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Classic TV Revisited: Wheeltappers And Shunters

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Appearance?
Phoenix Nights meets The Comedians with a smattering of The Good Old Days and that classic ’70s fodder chicken in a basket.

Why was it so good?
A classic mock up of a posh northern working men’s club hosted by the politically incorrect Bernard Manning and Colin Crompton. On ITV from 1974, its full title was The Wheeltappers And Shunters Social Club.

How did it begin?
It was spawned by the success of The Comedians which gave us the likes of Bernard Manning, Frank Carson and Mike Reid.

It had a lot to answer for then?
Exactly. But let’s not forget it also inflicted Jim Bowen, Tom O’Connor and others on innocent viewers. Many saw it as the final death throes of variety shows, shortly before the rise of alternative comedy.

Who was in it?
Many people’s bete noir, Bernard Manning, who owned a club in real life, was mein host.

What about the guy with the greasy hair and the flat cap making all the din?
That was Colin Crompton who was the concert chairman.

Cannon and Ball

Cannon and Ball

What did he do?
Interrupt mostly. He made silly remarks about meat pies arriving and bingo. He also produced a lot of the smoke in the club as he was never without a cigarette.

Who were its star turns?
The likes of Bill Haley And The Comets, Lynsey de Paul and Gene Pitney appeared at the Manchester studio where it was filmed.

Anyone else?
For those with longer memories, how about tubby pianist Mrs Mills? And Liz Dawn (Corrie’s Vera Duckworth) was a waitress serving beers to the audience. Ideal soap training.

Any bizarre happenings?
Novelty acts such as knife twirlers and kettledrum bangers often took to its stage.

Were any of the jokes funny?
To be kind they were of their time – the ’70s – and they’re very sad now.

Such as?
Among Colin Crompton’s classic gags were: “First prize in the raffle is a diving suit… no, it’s a divan suite.” Or: “The sign in the gents, ‘Wet paint’, is not an instruction.” The audience, mainly sporting extra- thick glasses and huge sideburns – and that was just the women – were regulars at northern clubs and lapped it all up.

Could it be revived?
Alternative humour from the Comedy Store of the ’80s and the likes of Ben Elton and French and Saunders largely killed off this type of old-style entertainment on TV. The rise of politically-correct comics sounded the death knell of the scatter gun comedy of Bernard Manning & co. But even today Neanderthal comedy is popular in many clubs and the show, which ran for four years until 1978, was repeated regularly on Granada Plus.

So what did a wheeltapper do?
In the days of steam, train wheels were banged with a hammer to test for cracks. There are definitely more shunters around these days.

Did they ever go off the rails?
They probably did after several pints at the social club watching Bernard Manning and Colin Crompton. A Wheeltappers And Shunters show still exists in package holiday favourite Benidorm.

Distinguishing features?
“Give order”; dreadful union puns; garish glitter backdrops; the occasional stripper; Bernard Manning’s burly frame and his politically incorrect jokes.

Do say:
“It was a classic of its time, thankfully that time is over.”

Don’t say:
“Did you hear the one about the Irishman ironing the curtains…”

Not to be confused with:
The Good Old Days; Phoenix Nights; Chubby Brown.

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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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