"The pleasures of drink last but a moment, Cigarettes make you sick, you could die; But the love of a beautiful woman, oh! That's the best thing that money can buy!"


Famous for becoming the most internationally recognized British comedian, Benny Hill is most fondly remembered from his role as host of "The Benny Hill Show", a television series that ran for four decades and has been syndicated in over 109 different countries. His unique brand of cheeky humor is known and loved the world over.

Who was Benny Hill?

Born Alfred Hawthorn Hill on January 21, 1924 (or 1925) in Southampton, England, the boy who would grow to up to be one of England's most famous international comedians dreamed of becoming a star, much like his idol Charlie Chaplin. His grandfather who introduced him to Burlesque shows and the Vaudeville humor that would so strongly influence his future work. His dream of become a comedy star would be fulfilled after many years of hard work.

Finding his direction early in life, Benny was a dedicated actor in school plays and local theatre. Before enlisting for mandatory National Service in 1940, Benny had held jobs as a milkman and a drummer. He would draw on these jobs for inspiration later in his career. Returning to London after being discharged from service, Hill adopted his stage name, as a tribute to his favorite comedian at the time, Jack Benny. He landed a job as a theatre manager and various bit parts around town. His first real part came in 1941 with a production of "Stars in Battledress". Hill later followed the more traditional route of comedians by performing in revues at music halls and men's clubs. Radio work and a brief partnership with comedian Reg Varney soon followed. Benny's talent for impressions and comic timing landed him his first television role in 1949, with an appearance on "Hi There".

Seeing the power of the new medium of television early on, Hill began hosting a handful of variety programs for the BBC in the early 1950s. His first movie role followed in 1956, when he played the role of a bumbling private eye in Who Done It?, a box office flop. His most important role actually came one year earlier.

The Benny Hill Show began in 1955. Between 1955 and 1969, when production moved to Thames Television, the show had a wildly irregular schedule. Canceled and renewed over and over, the show still managed to launch Hill to superstardom. Refining his style of cheeky humor, songs and impressions made the show a fan favorite early. Benny also appeared in several more motion pictures, with notable roles in The Italian Job, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

In 1969 the move from ATV to Thames Television launched the golden age of the Benny Hill Show. Hill gained national popularity with his saucy comedy. The show was loaded with bawdy humor and sexual innuendos. The slapstick skits often featuring Hill and a supporting cast of scantily clad women known as "Hill’s Angels" were an instant success. The show was a runaway hit and ran from 1969 till 1989. Benny was on top of the world.

What most audiences outside of the United Kingdom know as The Benny Hill Show, was in fact a compilation series of 111 half-hour episodes. These shows were syndicated on North American television beginning in 1979. With the release of the show in North America, Benny Hill became a household name in both the United States and Canada. The show itself has been seen in 109 countries and won a BAFTA as well as Golden Rose Of Montreaux Award. The series amassed a huge cult following, making Hill the most popular British comedian to appear on U.S. television. The compilation series was sold in over 90 other foreign language markets, including Russia and China. Benny's TV career came to an end in 1989, when his show was dropped from ITV, but his popularity continued to build around the world until his death several years later.

Benny Hill died alone at his home in Teddington, Middlesex, England on April 18th, 1992, suffering a heart attack while sitting in his favorite chair watching television. He had suffered with a chronic heart condition for years before his death. He was 68 years old.

Benny Hill's death stirred up a controversy. Worth an estimated 7.5 million pounds, Benny's will was years out of date. It directed that his earnings be given to his parents, both long dead. Next in line were his estranged brother Leonard and sister Diana, also dead. The executor of his estate divided the money among Hill's seven nieces and nephews. A note was found among Benny's belongings assigned huge sums of money to long time friends and costars Sue Upton, Louise English, Henry McGee, Bob Todd and Dennis Kirkland. Neither signed nor witnessed, the note had no legal standing.


What made him so funny?

There are some things that are pure Benny Hill. Raising his hand to his forehead with a palm facing out and optionally crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue, Benny made the reverse salute his trademark. The famous theme song from the Benny Hill Show is recognized around the world, with its comical saxophone melody featured prominently at both the beginning and ending of most shows. The song is actually titled Yakety Sax. Hill was a master of the reaction shot, wrote slapstick comedy on par with that of the Three Stooges, and pantomimed like few others outside of silent films. His sketch comedy was fast paced and over the top with sight gags and smuttiness. Many segments of naughty rhyming songs written and performed by Hill, with accompanying leers and winks, appeared on the show. Buxom girls were constantly being chased or ogled by Hill, usually ending with a slap or a wide rolling eye grin from Benny.

