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Jan 07

BENNY HILL – “Ernie, The Fastest Milkman In The West”

FT + Popular52 comments • 11,037 views

#307, 11th December 1971

 

Comedy hits come in many varieties. Some are parodies, many rely on the incongruity of a comedian singing a well-known song, others are simply desperate reels of catchphrases slapped over any track the producers had lying around. “Ernie” is none of these – it’s a bona fide comic song, such as might have been sung in 1871 – minus most of its bluer jokes. It gives Benny Hill – best known as a boob-obsessed physical comedian – an opportunity to show off his comic timing as a singer, and he seizes it with chortling relish.

“Ernie” is more than just a rollicking music-hall throwback, though – it’s a canny snapshot of early-seventies comedy trends. The song is as soaked in sauce as a Carry On film, though most of the fun is in Benny’s delivery: the laugh in “seen the size of his hot meat pies” is in our expectation of smut, rather than in ‘meat pies’ resembling, well, anything really. More unexpectedly, this High-Noon duel of milkman and baker has the cheerfully surreal aspect of a Goodies episode or Monty Python sketch – in fact, the death-dealing pies are a close relative of the Goodies’ black-pudding Kung Fu.

“Ernie”‘s mix of traditional form and contemporary style was memorable enough for David Cameron to pick it on Desert Island Discs – a selection which earned him a certain amount of mockery. But the Tory leader is on to something – and not just because “Ernie” is a portrait of competitive entrepreneurialism. This is a superbly arranged and performed record that plays far better than any other 70s comedy piece.

{democracy:33}

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Comments

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  1. 1

    dr vick — in her capacity as reader in literature — was outraged that the lollards faded it before the final verse

  2. 2
    Rosie on 29 Jan 2007 #

    Meh – Slade gets 5 and this 6? Pull the other one!

    It’s really not my kind of thing. I remember it all too well and for the first time in this exercise I can’t bring myself to find an mp3.

    As a music hall song, ‘Dustman’ comes closer, surely?

  3. 3
    jeff w on 29 Jan 2007 #

    I thought at the time (i.e. listening to Lollards) that the last sentence and the mark seem more than a tad inconsistent. And I still do. Obv I agree more with the comment than the mark.

    That said, I think there are several 70s comedy pieces that match Ernie for greatness – though none of them will trouble the Popular pages, I think.

    The Goodies reference is telling: ISTR a few years later they did do a Bunfight-at-the-OK-Corral type scene in one episode, involving jam doughnuts and the like. Which (as with many great Goodies eps) was the talk of the school the next day.

  4. 4
    Marcello Carlin on 29 Jan 2007 #

    The difference being that the Goodies’ records were actually very good, involving as they did lots of busman’s holidaying Brit jazzers/improvvers, whereas “Ernie” I’ve always thought is expertly-tooled coarse rot.

    Bizarre that arguably the first “modern” British comedian – that is, the first to exploit the possibilities of television in itself rather than providing a radio show with pictures or a photographed music hall act – should have been so old fashioned in his comedic outlook; really he belongs in the era of Will Hay and Donald McGill.

    Also, apropos “his comic timing as a singer,” BH doesn’t actually sing the song. Rather than an untenable precursor of rap, “Ernie” is in the (then) far more secure lineage of Stanley Holloway’s monologues (“Albert And The Lion” et al).

    And to think that it kept “Jeepster” off the top…

  5. 5
    jeff w on 29 Jan 2007 #

    (xpost)

    Ah, here we are:

    “Episode #47 Bunfight At The O.K. Tea Rooms
    Series Five, Programme Twelve
    1st BBC Transmission: 28 April 1975
    BBC Project Number 98967

    The Goodies go west (well, Cornwall) to mine for gold, but strike cream instead. Graeme monopolises the cream business by sneaking offon the other two, but Tim and Bill also find strawberry jam and scones. The stakes are set for a poker game where winner takes all, and culminates in the Bunfight at the O.K. Tea Rooms.

  6. 6
    Erithian on 29 Jan 2007 #

    Ahhh, Ernie. The first time I ever owned a copy of the current Number 1! Confession time: I recall a kiddies’ party where a couple of us acted out the High Noon duel referred to. It soon became all too obvious that I’d misheard the line “a rock cake caught him underneath his heart” as “underneath his arse”… It wasn’t forgotten for a long while.

    Cameron picked it on Desert Island Discs? Blimey. There’s an entire article to be written on Tory politicians’ D.I.D. choices – former Education Secretary Mark Carlisle chose “Captain Beaky”, while I vaguely remember a Tory MP in the 80s causing controversy by choosing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” from “Cabaret”. I think Geoffrey Howe chose “Summer Holiday”, and Thatcher’s choice of “Telstar” has been discussed before on these pages.

    Number 2 Watch: for the entire four-week run of “Ernie” at number 1, number 2 was “Jeepster” by T Rex! (whoops, MC beat me to that one)

  7. 7
    It bears repeating on 29 Jan 2007 #

    Re: the mark and the comment.

