Is That What It’s Really About? Bernard Cribbins’ ‘Hole in the Ground’


Now that Sounds of the Sixties no longer exists (except in some illusory form, at a godawful hour of Saturday morning run by Tony Blackburn, being run down for cancellation, which I refuse to admit exists), I have to look elsewhere for the kind of prompt to reconsider the hidden implications of a seemingly innocent Sixties song.
Bernard Cribbins has been around as a comedian for over fifty years. My first exposure to him was via a couple of comedy songs that used to appear on the Light Programme (the BBC’s pre-numbered stations’ Music channel) and which both reached the top 10 in the year of 1962. The more famous one has always been ‘Right Said Fred’, which was actually the lesser success, but before that, Cribbins cracked the charts with ‘Hole in the Ground’.
Musically, it’s slight and innocuous, but then it wasn’t recorded for the tune, and Cribbins is no great shakes as a singer. No, this is a comedy record with no other pretensions, and it has to be praised for not having become irritating, tedious or grating in over half a century of exposure.
And what about these comedy words? Cribbins keeps it simple, doesn’t go for actual jokes, just paints a picture. Our Bernard is, by implication, a Council workman who is currently engaged in the manual labour of digging a hole, presumably but not necessarily in the road. Cribbins is keeping it casual, all, ‘there was I’ and ”so big and sort of round it was’. It’s all very low-key and next to pleasant, until we get to ‘Him’.
‘Him’ doesn’t waste time in turning up. ‘Him’ is a superior sort of person, or at least so he thinks. We are once more on that familiar ground for British comedy, the Class War. It’s even being demonstrated visually because the worker Cribbins is stood in the hole, and ‘Him’ is standing up there, upper both class-wise and status-wise.
‘Him’, who is naturally wearing a bowler hat to signify that he is a white-collar worker who does not dirty his hands, physically at any rate, is studying the hole. There’s no suggestion that he has any authority in matters hole-wise, or that he’s a Council official acting like a little jumped-up Hitler, just a better-educated nobody with nothing better to do than to tell a slovenly lower-class labourer what he’s doing wrong.
I mean, he’s polite enough to couch them in the form of a suggestion, but we all know (and boy, did we, in the Sixties) that he thinks he can order this layabout around. ‘Don’t dig it there’, he says, ‘dig it elsewhere’, not to mention that ‘you’re digging it round and it ought to be square’. In short, ‘you’re digging it wrong (and) it’s much too long’. That aside, plus it being in the wrong place, there’s not much else amiss.
Now Cribbins looks on this with the traditional contempt of the British labourer for those who do not get their hands dirty, not to mention the nosey parker who thinks he knows better than the working man just because he’s a bit further up the scale, so to speak. Indeed Cribbins, after a bit more digging, just to make the point that he’s working whilst the bowler-hatted man might be ‘all grand and official with his nose in the air’ but he’s the one not getting on with his job, slows down a bit, scratches his head, lights a fag (and if you don’t remember the Sixties you’ll never understand just how that could be turned into a gesture of political contempt) and replies, in the same rhythm, that the hole’s being dug there and it’s being dug round, because that’s what our worker is doing, and he makes it into a personal preference: he’s doing that because that’s what he wants to do, and that’s the end of the argument, both in fact and metaphor.
So am I suggesting that this seemingly innocuous and lightweight comedy record is in truth an example of the Class war at its height? Of Socialism versus Capitalism? Labour versus the Boss Class? Is it an unsuspected paean to Communism, smuggled by stealth into the British Top 10? Well, yes, I suppose on one level it is, and personally I could do with more of that sort of thing.
But what makes it a question of Is That What It’s Really About? is the song’s coda. There isn’t a hole in the ground any longer. It’s been filled in. The ground is once again flat, the legendary level playing field.
And underneath it is the man in the bowler hat.
Did he jump? Was he pushed? Was he, perish the thought, buried alive and left to suffocate by degrees, his ever-fainter cries unheard by anyone passing? Have we really be amusing ourselves for 1 minute and 52 seconds (including roadwork sound effects) over a murder?
Yes, my friends, we have. Think on that.

4 thoughts on “Is That What It’s Really About? Bernard Cribbins’ ‘Hole in the Ground’

  1. I think there’s more to this song. It’s existentialist. We are never explicitly told the digger is a council worker. His work is industrious, he is specific about its design, but ultimately we have no idea what the hole is for, an allegory for life. The bowler hatted man also has no reason to object to the hole, but object he does. Man’s intolerance of man. Ultimately the bowler hatted man dies, but with him goes the diggers purpose. It’s pretty nihilistic.

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