Benny Hill: British Comedy That Americans Embraced
British Comedian and Writer Benny Hill Being chased by his 'Hill's Angels' in the famous closing sequence of 'The Benny Hill Show'. (Photoshot/Getty Images)
On The Benny Hill Show, Benny Hill gave Americans -- and the world -- a form of British comedy that was slapstick and cheeky. The Benny Hill Show aired for over 30 years on British TV, and for over a decade was a syndicated hit in the U.S. Full of double-entendres, silly buffoonish characters, iconic chase scenes and endless mugging by the lovable Hill, The Benny Hill Show was as English as tea and crumpets. It stood apart from Monty Python -- which featured absurdist sketches about German philosophers and the Spanish Inquisition -- in that viewers didn't need an Oxford education to get the jokes. Hill's broad comedy about dim-witted characters (always played by Hill himself) made him one of the most popular comedy performers in the world.
Alfred Hawthorne was born on January 21, 1924 in Southampton on the south coast of England. Prior to becoming a comedian, he held a variety of jobs, including as a drummer and an assistant stage manager; he eventually adopted the name “Benny” as an homage to his favorite comedian, Jack Benny. After World War II, Hill performed on the radio, debuting in 1947 on Variety Bandbox. Benny Hill made his television debut in the British revue Here’s Mud In Your Eye. He recognized the potential for humor in the medium and he became the first British comedian who found his fame through television. The BBC recognized the strength of his work and he was hired for an additional revue, Hi There! in 1951. The Benny Hill Show then appeared mainly on the BBC from 1955-1968, until Hill signed a contract with Thames Television in 1969. Hill retained significant control over the show, writing all of the scripts and much of the music himself.
The Show Was Like A Vaudeville Performance
The Benny Hill Show was formatted kind of like a variety show. Each episode typically started with one or more “quickies,” which were brief, humorous sketches. The quickies were followed by an opening ballad or a monologue which was accompanied by music and quite often, the music was laden with innuendo. After the opening monologue/ballad, the show featured sketches, acts, fake blooper reels, and guest spots. Each episode ended with a comedy tag that culminated in a chase scene set to the "Yakety Sax" theme. This gag featured members of the cast as well as stock comedy characters such as policemen, vicars and old women chasing Hill. The song was so inextricably linked to the show that people sometimes called it “The Benny Hill Theme.” The show also included young and glamorous model/actress/dancers, dubbed the "Hill’s Angels" (somewhat like the Hee Haw Honeys).
Hill's Role On The Show
Hill played a number of characters and most of them weren’t very smart. His characters were often looking for love but never finding any success with the women. As some of his characters attempted to look up women’s skirts, they were frequently whacked on the head. Of these characters, his most popular character was Fred Scuttle, who was jovial and extroverted, and who had tried his hand at a number of jobs.
It Was An International Hit
In the late 1970s, the show became international, as it began to air in 140 other countries, including the U.S., demonstrating a wide appeal for the humor in the show, which was not intellectual comedy, but more immature. The show seemed to have a connection to the physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin, one of Hill’s influences; the admiration seems to have been mutual, as Chaplin had a collection of recordings of The Benny Hill Show. The show itself relied on slapstick, burlesque, and double entendres and Hill moved seamlessly between characters, he sprinkled one-liners among physical comedy and visual gags in silent scenes. Hill was also able to use his overly expressive face as a comedic asset as well.
Hill's Success Beyond Television
Benny Hill was not confined to the small screen though, as he appeared in several movies such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Italian Job all while continuing his television show. He also wrote songs for more than just his television show, with several songs becoming a success, including his number 1 hit, “Ernie: The Fastest Milkman in the West.”
It Didn't Survive The Changing Times
Despite the continuing success of The Benny Hill Show, Thames Television cancelled production of the show in 1989, citing production costs and declining ratings. However, Thames may have dropped him because of the emerging wave of political correctness and accusations of sexism. The show continued to make money after Thames dropped it though, and three years after its cancellation, Hill was invited to return to the airwaves by Central Television. However, before the show could be completed, Hill died. Prior to his death, he released a one-time special in 1991, Benny Hill in New York.
A Lonely End
Although he was an international celebrity, Hill kept to himself and no one had a bad thing to say about him. He also refused to spend the significant money he made during his career. He never owned a house or a car, wearing his clothes until they were threadbare. Hill never married or had children, and died on April 20, 1992 in his apartment, following a heart attack. He was found two days later in his armchair in front of the television.
Tags: Benny Hill | The Benny Hill Show | British Comedy
Like it? Share with your friends!