307. Benny Hill (Arranged & Conducted by Harry Robinson, with The Ladybirds) – Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) (1971)

1971 was a real mixed bag of a year for number 1s. There was early glam, reggae, pop, a former Beatle, and bookending the year were novelty songs by two popular TV comedy stars. The Christmas number 1 belonged to Benny Hill, a once much-loved comedian who became incredibly unfashionable before his death in the 80s. But in 1971, people wanted saucy innuendo in their comedy, and Hill was one of the best at that.

Alfred Hawthorne Hill was born 21 January 1924 in Southampton. His father and grandfather had both been circus clowns. After Hill left school he worked at Woolworths, a bridge operator and a milkman. It is unknown whether he drove the fastest milkcart or not.

In 1942 Hill was called up for World War Two, and trained as a mechanic in the British Army. He also served as a mechanic and searchlight operator in Normandy before being transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment division before the war ended. Having decided a career in showbusiness was for him, he changed his name to Benny Hill in honour of his favourite comic, Jack Benny.

Hill struggled on the radio and stage, but found his home on TV, achieving his big break after sending scripts to the BBC in 1952. The Benny Hill Show of the 50s wasn’t that different from its 80s version, a mix of music hall, parody and bawdiness. Bar a few brief spells with ATV between 1957 and 1960 and again in 1967, he remained with the BBC until 1968.

Jackie Wright, the little bald man who Hill liked to slap on the head, joined his troupe in the 60s. I hope his head was insured for all those decades of slaps.

Within that time he also appeared in films, most notably Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and The Italian Job (1969).

The Benny Hill Show became a Thames Television show in 1969 and ran intermittently for 20 years. It is this version he is mostly remembered for, gurning and saluting away next to scantily clad girls, running around to Boots Randolph’s Yakety Sax. This very British show became popular overseas too, with Hill acting as an ambassador for the famous British seaside postcard brand of humour.

Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) began life as a song on a 1970 edition, as you can see here. Most of the double entendres are in place, with only small differences like Ernie’s age being 68 rather than 52. Releasing records was nothing new for Hill, who had been releasing comedy singles sporadically since Who Done It in 1956, and Ernie was just one of the tracks that made up his Words and Music album, released earlier that year. It’s unlikely he had an inkling as to how popular it would become.

Inspired by Hill’s time as a milkman for Hann’s Dairies in Eastleigh, Hampshire, the song is written as a Wild West-style ballad about the adventures of Ernie Price, whose milk cart is pulled by horses, sung by Hill in a comedy Cornish accent and joined by his regular backing group, The Ladybirds. Ernie and bread delivery man ‘Two Ton’ Ted from Teddington are feuding for the heart of Sue, a widow at number 22 Linley Lane. Cue the smut.

I can remember Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) being played to me at school when I was pretty young, and most of the innuendo was lost on me, despite growing up watching Carry On films. Looking at the lyrics now, I can see that’s because it’s not actually very rude at all. Granted, there’s reference to crumpet, and these lines are a bit saucy:

‘He said you wanted pasturised
Coz pasturised is best
She says Ernie I’ll be happy
If it comes up to me chest’

But other than that, Hill manages to skirt anything too risqué. And that might be why it became so big. If anything, it’s more a song for children in the style of 1968 Christmas number 1 Lily the Pink, so timing had a lot to do with it. I can’t imagine adults sat around listening to this and laughing hysterically in 1971… perhaps 1961, but I may well be wrong. And it certainly doesn’t make me laugh in 2020, yet it still has a certain charm… a relic of a bygone age, perhaps helped by the promo film above, co-starring Henry McGee and Jan Butlin.

What doesn’t make me laugh is the fact that one of our worst ever Prime Ministers, David Cameron, has declared this one of his favourite songs ever on more than one occasion. But you can’t blame Benny Hill for Brexit.

Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) held firm for four weeks, even stopping T. Rex from having three number 1s in a row with Jeepster. Hill only released one more single, Fad Eyed Fal in 1972. Meanwhile The Benny Hill Show rattled on, with a film compilation of highlights from 1969-73 called The Best of Benny Hill released in cinemas in 1974. Despite some old-fashioned racism poking fun at the Chinese, this was unbelievably still being shown every now and then until recently.

