won them round, which enables Bobby to milk the audience’s sympathy after Tommy orders him offstage.

You’d have been hard pushed from this spot to foresee that Cannon and Ball would go on to enjoy such a long run on ITV, but there’s clearly some spark there – even if their Wheeltappers debut is only fitfully amusing.

Julia Rogers, a vision in a sparkly pink dress, has an impressive set of lungs which she uses to belt out a couple of songs. Best known for her 1964 hit The Wedding, she has something of a Shirley Bassey feel. Given this, it’s possibly not surprising that she had a close encounter with the James Bond world – recording a demo of You Only Live Twice (albeit a different song from the one later recorded by Nancy Sinatra).

Upon Eric Delaney’s death in 2011, aged 87, many of his obituaries commented on his energetic stage persona. An inventive drummer – he pioneered the technique of playing the timpani with wire brushes – he’s good value during his short Wheeltappers appearance.

The arrival of Tina Townsley gains some murmurs of approval from the audience. Are they appreciating her baton twirling skills, or is it more to do her brief costume? Hmm, I wonder. She gets the opportunity to prove that she can twirl other things too – such as knives – although the act doesn’t really go anywhere. She appears, twirls some objects and then departs.

The Bachelors run through a medley of some of their greatest hits (Marie, Charmaine, Diane, Whispering). They then spotlight a number of songs which feature the banjo. And why not. By this point some members of the audience are warmed up enough to clap whilst others (such as a gentlemen in the front) contents himself by gently nodding his head from side to side. It’s not exactly a show-stopping finale, but it has a certain charm.

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – 11th May 1974

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Tonight’s Turns:

Splinter
Norman Collier
Kathy Kirby
Jackie Allen & Barbara
Victor Burnett & June
Frank Ifield

Splinter are the first act to brave the stage tonight. A five piece (three women, two men) they give the sort of performance which seemed to be tailor-made for clubland. With each member of the group taking turns to trade vocal lines, it’s clearly a song that went down well with the audience – at the end we see a beaming lady of a certain age whilst a cloth-capped gentleman, fag in mouth, also gives them a hearty round of applause.

Norman Collier does his act with the dodgy microphone. Some unkind people might way that was his act, but he has more than one string to his bow. I wonder if his hats routine predated Tommy Cooper’s? But Collier sings as well as changes hats (which is something – possibly mercifully – Tommy never did).

Like a number of other performers, Kathy Kirby’s appearance at the Wheeltappers was an accurate summation of the current state of her career. One of the top female performers of the 1960’s, by the early 1970’s her professional life was stuttering somewhat, which makes it entirely probable that she would have had to ply her trade in venues such as this one. Her various obituaries, which appeared in 2011, filled in some detail about her career freefall.

She belts out a good version of You Won’t Find Another Fool.

Kirby then introduces Here I Go Again as the song she wanted to release as her latest single, but due to record company pressure was prevented from doing so. This might explain why she’s a little emotional at the start, although she rallies as the tempo picks up.

After the emotional drama of Kathy Kirby, Jackie Allen and Barbara offer some light relief on the xylophones. Jackie dishes out some baby xylophones to selected audience members which adds to the hilarity as he attempts to teach them how to play. Interestingly – well I think so – when Jackie began his career he was partnered by his cousin Barbara. But when his wife-to-be, Irene Spencer, took her place, they decided to keep the name “Barbara”. They had a long career, first appearing on the wireless via shows such as Variety Bandbox and Workers’ Playtime which – prior to the dominance of television – united a large part of the nation.

Today’s show must have been underrunning as Bernard is given the opportunity to do a spot of crooning. It’s always a jolt to realise that Bernard Manning could carry a tune very well.

Victor Burnett is an old-style sort of magician. No rabbits alas, but top hats are in evidence. The fact he remains mute means that the illusions have to do the talking for him. There’s nothing staggering to be found here, but I daresay it’s an accurate picture of a typical club magicians act, so it’s of interest from that perspective.

Frank Ifield, like the other headliners from this era, doesn’t have a great deal of time to make an impression, but thanks to an energetic Waltzing Matilda (he’s Australian you know) he manages to engage the audience. I would have liked to hear I Remember You, but you can’t have everything I guess.

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – 26th May 1974

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Tonight’s Turns:

Mrs Mills
Dave and Amos
Eve Boswell
The Fivepenny Piece
Peter Wheeler, Schoolmaster
The Leaways
Gene Pitney

Today’s show opens with Mrs Mills in full swing. There are few things finer in life than a good old singalong and Mrs Mills’ jaunty piano playing certainly energises the audience, who whole-heartily join her in familiar old standards such as My Old Man. It’s interesting that her brush with fame only occurred quite late in life (she made her debut television appearance with Billy Cotton, aged 43, in 1961). I now have a faint inclination to track down some of her LPs (most of which had the word “party” in the title) and singles (Mrs Mills’ Minstrel Medley sounds intriguing).

Bernard seems to be enjoying Dave and Amos’ performance, as his hearty chuckles are very audible. Or is he simply amusing himself by disrupting their act? More the latter than the former I think. Dave and Amos might be a double act, but unlike, say, Cannon & Ball they weren’t comprised of a straight man and a comic. Instead, both are somewhat off the wall (for the Wheeltappers environment anyway) and eschew traditional gags for something a little different. It might not quite work, but you have to admire them for taking the risk (although had Bernard kept quiet it might have worked a little better).

Eve Boswell pops up to sing her big hit. Pickin’ a Chicken reached number nine on the hit parade in 1956. No, I’ve never heard of it either but one of the joys of the Wheeltappers series is discovering little nuggets of entertainment history which have previously passed me by. As ever with the show, the audience – especially those in the front row, energetically clapping along – are sometimes as entertaining as the performers on stage.

Lancashire’s finest, The Fivepenny Piece, are up next – although since there are six of them shouldn’t they have been called The Sixpenny Piece? I enjoyed their folksy song I Don’t Know If I Wanna Go Home. They have a rather comprehensive website which lists all of their television appearances. I have to confess that I’d rather like to see some of the series they made in the late seventies – MH and 5p in 1978, where they shared the stage with Mike Harding, or their own four part show the following year. Maybe one day they might surface on DVD – it seems unlikely, but stranger things have been released. Although those who crave some more 5p action should check out the sixth and final series of the Wheeltappers which features them throughout one of the shows.

It’s a laughter-free zone when Peter Wheeler stands up to play a schoolmaster. If you can’t guess some of the punchlines (apologising for the drunkenness in school which turns out to be – wait for it – the teachers not the pupils) then you’ve clearly led a very sheltered life (or not experienced comedy of this type).

The Leaways are a rather good acrobatic act. He’s very tattooed (something which is commonplace now, but would have stood out much more forty years ago) whilst she – as is traditional – wears very little. The accompanying music – Moon River and others – seems a little out of place but it doesn’t detract too much from their feats of balancing – which, given the small stage, was probably a little tricky.

After a brief snatch of 24 Hours from Tulsa (rudely interrupted by Colin Crompton) Gene Pitney launches into a spirited rendition of Princess in Rags. He then closes the show with a song he wrote for Ricky Nelson, Hello Mary Lou. Personally I would have dropped Peter Wheeler so we could have heard all of Tulsa – as always with this era of the show, the turns are very limited for time.