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Last Updated: Friday, 26 May 2006, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Ernie's journey
By Alan Connor
BBC News

Benny Hill and dancer
Master lyricist Benny Hill at work
David Cameron has picked his Desert Island Discs - and revealed the only lyric he knows by heart is Benny Hill's saucy 1971 hit, Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West), a childhood favourite of the Tory leader.

We're used to politicians' play lists so balanced and bland they may as well have been chosen by focus group.

And every so often, a statesman will casually mention that "[insert name of current underground sensation]" are on his iPod.

But a 70s novelty single is something else. Benny Hill isn't even celebrated ironically these days - although there's a chance Dave may kick-start the revival.

Daytime hanky-panky

Former milkman Hill wrote the song for a TV sketch, and it became his fourth hit. Readers who don't want the plot spoiled should look away now, but it concerns a kindly horse-and-cart milkman.

A youthful David Cameron
Cameron as a child, some time after Ernie stormed the charts
As with all milkmen, or at least the ones in saucy English humour, Ernie's rounds involve meeting unaccompanied women, and so the potential for daytime hanky-panky - life and work in perfect balance.

Ernie is no home-wrecking Lothario, though: he's lovelorn for a widow ("a lady known as Sue"). This is more than can be said for his rival, Two Ton Ted from Teddington, who appears at the top of what a formalist would call Act Two.

Like the Westerns it pastiches, the song is not ambiguous in its sympathies. We root for Ernie over Ted the bounder with his "macaroons" and his motorised baker's van, because Ernie is the underdog: the little guy who "they said she was too good for".

When Ernie challenges him to a duel for Sue's honour, Ted even wants "a shilling" (or 10p in the 1992 re-recording) as an additional prize: an early lesson in social injustice for Mr Cameron?

Hot rolls and layer cake

Of course, "Ernie" is not simply a class-based drama. It's also an opportunity for entire verses of innuendo, like an episode of Benny Hill reformed as seven inches of vinyl.

Cameron and child
The Tory leader's musical choice may leave today's youth perplexed
When Ted "didn't half kick his 'orse", Hill is sneaking rude words on to the radio in a tradition that reached its apotheosis with a certain Sex Pistols song.

And the various foodstuffs involved allow Hill to do the same thing that songwriters have done from early blues like "I Want A Hot Dog For My Roll" through Nina Simone singing "I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl" - to get away with talking about some very intimate parts of the body, in this case relocated to Liddley Lane.

All of this would have been lost on the five-year-old David Cameron, of course - but even a grown-up who's lived through songs like Chocolate Salty Balls struggles to keep up with Hill's "hot rolls" and "layer cake".

No matter, though: with its Western gallop and doggerel internal rhymes, Hill's lyrics charmed the same generation of children as Rolf Harris' Two Little Boys - Margaret Thatcher's favourite song and one which also sees injuries carried out on a horse.

Communist links

So perhaps we can put aside our cynicism and accept that the young Dave genuinely loved "Ernie". Two words of warning, though.

Firstly, it was wise to decline Sue Lawley's request for a rendition. The metre is clumsy enough to defeat the most skilled karaoke singer - especially on the key line "And Ernie, he pushed her aside and a rock cake caught him underneath his heart."

And secondly, the Communist Party of Australia, with whom Hill's sister was involved, recently revealed that the comic "had stumped up for a couple of party BBQs".

So Mr Cameron may not want to start the Benny Hill revival before checking where the royalties are going.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Good old Ernie, the fastest milkman in the west is a cracker and ranks as one of the most frequently played songs on my iPod, along with the Muppets, Mah Na Mah Na. You can't fail to raise a smile when you listen to Ernie it's a shining example of the genius wordsmith that was Benny Hill.
Will Beavis, Monmouth, South Wales

Give us a link to the song (not just the lyrics)! Please, pretty please!!!
,

"Ernie" is a perennial favourite in our family. My dad came round the other day, and was most amused to hear his granddaughter, aged 8, giving a near-flawless rendition in time to the song. She has also handed down to her much Rolf Harris ("Jake the Peg", "Two Little Boys", "I've Lost My Mummy"), Bernard Cribbins' "Right Said Fred" and, of course, Terry Scott's "My Brother".
Ant, Ye Midlands

Whatever your view on the Tory leaders choice of music, any lyricists that can write a line such as "¿he looked up in painful surprise as the concrete harden crust, of a stale pork pie caught him in the eye and Ernie bit the dust.." has to be celebrated. In addition how come Benny Hill has never been credited with the first pop video, (which has always been credited to Queen for Bohemian Rhapsody in 1975), for Ernie in 1971?
Sebastian Digby, London

I loved Benny Hill as a child growing up in the seventies. It ran daily on PBS out of detroit and it's humor and somewhat innocent bawdiness was unlike anything you could find on American televison at that time. It certainly provided more insight into adult relationships than what little I could glean from my parents and other sources. I don't know if that's a good thing, but I remember the show fondly just the same.
Elizabeth Murray, Vassar Michigan USA

The song is about sex???? I'm 28, have listened to it for years (thanks to my mother) and now you tell me this ? Another childhood memory shattered....
Sandy, Wirral

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