As the 80s dawned, the show began to feature the ‘Hill’s Angels’, sexy ladies who would dance and appear as comic foils for Hill. But this was the decade in which such ideas looked increasingly outdated as alternative comedy grew ever more popular, and acts like Ben Elton led the way as the media began to disown him.

Looking back, the campaign against him seems too aggressive. Yes, he had enjoyed a good innings and it was high time he made way for more PC, sophisticated comedy by the end of the 80s, but the likes of Elton suggesting he was to blame for people being raped and violence against was unfair. More often than not, Hill was being chased by the girls, not the other way round… ok, all their clothes fell off… but still…

The Benny Hill Show was finally taken off air in 1989. A quiet, private man when the cameras were off, he disappeared from the public eye completely.

It looked like he might be due a comeback in 1992. Thames began airing edited compilations of repeats due to public demand, and he was on the verge of signing with Central Television, but his health failed him. He had a mild heart attack that February, and on 22 April he was found dead in his armchair in front of the TV. Hill had died aged 68, two days previous, and one day after another old-school comedy giant, Frankie Howerd.

Written by: Benny Hill

Producer: Walter J Ridley

Weeks at number 1: 4 (11 December 1971-7 January 1972)

Births:

Socialite Tara Palmer-Tomlinson – 23 December
Singer Dido – 25 December
Conservative MP Philip Davies – 5 January

Deaths:

Footballer Torry Gillick – 12 December
Scottish footballer Alan Morton – 12 December
Pilot Charles C Banks – 21 December

Meanwhile…

29 December: The United Kingdom gave up its military bases in Malta.

30 December 1971: The seventh James Bond film – Diamonds Are Forever – was released. It saw Sean Connery return to the role after George Lazenby declined to come back.

4 January 1972: Rose Heilbron became the first female judge to sit at the Old Bailey.

263. The Marmalade – Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da (1969)

After a topsy-turvy 1968, we reach the final year of the decade. And for the first time since the inception of the charts, there’s a new number 1 on New Year’s Day. Psych-pop and rock five-piece The Marmalade became the first Scottish band at the top of the charts with their version of Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da by The Beatles.

The band’s history began in 1961 in east Glasgow. Originally known as The Gaylords (stop sniggering, they took the name from the street gang Chicago Gaylords), the inaugural line-up featured guitarists Pat Fairley and Billy Johnston, lead guitarist Pat McGovern, drummer Tommy Frew and singer Wattie Rodgers.

Several line-up changes ensued, most importantly the arrival of William ‘Junior’ Campbell on guitar later that year. By 1963 they were known as Dean Ford and the Gaylords, with Thomas McAleese assuming the name of the ‘star’, aping Cliff Richard and The Shadows. They signed with Columbia Records in 1964, and their first single was a cover of Chubby Checker’s Twenty Miles. They were getting lots of attention in Scotland, and following a stint in Germany in 1965, they returned with ambitions to make it big in England.

After befriending The Tremeloes they signed with their manager Peter Walsh. Performing in the clubs of swinging London in 1966, they tightened up their act and Walsh suggested they became The Marmalade, and they signed with CBS and gained hitmaking Mike Smith as their producer. Debut single, It’s All Leading Up to Saturday Night, failed to chart.

Third single, I See the Rain, featuring a nice pop-psych sound, was lauded by Jimi Hendrix as the best single of 1967. By this point, the line-up had settled down to Ford on lead vocals, Patrick Fairley on six-string bass, Campbell on guitar and keyboards, Raymond Duffy on drums and Graham Knight on bass. The Marmalade were now making waves, supporting The Pink Floyd and performing at festivals during the Summer of Love. But they still weren’t charting, and CBS were beginning to get impatient.

The Marmalade rejected Everlasting Love, which became a number 1 for The Love Affair in 1968. Eventually, to get CBS off their backs, they recorded Lovin’ Things, and reached number six in the charts. Also that year they released their debut album, There’s a Lot of It About.

In late 1968 they were offered Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da by publisher Dick James. Allegedly, the band had no idea it was by Paul McCartney when they agreed. It had yet to be released on The Beatles’ eponymous double album.

McCartney wrote this bright and breezy ska-influenced ditty during the Beatles time in Rishikesh, India, earlier that year. The song’s title and chorus came from Nigerian musician Jimmy Scott. Apparently his backing band were called Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, and in live shows he would call out ‘Ob la di’, to which the audience would respond ‘Ob la da’, and he would then conclude ‘Life goes on.’ The ‘Desmond’ of the song was inspired by rising ska star Desmond Dekker.

