Dave Lanning meets Lonnie Donegan in 1967
IF you want to get ahead with a straw boater, get a twitch.
It only takes two years to perfect and I’m taking my first lesson right now — from Lonnie Donegan, who is something of a past master.
Now I’ve always rated the boater as the Prince of Titfers. Rakish, practical, evocative of gay, carefree days gone by. And jolly British, too, by Gad. You don’t see many about these days and mores the pity. I can’t think why I haven’t plucked up the courage to don one until now.
It’s all thanks to Lonnie, you see. Reported to rehearsals for this week’s The Des O’Connor Show wearing one. He’s a boater man. Dapper, cheery, with a definite touch of the old music hall about his act.
So I’ve dropped in on Lonnie’s tree-shrouded, splendidly-designed bungalow in Surrey, to talk to an expert. About boaters.
And he’s delighted the subject has arisen.
“The boater,” he says, “represents a great era in show business… vaudeville and music hall. Audiences still enjoy seeing them. too. Give an act dash.”
Lonnie was introduced to his first boater 10 years ago, in an eccentric “double” with Billy Dainty. It was love at first sight. When touring New Zealand in 1961 with, coincidentally, Des O’Connor, he perfected his “Donegan Twitch,” an old-time hat trick of unknown origins but taught to Lonnie by gipsy singer Danny Purches during a backstage break.
It’s unfair, really. Watching experts like Lonnie, Frankie Vaughan, Tommy Trinder, we’re inclined to take their flashy interludes of hat handling very much for granted. Strictly a show biz embellishment. But it takes hours and hours of practice. Just for that dazzling moment of manipulation that we hardly notice.
Take the “Donegan Twitch.” Hat starts in right hand. It’s flicked, up and over. Caught precariously on the bridge formed by right thumb and forefinger. Then twitched on one forefinger for precisely one and a half revolutions. Then placed… or rather, clamped… upon head at suitably saucy angle.
Lonnie does it all in one magnificently nonchalant movement. And when he’s walking! Yes, walking. I’m stood still and in dead trouble with the first flick-up-and-over manoeuvre. You must make sure the bow in the ribbon doesn’t catch. And that bow must be on the left-hand side of the boater as worn. That’s sartorial tradition. No decent chap would ever abuse that.
Brightly, Lonnie adds: “I practised that routine solid for two years. Every day. Before I go on. I’ll do a dozen or so run-throughs. When you start, you get it right once in a hundred times then stop. Start again, get it right twice in a hundred times, then stop. And so on, until you get it right every time.”
Okay, so let’s chase my 100-1 chance. Flick… up… over… don’t snatch, now… twitch… oops, there goes another perfectly good boater, crashing on its brim on Lonnie’s plush, fitted lounge carpet.
“Boaters take a bit of a hammering,” says Lonnie, very philosophically. “I need a new one about every four months.”
A good boater is not all that easy to come by. Out of Luton’s (the traditional centre of the British hat industry) 241 manufacturers only one exclusively makes boaters.
“If I need a new one,” explained Lonnie, “I nose around to find the local meat market. Many butchers wouldn’t be seen without one. If there’s no meat market, then I try the nearest school outfitters — buy one, and change the ribbon. Some headmasters might get a bit shirty if they see me singing ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’ while wearing the colours of a public school!”
He pays about £2 [£35.50 in 2018 prices allowing for inflation] a boater, and loves each one dearly. In America, those natty, serrated brim jobs cost up to a tenner. [£180]
And although boaters are considered frightfully English — tennis on the lawn and all that, chaps — the actual making of the plaits or braids for straw hats was first introduced by Mary, Queen of Scots, back in 1552.
Now there’s a thought. But for some completely unknown quirk in history, the Scottish national dress could be kilts and boaters!
Anyway, this week, in The Des O’Connor Show, Lonnie sings “Lily of Laguna,” “Tootsie,” and “I’m Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover,” which are all jolly fine boater numbers. And I’m beginning to get the first flick-over right and now I’ve only got the twitch to go.
There’s progress for you.