Earlier in July I was awarded a Letter of Commendation from my local Rotary Club for Services to Bingo Calling. After delivering my tried and tested keynote speech on the history of the North East club scene, I fielded a number of questions from the capacity crowd. An ex-school headmaster posed an interesting one about the cultural legacy of clubs; not just the drinking, games and entertainment, but the wider impact the social club movement has had on pop culture.
When you think about the blend of literature, music, fashion and other daily ephemera that contributes to the identity of a society, it quickly becomes apparent that pop culture is a self-portrait created through purchasing power. The economic boom time of the early sixties saw people spaffing their bit on all manner of modernity.
The Clubs and Institute Union (CIU) were no different. They'd already embraced modernism, with heavy use of concrete, super cheap bricks, glass and flat roofs - all thanks to the work of CIU Architect, Le Clubusier and his towering palaces of peeve. His bold vision for clubs - ensuring they would be boiling hot in summer and freezing cold in winter - pulled social clubs kicking and screaming into the future. His designs were recently featured on a set of commemorative plates from the Remegel Gallery.
Although the stark and brutal design of clubs are plain to see on the dying high streets across North East of England, it wasn’t just their architectural magnificence that left an indelible mark on British society.
In the early sixties the CIU launched their Comics Division, providing free comics for the bairns of club members. Their main hero was the Vaped Crusader who starred in over one hundred comics in various iterations, over the years.
His initial design was as a clean cut lad, but he quickly morphed into the masked, red-suited vigilante that we all now know and love. His array of superpowers stem from his crystal powered cigarette, which provides him a range of abilities from super drinking skills to pua battering strength.
Rumour has it that artist Steve Ditko was the man behind the ubiquitous character design, but I've also heard it could well have been Reg Smythe. Many have also speculated that the Vaped Crusader is indirectly responsible for the vaping epidemic we find ourselves with today, but that's absolute nonsense. I've tried one of those ElfBars and it did nowt for me muscles.
The CIU comic imprint was an immediate success with members relying on the comics’ tales to keep the bairns’ mouths shut while they plied themselves with drink. The swollen coffers allowed the CIU to take their children’s output to the next level, with a huge investment in CIU Games. Initially established in 1958 with the aim of creating a toy line to get the little uns well versed in club life, it took over two years for the first product to come to market. And their initial release was a game changer.
Miner Man (1960-1998) - The quintessential North East action hero. Everyone I know had at least one Miner Man action figure, and most north easterners would’ve given their eyeteeth to be him. Hard as nails and fully poseable, Miner Man came with a safety hat, gloves and semi-supped pint glass.
The Bevin Boys Dressy-up Kit (1969) - There was nowt like pretending the airing cupboard was the mine shaft lift; came with a plastic miner’s helmet and a six pack of Junior Beers (4% ABV).
Tied House! (1974 )A fantastic board game from CIU Games which puts you in the driving seat of a small brewery attempting to secure lines in as many local clubs as possible. It was like RISK, but with more drinking.
The Committee Bears (1983) This loveable, dead-eyed bunch struck fear into other toys with their no-nonsense attitude and genuine love of agenda points and rules pinned to noticeboards.
My First Social Club (1980s) - probably brought more bairns through the door than anything else. MFSC was packed with lovely little details; imitation top shelf spirits, an ice machine and even a snooker ball in a football sock to keep out the non-members.
ClubLand Theme Park
As the 1970s arrived, and with the toys and comics flying off shelves, the CIU doubled down on their success, taking inspiration from the explosion of theme parks in West California. Flush with cash, the CIU founded a new Outdoor Attractions Division with the lofty goal of creating the UKs greatest social club-inspired theme park.
Purchasing an enormous parcel of contaminated land near Malton and Pickering, North Yorkshire, ground was broken at ClubLand in May 1975 in collaboration with ReadyMix Cement. The entire 4,000 acre site was prepared in a little over three weeks; all of the park buildings and ride structures created in one continuous two month concrete pour. The doors opened almost as soon as the concrete had gone off, on the 1st August 1975. It was an immediate hit with members in the north of England, drawing over one million visitors each month.
ClubLand was split over three distinct zones, radiating out from the central, 40,000 capacity Function Amphitheatre that played host to a cavalcade of stand-ups, singers and bands each and every day.
Rides loomed large in ClubLand and to add to the excitement, pints were not only permitted but encouraged.
The three zones; CollieryWorld, Pint Island and Committee Park each had their own headline attraction. For Colliery World it was the Drift Experience. A fully working drift mine was created around a terrifying roller coaster situated 1000 feet below the surface of the Park.
The slag heap Buggy Run was not for the faint of heart due to the 170 degree descent, but bloody hell it was a laugh. It also featured on the Christmas special of Junior Kickstart and the sensationally technical course caused the death of not one but three young motorcyclists.
Pint Island featured the Lazy Beer River where club members could while away the hours getting absolutely ruined while floating along on a two-mile stretch of wort piped in directly from the Guild Brewery in Dipton.
The Committee Park was home to a magnificent array of outdoor bandits, a sprawling alfresco drinking area and concrete sculpture garden. Your leather wrist band gained you entry into all three zones with an allowance of twenty pints included in your admission price.
The entirety of ClubLand hinged around a central concrete amphitheatre where countless turns performed over the years. From stand-ups to singers, they were cheered on by the 40,000 strong crowd. When no one was on stage, enormous screens showed various sports broadcasts. Particularly popular was the broadcast of Final Score, when clubsmen would gather in silence, pints in hand, to check their pools results.
The place was undeniably magnificent and a real draw, with CIU Travel sending down four hundred coaches every Saturday and Sunday from the Gallowgate bus station. The only problem with the place was the toilets. There were only twelve of them on site which, in hindsight, probably wasn't enough.
