February 10, 2003
Executive Co-producer-Ian Gordon / Executive Producer Mark Hill / Assistant Producer Lynette Quinlan / Series Producer Tom Ware
This episode focuses on the late Alfred Hawthorne “Benny” Hill (January 21, 1924 – April 20, 1992), British comedian and television staple for over 40 years. The man was and still is a legend. I have been a fan for quite some time and finding this was a real treat.
I stumbled across this when I was trying to find the short film for his novelty song “Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)” based on the daydreams he had during his pre-fame milkman days. Apparently that particular video is no longer up on YouTube (yet other versions are), but I did stumble across this gem from 2003. In my mind it was a fair trade. I guess this show is the British answer to the old American series Biography.
Sir Benny Hill (never knighted) was a worldwide phenomenon for a time. He was and still is in many ways a bit of a pop culture icon. Though not mentioned directly he even appeared in a Genesis music video for the song “Anything She Does” as his character Fred Scuttle who it is said was his favorite.
This episode paints a picture of a sad figure. The only outlet for who he was seemed to his program. One of the interviewees states that he used laughter for every emotion so no one truly knew who he was. Though rich and famous around the world he was alone and isolated. That is a bit of a cliché but appears true here.
But Benny Hill was not exactly some eccentric hermit. The description that comes across is of a surprisingly normal individual in the majority of his life. He had friends he would hang out with and was surprisingly frugal. He did not live a luxurious life or wear expensive clothing. He shopped for deals! That is normal people stuff.
Hill’s humor was risqué but done with a child like innocence and this program captures that. It tells about his early years and his time on television all the way up to how he was unceremoniously let go. There are some details behind that event that are not touched on here and from what little I have read of the events it sounded like revenge. I actually feel kind of bad about how it all went down for Benny Hill. He was a long-time employee of the BBC that was called into the office and was just handed a pink slip and sent away in under a few minutes.
Given the humor Benny Hill was known for you could be left with the impression of him as a generally creepy pervert but the memories that the guests share are genuinely warm ones and the feelings they have are positive. His series choreographer, Sue Upton, told how wonderful he was with her children and the impression he made when he went down to an event that one of her children had requested he attend.
I am not calling Benny Hill a saint nor are they here. He would audition actresses at his flat and then proceed to date those same actresses. That would not fly in the #MeToo era, but the interesting thing is no body seems to have an axe to grind over it. The man has been dead for nearly 30 years and nobody has really talked about it.
Interestingly Hill’s characters as noted by one of the interviewees here were failures with women. No matter what they did or tried they always fell flat on their faces. Makes me wonder if this was a subconscious metaphor for the man himself. I am curious what he may have actually been saying.
It has been said how Benny Hill was a fan of Charlie Chaplin and was unaware of Chaplin being a fan of his until after the comedian’s death when Hill was presented with an award for his work in comedy and how learning his hero was a fan moved him. Apparently he was not just a fan but a REALLY BIG fan. We all would like to be appreciated by your idols, but few people ever get that chance.
I remember watching The Benny Hill Show late at night on the weekends on CBS. It was very juvenile humor and I am not intending that as an insult. It was silly and slapstick and at times topical (for his home country) but always went for the funny. Part of Benny Hill’s success was because he understood how do use television back in the early day. He knew how to perform in front of a camera instinctively and he knew how to use the tools available to him in innovative ways. One instant cited was a parody of a British series called Jukebox Jury where Hill played all parts in the same sketch. It was a prerecorded bit but to British audiences it was an innovative and novel thing. Nobody had done anything like that before for British audiences.
Living Famously: Benny Hill is a great profile of the pop culture figure. You will get a good feel for the man behind it all. Watch it!