    The review, in essence, is saying “Here’s a genre I don’t really enjoy [comedy records], but this is as good as it gets.” I could, and maybe should, have gone into more detail on why I don’t like comedy records, but I have plenty of later opportunities to.

    (Whereas Slade is a genre I do like but not a track I particularly enjoy from it. Obviously, I enjoy Ernie more than I enjoy the Slade track, so the relative marks were never in doubt – but the truth is I wouldn’t listen to and enjoy either of them very often.)

    Also there’s an expectations element to all these marks. For Slade I thought, “Oh good, I like Slade and I don’t know this one well”, for BH I thought “Well, this’ll be a load of old toss”. So disappointment and pleasant surprise play a part.

    For “singer” I mean simply “performer” I guess. Good point MC.

  8. 8
    Tom on 29 Jan 2007 #

    Sorry, that was me.

  9. 9

    BH is the missing link between hiphop and serialism!

    = sprechgesang?

    (haha also follow link to read more on previous popular favourite ENGLEBERT HUMPERDINCK)

  10. 10
    jeff w on 29 Jan 2007 #

    More things to love:

    – Tom is right to single out the delivery. My particular favourite bit (now) is the way Hill handles the alliteration of “Two Ton Ted from Tedding-ton”;

    – The deadpan backing singers (was it The Ladybirds singing on ‘Ernie’? They were regulars on the Hill show at the time), especially the moment when they have to sing “Trigger” instead of “Ernie”.

    OK I shut up now.

  11. 11
    Erithian on 30 Jan 2007 #

    Just a thought – now that you don’t have to have a physical single release to get into the UK singles chart, how many downloads would you need to get a Popular entry onto the bottom end of the chart? Old tracks ranging from “Rocky” themes to Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” are in the lower reaches of the top 100 this week, and there’s a top 200 downloads chart which includes all manner of old songs you’d half forgotten (“Black Betty”, anyone?). What price Benny Hill or Lieutenant Pigeon making the list?!

  12. 12
    Marcello Carlin on 30 Jan 2007 #

    That was a chimera which doesn’t really seem to have turned into reality. In last week’s chart there were re-entries for Eye Of The Tiger (new Rocky film obv) and I Want You Back (Celebrity Big Brother) and a first-time entry for Gonna Fly Now (see Eye Of The Tiger) but the anarchic overrunning of The Charts was much overestimated; surprise surprise, The Kids have been told to Want Mika/Just Jack/Jamie T/The Klaxons!

    “Ernie,” however, did re-enter the Top 30 after BH’s death in 1992.

  13. 13
    CarsmileSteve on 30 Jan 2007 #

    a fitting tribute i think we’d all agree…

  14. 14
    Tom on 30 Jan 2007 #

    Don’t forget the Gossip, in at #36 on the back of Skins and an Observe Food Monthly front cover!

  15. 15

    WHO DARES DENY THE LOLLARDS PUT BETH GOSSIP IN THE CHARTS!?

  16. 16
    GeorgeB on 30 Jan 2007 #

    This is tremendous fun and could be an eight. The late 70s/early 80s Benny Hill seems to be fixed in the memory, but he was much better before then as an incredibly polished, even innovative comedian/comic actor on radio and early tv. He could do it all – wordplay, songs, skits, mime – and (on camera) he had that cheeky twinkle that we see in naturally funny guys like Eric Morecambe and Peter Kay. It’s a characteristic that smartarse Oxbridge/middle-class comics don’t have, and that’s might be one reason for the antipathy he attracted later on. I’m probably going overboard a bit, but I do think he was treated badly. It’s curious, isn’t it, that Benny Hill’s comedy got lazy and predictable the more he was able to get away with on tv (nobody bothered about t&a, innuendo and postcard smut by the late 70s)? Anyway, this one is clever, funny and delivered brilliantly. He sounds like he’s having a lot of fun and the listener does too (I think!).

  17. 17
    Marcello Carlin on 30 Jan 2007 #

    Magdalen organ scholar Dudley Moore and his cheeky twinkle to thread…

  18. 18
    Erithian on 30 Jan 2007 #

    Marcello – of course you’re right as regards the top end of the chart, but take a look at the lower end of the downloads list at http://uk.launch.yahoo.com/c/uk/download_charts.html
    and there are some oddities. I just wonder if anyone knows how many downloads it took to get, for instance, Bryan Adams to number 195?

    Many will be greater experts than me on the alternative comedy wars, but I do remember the very valid point made by Ben Elton that sketches in which women were chased around parks in their underwear were a bit sick when many women couldn’t walk through their local park for fear of assault. That’s not PC, it’s justified anger, although it’s true that Benny’s decline was fairly tragic. Remember how the Sun quoted him paying tribute on the death of Frankie Howerd, unaware that Benny had died first?

  19. 19
    GeorgeB on 30 Jan 2007 #

    Perhaps – altho I think that was always an awfully simplistic extrapolation (and not in keeping with the highly-educated scion of a famously academic family.) The salient point is that there’s something particularly nasty about the attack being led by a 24-carat fake like Ben Elton (ugh!) in his “man of the people” guise.

