Once a rite of passage for comics and entertainers, Neil Anderson tells Stephen McClarence about the glory days of the working men’s club.
It was the world of Chubby Oates (“Fat and Funny”), Ian “Sludge” Lees (“Midlands Comedian of the Year 1979”) and Shag Connor’s Carrot Crunchers (“Country Comedy Musical Act”). The world of Brother Dominic (“The Merry Monk of Magic”) and Vic Templar (“International Unicycling Comedian”). Of Crick’s Canine Wonders (“Featuring a boxing match with dogs”) and Madame Charmaine (“The world’s greatest clairvoyant hen”).
But as Neil Anderson’s hugely entertaining new celebration of 1970s working men’s clubs reveals, it was also (sometimes) the world of Shirley Bassey, Frankie Vaughan, Matt Monro, Bob Monkhouse, Les Dawson, Charlie Williams, Kenny Ball and Lulu.
With such stars on stage, the clubs – 4,000 of them in their heyday – came to expect a lot from their “turns”. One contributor to Anderson’s Dirty Stop Out’s Guide to Working Men’s Clubs recalls: “If word got around that a singer was big-headed, it wasn’t uncommon for areas of the audience to write ‘0’ on their beermats and all stand up with them in their hands as scorecards.”
Audiences knew what they wanted. And what they didn’t. “We walked on the stage and I had a white suit on and a fedora hat; she’d got all the feathers on,” says another contributor, remembering his duo’s less than glorious Doncaster debut. “We were kind of ‘Her name is Lola, she was a show girl’... They started chucking bingo tickets and beer mats at us.”
Plenty of stories like these feature in the book, which will be launched at a specially-staged Sheffield club night on October 27. The line-up was due to include the comedian Bobby Knutt, but after his death late last month, the event has become a tribute to him.
Sheffield-based Anderson – author, journalist and PR man – doesn’t underestimate the challenge of performing in a club. “What I’ve always found intriguing is the number of pop acts that tried to go into clubs and found it very hard,” he says. “They were competing with the bingo. It was the king of everything, even if Bob Monkhouse was on. There was a lot of culture shock.” Not least when acts were upstaged by a shout of “Pies have come!” as the evening’s meat pie suppers were delivered.
We’ve met on a wet Thursday lunchtime at Carlton Social Club, a single-storey building in the Gleadless area of Sheffield. It’s a slack lunchtime for trade. “There won’t be many in this dinner,” says steward Darren Hissitt. “Thursday’s not the best day.”
Half a dozen regulars are sitting in the bar nursing their drinks. Anderson and I settle for a table in the billiard room, under a shelf of brightly polished trophies. A notice in front of a loudspeaker requests: “Please do not under any circumstances unplug the speaker.” Rather missing the spirit of the venue, Anderson has an orange juice and I have sparkling mineral water. A right couple of wusses.
“One half of my family were fully teetotal, so they never went near pubs or clubs,” he says. “But my father wasn’t teetotal, so we were dragged into clubs for family functions. It was the Seventies and clubs were the hub of everything for so many families – for weddings and wakes and anything you can think of. A lot of men went straight from work to the club, went home for tea and then went back to the club.”
For much of the past century, this was a predominantly male-led environment. Until 2007, women who joined one club were banned from going in another unless accompanied by a male member (cue risqué joke), often their husband or father.
The book, a valuable and evocatively illustrated record of an under-documented aspect of popular culture, gets the atmosphere of the clubs superbly; you can almost sense the fug of Park Drive smoke.
“I didn’t realise how much of a stranglehold the clubs had on light entertainment,” says Anderson. “Les Dawson, Little and Large – the list goes on – came up through them. A lot of entertainers didn’t leave their own areas, but others went on the road. There were thousands of them criss-crossing the country.”
Many see Greasbrough Social Club, opened in 1961, as the trailblazer of top-rank entertainment, luring stars from London and Las Vegas to Rotherham. Monkhouse, Kathy Kirby and Sandie Shaw came; Jayne Mansfield came; even Tanya the Elephant, fresh from the London Palladium, came.
In the glory days, a club’s seaside trip could run to ten or 15 coaches, with some chartering special trains. Now, says Anderson, “the club world is a shadow of its former self” with perhaps 2,000 surviving. “A lot of people say that the first nail in the coffin was the breathalyser. Then the smoking ban, cheap alcohol in supermarkets, the recession and the fact that clubs were concentrated in heavy industrial areas – coal, steel – and when those industries closed down it was the start of the demise. I’ve found a real sadness that the moment has gone.” Like many of the working men they catered for, some clubs became redundant.
At the heart of the book, the latest of Anderson’s Dirty Stop Out’s Guides to various aspects of entertainment, are dozens of interviews with performers, officials and “punters”.
Some of the most vivid memories are of the committee men who sometimes ran clubs like personal fiefdoms. Interviewee John Firminger recalls that they were “commonly known as ‘Little Hitlers’.”
“Many would see it as a step-up in life, even though at work they were often labourers on the shop floor,” he says. “Once they got the committee badge on they saw themselves as someone of importance, which often, and unfortunately, went to their heads.” In one of his last interviews, Bobby Knutt joked that there were “more brains in a rocking horse than half the club chairmen”.
Drink was central. The singer Tony Christie recalls arriving at a club in Sunderland. “We went to get our equipment in and the bar from one end to the other was full of half-pints ready for the doors to open.”
Unsurprisingly, things sometimes got out of hand. “Everyone would really let their hair down at Christmas,” says interviewee Phil Staniland. “I still have a recollection of seeing grown middle-aged men in their string vests dancing on the tables while banging metal beer trays on their heads after about 15 pints of bitter.”
Anderson sees the book as part of an ongoing archive project. “I’d like to use it as a springboard for lottery funding to record more about the clubs – an oral history, possibly a museum.” And he recommends a Facebook site called Old Clubland Acts from the Past. It’s a treasure trove of offbeat nostalgia.
“Does anyone remember Rudy and the Zips... Fred the Ted... Mott the Beast... Danny ‘Sinatra’ Wilson from the Masquerade Club in Doncaster?... I do, he became an ice cream man... Has anyone got the vid of the club act who did an act with a coffin and puppets?... I first saw Pepper Tree at the Cheadle Hulme Youth Club back in 1968.”
Before we leave, steward Darren tours me round the Carlton, starting in the concert room. “It’s not massive compared to some clubs,” he says. “On a Saturday night we probably get about 100 people in.” All the same, he reckons there are 600-700 members, “but we only see some of them once a year, when they come to pay their subs.”
Tuesday is games night (dominoes, bingo). Wednesday is snooker night. Darts on Wednesday or Thursday. “And Saturday and Sunday is mainly when the turns are on – usually solo artists, singers, sometimes bands.”
Potential turns, please take note: “If someone just does Fifties and Sixties stuff, it can get a bit samey.”
As any clairvoyant hen would tell you.
Dirty Stop Out’s Guide to Working Men’s Clubs by Neil Anderson is published by ACM Retro (acmretro.com), priced £13.95. The Club Night launch is on October 27 (8pm) at Walkley Working Men’s Club, Sheffield. Part of the Off the Shelf festival (offtheshelf.org.uk), tickets cost £10/£8 in advance (£11/£9 on the door). To book call 0114 223 3777.