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Row brings a smile to denture trade

THE CLOUD hanging over the world of British dentistry may prove to have a porcelain lining. Business prospects for the makers and repairers of dentures are looking up.

Times are hard for small businesses in the sedate seaside town of Clevedon near Bristol: the video shop is up for sale, as are the DIY shop, the family butcher's across the road, and the conservatory shop next door.

Just about the only place open is the sort of business you would not expect to have survived. 'Reliable denture repairs in one hour,' the sign on the door says. 'Teeth refixed while you wait. Satisfaction before settlement.'

Dental Laboratory is a rather modern and clinical term for an emporium known locally as the Old Curiosity Shop. It is run by David Norris, who is intrigued by warnings that refusals by dentists to accept new National Health Service work could push back standards of British dental health by decades.

'I suppose if the dentists do go private and people don't look after their teeth . . . Still, I can't seeing it being as bad as it was years ago when the soldiers had trench mouth (a gum disease) from drinking from dirty cups and the ladies had calcium deficiency.

'There were no half measures in those days. Anything wrong with your gums and they didn't treat them. They'd whip your teeth out at the least excuse. It's only since the 1960s that there's been such an emphasis on preserving them.'

The latest figures available from the Adult Dental Health Survey show that 21 per cent of the UK population have no teeth at all and 19 per cent are partially dentured. That compares with 30 per cent and 21 per cent 10 years earlier.

Mr Norris joined his father's business when he was 15, in 1957. It was the golden age of denture repairs. 'Before the health service was founded, a lot of people couldn't afford false teeth. When I started, they were nearly all full sets. You get a lot more part plates now.'

Charges range from pounds 9.50 for simple repairs and alterations to pounds 300 for duplications in finest porcelain. Having a spare set can avoid the sort of embarrassment undergone by a woman customer who sneezed and lost her teeth under a pile of leaves. One woman consulted Mr Norris after her dentures were broken into a dozen pieces by her dog. 'They mistake them for bones,' Mr Norris explained.

Customers are mostly elderly - but that may change if the dentists' boycott begins to bite. The full plate grinning hideously from a glass of Steradent on the bedside table had become almost as outdated as the mother-in-law joke. But it may well be about to make a comeback.

(Photograph omitted)