Apr 04

LONNIE DONEGAN – “My Old Man’s A Dustman”

Popular39 comments • 5,257 views

#99, 2nd April 1960

This reputedly shifted a million copies, not an easy thing to do even when the singles market in Britain is booming. If you do manage it it’s down to one of two things – either you’ve united the British pop-buying market in approval, or you’ve managed to break out of it and get people who don’t generally buy singles (or even records!) to pick up your disc.

Clearly “Dustman” achieved the latter – reaching out to a broad audience of music-hall nostalgics and variety-show fans. The music-hall was dying if not dead by 1960, having hit a steep decline with the rise of the cinema. Shorn of the audience’s boozing and flirting, the ribald style of music hall was kept alive by light entertainment – the winking not-quite-naughtiness you hear on this record was still a going concern when I was a child, showing up every time some interminable, deferential Royal Variety Performance reached a musical number. When I first heard “Dustman”, that was the context I immediately fitted it to – its roaring audience for me will perpetually include a gin-pickled Queen Mum.

In 1960 it would hopefully have seemed fresher – surely the million owners of the record will have given the thing more plays than I can stand to (An unbridgeable cultural gap is summoned up in the delighted squeal from one audience member when Donegan says “flippin'” at 0’31”). Unlike, say, George Formby’s big hits, “Dustman” in 2004 is a remorselessly unfunny record. Donegan was a natural showman but his sledgehammer timing here is pretty excruciating – the pause before every punchline which is further telegraphed by i) being sung in a ‘dirty’ voice that sounds a bit like Roland Rat, ii) gouts of audience hysterics. Formby, to continue the slightly unfair comparison, delivers his punchlines straight, moves smoothly into the next verse and leaves the audience a split-second to work out by themselves just how filthy he’s being.

Donegan can fairly be accused of making an awful record – the sniffy charge of ‘selling out’ that hangs around “Dustman” is easier to counter. Donegan’s affinity with music hall was always apparent – the ‘two old ladies’ bit of “Cumberland Gap”; the whole of “Putting On The Style”. It was hardly surprising that he’d try his hand at more straightforward comedy numbers: the only shame is that “Dustman” is more awkward and has less wit than any of his skiffle hits.



  1. 1
    intothefireuk on 16 Oct 2006 #

    Poor old Lonnie – credited with introducing (or more acurately popularising) skiffle in the UK his only number one would be a so so comedy cockney knees-up. This record came towards the end of the skiffle boom when he was looking for a new direction. I don’t think the phase lasted long and he moved on fairly swiftly to country. This record though, due to its huge sales, left a fairly long-lasting impression on the public consciousness and even now on occasions you can hear its title recited (well, okay only if you are discussing bin men with an older person). It was no doubt hilarious at the time and exactly like most comedy records it loses appeal rapidly. I’ve never thought comedy records should be included in the main singles chart as they seemingly have very little musical worth – that would have meant that we would have had Cliff’s ‘Fall in love with you’ to deal with instead – which, strangely isn’t a comedy record.

  2. 2
    Tom on 16 Oct 2006 #

    This was his third number one! Both the others are in the related articles sidebar :)

  3. 3

    i first heard this song in the playground of oxon infants! we discussed what “gorblimey trousis” might be and decided they had a flap at the back like romper suits for babies

    (at the weekend i met my best and most-feared primary school teacher, mrs w, who is now 93 — and UNCHANGED SINCE 1965)

  4. 4
    Alan on 16 Oct 2006 #

    Seeing a clip of Joni Mitchell doing “My Old Man” on the telly last night, we fondly imagined her changing the lyrics to this.

  5. 5
    Pete Baran on 16 Oct 2006 #

    And then it being covered by Nazareth…

  6. 6
    intothefireuk on 16 Oct 2006 #

    Whoops – slight oversight there on my part – I should have said the one that sold the most.

  7. 7
    wichita lineman on 14 May 2008 #

    In spite of the hysterical crowd (the applause at the end is comparable to Ravi Shankar at Monterrey), one of the gags gets tumbleweed – check the “Oi! Where’s me tiger’s head?” verse.

    Dunno about anyone else, but this put my off Music Hall almost forever. American friends told me to get the Round The Town box on Bear Family, London’s version of the blues they reckoned. And they were right. Now such greats as Sam Mayo’s Things Are Worse In Russia are part of my daily life.

    Lonnie is a long, long way from Max Miller. It’s a bit like dismissing Reggae because you’ve heard Typically Tropical.

