In July 1971, Granada Studios launched a bold new experiment in British television.
Producer Johnnie Hamp, who’d worked with the Beatles, Cilla Black and Woody Allen, invited stand-up comics from throughout the North West to record 20-minute sessions in front of a live audience.
He then edited the highlights into a 30-minute weekly programme featuring at least 10 of the performers.
The result was the ground-breaking TV show The Comedians.
The pilot package of seven programmes was so successful that it ran for 12 series, right up to July 1992.
And it made household names of many of the comics who’d previously earned their living in northern nightspots and working men’s clubs.
From Manchester came the likes of Colin Crompton, Ken Goodwin and Bernard Manning – not to mention Bolton’s Stu Francis.
From Merseyside came Stan Boardman, Jim Bowen, Brookside’s Vince Earl, Jackie Hamilton, Mick Miller, Tom O’Connor and George Roper.
Other famous names included future EastEnders regular Mike Reid, Blackpool’s Lennie Bennett, Chester entertainer Russ Abbot, Charlie Williams, Frank Carson and Duggie Brown.
The show proved so popular that a compilation album of its greatest gags made the UK charts – and there were several sell-out tours as well as a season at the London Palladium.
The Comedians even won the prestigious Critics’ Circle Award for TV excellence.
In addition to the comics, the early programmes included the musical talents of the seven-piece band Shep’s Banjo Boys, featuring Howard Shepherd on lead banjo.
The Comedians spawned a spin-off series from 1974 to 1977 – the affectionately remembered Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club.
Again produced by Johnnie Hamp for Granada TV, the programme featured Colin Crompton as the hapless club chairman and Bernard Manning as the compere introducing the turns.
Hamp explained that he wanted to recreate the unique atmosphere of a working men’s club in a TV studio. Crompton rang a hand-operated fire alarm bell and repeatedly told the audience to ‘give order’. He’d also read out announcements from ‘the committee’.
Many well-known acts got their first break on the Wheeltapppers and Shunters’ stage, including The Grumbleweeds, Cannon and Ball, Paul Daniels and the Dooleys.
Crompton started his professional career in Manchester as one half of a musical comedy act with musician Eddie Forrest. After his stint on TV he bought the Birch and Bottle pub in Whitley, Cheshire.
Bernard Manning, born in Harpurhey and raised in Ancoats, only thought about a career in entertainment during his period of national service in the army.
He was posted to Germany where he sang popular tunes to fellow soldiers guarding Nazi war criminals Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer in Berlin’s Spandau Prison.
He returned to the UK to buy the run-down building off the A664 Rochdale Road that became the Embassy Club in 1959. Manning always maintained the Beatles performed there in their early days.
Bolton-born comic Stu Francis was another prominent performer on The Comedians before hosting the BBC1 children’s show Crackerjack from 1979 to 1984. His co-hosts were Basil Brush, the Krankies and magician the Great Soprendo.
His catchphrase ‘Ooh! I could crush a grape!’ ended up being the title of another popular children’s quiz programme produced by Border TV.
Massive George Formby fan Ken Goodwin played ukulele on the Manchester club circuit before appearing on the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks and landing a spot on the 1971 Royal Variety Show.
His catchphrase ‘settle down now’ became a staple of The Comedians and was the title of a 1972 single released on Pye records.
He wasn’t the only comic from the show to cut a record. Mike Read’s version of The Ugly Duckling reached No. 10 in the singles charts in 1975. He even sang it on Top of the Pops!
Comedian Duggie Brown, the brother of Coronation Street actress Lynne Perrie (Ivy Tilsley), was a frequent visitor to Manchester.
He starred in the Granada TV comedy series Take My Wife in 1979 and played George Foreman in Coronation Street in 1997.
In 1972, Brown appeared alongside another Street regular, Anne Kirkbride (Deirdre Barlow), in Granada’s Sunday Night Theatre play Another Sunday and Sweet F.A.
The script, written by Cheetham Hill author Jack Rosenthal, told the story of an acrimonious Sunday football match where the desperate referee ends up heading a ball into the net!