Friday, September 21, 2012

Yes! It's the Benny Hill Show

Photo via sueupton.net
I consider it a privilege that by the age of 10 I was regularly watching The Benny Hill Show with my parents. When other kids were watching Fame and Silver Spoons, I was taking in the hijinks of Hill and his cleavage peeking crew as they chased after skimpily dressed women, known as Hill's Angels. Some of Benny's humor was actually perfectly appropriate for kids--a fixture of the show was vaudevillian slapstick and silly songs with cleverly disguised double-entendres which flew over my young head. But let's face it, the sketches that I remember most and that were the funniest were those that just barely made it past the U.S. television censors (if anyone was indeed censoring the show.) I distinctly remember one dance number where the entire male cast appeared on stage wearing trench coats, then flashed the audience--each revealing a nude colored body suit with a strategically placed fig leaf. By 1980s television standards, it really did look like everyone was naked. Another sketch showed a sequence of clips meant to emulate a couple copulating and reaching orgasm--a washing machine, a rocket ship blasting into space, fireworks, etc. I was never into Monty Python and I never really got The Black Adder, so The Benny Hill Show served as my introduction to British humor. I suppose for many boys my age at the time who were allowed to watch it, it also served as an introduction to sex. 

For many years, I didn't dare admit to my friends that I watched this show. It's not like I could have said at the lunch table, "Did you see that Bionic Baby sketch on Benny Hill last night? What a hoot!" They would have thought I was nuts! You see, a lot of people thought this was a sexist and politically incorrect show. Benny would often point out that while the men on the show ogled and chased the women, they never actually caught any. Like Wile E. Coyote chasing after the Roadrunner, Benny never did get the hot chick and it became a recurring gag for several decades. 

A comedian named Ben Elton made a ridiculous claim in 1987 both on the TV and in Q magazine that The Benny Hill Show was to blame for the increase of rape in England during the decade and that the show encouraged other violent acts towards women. He later tried to backpedal and said the comment was taken out of context, but it drives home the point on how seriously some viewers took the show. 


Something about the show that I only learned just recently is that it existed in one way or another since the 1950s. I always think of Benny Hill as a 70s and 80s television fixture because that was when I watched it (the Thames years as I call them, as the show aired on Thames in the UK before it made its way to the States.) Alfred Hawthorne Hill worked a number of odd jobs early in his life before getting into radio and comedy, and changed his first name to Benny to honor his favorite comedian, Jack Benny. Benny Hill's first comedic sketch appeared on the BBC1 channel in 1951 on a program called Hi There! By the late 50s, the format known as The Benny Hill Show had come to fruition. 

Here's a black and white sketch from the mid-60s. The first few minutes really aren't that funny, but the middle portion that takes place in the gym is classic Benny--utilizing creative camera work for comedic effect.



By the 70s, Benny's male supporting cast was made up of Henry McGee, Jon Jon Keefe, Nicholas Parsons, and Bob Todd. But perhaps the most memorable actor on the show was Jackie Wright. He was the little old man with an unintelligible Irish accent who often appeared in drag or got slapped on his bald head by Benny. For many years, my parents speculated that Wright was actually Benny's real-life father but in fact, he was an Irish comedian who got discovered by Benny in the mid-60s. When he passed away in 1989 Benny told the press, "He was a lovely little fella...I'm saddened beyond words." 


Benny with Jackie Wright via Britcoms.de
You never knew what you were going to see on The Benny Hill Show. In retrospect I've realized that Benny seemed to imitate more American pop culture figures and characters than British celebs; he lampooned Kojak, Cannon, Starsky and Hutch, The A Team, McCloud, Kenny Rogers, Marlon Brando, and Orson Wells. The Bionic Baby skit that I mentioned earlier was what would have happened if The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman met and had a child together; Benny plays several parts in the segment including appearing in blackface as Ida Amin. 

Of course, a post about The Benny Hill Show would not be complete without mentioning its closing number, Yakety Sax. I always thought it would be worth learning the saxophone someday just to be able to play this song at parties. The closing to this show always featured the cast running (more sped-up camera work) in a Keystone Cops style...literally a running gag! 

