Press Centre

Jim Carter: Lonnie Donegan and Me

  • Episode: 

    1 of 1

  • Transmission (TX): 

    Sun 17 Apr 2016
  • TX Confirmed: 

  • Time: 

    10.20pm - 11.25pm
  • Week: 

    Week 16 2016 : Sat 16 Apr - Fri 22 Apr
  • Channel: 

  • Status: 

The information contained herein is embargoed from press use, commercial and non-commercial reproduction and sharing into the public domain until Tuesday 12 April
“I first saw Lonnie Donegan light up the stage when I was 11 years old and ever since then I thought he was the greatest. And I’m going to show you why Lonnie Donegan, who was once the most famous man in Britain, was so exciting, so influential, so loved and then so forgotten.” - Jim Carter, actor and Lonnie Donegan fan
Downton Abbey’s Mr Carson may have hung up his butler’s jacket for good, but even as his final scenes were being shot, actor Jim Carter was already at work on a remarkable and long-cherished film about the King of Skiffle, 1950s singer Lonnie Donegan.
In Jim Carter: Lonnie Donegan and Me, the actor shares his life-long passion, which began aged 11 when he saw Lonnie play at a seaside variety theatre on a summer holiday, as he tells the story of his profound impact on pop culture and a generation of British musicians who went on to conquer the world.
This one-hour film features Jim’s lively encounters with some of those seminal rockers who were inspired to take up music by Lonnie Donegan. Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Roger Daltrey and Sir Van Morrison tell Jim how, initially using tea chests, washboards and even home made guitars, they were inspired by Lonnie Donegan to make the music which would set them on the path to superstardom. Later fans such as Jack White of The White Stripes also reflect on the importance of Lonnie as a figure in the development of popular music.
Jim traces Lonnie’s rollercoaster life and career, meeting his fans and family, including his first wife and his widow, as well as his son. He goes on a pilgrimage back to the Regal Theatre in Great Yarmouth where he first saw Lonnie all those years ago. He says: “Oh dear, this is it - it’s been knocked down. Unfortunately it’s now a popular brand of modern coffee [shop]. But this was the site where I saw Lonnie Donegan, 1960, Puttin’ On The Donegan. Hard to believe really, looking at this guy, who looks like a wide boy selling ties on a market, hard to believe he made such incredible music. Music that you’d have thought came out of the Deep South of America, he made and played and as an 11-year-old I heard in Great Yarmouth and I thought, ‘This is amazing.’”
Yet the actor wasn’t the only one enraptured by Lonnie’s visceral performances. Roger Daltrey says: “He was fearless... And I just loved it, the freedom of it. It was primal, there was something else in the voice and it really broke through something big inside me.”
Though now almost forgotten or remembered for novelty hits like My Old Man’s a Dustman, Lonnie was once the most famous singer in Britain. His high energy and self-styled skiffle music helped the nation to shake off the post-war greyness of the 1950s and jump-start the teenage music explosion of the 1960s. But when Jim told his now-wife Imelda Staunton he was going to take her to a Lonnie concert, she reacted badly. She says: “I think actually when you'd mentioned before that you liked Lonnie Donegan, I thought, ‘Is this the right man for me?’ [But] I think what impressed me and moved me was this man who sang with such passion, which I didn't expect from the funny chirpy guy that those funny songs implied that he was.”
Jim traces Lonnie’s early life and his roots as a performer, starting out as plain old Tony Donegan. In 1949, on compulsory National Service, Lonnie got to know some visiting American GIs – along with their record collections of US blues and folk. Lonnie’s breakthrough song was a cover of US bluesman Leadbelly’s Rock Island Line, which went top ten on both sides of the Atlantic, shifting more than 1.5 million copies. Van Morrison explains its impact: “My father actually brought it home with him one day, he brought us a 78, put this on and a bolt of lightning, I can’t explain it - it was just like something changed then, at that point as soon as I heard it, something changed.”
Exploding onto the scene just a few months before Elvis Presley’s debut, Lonnie was the uncontested King of Skiffle, catching the wave of the new era of the teenager. Paul McCartney says: “You wanted to be in a skiffle group and Lonnie was the megastar. It was like, ‘I wanna be like that!’”
Homegrown star Lonnie provided the spark for teenagers not just to play music, but to make and use their own instruments like tea-chest basses and washboards in an era when guitars and drums were comparatively expensive. Roger Daltrey says: “When I heard Elvis and I saw Elvis I thought that looks like the ultimate job for any bloke. But when I heard Lonnie and y'know seeing Lonnie play that acoustic guitar, I thought, ‘Well, [I’ll] never be able to afford to get a guitar so I’ll have to make one.”
Without Lonnie there might have been no Beatles, and the film exclusively airs the earliest known recording of 16-year-old John Lennon, singing one of Lonnie’s hits with his skiffle group The Quarrymen in 1957. The skiffle music Lonnie performed was a real driver for Britain’s young musicians, says Ringo Starr: “It was so simple and so popular that I believe half of Liverpool started playing.”
As the 1950s wore on Britain was becoming wealthier and brighter, and Lonnie was now earning enough to partake of this new modern living, building a new family home in suburban Essex. His first wife Maureen Jackson gives an insight into their home life. She says: “I used to get undressed ready for bed, have the meal all ready, and snooze on the sofa with an alarm clock. One of his favourites was lamb stew and dumplings followed by apple pie and custard, but at three in the morning.”
But the ‘60s were coming and the King of Skiffle’s fans were going to challenge him for his crown. So he released a novelty song - My Old Man’s A Dustman. Jack White explains why: “The Beatles had novelty songs, Bob Dylan had novelty songs, Chuck Berry’s only hit in England was My Ding-A-Ling, of all of his songs and brilliant lyrics. That’s just a doorway for a 12-year-old kid instead of a 16-year-old kid to get into Lonnie Donegan.”
Lonnie had opened the door and a whole generation rushed through, among them future rock stars. Paul McCartney says: “After Lonnie, rock’n’roll happened. Buddy Holly, Elvis, all the rock’n’roll stars and we emulated that. I think with us, it was that we kept developing.”
The programme unearths archive footage from Lonnie’s hit primetime 1960s TV show, Puttin’ on the Donegan, seen again for the first time since it aired. Despite his TV appearances and branching out into cabaret, Lonnie’s star was fading. He divorced his first wife, and his restless nature, coupled with his almost manic performance style, were starting to take a toll on his health.
He suffered several heart attacks and as the decades rolled by, felt all but forgotten. But then one of the young rock stars he originally inspired, Van Morrison, decided it was time to repay the debt and put Lonnie back in the limelight where he belonged, recording an album with him and taking him on tour. He says: “The people that wanted to knock him, it became easy for them to write him off, ‘Oh, he was just a novelty act so let’s ignore that.’ But the breadth of work was amazing and he was a great blues singer.”
The film airs amidst 60th anniversary celebrations of Lonnie’s breakthrough hit Rock Island Line - the first of 16 Top 10s and the record that started it all. Jim says: “I love his music, [it] gets my heart racing. I think some artists are given an infinite amount of talent, which they’ll happily explore interestingly for the rest of their lives but the majority are probably given a finite pool of talent to work from. And I think Lonnie’s talent was skiffle music. He was the King of Skiffle, he changed music in this country – and for that, Lonnie, I thank you.”