Hill was adept at playing idiots who on a slightly closer inspection turned out to be both sly and lecherous. Many reoccurring characters, like Fred Scuttle the inept security guard, played along side an impressive supporting cast. Actor Jackie Wright provided the ultimate sidekick to Hill's buffoon in his role as the small, elderly bald man Hill lovingly slapped on the top of the head in many skits.

The Benny Hill Show ended in almost the same way every week. A chase featuring sped up photography and a combination of Hill, well-endowed women, British bobbies, jealous boyfriends, amorous ugly people and the little bald man raced across the screen to the distinctive theme song.


Benny Trivia

Benny was left-handed, stood 5' 10 1/2" tall and never owned a car in his entire life. He died a bachelor after having proposed to two different women.

There is actually heated debate over what year Benny Hill was born in. Both January 21, 1924 and January 21, 1925 are stated as his birthday. Actual birth records exist for both dates. Hill himself was never sure. By the time it was discovered, everyone who knew for sure had passed on.

He was one of only a handful of early television comedians who had control over the production of their shows. Only Jackie Gleason and Milton Berle had similar control in American broadcasting.

After Benny's death, his estate was cataloged. In his small apartment, Hill kept all the many awards he had won over the course of his career in a large box. None were on display.

Hill lived happily within walking distance of the studio which he produced so many of his shows. Even though had earned millions of pounds over the course of his career, he did his own grocery shopping, and in fact never used the second floor of his two story flat.

The Benny Hill show was not universally loved in Great Britain. After a series of complaints about the sexual nature of much of the humor shown, Hill started casting the children of his production crew to appear in skits with him. None of the children were professional actors, and Hill delighted in showing their genuine reactions to his madcap actions. These children became known as the "Little Angels".


The Quotable Benny Hill

I'm not against half-naked girls...well, not as often as I'd like to be.

Have you noticed that all the people in favour of birth control are already born?

Why would I make one woman so miserable when I can make so many women very happy?

(When asked to comment on rumors that he had sexual affairs with women on his shows): "I never yell, I never tell, but I'm grateful as hell."


Benny's Body of work

Hill worked as an actor, a writer, a composer and even a hit singer, with his humorous single "Ernie The Fastest Milkman In The West". This list is guide to his various works over his long and successful career.

  • Who Got Benny's Millions? - archive footage of Benny - 2002
  • Benny Hill: A Tribute - archive footage of Benny - 1992
  • Benny Hill's World: New York! - Host - 1991
  • The Crazy World of Benny Hill - Himself - 1988
  • Genesis Music Video "Anything She Does" - Guard Fred Scuttle - 1986
  • Benny Hill's V!deo S!deshow - Himself - 1982
  • Best of the Benny Hill Show - Himself - 1981
  • To See Such Fun - Himself - 1977
  • Best of Benny Hill - Himself - 1974
  • The Waiters - Waiter - 1971
  • The Italian Job - Professor Simon Peach - 1969
  • "Benny Hill Show, The" TV Series - Host - 1969
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - Toymaker - 1968
  • Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 Minutes - Fire Chief Perkins - 1965
  • A Midsummer’s Night's Dream - Bottom - 1964
  • Light Up the Sky! - Syd McGaffey - 1960
  • Pantomania: Babes in the Wood - Minstrell -1957
  • Who Done It? - Hugo Dill - 1956
thanks to anotherone for telling me the name of the Benny Hill show theme song, Yakety Sax.

British Comedian
Born 1924 Died 1992

In 1992 Marian Davies, former member of the Ladybirds (Benny Hill's backing singers for many years), was working on a cruise ship sailing up the Amazon. Taken on a trip up the jungle, she was introduced to a group of tribesman as a friend of Benny Hill. She was somewhat surprised to be rapidly surrounded by an awestruck crowd whose chief addressed her with the words; "We hear he is dead. None of my people believe it because we still see him on television. How can he be dead?" Such was the fame of the man who was once the world's most popular comedian, which had percolated even to the farthest reaches of the Amazonian rainforest.

