The first number 1 of 1971 had narrowly missed out on the 1970 Christmas number 1 spot, and although it’s not fit for much, it would have made a more fitting yuletide chart-topper than I Hear You Knocking. Grandad, by comedy actor Clive Dunn, was a canny grab at the purse-strings of pensioners and children, and in that sense was an early pioneer of the novelty Christmas song market. Factor in Dunn’s popularity as doddery old Lance Corporal Jones in BBC One sitcom Dad’s Army, and there’s little surprise it spent three weeks at number 1.
Clive Robert Benjamin Dunn was born in Brixton, South London on 9 January 1920, meaning he had only turned 51 on the day his one-hit wonder about life as an OAP hit pole position. Both his parents were actors, and his cousin was Gretchen Franklin – better known as Ethel in BBC One soap opera EastEnders. Dunn had small roles in films while at school in the 30s, appearing alongside comedy actor Will Hay in Boys Will Be Boys in 1935.
Dunn’s acting ambitions were swept to one side when he served in World War Two for real, joining the British Army in 1940. He served in the Middle East until 1941 when he and hundreds of others were forced to surrender. Dunn was held as a POW in Austria for four years, but stayed with the Army upon his release, until 1947, when he returned to acting.
Fast forward to the mid-50s, and Dunn had found his calling in comedy roles, making several appearances alongside Tony Hancock on ITV and his classic radio series Hancock’s Half-Hour. In the early 60s he took on a role that would define the rest of his career, playing a comical 83-year-old man in ITV sitcom Bootsie and Snudge. He was only 38 at the time.
This made Dunn a natural choice to star in Dad’s Army as the nervy butcher Jones in 1968. As one of the youngest members of cast he could take the brunt of any physical comedy. The role in Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s sitcom made Dunn one of the most popular comedy stars of the era.
In 1970 Dunn met top session bassist Herbie Flowers at a BBC party. Flowers was a founding member of Melting Pot hitmakers Blue Mink and played bass on David Bowie’s Space Oddity (number 1 on its re-release in 1975). Upon discovering his occupation, Dunn allegedly challenged Flowers to write him a hit song.
So Flowers went away and with Dunn’s Dad’s Army character clearly in mind, he wrote a novelty song written from the point of view of an old man looking back at his youth. However, he was stuck for a chorus, until his friend Kenny Pickett (singer with 60s rock band The Creation) called round. Ringing the doorbell, a standard ‘ding dong’ chimed, and Flowers had the simple but scarily effective hook he was looking for.
Over a leaden backing featuring ukelele, Flowers’ bass (I assume), and parping brass, Dunn recalls penny farthings, penny dreadfuls, ‘talking things’, and best of all, how ‘Motorcars were funny things, frightening’, when he was a lad. At the exact point you’re hoping his nurse will interject and give him his medication or clean him up, in comes a sickly kiddie choir, thankfully kept to a minimum, singing ‘Grandad, grandad you’re lovely
/That’s what we all think of you’. Let’s be grateful they didn’t overdo it, unlike the similar Christmas number 1 of 1980, There’s No One Quite Like Grandma. Incidentally, co-producer Ray Cameron, is comedian Michael McIntyre’s dad.
It’s rotten, cynical stuff, but at least Flowers made up for it. He’s played on hundreds of hits over the years, and among other things, was a member of CSS, T. Rex and Sky. He also performed on Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, but most notably, he was the man behind the bass line on Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. So we can forgive him.
We can forgive Dunn too, such was his charm. He was a staunch socialist too, who would argue with Conservative voter Arthur Lowe over politics, so he’s alright by me (although he did have a brief flirtation with Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists in his youth, which he regretted). He was also known for his friendliness towards autograph seekers.
Dad’s Army ended in 1977, and two years later Dunn found work playing – what else? – an old man in BBC children’s series Grandad. Despite the obvious similarities, it was unrelated to his number 1. When his role as Charlie Quick ended in 1984, Dunn retired and moved to Portugal.
It blew my young mind, growing up on repeats of Dad’s Army in the 80s, to know that Dunn was one of the youngest cast members and one of the few still alive. But even he got old for real eventually, and he died as a result of operation complications on 6 November 2012, aged 92.
Written by: Herbie Flowers & Kenny Pickett
Producers: Peter Dulay & Ray Cameron
Weeks at number 1: 3 (9-29 January)
Artist Jay Burridge – 12 January
Actress Lara Cazalet – 15 January
Take That singer-songwriter Gary Barlow – 20 January
Scottish snooker player Alan McManus – 21 January
Sports broadcaster Clare Balding – 29 January
Northern Irish dramatist St John Greer Ervine – 24 January
Psychoanalyst – Donald Winnicott – 28 January
12 January: The Hertfordshire home of Robert Carr, Secretary of State for Employment, was bombed, but nobody was injured.
14 January: Extremist group The Angry Brigade claimed responsibility for the bombing of Robert Carr’s house, in addition to planting a bomb at the Department of Employment offices at Westminster.
20 January: UPW General Secretary Tom Jackson led the first ever postal workers’ strike took place. Workers were insisting on a 19.5% pay rise.
21 January: After collapsing in March 1969, a newly reconstructed Emley Moor transmitter in West Yorkshire starts again. It became Britain’s tallest freestanding structure, a concrete tower standing at 1084ft.
23 January: The first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, in Singapore, gave Britain permission to sell weapons to South Africa.