Old tv programmes that you remember as a child can often rear their heads in conversation. Yesterday while queuing for a pre-shop breakfast at a local Tesco, Ken Goodwin came to mind with his catch-phrase “settle down then”. I wondered if he was still with us. Sadly not. Goodwin died aged 78 of Alzheimers back in 2012.
But it inspired me to write a feature on the seventies tv show, The Comedians, which starred, as well as Goodwin, many other great stand-ups, household names many of them.
The Comedians was a British television show of the 1970s (later reprised in the mid-1980s and early 1990s) produced by Johnnie Hamp of Granada Television. The show gave a stage to nightclub and working men’s club comedians of the era, including Russ Abbot, Lennie Bennett, Stan Boardman, Jim Bowen, Jimmy Bright, Duggie Brown, Mike Burton, Jimmy Jones, Dave Butler, Brian Carroll, Frank Carson, Mike Coyne, Jimmy Cricket, Colin Crompton, Pauline Daniels, Charlie Daze, Vince Earl, Steve Faye, Eddie Flanagan, Stu Francis, Ken Goodwin, Jackie Hamilton, Jerry Harris, George King, Bobby Knutt, Bernard Manning, Mike McCabe, Paul Melba, Mick Miller, Hal Nolan, Tom O’Connor, Tom Pepper, Bryn Phillips, Mike Reid, George Roper, Harry Scott, Sammy Thomas, Johnny Wager, Roy Walker, Charlie Williams, Lee Wilson and Lenny Windsor.
Also featured on the TV show, were Shep’s banjo boys, a 7-piece band comprising (for the first 5 series) Charlie Bentley (tenor banjo), John Drury (sousaphone), Andy Holdorf (trombone), John Orchard (piano), John Rollings (drums), Graham Shepherd (banjo) and Howard Shepherd (lead banjo). In 1973, the line up was Mike Dexter (banjo), Tony “Tosh” Kennedy (sousaphone), Ged Martin (drums), Tony Pritchard (trombone), Graham Shepherd (banjo) and Howard “Shep” Shepherd (lead banjo).
The Comedians began as an experiment for Granada TV. Filmed before a live audience in Manchester, comics each performed 20-minute sets, which were then edited together into half-hour shows. Each edition featured up to ten stand-up comics.
Working men’s clubs are numerous in Britain, especially in North East England and have been a useful training ground for artists, especially comedians. Most of these clubs are affiliated to the CIU (Working Men’s Club and Institute Union) founded in 1862 by the Rev. Henry Solly. There are also political clubs, as well as Servicemen’s Clubs affiliated to the Royal British Legion.
It was remarkably popular during the earlier series. An LP recording of the show reached the best-seller charts, several sell-out national tours followed, including a season at the London Palladium, and the programme won the Critics’ circle Award.
The comedy frequently took the form of anecdotes or jokes and often involved racist or sexist stereotypes. Like other British comedy successes of the day, notably, Love Thy Neighbour, this kind of entertainment was acceptable on British television during this period but would not be so today. Viewing the series in retrospect it stands as a major social document of the times.
In recent years, the series has been repeated on the (now defunct) British satellite television channel Plus, and can now be bought on DVD, having been released by Network.
Remarkably popular during its earlier series, The Comedians was basically a bunch of stand-up comedians and a Dixie Jazz band (Shep’s Banjo Boys) in Acker Bilk vests.
Recruited from the hard-drinking Northern night clubs and working men’s clubs that were their staple environment, Granada TV put the North’s best ‘unknown’ comics into the studio, taped their (expletives deleted) live acts and edited the material into non-stop barrages of quips to slay the audiences at home, packing up to 50 jokes into each half-hour show (although 80% of the material recorded was never used).
Even though some of the comics had been working for 20 years, many were appearing on television for the first time.
Many of the lines were so old they creaked, and there was a fair dose of racist, sexist and physical defect material that was only just acceptable then and would not be today, but mostly the jokes were of the mother-in-law, Irishman and three-men-walk-into-a-bar variety.
Viewers took to the series with great enthusiasm and from those first few golden series many stars were born, among them Colin Crompton (a weedy Northerner, pictured below left), Ken “settle down now” Goodwin (a shy stutterer), Charlie Williams (an ex-professional footballer and ‘coloured chap’ from Yorkshire), Bernard Manning (a portly club man), the great if relentless Frank Carson, Lennie Bennett (a giggler) and Mike Reid (a ‘marfy’ cockney).
All of them found their nightly fees skyrocketing from around £50 to £1000 or more.
So popular was the series at the time that in the summer of 1972 The Comedians became a stage show, mounted in Blackpool, Great Yarmouth and London, and an album made the lower reaches of the charts.
The series was created by Granada’s Light Entertainment producer Johnny Hamp, whose father had been a magician playing music halls as The Great Hamp.
Being steeped in the tradition of old-fashioned stage entertainment, both knew exactly where to find the best local talent, and had the stamina not only to last the exhausting three-hour recording sessions where each comedian would perform a stand-up spot of around 15 to 20 minutes but also to edit the resulting tape into finished shows.
In 1974, on the back of its major success with The Comedians, Granada launched a Northern working men’s club variety show, The Wheeltappers And Shunters Social Club which featured many of the same comics, with Bernard Manning and Colin Crompton as comperes.
Although The Comedians was still turning up fresh talent, audiences at home grew tired of the formula after three years and the series came to an end after 50 editions.
Three separate revivals then followed and although none matched the success of the earlier shows, some new stars were unearthed, among them Stan Boardman and Roy Walker – indeed, perhaps the best epitaph for The Comedians is that it spawned more TV games show hosts than any other series before or since.
“As the Pope once sad to Michelangelo; ‘You’d better come down, I think we’ll have it wall-papered’”.