His early life and origins

Benny Hill was the stage name adopted by Alfred Hawthorn Hill who arrived in this world weighing in at a substantial eleven pounds on the 21st January 1924 at 30 Bridge Road, Southampton, being the second of three children of Alfred Hawthorn Hill (Big Alf) and his wife Helen, née Cave. (1)

His grandfather Henry Hawthorn Hill was the only son of a surgeon who, after a curtailed education, was apprenticed as a chemist in London but soon abandoned that in favour of a peripatetic career as a circus entertainer and sometime comedian. Alfred Hill senior was one of Henry's eight children who like his father initially followed a circus career. Big Alf however quit the circus in 1910 and decided to seek a more stable source of income. He came to Southampton looking for a job as a ship's steward, but fortunately for this story he failed to get the job and the RMS Titanic sailed without him. Alfred ended up working for Jack Stanley, who was officially practicing as a medical herbalist, but whose real business was the supply of condoms. When World War I intervened and both Alfred Hill senior and his employer were called up to serve in the trenches and Henry Hill came down to Southampton to keep the business going. After the war (which both Alfred and his boss survived) Henry Hill returned to his old trade of pharmacy before opening his own dental practice, whilst keeping his hand with the circus business by writing a column for The World's Fair under the name of 'Aitch Aitch'.

The condom business prospered, Jack Stanley became a millionaire and his manager Alfred Hill senior did well enough to acquire a semi-detached house at 22 Westrow Gardens in Southampton close to both the local speedway track and The Dell, home of Southampton F.C. It was there that little Alf grew up alongside his elder brother Leonard and his younger sister Diana. He showed early promise and passed his eleven-plus a year early, first attending the local grammar school, Taunton's School at the age of ten, where a glittering academic career seemed to be in prospect for the young Alf Hill. (2)

However it was in 1936 that his grandfather took him and his brother Len to see their first Variety show at the Southampton Hippodrome. This, and subsequent visits to the Hippodrome and the Palace Theatre nurtured in Alf the ambition to become a professional comedian. Neither of his parents, particularly his father, approved of this idea and the only encouragement he received was from his English teacher Horace King (the future Labour member of parliament and peer). As a result Alf quite neglected his studies, was held back a year and eventually left school at fifteen without taking his School Certificate.

He the spent three weeks employed as a weighbridge clerk at the Phoenix Wharf and Coal Company, before his father found him a job as a trainee manager at Woolworth's in Southampton. Ald decided to quit after six months and left home, finding lodgings in Eastleigh, being determined to make his way in show business. He joined a concert party outfit run by a Mrs Ivy Lillywhite, where he played guitar and occasionally sang, whilst he worked on developing his comedy act. On the 27th October 1940 Alfred Hill made his comedic debut at the Town Hall in Eastleigh, in a concert in aid of the Spitfire Fund and organised by his old schoolmaster Horace King. The local Eastleigh Weekly News reported that he had the audience in "fits of laughter". Afterwards he took his comedy act round the working men's clubs in the area, whilst he took a dayjob as a milkman for James Hann and Son with his own round in Eastleigh. It was however clear that Southampton and distict offered limited opportunities for a would-be comedian, and so in July 1941 he left for the bright (if blacked out) lights of London.

Armed with a copy of The Stage he began knocking on doors until the impresario Harry Benet gave him a job as the assistant stage manager in a show called Follow the Fun. His principal duties were looking after the stage scenery and cleaning up the stage after the animal acts had performed. His opportunity came when the straightman to the show's principal comedian Hal Bryan failed to turn up, and Alf filled in at the last minute. He did well enough to be given some small parts and when the show closed in December 1941 he took a similar job in pantomime with Robinson Crusoe at Bournemouth. He then briefly worked at a scenery workshop before going back on the road again in March 1942 in another Benet show, Send Him Victorious in which he was billed as 'Alf Hill, The Warrior'.

There was, of course, a war on, but when his call up papers arrived back home in Southampton in July 1942 Alf simply decided to simply ignore them, in the belief that he would just be forgotten about. He sadly underestimated the capabilities of the British authorities and one night in November 1942 two military policemen turned up at the New Theatre, Cardiff and arrested him. After spending a night in the police cells he was escorted to a military camp at Lincoln and introduced to the delights of basic training. He was afterwards posted to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as a driver-mechanic, a most unsuitable job for quite possibly the least mechanically minded young man in the country.

