Jim Carter: Lonnie Donegan and Me

Lonnie Donegan 1

Lonnie Donegan, the most influential musician you may not know. Called the ‘founding father of British pop’ by the Guardian, it’s strange to think he’s most recognisable now for the song, ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’.

This one–off documentary for ITV sees lifelong fan Jim Carter, best known as Downton’s butler Carson, chart Lonnie’s life. Born in poverty stricken Glasgow in 1931 he rose through the jazz clubs of post war Britain to become a huge success in the 50s. His talent? Skiffle. A word that sounds as if it were a fight and a performance all at once. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines skiffle as a: “style of music played on rudimentary instruments”. It was a new type of music that stepped away from tradition, it was exciting, fast paced and accessible. Back in the 50s anyone could form their own skiffle band with whatever was in the kitchen. One of Lonnie’s old band mates shows Jim how to make a bass instrument with string, a tea chest and a broom handle. Lonnie was a pop star and then he faded away into cabaret, replaced by rock and roll and The Beatles.

Celebrities abound in the show. Paul McCartney, Ringo Star and Van Morrison all talk with Jim about the influence Lonnie had on their lives. It saved them, observes Ringo Star, from: “a life in the factories”. Then later it is Van who rescues Lonnie, from near obscurity. The presence of these well-known faces does fell as if it were a kind of belated dues to the man. There was a poignancy in their appearances to speak about him. Jim also talks about what it meant to be a fan of Lonnie’s. Imelda Staunton, Jim’s wife, even shares about what she thought about Lonnie’s music; not much apparently.

Reminders that this was a different era crop up throughout the documentary. His first wife recalls sleeping with a timer so she could wake at 3am to give him his meal when he returned from a show. I wonder how many women would do that now? Then the revelation that their divorce, because of his cheating, negatively affected his public persona is an insight into how conservative views were then.

There was an energy and enthusiasm to Lonnie’s music that is unmistakable. It felt exciting to hear about it. It’s a shame he has been so forgotten. Overall the show is quietly observed. Yes there were lots of clips of music and dancing but the pace is gentle. This was a window into a man’s life. An ordinary man, who, at the time, had an extraordinary life. Jim Carter did him justice.