Last night, 105 members of the British public got a rare treat: A recital of a crude 1950’s comic song by the Prime Minister himself.
David Cameron was at the Sky Studios to be grilled by Jeremy Paxman, followed by questions from a studio audience. During an advert break he mentioned to Sky News host Kay Burley his affection for long-dead British comedian Benny Hill — before, at her urging, reciting some of the ditty to the audience.
For those who aren’t up to scratch on their mid-century English comics, Benny Hill was born in 1924, and epitomises a certain kind of British vaudeville seaside comedy — slapstick, innuendo-filled, and now desperately unfashionable. (Re-runs of The Benny Hill Show ran in the US on cable TV stations for years after he fell out of fashion in the UK.)
The song in question, “Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West),” tells the comic tale of milkman Ernie struggling (and ultimately failing) to win the affections of a young window.
The opening verse — which Cameron quoted on Thursday night — goes as follows:
You could hear the hoof beats pound as they raced across the ground,
And the clatter of the wheels as they spun ’round and ’round.
And he galloped into market street, his badge upon his chest,
His name was Ernie, and he drove the fastest milk cart in the west.
And here’s the TV version of it, innuendos and all:
“Ernie” was originally written in 1950, but didn’t enjoy its first TV release until 1970. At the time, Cameron was the tender age of 4, and living at the family home in Berkshire. The following year it was released as a single — it was a smash hit, and was the 1971 Christmas number 1.
Cameron has spoken fondly of his “happy childhood,” one where “whinging was not on the menu.” The struggles of Ernie to woo the “too good for him” widow Sue clearly had a strong impact upon the Conservative party leader — on radio show Desert Island Discs in 2006, he chose the song as one of his picks, saying it “really just reminds me of my childhood.”
“I just remember playing this at home, over and over again.”
Ernie is also, Cameron revealed, “the only song whose words I can remember.” He even recites some of the words on Desert Island Discs — you can listen to the entire show here (Cameron discusses the song from the 7:30-mark onwards):
“Wonderful, universal themes,” the Conservative party leader remarks after the song finishes playing. “I haven’t heard it in ages that that was … that was … bliss.”
(He hastily writes off its more suggestive sections as an “early love song.”)
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that though he’s not much of a singer, he does sometimes sing “Ernie” in the shower. But his passion for Benny Hill isn’t relegated to his personal life.
In 2011, Cameron accused Luton Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins of being from “fairy-dairy land!” This is, of course, a reference to the last verse of “Ernie,” when the song’s eponymous hero meets an unfortunate end:
Ernie was only fifty-two, he didn’t want to die
Now he’s gone to make deliveries
In that milkround in the sky
Where the customers are angels
And ferocious dogs are banned
And a milkman’s life is full of fun
In that fairy dairy land
It’s a strange fascination for Cameron. The Prime Minister is often criticised for being out-of-touch — Eton-educated, descended from aristocracy, and very well off. In contrast, Benny Hill’s crude, slapstick comedy was unapologetic in its proletarian appeal.
But Labour leader Ed Miliband has also been accused of being elitist. One of his own MPs, Simon Danczuk, told the New Statesman that Miliband is even “more aloof” than Cameron is. “They’d prefer to go for a pint with David Cameron than they would with Ed Miliband,” he said, “that’s the reality of it.”
And perhaps he’s got a point. When Burley subsequently asked Miliband if he knew “Ernie,” his response was simple: “Absolutely not.”
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