The site employed an incredible 7,500 staff and accounted for 15% of all domestic holidays taken in the UK from 1976 until it was closed due to safety concerns in 1985. Today, the ClubLand site is home to a Lidl and an off-brand car supermarket called Fort Bonnet, or something like that.
Buoyed with the initial success of ClubLand, the Summer of 1980 saw the founding of the CIU Cinematic Division. The era of the Summer Blockbuster had kicked off in the 70s with the likes of Jaws and Star Wars. With The Empire Strikes Back literally printing money on the box office, CIU Treasurer Alan Teabag decided he wanted a slice of that pound coin pie.
In 1982 animator Don Bluth had just finished production on The Secret of NIMH and was looking for his next project. Always keen to snare younger members, and having been smitten with Bluth's unique style, the Cinematic Division thought an animated movie would be the perfect 'flag in the sand' as a film production juggernaut.
The big lads in Blackpool HQ reached out to Bluth and pitched the idea of a feature length animated film about a day in the life of a standard British club; bingo, booze and banter. Test designs for “The Club” were drawn up, the entire film story boarded and a full voice track recorded. Bluth, however, was concerned; he'd envisaged a family film with universal appeal, but the CIU lads refused to budge on the heavy use of sexual swearing in the script. It was, in a word, ferocious.
Bluth packed up his pencils, knowing that an eighteen rated film was no way to attract the family demographic, and went off to direct An American Tail with producing partner Steven Spielberg.
Having sunk millions in the production of "TheClub", lower budget productions became the order of the day. 1984 saw the release of RoboClub on the Orionimprint. This entertaining piece of sci-fi schlock borrowed heavily from the original animation’s script, re-tooling it for a more mature audience. It's yet to earn itself a Blu-ray release unfortunately but I enjoy it today as much as I did at the Newcastle Odeon back in the 1980s. Despite incredible character designs from Stan Winston, the plot can be simply summed up as a load of meep-morps running a club in space.
Directed by Andrey Konchalovskie, who followed it up with 1989's buddy cop, Tango and Cash, it featured an all star cast with Bernard Hill, Jean Boht, Peter Polycarpou, and Grotbags principal, Carol Lee Scott. Fantastic soundtrack from Curiosity Killed The Cat as well. You can probably catch it on ITV4 if you check the TV Times.
Sadly RoboClub failed to set the box office ablaze and 1985 saw the third and final CIU release, 'The Committee Men', directed by John Mackenzie of The Long Good Friday fame. The film focussed on the glamourous Bishops Club in Newcastle city centre and their committee trying to negotiate a new supplier for lagers and ciders. It's deathly dull but looked sumptuous on the screen with music by Paddy McAloon.
I touched on the CIU's television output in my first article where I mentioned Clubwatch (Tyne Tees Television: 1977-1984) and the Michael Apted directed documentary Youth Club. However, while not affiliated with the CIU, two other shows helped to sow the social club seed to the square-eyed idiots at home.
In the mid eighties the CIU teamed up with the Beeb to produce the educational ‘Geordie Raver’ as part of the Look and Read scholastic output, which was filmed in The Freeman’s Club on Barrack Road.
It was a ten-parter for school bairns and set in a world where dancing was outlawed. The club members discover some Chicago House records and lose their collective little minds, and systematically dance themselves to death.
The usual Wordy character was replaced in this series with Pinty; a talking pint of lager who taught kids words like “Rizla” and “Snakebite”. Me nephew remembers his teacher wheeling the big telly into class each week in junior school. Proper educational television.
It pales in comparison, however, with Spanner, currently being re-run in its entirety on UK Gold. Watched by more than 17 million people a week during its original run from 1991-1995.The series charted the adventures of Detective Chief Inspector John Spanner, played by the electric Dave Gravel, who also moonlighted as the General Manager of the Ropemakers Club in Washington.
Even the loss of Little Billy Fane as Chief Superintendent Phil Frisbee at the start of season two couldn't derail it. I can't lie, I remain completely enamoured with the CIU-produced show; it oozes style and sex appeal. Spanner's motor was the envy of every lad I knew. Seeing him blast about the districts of Washy in his turbocharged Talbot Solara Minx was a highlight in every episode.
“Serving justice…by the pint.” Absolutely class.
Speaking of motors, iconic brand MINI worked closely with the CIU to develop their latest marque, released earlier this year. A spacious and unstylish family estate that combines the harsh reality of working life with the low running costs craved by social club members: the SocialClubsman.
The all-new SocialClubman takes 90% of its design cues from the original British Leyland-designed MINI Clubman. It offers more room for slabs of lager from the cash and carry, with its unique 'barn door' boot arrangement that makes loading and unloading stolen goods easy. It also features an unrefined design with pre-worn aesthetic, a new-look semi-battered front end, a revised grille and headlights, and distinctive 'Oi Oi' car horn.
The SocialClubman is available with a choice of eighteen woefully inefficient engines, including the 502bhp, chipped and lowered John Cooper Clarke edition, which delivers a terrifying performance and a horrendous exhaust note. The SocialClubman car also offers a range of driving modes, from Boy Racer to Drunk Uncle, to suit different levels of intoxication.
It was an undeniably bold move from MINI but one that’s paid dividends, as there's loads of them on my estate. Amanda at my club has seen an influx of new, terrified looking folk calling in to find out more about the club with the gleaming Mini car keys white knuckled in their sweaty, trembling hands, so it's obviously having a positive impact.
Bobby Chainbridge isthe official Club Publicist for all North East Social Clubs. You can find his coverage on his Instagram page HERE