  8. 8
    lonepilgrim on 23 Dec 2008 #

    there’s a history of the comedy pop song on iplayer here:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00g8t17/Comedy_Songs_The_Pop_Years/ until 29th December which features this song – warning: contains Barron Knights

  9. 9
    Pete Baran on 23 Dec 2008 #

    I saw this, and the associated Timeshift on BBC4 last night. It is a bit whistlestop and its timeline is a bit mixed up for incorrect narrative reasons in the nineties – but acts as a good primer (esp for the comedy / folk crossover). What the show never really gets to grips with is how “proper bands” were sometimes funny, and what being funny does to your credibility. A history of the British comedy song without any mention of the enduring success of Half Man Half Biscuit is always going to try to dodge this bullet.

    On the other hand it studiously ignores every Comic Relief single post French & Saunders / Bananarama which was a blessed relief.

  10. 10
    thefatgit on 26 Aug 2010 #

    Pat Buchanan, who wrote the song, has sadly passed away at 84, but we have MOMAD to remember him by.

  11. 11
    wichita lineman on 26 Aug 2010 #

    That’ll be Peter Buchanan, TFG – not to be confused with kindly preacherman Pat Buchanan, though Peter did move to Walsingham, Norfolk, which suggests he was also a rather devout man. It’s one of the weirdest places in England I’ve ever been.

    He was Lonnie D’s business manager and wangled some songwriting credits including MOMAD. Great excuse he came up: “He was singing fast skiffle songs and could not get his breath. So I told him I would give him some jokes to help him get his breath back!”

  12. 12
    thefatgit on 26 Aug 2010 #

    Cheers Wichita! Pat/Pete…curse my failing eyesight! And Walsingham, never been there but I hear it’s one of those Holy of Holy places, like Lourdes.

  13. 13
    wichita lineman on 27 Aug 2010 #

    Yes, people crawl on their hands and knees to the church. It must wreak havoc on their gorblimey trousers. Lots of shops full of religious icons. Not what you expect to find in the middle of Norfolk!

  14. 14
    punctum on 27 Aug 2010 #

    I know Norfolk pretty thoroughly and it’s hard to find anything except isolated churches there (apart from abandoned airfields, Prisoner-style lighthouses – the one in Cromer, for instance – and also those strange petrol stations you see driving down the coast with brands you’ve never seen elsewhere; rumour has it that these were disguised KGB listening posts but obviously that’s never been substantiated) – but yes, Walsingham, a Lourdes for Alan Partridgeland.

  15. 15
    lonepilgrim on 27 Aug 2010 #

    re #14: Norfolk petrol stations – I stopped at one which featured a vending machine that dispensed plastic cups of maggots. I left very quickly

  16. 16
    Jimmy the Swede on 27 Aug 2010 #

    Memo to Marcello (#14) – As you will know, mate, the lighthouse in “Many Happy Returns” is at the foot of Beachy Head just down the road from me. I was glancing down at it again only a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t see Larry Taylor walking a dog, though.

  17. 17
    punctum on 27 Aug 2010 #

    “Mate”? James, you call me that again and you’re liable for a spell in hospital.

  18. 18
    Jimmy the Swede on 27 Aug 2010 #

    Ah, but it was you who ended up having to eat Mrs Butterworth’s birthday cake, sunshine!

    Actually, I have a little piece about this episode I rattled off some time ago, which I shall try to get to you via another place. Not really for here, I don’t think.

  19. 19
    wichita lineman on 27 Aug 2010 #

    My other favourite oddball place in Norfolk is in North Walsham, the workshop/museum of these fellas:


    Their eyes are scarier in real life, believe me.

  20. 20
    Jimmy the Swede on 27 Aug 2010 #

    MC: That was great comment at #17, btw! But would only you and I know?

  21. 21
    punctum on 19 Nov 2012 #

    Speaking of which, I should note here with regret that Mrs Butterworth, a.k.a. Georgina Cookson, passed on in October of last year, in Sydney, Australia, aged 92. So the only Number Twos left are:

    “No, the lights haven’t fused, it’s candlelight” (Checkmate)
    “Will you never learn?” (Free For All)
    and the thong-happy Derren Nesbitt.

  22. 22
    Snif on 20 Nov 2012 #

    One would hope they served little sandwiches (with the crusts cut off) and fruit cake at the funeral service….and that any pictures on the wall were straight.

  23. 23
    Jimmy the Swede on 21 Nov 2012 #

    Sorry to hear of the uber-cheesy Mrs Buterworth’s exit but the horny old gal had a good knock. She practically offered herself on a plate to the sea-worn, starving, knackered Number Six (dear Arthur, my arse!) but instead of leaping like a panther on top of the foaming-for-it, experienced saucepot, the Sixmeister is more interested in jumping in his Lotus and going round to the carpark below College Green and sorting George Markstein out. Nincompoop.

