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
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!