Clive Dunn – Grandad of rock
Grandad Requests ‘Permission to Sing Sir’
Music for Pleasure MFP 5211
I have already remarked elsewhere in my musical ramblings how the 1970s threw up odd pop stars such as Don Estelle. Most music critics today would have us believe that the entire decade consisted of five strictly monitored years of glam and then, following a formal handover ceremony in 1975 between John Lydon and Noddy Holder, five further years of punk and shouting. There may also have been a noodling load of prog rockers skulking somewhere in the incense infused shadows, growing their hair and releasing quintuple concept albums about aliens and Westphalian peace treaties, but they didn’t impinge on the public consciousness to any great degree. Unless the public in question happened to be geography students at a provincial university. The true history of 1970s music has been repressed and glossed over. Lest we forget it was a decade that started with Rolf Harris ruling resplendent at number one with Two Little Boys and ended with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall. A record which despite all its miserablist pretensions was a glorified one-off novelty hit in spirit, complete with chorus of out of tune children. Perhaps Pink Floyd and their chorus of disaffected youths took inspiration from the other odd pop star of 1970, the doddering Methuselah of novelty music Clive Dunn, and his colossal hit record Grandad.
Born in 1920 in Brixton to a mother and father who were both dedicated theatrical types, Clive was an early starter in the world of comedy, making his film debut in 1935 at a fee of one guinea and a packed lunch per day as an extra in the Will Hay comedy Boys Will Be Boys. Thanks to his father’s entertainment connections, a promising career as a clapper boy beckoned for Clive when he left school. The film company he was to work for soon folded though and Clive’s behind the camera career was postponed in favour of larking around in front of the camera. Clive Dunn the budding director joined the famous Italia Conti school to become Clive Dunn the budding actor. A further minor film part in A Yank at Oxford and the role of Slightly in a touring production of Peter Pan was his reward. And then Hitler rather rudely started the Second World War, putting a temporary end to Clive’s acting career. Though he would be grateful for the war giving him the chance to play Corporal Jack Jones many years later, his initial enthusiasm for combat was dampened somewhat when he was captured by advancing German troops in Greece. Clive spent four years in prisoner of war camps before the war was over.
Returning to London in 1946 a faltering TV and stage career was revived when Clive fell in with the famous Players Theatre, a troupe of extraordinary performers who recreated the sights sounds and smells of Victorian music hall. Clive specialised in odd character roles, his far from matinee idol looks ensuring he would never play romantic leads. When his friend Tony Hancock needed an odd-looking character actor to play an aged foil in his new TV series, Clive Dunn was the obvious choice. The die was cast, as was Dunn, and from then on he made a speciality of playing ancient duffers, confused pensioners and mad old men. Further old man roles followed, and Clive consolidated his reputation as the grand old man of British comedy when aged only 40 he landed the part of ‘Old’ Johnson, a wizened Boer war veteran and gentlemen’s club waiter in the popular ITV series and Army Game spin-off, Bootsie and Snudge.
Greater acclaim was still to come though. In 1968 Jack Haig, another celebrated character actor, turned down the part in a new sitcom based on the exploits of the Home Guard during World War Two and the part was offered to Clive Dunn. No actor reading through the initial script of Dad’s Army could have known what fame, critical acclaim and popularity lay ahead for them. With the exception of Ian Lavender the cast were old reliable acting veterans, none were huge stars in their own right but certainly familiar to the public. Over the show’s nine year run they would become some of the most popular actors in Britain.
Clive of course played an old man. Aged only 48 he was seen as a natural to play the part of Corporal Jack Jones, born in 1870 and a much-decorated veteran of the Battle of Omdurman under Lord Kitchener. Dad’s Army was an immediate success with TV viewers and Dunn’s character with his catchphrases and quirky physical comedy was a hit. But how best for Dunn to capitalise on this? A chance meeting at an after show party at Quaglino’s with Herbie Flowers saw Flowers agree to try his hand at writing a song for Clive. Flowers and his group Blue Mink had just had a number three hit with Melting Pot, but it was his collaboration with Clive Dunn which proved to be his finest musical moment. Okay, so he later played bass for Lou Reed on Walk on the Wild Side, but come on, this was Clive Dunn!
Most of Clive’s debut album was written and produced by Candid Camera producer Peter Dulay and comedy writer Ray Cameron. Ray Cameron is more famous nowadays for being the father of the sweaty, grinning, over eager to please, stand up comedy cocker spaniel megastar Michael McIntyre. But back then before young Michael was even born, Ray Cameron was proving to be quite the up-and-coming comedy writer and would go on to script The Kenny Everett Show. The material that Cameron was producing was good enough and suited Clive’s old codger character perfectly. Cameron scripted many of the songs himself and threw in a few oddities like the 1965 Bacharach and David number What the World Needs Now Is Love, but the album desperately needed a killer track. When Herbie Flowers popped round to Clive’s house with Grandad, a track he had written in collaboration with The Creation front man Kenny Pickett, they had their hit.
In November 1970 Grandad was plucked from the album in the hope that it would become a Christmas hit single, a fairly obvious choice really. Its family-friendly sentiments are perfect seasonal novelty material at a time when elderly relatives are allowed out of their solitary world of cat food and bus passes and deemed fit to mingle with younger members of society. An appearance on The Golden Shot and relentless plugging of the single on every children’s show around soon paid off. Children wanted to buy the record for their grandads and grandads wanted to buy it for their grandchildren. If only to remind them they were still alive. The unlikely pop star Clive Dunn received the ultimate accolade when he made it on to Top of the Pops alongside Olivia Newton John and Gilbert O’Sullivan. A strike at the EMI pressing plant prevented the record from becoming number one over the coveted Christmas slot but the factories soon reopened and the record returned with a vengeance making it to number one in January of 1971. Another Top of the Pops appearance was granted to Dunn and he set off to tour the song around the country. To say the single was a roaring humungous success is still an understatement, it didn’t leave the charts until the end of June 1971, a staggering 28 weeks since it had entered, and has enjoyed a number of re-releases over the years.
So assuming that every single living person on the planet has heard Grandad at least a thousand times, here is the album track Simone to play us out, the one track on the album where brash new-fangled electronic instruments creep into Clive Dunn’s bizarre sentimental world of penny farthing bicycles, cobwebs and mildew:
Further troop movements can be saluted at The Dad’s Army Appreciation Society: