Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West

One of the most memorable novelty songs of the 1970s was Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West, recorded by famous British comic Benny Hill in the same innuendo-laden style as his TV sketch show.

Anyone old enough to remember the pop charts of the era will undoubtedly recall the sight of the rotund comedian driving a milk float pulled by a horse. Living up to his nickname, Ernie drove at breakneck speed in the video - aided by the primitive technology of speeding up the film - while trying to woo a glamorous widow on his milk round.

The song topped the UK singles chart, winning the coveted Christmas number one spot in 1971. What many people didn't realise was that the star was a real-life milkman before he became famous.

The story of Ernie was originally intended to be a TV play, loosely based on his experiences, but it never materialised. Instead, the tale of the amorous milkman became a novelty hit instead, which to date has attracted 3.9 million views on YouTube, proving that some humour is timeless.

Early years

Hill was born in Southampton in January 1924 into a circus family, as his grandfather Henry and father Alfred Hill had both been clowns! However, as a youngster, Benny (real name Alfred) didn't look like following in their footsteps.

In later life, Alfred Hill senior became the owner of a surgical appliance shop, while Henry became a dentist, so it appeared the family's association with show business had come to an end. On leaving school, Benny worked in the stockroom at Woolworths, before taking a job as a milkman for Hann's Dairy in Eastleigh, Hampshire.

One of the routes mentioned in the song, Market Street, is a real street in Eastleigh and part of Hill's old milk round. He really did drive a horse-drawn milk cart! One of his co-workers was reportedly a milkman called Ernie Carrington, who was employed by Hann?s Dairy for 42 years.

Hill had no intention of having a lifelong career as a milkman. Instead, he got on the bottom rung of the show business ladder when he took a job as assistant stage manager for a touring review. He won his first comedy role playing a vicar with Bobbie?s Concert Party and started using the stage name "Benny" in tribute to the well-known comic, Jack Benny.

However, the Second World War interrupted his fledgling career and he was called up in 1942 to join the Army, where he trained as a mechanic. He served as a truck driver and mechanic and later became a searchlight operator in Normandy.

Just before the end of the war, he transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment Division.

Show business career

After the war ended in 1945, Hill became a comedy performer on the radio and made the move to TV in 1950. In 1955, he wrote Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West, as the introduction to a play about life as a milkman, but the screenplay was never filmed, and the song was shelved for the next 15 years.

In the interim, Hill became a respected actor and won roles in several major feature films, including the comedy Who Done It in 1956, Light up the Sky in 1960, alongside Tommy Steele, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines in 1965, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1968.

Fans best remember him for The Benny Hill Show, which was first shown on BBC television in January 1955. The weekly hour-long show was filmed in a music hall format, featuring elaborate musical performances by other stars of the era. Hill played a variety of characters, wearing many comic costumes.

His sketches were full of innuendo and double entendres, often ending with Hill being chased around by a mob of scantily-clad young women. Some viewers found his saucy brand of humour offensive, while others loved it.

Milkman song

During the height of his fame, Hill first performed Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West, on his show in 1970. The original clip was made in black and white, as it was filmed during a technicians' strike. It was seldom repeated on television, but the episode was later released on DVD, in both the UK and the United States.

Although it was reported that Hill used to work with a milkman called Ernie, there was no suggestion that the character in the song was based on him. Only the name was the same and the plot of the song was completely fictional.

The ditty went down so well on The Benny Hill Show that the comedian released it as a single in 1971. It was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London and released as a seven-inch single on Columbia records.

The lyrics relate the exploits of 52-year-old milkman Ernie Price, describing his feud with a bread delivery man known as "Two-Ton Ted", who hails from Teddington. They are both competing for the affections of their customer, Sue, a widow, who lives at 22 Linley Lane. Ernie seems to be having some success and Ted is enraged to see his love rival's milk float outside her house one afternoon.

In a temper, Ted kicks Ernie's horse, Trigger. A duel ensues between the two men when they throw items from their carts at each other. In the video, Ernie and Ted hurl their wares at each other until Ernie is fatally struck by a rock cake under his heart, followed by a pork pie in his face.

Later on, Ted proposes to Sue, and they marry, but there's a twist in the tale when the ghost of Ernie the milkman returns to haunt them on their wedding night.

Fans loved the song and it remained in the number one spot for four weeks. The promotional film starring Hill as Ernie, fellow comedian Henry McGee as Ted and Jan Butlin as Sue, remains cult viewing today on YouTube.

In May 2006, on the radio show Desert Island Discs, Conservative Party leader and future Prime Minister David Cameron chose it as one of his eight favourite records of all time!

Later career

Until 1989, Hill continued starring in The Benny Hill Show, which was later taken over by Thames Television for the ITV network. It was the end of an era when the star was called in to see the head of light entertainment at Thames TV, John Davies, who said the show was being cancelled.

This came as a shock to Hill, as he had assumed the meeting was to discuss a new series. In a move considered harsh by the fans, Davies not only told Hill that his show was being discontinued, but he also dismissed the star from the studio's roster.

In a subsequent documentary, called Living Famously, the decision to cancel the show (which had 21.1 million viewers at its peak in 1977) came under scrutiny. Despite the final Thames Television episodes attracting 9.58 million viewers, it was reportedly cancelled because Davies believed it had passed its sell-by date.

It was claimed that viewer numbers were going down and the programme was very expensive to make, so the audience figures no longer justified spending that amount of cash. By this time, Hill was 65 and it was reported that Davies also felt he was looking "a little tired".

Regardless of this decision, The Benny Hill Show remained one of the most successful TV shows in history, as it was broadcast in 97 other countries.

Hill died in April 1992 following a heart attack, but he will be forever remembered as one of the greatest British comedians in history, who has left a legacy of more than 53 years' great entertainment.

When you're looking for the best bottle storage solutions, Solent Plastics' range of bottle storage crates provides a conveniently stackable solution. Our commercial range of top-quality crates is ideal for all businesses in the food and drinks sector.

Please give us a call on 01794 514478 for further information.