The Working Man's Club (WMC) is a phenomenon which can be found in almost any town in northern England. Ostensibly, the WMC exists as a social refuge for the men and women in blue-collar professions, a place to meet friends both old and new over a drink with some light entertainment thrown in. In reality, a WMC, while maybe providing all the above for the local population, can be an intimidating experience for those who fall outside the circle of the establishment's regular clientele. A WMC, as the TV series Phoenix Nights ably demonstrates, can also be great subject material for a comedy.
Co-written by and starring Dave Spikey, Neil Fitzmaurice and Bolton-born comedian Peter Kay, Phoenix Nights charts the fortunes of the 'Phoenix WMC' in a style that, at times, seems to more resemble a fly-on-the-wall documentary than a traditional situation comedy. Though the series has enjoyed two successful seasons on the UK's terrestrial Channel 4, the characters and concept appeared first in Kay's previous televisual outing That Peter Kay Thing. In this series, Kay portrayed a different character each week (such as a territorial ice-cream salesman, a surly bingo-hall worker and even an over-zealous health and safety inspector accused of a crime of passion with a member of the canine species) who was then followed through the trials and tribulations of their everyday life in the half-hour show. One of these characters was Brian Potter, proprietor of the aforementioned Phoenix WMC.
Brian Potter (Peter Kay)
I know a pissed horse when I see one! Get it a kebab!
- Brian Potter reacts to finding an inebriated equine in the Pennine Suite
Brian Potter has been running clubs in Bolton for a long time and has never let the rather large setbacks that have dogged his career deter him from the pursuit of his dream: to make the Phoenix a legend in clubland that will shine for years to come. The club that Potter ran before the Phoenix was a write-off after it was flooded one night. It was during this flood of biblical proportions that the unfortunate Potter was pinned between the bar and a fruit machine that happened to float by at an inopportune moment. When the emergency services found him in the morning, he was still alive, but had lost the use of his legs. At least, that's the story that Potter himself tells as there are subtle hints dropped that he may be somewhat more able-bodied than he likes to let on. These hints are given when he is seen by women sent undercover by the DHSS (the Department of Health and Social Services, who also oversee such matters as public safety) to examine irregularities in his claims for a disability allowance.
Jerry 'The Saint' St Claire (Dave Spikey)
What's your name son? Got any idea?
- Jerry puts a heckling student in his place
Often compared to a world-famous club-singer (on the Bolton club scene, that is), 'The Saint' alternates between entertaining the punters in the evenings and coping with Brian Potter's unscrupulous schemes to further the reputation of his club in the daytime hours. A consummate professional, Jerry's repertoire includes classic numbers as well as modern pop tunes, all delivered in his 'unique' vocal style. The long-suffering Jerry serves as the nearest thing Brian Potter has to a right-hand man, and thus has to put up with such humiliating jobs as having his irritable bowel syndrome passed off as a terminal illness and portraying the character of 'Jerry the Berry' in a big red costume at the official reopening of the Phoenix.
Ray Von (Neil Fitzmaurice)
- Ray Von's infamous catchphrase1
Sporting perhaps the world's most awful haircut and enjoying a reputation as both a gypsy and a potential murderer, Ray Von works as the resident DJ of the Phoenix club. An enterprising character, Ray is responsible for both constructing all of his own equipment and for cobbling together a motley collection of devices for the use of the club staff and patrons. His creations include the bingo machine (made mostly from a vacuum cleaner), a smoke machine that manages to asphyxiate the Captain (the longest serving employee of the Phoenix club) and - his crowning achievement - the robot known as 'Ass Kicker', which Paddy and Max pilot to victory in the club's own version of Robot Wars.
Paddy & Max (Patrick McGuiness & Peter Kay)
Get back, yer b*****d! I'll break ya legs!
- Max's self-voiced customised car-alarm
Security at the Phoenix is left in the less-than-able hands of the doormen Paddy and Max. Paddy, the younger of the pair, is obsessed with the pursuit of the opposite sex and the assertion of his colleague that he is going prematurely bald. Max on the other hand is more concerned with using his supposed combat experience in the Falklands conflict to get out of anything more physically taxing than climbing a ladder. Among their many exploits, Paddy and Max can boast about testing the range of their radio-headsets (by having Max take a bus into Bolton town centre while they were on duty), having a scuffle in the car park with a Right Said Fred2 tribute band and being beaten up by a mini-bus full of midgets.