His military service was unremarkable apart from the fact that he lost his virginity to the wife of a local cafe owner somewhere on French soil in the early part of 1945. With the end of the war he obtained a transfer to the Central Pool of Artists and became a member of the Stars in Battledress troupe. Back in Britain he was given a part in a musical play Happy Weekend, and then sent back to Germany act as the compere of an army Variety show It's All in Fun. At the final dress rehearsals a major turned up who decided that he wasn't funny and sacked him. Alf went back to being a stage manager, who occasionally succeeded in sneaking on stage to perform the odd turn.

After the war

It was whilst he was with the Stars in Battledress that he had decided that neither Alf nor Alfred Hill sounded quite right, and decided to adopt the stagename of 'Benny Hill', partly in honour of Jack Benny, and partly because he thought it made him sound more Jewish. (Following his father's advice to 'keep in with the Jews'; a reasonably sound piece of advice given the preponderance of Jews in the entertainment business.) It was thus as Benny Hill that he was eventually demobilised in May 1947 and began the search for work. There wasn't a great deal about at the time, and so Benny approached Frank Woolf who ran Show World, a competitor to The Stage, and struck a deal to receive free advertising in return for providing a humorous column for the paper. He took his act around the pubs and clubs of the capital, appeared on BBC radio shows as Variety Roundabout and Variety Bandbox, and even made his television debut in Music-Hall which was transmitted by the BBC on the 23rd March 1949.

However his first real break came in the summer of 1948 when he beat Peter Sellers in the audition to appear as the straightman alongside Reg Varney (the future star of The Rag Trade and later On The Buses) in the show Gaytime at the Cliftonville Lido (the posh end of Margate). Varney's agent Richard Stone decided it therefore made sense to sign up Benny as well. For the first time he therefore found himself with a professional agent, and when the double act he developed with Varney an undoubted success, Benny was finally getting regular work. He spent the summer of 1949 at Newquay in Cornwall before rejoining Varney at Margate for the 1950 summer season. After Margate he was put into a touring show Sky High which again featured the Hill and Varney double act. For a time it seemed as if Benny might be on the road to success as one half of a double act, until that fateful night on the 9th April 1951 when Sky High played at the Sunderland Empire and Benny Hill died on stage and was given the slow handclap. The show's managers decided to remove his solo spot from the show, and Benny decided that in that case he'd quit the show altogether, abandoning his partnership with Varney.

Back in London Benny decided that thing to do was to establish himself as a comedy scriptwriter, and began circulating some scripts. These attracted the interest of the producer Bill Lyon-Shaw, who believed that television should be developing its own talent, and was on the look out for likely candidates. Shaw sent him to see Ronald Waldman, the Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC, who liked the scripts and was somehow persuaded that Benny was also the best person to perform them. The upshot was that Benny's very first solo television show Hi There was broadcast on the 20th August 1951. Based on the surviving script it appears to have followed more or less the same format as any other Benny Hill show that came afterwards. It did well enough for the BBC to employ him as the compere for various variety shows broadcast by the BBC on both television and radio, whilst he also made regular appearances on Variety Fanfare.

Eventually the BBC gave him the job of compering The Centre Show which was broadcast each month from the Nuffield Centre in London (a club for the 'forces of the crown'). There he repeated a joke about a lost football fools coupon which ended with the punchline "Whitehall Home-Away-Home-Away". Someone in the War Office decided that this sounded like "homoway" and concluded that this was a slur on the police force. The military men who ran the Nuffield Centre decided that they needed to be able to vet the show's scripts prior to transmission, BBC declined to surrender its editorial independence, whilst the story was leaked to the press, allowing the Daily Mirror to pronounce that "The public does not want its entertainment vetted by colonels".

The Nuffield Centre now refused to lend its facilities to the BBC, it simply continued as before, renaming the programme as The Services Showwhich eventually mutuated in 1954 into Showcase. In any case the resulting publicity helped transform Benny Hill into a well-known public figure and he was honoured as the Personality of the Year in the National Television Awards for 1954. He capitalised on his new-found public recognition in October 1954 when he went on tour with The Benny Hill Show, which proved to be a thundering commercial success (he made a £1,000 a week) and even went down well in Sunderland. He was also hired to appear as the straight man on Archie's the Boy (the follow-up to Educating Archie) which was the biggest thing on radio at the time, which only served to further enhance his profile.