  20. 20
    Mark M on 30 Jan 2007 #

    He may have gone to Oxford, but Dud was from Dagenham…

  21. 21
    Marcello Carlin on 30 Jan 2007 #

    Well Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves was on TV again recently so I’d imagine there would be quite a few downloading the song at the end (why are Dotmusic taking so long to publish this week’s charts WAKE UP SVEN etc.)…

    Some might comment that on an aesthetic level the decline of Ben Elton has been even more tragic, but there will no doubt be further opportunities to discuss alt.com when we get to 1986 or thereabouts.

  22. 22
    Tom D. on 31 Jan 2007 #

    This is far from Benny’s best record, I really like that Dylan pastiche he did (I can’t remember what it’s called), it’s better than most serious Dylan pastiches (and better then most serious Dylan, if truth be told)

  23. 23
    LondonLee on 31 Jan 2007 #

    The Goodies “black pudding kung fu” was called Ecky Thump

    Not to be confused with Monty Python’s Llap Goch – the Welsh art of self defence

    http://www.popamericana.com/!/LLAP-Goch.gif

  24. 24
    intothefireuk on 1 Feb 2007 #

    Not living too far from Teddington (also where Hill lived) this always raised a chuckle at school. As with most comedy records it tires very quickly but Ernie did seem to have more resilience than most. A favourite also on Stewpot’s Junior Choice (required listening for 10 year olds) it retains an affectionate charm but I couldn’t give it more than 4. I have a problem with comedy/novelty records as a genre. I can’t conceivably compare them to ‘normal’ records and would prefer if they had their own chart (much like various artist albums against single artist albums). This would mean top notch singles like ‘Jeepster’ get the status they deserve. Not all singles are made equal !

  25. 25
    Marcello Carlin on 1 Feb 2007 #

    Are you Peter Powell? I only ask because (a) he too lives near Teddington and (b) one evening when he was doing the Tuesday teatime Top 40 round-up nearly all the new entries were novelty records (March 1984 IIRC – Torvill & Dean music, Fraggle Rock, Alexei Sayle, Mel Brooks!) and he fulminated about how there should be a separate chart for these sorts of records because there were Proper Bands Trying To Earn A Living.

    Personally I feel it all adds to the magic and the Trojan horse happenings when you do end up getting the Sex Pistols in between Kenny Rogers and the Muppets. The charts are a democratic leveller (supposedly, though we all know that’s not really the case; even so, etc.)…

  26. 26
    Tom on 1 Feb 2007 #

    Yes Marcello’s views on this reflect mine – one of the fantastic things about pop music is the huge range of things people use it for. I don’t enormously love comedy records myself (novelty records are a different thing anyway, and much closer to the heart of *my* version of pop) but I can appreciate a good one.

  27. 27
    intothefireuk on 1 Feb 2007 #

    Marcello – Sorry, I can’t claim to be the great PP. I am also somewhat surprised that his views are similar to mine but it’s probably no surprise that I’m one of those musicians – just trying to earn a living !

    I understand the ethos that says in there should be no barriers in pop but to the casual listener number one status can often be seen as a mark of quality, it’s a lazy way of identifying what was/is the best record in the chart. In this instance comedy/novelty records cloud the issue. The more discerning listener sees the chart more as a barometer of popular taste, saying more about the buying public than the actual music and in this instance comedy records are as valid as any other.

  28. 28
    Erithian on 1 Feb 2007 #

    Yes, it also depends on where you draw the line between novelty and “proper” records – Aqua? The Bonzos? Yellow Submarine?

    Agree with Marcello about the Trojan horse effect. I mean, who didn’t sneakily enjoy Bob the Builder foiling both Eminem and Westlife? I loved this comment on Ceefax at the time: “Imagine all the Westlife fans seething that their favourites have been denied by a manufactured puppet. Oh, the irony.”

  29. 29
    Marcello Carlin on 1 Feb 2007 #

    Also I think that the situation helps to encourage Real Musicians to up their game, so that when they actually get into a top ten full of workaday teenpop/MoR/novelties it is more of an achievement, as opposed to arbitrarily fencing off categories which only tells you how well you’re doing in terms of your peers as opposed to in the Actual World (though of course as a lifelong total omnipluralist I instinctively react against the idea of teenpop/MoR/novelties being something less but much more space to discuss that in ’72).

  30. 30
    Chris Brown on 4 Feb 2007 #

    Cameron did indeed chose this song – I remember it was around the time that he was making a big fuss about violent lyrics, and some people questioned whether it was strictly appropriate for him to be endorsing a song about men fighting to the death over sex (or for that matter, a band called The Killers). I can’t really explain why I don’t like this more but perhaps there’s just a limit to how often you can hear a comedy song like this. Maybe it’s just that Hill’s voice, though certainly well-used here, is bit irritating. I agree that “Trigger” is the funniest bit, though.

    I sort of remember this ending up in an advert for milk at some point, hence the re-issue. I don’t think the record company could have turned it around in five weeks.

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