At one point The Benny Hill Show aired in 140 countries. According to a documentary called Living Famously, John Howard Davies, the former head of entertainment at Thames Television, cancelled the show in 1989 because "...the audiences were going down, the programme was costing a vast amount of money, and (Hill) was looking a little tired." However, the story I've heard on other retro blogs is that the downfall of the show was due to UK viewers getting increasingly upset by the T-and-A jokes, which seems a bit odd given that Benny's theme was hardly anything new and scandalous. Either way, the cancelation seemed pretty low brow to me considering that it happened right after Benny attended a successful Cannes television festival and thought he was getting a new series from Thames. 

When Benny Hill passed away in 1992, my parents and I were surprised to learn that the man who had seemed to enjoy such notoriety on television apparently lived a quiet life and had never married, although he proposed to three women throughout his lifetime, all of whom turned him down. He didn't own his home or a car, and enjoyed traveling to France. 

I have about three or four "best of The Benny Hill Show" VHS tapes that I gave to my father for what turned out to be his last Christmas and I haven't been able to bring myself around to watching them again since, as he was such a fan of the show. But perhaps it's time to reconnect that VCR...I'd like to think my dad will somehow be watching them with me. 

Clips from the show are not as plentiful online as I would have thought, but here's a few giggle worthy ones I roused up...

 







Jane Leeves, of Frasier and Hot in Cleveland fame, was one of the more famous Hill's Angels. If 2+2 was good enough for Benny, I'm sure it was good enough for male fans, too!



More Hill's Angels...gee, I don't have the faintest idea why guys loved Benny Hill so much, do you? Keep watching, my fellow ladies...it does get funny for us:



That famous closing theme...

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

"... Nau-ght Alau-ght of people know that..." as Benny Hill would say with a grin.
Thanks Pam for a great post...
s-a-h-d

JZ said...

Benny Hill was saucy, not sexist (there is a difference). It was good fun and did not encourage violence against women any more than The Three Stooges encouraged violence among kids (I remember hearing that one a lot when I was growing up, certain video games strike me as being a lot more violent these days). Political Correctness gone mad. Benny made me laugh and I miss him.

ApacheDug said...

Awesome piece, Pam! God I grew up on Benny Hill too--my mom thought it was the worst thing ever but she laughed harder than anyone at that little bald man (who was my favorite too until puberty kicked in) :)

I can still remember getting a headache sometimes during the first season of "Frasier", I kept thinking I knew Daphne from somewhere but couldn't place her--I only found out a couple years ago that I'd first seen her on Benny Hill :)

Anyway, enjoyed this look back & the clips. I'm with JZ, I miss him too.

Blake Arledge said...

Absolutely loved Benny Hill - he was part of what shaped my humor. I used to spend Saturday nights at my Grandmother's just to stay up late and watch "that dirty old man" as she called him. One of the first Hill sketches I saw was where he bumped into a bicycle, knocking off the seat. Then the camera zoomed in to his face as he slung his leg over to sit down!

Lacey said...

the 80s and 90s in general saw the demise of "bawdy" humor. Look at the "saucy" sitcoms of the 70s and the more serious one so f the 80s and 90s. Look at Three's Company Vs Cheers and then Rosanne. Look at Charles's Angels the Remington Steel on to the CSI franchise. Even set in Las Vegas, there is hardly any jiggling going on in CSI.

Benny Hill was as funny the last episode as it ever was. We all just got a little to "grown up" to watch it anymore.

Pitty.

Pam@GoRetro said...

It's interesting to me that I lost a couple of followers this weekend--I guess those two people have no sense of humor.

JZ said...

You have plenty more followers to make up for it Pam. Maybe we can have a Benny Hill marathon...:)

Pam@GoRetro said...

You are absolutely correct, JZ. Thanks for being a follower!

lazlo1988 said...

God bless Benny Hill. You know, his humor was always in good spirit and well intentioned. I used to watch his show as well, coming on the local independent station at around 11:00 or so at night. And as a young middle school kid, his humor hit just the right spot.

But funny he definitely was. I recently watched a number of his skits from back in the late '70s and early '80s, and was immediately taken back as I absolutely fell on the floor laughing! Just like the old days!

BTW: I believe the famous Benny Hill theme is called "Yackety Sax."

Anonymous said...

Benny: Genio del Humor Mundial! Desde Argentina, un abrazo!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I also was 10 yeras old when the show was released in the argentine tv. Please, do not forget Mr Jacky Wright : another humour hero

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