The BBC Benny

Benny Hill was never a particularly original or innovative comedian. His early act was largely borrowed from that of Max Miller (the 'Cheeky Chappie', regarded by aficionados as the greatest of all British comedians) which he later expanded on by using material acquired from the many 'gag books' published in the United States, and cribbed from comedy shows broadcast on the American Forces Network. Indeed he developed something of a reputation for 'borrowing' material from other comedians (much to their annoyance), in fact he was quite thorough in his approach and any American comedian who ventured to London would find Benny in the audience, notebook in hand, taking notes.

The other thing to realise about Benny Hill is that he was never a particularly accomplished theatre performer, being quite unable to project much beyond the first few rows of the stalls. What was a however a decided disadvantage on stage was a positive advantage on television, where his mannerisms where on a sufficiently small scale to be successful on the small screen, whereas the practiced stage craft of other comics simply appeared overblown. As the Sunday Pictorial was later to put it "he THINKS television" and that, if anything, proved to be the secret of his success. In an age when his perhaps more able competitors thought simply of television as a means of exposing stage act to a wider audience, Benny realised that television required a different approach. Perhaps his big innovation was his ability to produce 'guys' (as they were known as the time), or parodies of the popular television shows of the day. One of his early successes was his spoof of What's My Line, in which he played all four of the regular panel members, (quite a feat in the 1950s since he only had thirty seconds for the costume change from one character to another to cope with the requirements of live television) giving him an opportunity to display his undoubted gift for mimicry.

Eventually the BBC decided to give Benny his own television series and The Benny Hill Show was launched on the BBC on the 12th January 1955. The show featured spoofs of other TV shows, comedy sketches supplied by his longtime collaborator Dave Freeman, together with Benny's own comic songs; although like all of television comedy at the time, since the show was broadcast live, the actual comedy was padded out with other appearances from other acts, simply in order to allow time for costume and/or set change. Nonetheless the Benny Hill Show was a hit with the critics, broke records for audiences and won almost universal approval from BBC Audience research, and propelled Benny to the status of the very first British television comedy star.

Eager to make the best of his client's new found fame, Richard Stone signed Benny up for a long term deal with theatre impresario Bernard Delfont. Benny therefore found himself scheduled to appear in the West End show Paris by Night which combined the Folies Bergère with British comedy acts, which featured Benny together with the up-and-coming Tommy Cooper. Although Benny initially enjoyed the idea of being a West End star, he soon began to hate performing in this show. His style of comedy simply didn't work on a large stage, and after Paris by Night closed, Benny decided that he didn't want to do it again. However Delfont only agreed to release Benny from his obligations in returning for signing up to eight hour long shows for Associated Television (which was run by Delfont's brother Lew Grade). Therefore between 1957 and 1960 Benny also appeared on ITV on Saturday Spectacular, although ITV were disapointed that Benny simply recycled material he had already done for the BBC.

In fact appearing on stage held less and less attractions for Benny. He appeared in summer seasons at Great Yarmouth in 1957 and Scarborough in 1958, but afterwards refused to do any more and focussed his efforts on putting together his own show Fine Fettle, subtitled as 'A Musical Romp in Cloth Cap and Tails', which was an attempt to do an English version of the sophisticated revue that had earned acclaim for the French comedian Robert Dhéry. Fine Fettle opened to mixed reviews and after the show closed in January 1960, Benny more or less made the decision to finish with live theatre. Indeed he became so infused with stage fright in his later life that he was more or less physically incapable of doing so.

It might have seemed that the cinema would have been an obvious opportunity for Benny's talents, given that he had come to hate performing live. In 1956 he starred in a film called Who Done It?, which was to put it bluntly pretty awful and then co-starred with Tommy Steele in Light up the Sky which was simply mediocre. That was really about it as far as his film career was concerned, although he did get a few cameo roles, most notably as the sex and computer expert in the original version of The Italian Job. He was happier and more successful in doing what he did best, which was following the now tried and tested formula of The Benny Hill Show, the mainstay of the BBC's Saturday night schedules. For a little variety during the two years from 1962 to 1963 he temporarily abandoned his standard show in favour of a series of nineteen situation comedies which appeared under the collective title of Benny Hill, and he later appeared as Bottom in a television production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1964, which was a hit with both British and American audiences. He also appeared in a series of commercials for Schweppes (one of which won the Grand Prix de la Télèvision, becoming the first English language ad to do so) for which he was paid £10,000 a time.