  24. 24
    Mark G on 21 Nov 2012 #

    Paddy Fitz never liked playing ‘romantic’ scenes, that’s why he never did them. You may note the one time No6 had such a scene, it was when he was transplanted into another body…

  25. 25
    Jimmy the Swede on 21 Nov 2012 #

    You’re absolutely right of course, Mark. But we could have got round it. The exchange between Mrs Butterworth and “Peter Smith” was so super-charged (if only one-way) that it would have been easy and nice had the scene following Mrs B leading Smith off to the bedroom been followed by one of him fully-clothed exiting said bedroom, adjusting his tie, whilst surveying a slumbering Butterworth, smiling with fulfillment, tangled in the eiderdown. No sex scene there for Paddy, although even the mere inference of jiggery-pokery would probably have been shelved on his command.

    The love scene with Janet you mention (in the body of Nigel Stock) was one of the clumsiest, most awkward scenes of the entire series. I recall describing it on this blog as “akin to being seduced by Sir Geoffrey Howe”.

  26. 26
    Mark G on 21 Nov 2012 #

    It reminded me of Ernie Wise trying to do an impression of Eric Morecombe. Or something.

  27. 27
    punctum on 22 Nov 2012 #

    It really takes the biscuit; all these ladies to choose from – including Alison in “The Schizoid Man” with whom Pat would surely have had something going on in any other circumstances – and he goes for dreary, David Jacobs Collection-listening Janet Portland, who pointedly does not appear at the end of “Fall Out,” tearfully welcoming him back? And then only when imprisoned in the body of Owen MD?

    As I said somewhere else on FT (can’t remember where), the best ending for “Many Happy Returns” would have been for Mrs B to grin and say, “You can’t escape, big boy – so how’s about a little bit of close-up Village socialising?” Cue Benny Hill-style chase with Pat fleeing Mrs B, pausing only to pat Angelo Muscat on the head, Jack Wright-style.

  28. 28
    Jimmy the Swede on 22 Nov 2012 #

    As I also said at that same time, surely the most extreme example of the one Pat let get away was the extraordinarily lovely Angela Browne (aka: Mrs Captain Scarlet), who also pretty much flung herself at him but similarly received no response. It was most unmutual of Fitzy to pass up on that. And yes, Janet “Final Fitting” Portland was more placed as a maiden aunt in The Pallisers. It was ludicrous casting. Doctor Watson was welcome to her.

  29. 29
    punctum on 22 Nov 2012 #

    I have heard tales being told of Pat and the future Mrs Francis Matthews but sadly neither is still around to confirm or deny.

  30. 30
    Patrick Mexico on 20 Oct 2013 #

    Blimey, it’s Jake Bugg! 3 for making me laugh, but at it rather than with it.

  31. 31
    Another Pete on 23 Oct 2013 #

    #19 The creepiest thing in Norfolk by far is in Stow Bardolph church, an 18th century wax effigy of a deceased parishioner.

  32. 32
    lonepilgrim on 22 Jun 2014 #

    again, due to repeated exposure on Junior Showtime, I’m more positively disposed towards this. It cracks along at a frantic pace and as a kid the idea of a dad who drove a dustbin lorry seemed very appealing

  33. 33
    Mark G on 13 Nov 2014 #

    The comedy lines have been mentioned, but one remains, and it seems not to have any great context:

    Now one old man got nasty
    And to the council wrote
    Next time my old man went ’round there
    He punched him up the throat

    audience uproar, laffing, hlarious! Casual violence, jolly!

  34. 34
    wichitalineman on 13 Nov 2014 #

    The council have since sold the estate to Chinese developers. Old Man has been shunted out to Luton. Nasty Man has last laugh.

  35. 35
    Mark G on 13 Nov 2014 #

    And Bernard Cribbens wrote a song about it.

  36. 36
    wichitalineman on 13 Nov 2014 #

    Hole In The Ground? “And now he’s dead!”

  37. 37
    Mark G on 14 Nov 2014 #

    piano: “Stummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm..”

  38. 38
    Wll on 29 Apr 2017 #

    …The Smothers Brothers used to do this on U. S. TV as ” My Old Man’s A Junkman ” .

  39. 39
    Gareth Parker on 1 Jun 2021 #

    Agree with Patrick Mexico’s comment (#30), although I would go with a 2/10 here.

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