|Photo via sueupton.net|
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|
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...