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The era when South Yorkshire’s clubs discovered the next TV megastars

Written by on 08/11/2020

In the 21st Century world of gastro-pubs, wine bars and gin palaces the humble working men’s club may appear a distinctly dowdy relation.

Famed for cheap beer and camaraderie, the WMC maybe a little short in the glamour stakes – but it has not always been that way.

Rewind no more than a generation and South Yorkshire ’s clubs were at the forefront of a movement which saw north of England working men’s clubs emerge as a bastion of live entertainment.

Clubs not only vied with the likes of London to book the big names of the era but they were also a hotbed of emerging talent.

Shrewd entertainers knew that if they could crack the club scene’s notoriously demanding audiences, then a career in cabaret would follow with a strong chance of television stardom on the back of that.

Eager audiences: WMC members packed concert halls to watch big name acts

It was a formula which worked for much of the county’s home grown talent, the likes of Sheffield ’s Marti Caine and Bobby Knutt, with Barnsley ’s unique Charlie Williams carving himself a career on stage after an early stint as a footballer.

Northern clubs’ rise to the heady heights of entertainment was all the more remarkable because the movement had been established in the Victorian era as seats of learning, with the intention of keeping workers out of the pub.

It is difficult to imagine what teetotal minister Henry Solly, who came up with the idea, would have made of the transformation as crowds packed concert rooms heavy with the smell of beer and cigarette smoke to see the stars of the day.

Clubs relied on the working man – those employed in heavy industries like steel and coal – for their bedrock of members and as industries died or changed, so the fortunes of the WMC began to waver.

By the 1980s television was also moving on from the likes of Cannon and Ball, who made their name on the club circuit, and the magic was gone.

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But it is an era which has been researched and documented by author Neil Anderson, with memories and photographs gathered for a book on the subject.

The Anderson family were keen supporters of the WMC, with Neil’s grandfather joining several in the Attercliffe area specifically so his dad would get several trips to the seaside on the famed ‘club trip’ each summer from each.

That was before club committees realised they needed to be more ambitious to survive as 1960s tastes became increasingly sophisticated.

Neil said: “They existed for many decades without bothering anyone too much. Greasbrough Social Club was the one that started bringing in the major stars; they decided the working man deserved the best quality.

“They brought people from London and Vegas and started expanding the club, making it more glitzy.

“That was the one which was the blueprint for what these venues could be. In the late 60s there was a lot of money being pumped into opening big concert rooms, to up their capacity.

“There was a massive network of entertainers and it provided so many who went on to become major stars and they said it gave them a really good grounding because you had to be able to put on a really good show.

“But however big you were, you always played second fiddle to the bingo,” he said.

Sacred: Even big names could not compete with bingo

That was one of the quirks of WMC life in the north, along with a multitude of unwritten protocols like not taking someone else’s regular seat.

One act to feel the wrath of a ‘wronged’ venue was the Small Faces.

Whatever their transgression was has been lost in the mists of time, but the band found themselves driving around Sheffield and ended up at Peter Stringfellow’s King Mojo in Burngreave.

Perhaps more in tune with the emerging tastes of the era than some WMC entertainment committee members, he was quick to give them a gig.

Neil said he had been surprised by the size of the industry in its heyday: “I was amazed by the amount of people who were making a living from it.

“There was a network of guesthouses, where they all stayed,” he said.

Aside from established stars, upcoming talent would work the club circuit with the hopes of a breakthrough to venues like Sheffield’s Fiesta Club and Batley Variety Club, with some ultimately cracking television to become household names.

Read more from Neil at dirtystopouts.com