Les & Alan aka 'Les Alanos' (Toby Foster & Steve Edge)
We're doing Karate Kid - the musical!
- Les spills the beans about the latest 'Les Alanos side-project'.
As Jerry St Claire provides the vocals, Les Alanos provide the musical accompaniment for him as he works his magic for the Phoenix regulars with Les on drums and Alan on keyboards. Apart from playing the Phoenix, Les and Alan involve themselves with the local youth group and organise their production of Karate Kid: The Musical for the local leg of the much-vaunted Talent Trek talent show. When these commitments clash with their jobs at the Phoenix, Brian Potter shows the infinite depths of his compassion by promptly firing them and replacing them with 'Right Said Frank', a tribute band. As Potter points out, at least with them he can be sure that they won't have any other bookings.
Kenny Senior (Archie Kelly)
... and who should pop his head out of the next tent but Robert De Niro?
- Part of an anecdote shared by Kenny about his camping holiday in Wales
While Kenny senior may claim to be many things, the one thing that most people are sure about is that, unfortunately, he is a habitual liar. Most of his time on screen is spent spinning far-fetched tales about the fantastic tapestry of wondrous events that is his life to anyone who will listen (and even those who won't). Perhaps one of Kenny's finest moments is commenting to television's Roy Walker3 how impressed he is that he manages to keep up his Irish accent even when away from the screen.
Young Kenny (Justin Moorhouse)
Want one for the station?
- An oblivious Young Kenny to the police officer who has just collared him for illegal bill-posting
Apparently the offspring of Kenny Senior, it would be kindest to say that this Kenny seems to be paddling in the shallow end of the gene-pool. Serving as a willing dogsbody for whatever scheme Brian Potter involves him in, what Young Kenny lacks in intelligence he makes up for in enthusiasm. Paying to have his face painted as a tiger in the first episode of the second series, Young Kenny fails to realise that the man providing the service is using spraypaint and as a result spends the rest of the series still wearing the paint and earning himself the nickname of 'Shere Khan' into the bargain.
Holy Mary (Janice Connelly)
Jesus loves you, Brian.
He's got a funny way of showing it!
- Mary reminds Brian Potter of Christ's unconditional love
One of the bar staff at the Phoenix, Holy Mary looks at the world through the rose-tinted glasses of her devout Christianity. Though she is tested by the relationship between her daughter and the less-than-pious doorman Paddy, she still has the sense to remind Brian Potter of the biblical passage 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone' and suggest that he blackmail the health-and-safety zealot Keith Lard to reopen the club with threats to spread incriminating evidence of his indiscretions with man's four-legged friends.
Den Perry (Ted Robbins)
How's it going, Brian? Killed any pensioners recently?
- Den Perry welcomes Brian Potter back into the fold
Labelled both 'Den of Iniquity' and a 'Fat Pig' by Brian Potter, Den Perry is the owner of the 'Banana Grove' one of the Phoenix's principal rivals in Bolton's clubland scene. A larger-than-life character who Potter is convinced wants nothing more than to see him out of business, Perry is at least guilty of labelling the Phoenix a 's**t-house' at a WMC affiliates meeting and recommending so-called psychic Clinton Baptiste to Jerry St Claire behind Potter's back, with disastrous results.
The Audition Spot
At the end of each episode, while the credits roll, the viewer is treated to an insight into the calibre of acts that queue up to perform at the Phoenix. Watched by a panel of the club's top brass, the hopeful acts showcase their talents in the hope that this will secure them a place on the stage. The acts that pop up are many and varied, but the highlights include a pair of geriatric flamenco dancers, a man who turns up naked save for an elephant-shaped thong, and a woman who performs a rather scandalous trick with ping-pong balls and her own anatomy. While the latter performs and the panel sit in stunned silence as the balls bounce off their heads. Brian Potter finally breaks the silence when the sixth ball strikes him between the eyes, to point out that she only had five to begin with.
When it comes to Phoenix Nights, there's entertainment to be had right up to the end.