Rainer Hersch

The classical musician turned comedian on the peculiarly British phenomenon of the Christmas number one

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The obsession with Christmas chart number ones is a peculiarly British phenomenon. Nowhere on the planet is Yuletide supremacy so fiercely contested. Over the years, it’s a battle that has thrown up some brilliant baubles and terrible turkeys. Who, for example, can forget Bohemian Rhapsody (1975); who can fail to groan at Mr Blobby (1993)? Some, like Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody (1973) have become the very sound of the holidays

It’s a feature of our musical life that barged into my musical memories at a very tender age: the first single I ever owned was Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West) as sung by Bennie Hill (Christmas number one, 1971) – a comedy song telling a story of unrequited love and ghostly revenge in suburban Britain. My sister bought it for me for me as a present that year and as a result the words have been burned into my brain cells ever since. And if that wasn’t horrifying enough, it turns out it’s a distinction I share with former prime minister David Cameron, who revealed the nugget on Desert Island Discs and proved his credentials by reciting the opening couplet: “You could hear the hoof beats pound as they raced across the ground.” Oh, it got me started, I tell you.

Cantering in close behind Benny Hill was Long Haired Lover from Liverpool (1972) delivered by another number one curiosity, Little Jimmy Osmond. To anyone who still remembers this particular blip in our national cultural compass, ’nuff said. Suffice to say that Li’l Jim, the youngest of the Osmond siblings – he was nine at the time – is not quite so little any more.

And so it went on. What is interesting is the number of tracks left by the wayside in the scramble for top slot but which win the longevity prize just the same: I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day by Wizzard, now part of the Christmas muzak experience, only ever got to number four. Maybe what made us all blink was the horrible realisation what Christmas every day might in fact be like: all the shops shut, a permanent state of turkey leftovers and your grandma forever in the front room, farting into the sofa.

Many of the great number ones seem to come from a golden age when rock musicians thought orchestrally and wrote accordingly

Anomalies like that are what attract the comedian in me to the fray. As a classical musician I am drawn by the sheer musical variety – everything from the folk sound of Mull of Kintyre (1977) to the truly operatic ambitions of Queen. And, while we are on the subject, here’s a useful fact just waiting for a pub quiz to want it: Boh’ Rhap’ remains the only single to have the distinction of getting to the top twice in exactly the same format – once in 1975 after its initial release and again in 1981 following the death of Freddy Mercury. Bob Geldorf and co have, of course, been reminding the world it’s Christmas continuously almost but always with a different crew.

But is the Christmas number one now dead? After all, the charts such as they exist seem to be more a function of Simon Cowell’s ego than anything. I remain optimistic. What is true is that many of the great number ones seem to come from a golden age when rock musicians thought orchestrally and wrote accordingly. It was the era of prog rock when what was essentially a piece of light classical music – the theme tune to Van Der Valk – could top the singles chart and no one batted an eyelid.

The multiplicity has even inspired me to create my own “ultimate” Christmas hit. Having listened to all the greats, I created something which I might have dubbed Hallelujah! It’s The Mistletoe And Cliff, Wherever You Are Rhapsody but which combines all the tricks of the trade into an original comedy song. Doffing my hat at Ernie the Milkman perhaps? Will it get to number one? Probably not but it is currently racing up the rankings in YouTube and iTunes – check it out and give me stab at my own piece of chart glory.

And, if any of the above song titles ring bells, come along to Bridgewater Hall when we will be having a laugh, doing all the greats and inviting the audience to belt them out with us in a grand singalong. Do they know it’s Christmas? After that, I ruddy well hope so.

Rainer Hersch’s Christmas No.1 Singalong is on 18 December, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (box office: 0161 907 9000)

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