The fact McCartney would steal the phrase for his own means caused some consternation between he and Scott, and Scott threatened legal action until he came to an agreement with Macca to drop the case if the Beatle would pay his legal bills to get him out of Brixton Prison (he had failed to pay maintenance to his ex-wife).

John Lennon hated Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, so it was ironic he came up with the best part of the Beatles version when he banged away on the piano in the intro in pure frustration. McCartney had planned to release their version as a single, but Lennon was having none of it. George Harrison wasn’t a fan of either, and he wasn’t singing its praises when he namechecked it on Savoy Truffle.

The Marmalade’s version is inferior from the start, ditching that piano intro and any ska influence, preferring to turn it into a jolly, soft knees-up. They even replace ‘Bra’ with ‘Woah’. You could never call The Beatles recording edgy, yet it is by comparison to this. Not different enough to be interesting in any way, it’s reminiscent of the Overlanders’ number 1 version of Michelle. The most noteworthy bit is right at the end, where, instead of singing ‘If you want some fun, take Ob-La-Di-Bla-Da’, they replace ‘fun’ with ‘jam’. Marmalade, y’see.

Like that cover, Beatles fans flocked to the record anyway, and The Marmalade were at number 1 for the first week of January, before being overtaken by 1968’s Christmas number 1, Lily the Pink, by The Scaffold, once more. The Marmalade eventually won out, with a further fortnight as top of the pops.

In November of that year they signed a lucrative deal with Decca, which meant they could write and produce their own material with no time restraints in the studio. This resulted in their biggest hit worldwide, Reflections of My Life, an unusual early prog-rock-sounding ballad, which is superior to their number 1 single.

The beginning of the end of the group’s fame came when Campbell chose to leave in 1971. The hits carried on for a while longer, including Cousin Norman and Radancer, but line-up changes came thick and fast. In 1973 they signed with EMI, and dropped the ‘The’ from their name. Apart from a hit with Falling Apart at the Seams in 1976, none of their singles charted.

During the 80s an incarnation of Marmalade toured the nostalgia circuit, with Knight as the sole member from their heyday. Dave Dee began occasionally performing with them from 1987 until his death in 2009. Knight departed the following year. Dean Ford passed away on New Year’s Eve last year due to complications from Parkinson’s. Despite no original members, Marmalade continue to jam. Sorry.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: Mike Smith

Weeks at number 1: 3 (1-7, 15-28 January)

Births:

Lawyer Mary Macleod – 4 January

Deaths:

Conjoined twin actresses Violet and Daisy Hilton – 4 January

Meanwhile…

2 January: Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch purchased best-selling Sunday newspaper The News of the World.

5 January: Riots in Derry left over a hundred people injured.

18 January: Former drummer with The Beatles, Pete Best, won his defamation lawsuit against the band.

24 January: Violent protests by students resulted in the closure of the London School of Econoics for three weeks. This resulted in the students occupying the University of London Union three days later.

262. The Scaffold (Arranged & Conducted: Mike Vickers) – Lily the Pink (1968)

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Lily the Pink, by Scouse comedy, poetry and music act the Scaffold, was the first novelty song to become Christmas number 1, but as detailed in Every Christmas Number 1, it was certainly not the last instance of this very British phenomenon.

The Scaffold began with the friendship of entertainer John Gorman, and musical performer Mike McCartney (younger brother of Paul). Together with poets Roger McCough and Adrian Henri they formed the revue known as The Liverpool One Fat Lady All Electric Show back in 1962.

By 1964 Henri had left and they had become The Scaffold. As they rose in popularity, McCartney changed his stage name to Mike McGear, to avoid accusations of using his brother’s name to become famous during Beatlemania. However, considering the rise in popularity of anything from Liverpool, it’s fair to say the link won’t have harmed the trio.

In 1966 they signed to Parlophone (label of The Beatles) and released their debut single 2 Days Monday, but it was their third 7″, Thank U Very Much, that first troubled the top 10. Its popularity endured into the 80s thanks to a long-running adveritsing campaign by Cadbury’s Roses, usually at Christmas.

McGough and McGear released an eponymous album without Gorman, featuring cameos from Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, Paul McCartney and Graham Nash, in May 1968. The Scaffold’s eponymous debut LP was released only two months later and was a live recording of mostly McGough’s poetry and McGear and Gorman’s sketches. And then came Lily the Pink.

The 1968 Christmas number 1’s origins lay in a drinking song called The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham. Pinkham was a real person, and in the 19th century she invented and marketed a herbal-alcoholic women’s tonic for menstrual and menopausal issues. She was ridiculed at the time, but the drink still exists in an altered form to this day. Versions of the ballad were doing the rounds as far back as World War One, with lyrics poking fun at Pinkham’s drink and its alleged uses.

The Scaffold’s version had completely rewritten lyrics by McGough, Gorman and McGear, adding a cast of unusual characters to make it more child-friendly, and also in-keeping with psychedelia, with the tune sounding reminscent of the Victorian music hall. The characters they described were largely in-jokes – ‘Mr Frears has sticky out ears’ refers to Stephen Frears, who had once worked with the trio and is now one of the most highly regarded film directors in the UK. ‘Jennifer Eccles had terrible freckles’ came from the song Jennifer Eccles by The Hollies.

Speaking of which, Graham Nash provided backing vocals, along with Elton John (still Reg Dwight at the time) and Tim Rice, and that’s Jack Bruce from Cream on bass.

I remember Lily the Pink from childhood, and I enjoyed it back then. It’s bloody irritating now, though, and the in-jokes, probably only funny to The Scaffold and a few others at the time, are not funny at all now. The chorus will, sadly, stay with you forever. And ever. And then just when you think Lily has died and gone to heaven, she comes back to haunt you forevermore. The bit where the chorus comes back after she’s died is good fun though, I’ll give them that. Incidentally, it was produced by Norrie Paramor, formerly responsible for Cliff Richard and Frank Ifield. This was his 27th, and (I think) final number 1.

In 1969 The Scaffold recorded their memorable theme tune to Carla Lane’s long-running BBC sitcom The Liver Birds. The following year they were given their own children’s series, Score with the Scaffold. With the advent of decimalisation, the trio were responsible for providing tunes for a series of five-minute programmes to explain how the system would work. That same year, they teamed up with collaborator Andy Roberts (I’ve had a drink with Roberts, and he’s a bloody nice bloke with some great stories, he’s also in one of my favourite sketches of all time, here.) Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes of the defunct Bonzo Dog Band and various waifs and strays to form Grimms.

As Grimms toured up and down the country The Scaffold continued. They had their first hit since Lily the Pink with Liverpool Lou, recorded with Wings, in 1974. Although there may have been tension after McGear left Grimms due to a bust-up with Brian Patten, The Scaffold parted amicably in 1977, although there have been brief reunions here and there since.

Following a few more singles in the early 80s, McGear retired from music, reverted to his family name and became a photographer and author. Gorman was a regular on Tiswas and the adult version OTT until the early 80s, when he moved into theatre. McGough has remained in the public eye, and is considered a national treasure thanks to his children’s poetry.

After three weeks at number 1, Lily the Pink was overtaken by The Marmalade’s cover of The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, but only a week later it returned to the top of the hit parade again for a further week.

1968 had been a particularly unusual and random year for number 1s. The decade was nearly over, and by the time we get to the end of 1969, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones will have had their last number 1s.

Written by: John Gorman, Mike McGear & Roger McGough

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 4 (11-31 December 1968, 8-14 January 1969)

Births:

Race car driver Phil Andrews – 20 December
Scottish field hockey player Pauline Robertson – 28 December
Author David Mitchell – 12 January
Scottish snooker player Stephen Hendry – 13 January 

Deaths:

Welsh poet David James Jones – 14 December
Athlete Albert Hill – 8 January
Writer Richmal Crompton – 11 January 

Meanwhile…

17 December 1968: A case with tragic similarities to the murder of James Bulger in 1993 came to a close with the sentencing of 11-year-old girl Mary Bell from Newcastle upon Tyne. In May and July that year she had murdered two young boys, one with her friend Norma Bell, who was acquitted. Bell recieved a life sentence for manslaughter. She was initially sent to the same secure unit as Jon Venables, one of Bulger’s killers. Bell was released in 1980 into anonymity.

14 January 1969: Sir Matt Busby, legendary manager of Manchester United FC for 24 years, through good times and tragic times, announced his retirement.