The Thames Benny

The trouble was that Benny had ambition, and wanted to move into films as a writer and performer, his earlier failures notwithstanding. He eventually managed to find a small London based production company, Fanfare Films which allowed him to make The Waiters, a thirty minute film with a music soundrack but no dialogue. This achieved a cinema release in 1968 (as the supporting feature for Catch 22) but it wasn't regarded as a commercial success and therefore there was little enthusiasm for his next project Eddie In August. Thames Television took advantage of this opportunity to snatch Benny from the BBC largely by promising that they would let him shoot Eddie In August. (At the time the BBC so annoyed at losing Benny and even deliberately wiped the tapes of three of his most recent shows.)

The first Benny Hill Show to appear on the 'other side' was broadcast on the 19th November 1969. Although this was essentially the same Benny Hill Show as had been appearing on the BBC since 1955 (albeit this time in colour), it contained the first examples of what would now be regarded as the defining characteristics of Benny's TV work; the show opened with the Yakety Sax instrumental (3), and finished with the end of show run-off which featured Benny being chased by a variety of outraged and usually only semi-clothed women. Although Eddie in August was screened in June 1970 it received only a muted response from both public and critics. Benny thereafter gave up on ambition and settled into the routine of making three TV shows a year and spending half of the year abroad.

Big in America

Throughout the 1970s Benny Hill continued to be a major TV star in Britain, he was largely unknown outside the country. Like the BBC Thames Television had little success in selling the show abroad, and so whilst viewers in Australia, New Zealand and Rhodesia might have known and loved Benny, most of the world remained blissfully ignorant. (Which in many ways suited Benny, since it enabled him to travel around Europe quite unmolested by fans.) In particular the world's largest television market had shown no interest in Benny Hill whatsoever. As it happens, Benny was not alone, as with the exception of Monty Python's Flying Circus, no British comedy act had ever succeeded in breaking into the American market.

The man responsible for altering this state of affairs was Don Taffner, Thames Television's American agent. Realising that the networks wouldn't touch Benny Hill, it was his idea to take the thirty-one hour-long shows that were sitting in the Thames TV archive and break them into half hour shows, and sell these to independent stations which could strip them across the same time slot Monday to Friday for a thirteen week season. The biggest problem that Taffner faced wasn't so much in selling the show (he soon found four stations willing to take the show) but in persuading Benny Hill to accept any deal whatsoever, simply because Benny wasn't that interested in either making money or making it in America. In the end his reluctance led to Thames conceding a unprecedented 50:50 split of the profits which in due course made Benny a very rich man indeed.

John Street was hired to edit the material and convert it into US format. (The "really sexy" material was held back for fear of offending American sensibilities.) The first Benny Hill Show was broadcast by WTAF-TV in Philadlephia on Channel 29 on the 8th January 1979 at 11 o'clock in the evening in deference to what the Americans saw as its 'adult' content. The show was a hit in Philadelphia as it was in Miami, Seattle and Chicago, and other stations soon signed up for what the New York Daily News called "the most outrageous show on television". Initally many of the critics sneered at the show, but ended up liking it anyway, with Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times celebrating his show as "a triumph of trash so revolting that unbelievably you tend to like it".

Having conquered America the rest of the world rapidly signed up for the Benny Hill phenomenon. The show was a success in France, Germany and the rest of Europe, even the Soviet Union brought the show, the Japanese soon became its staunchest fans, and his shows were even considered suitable fare for Chinese audiences. In a few years Benny Hill was transformed from being merely a British television star to the status of the world's most popular comedian. The secret of his success was that much of his comedy was visual, and relied heavily on the kind of sight gags to be seen in the work of Buster Keyton and Charlie Chaplin, and depended on the sort of basic comedy stereotypes that easily identifiable no matter what the language or culture.

Down in Britain

The irony was that, just at the moment that Benny Hill became internationally famous, his fortunes in Britain began to decline.

The Thames Television shows he made in the 1970s were certainly bawdier than those he made for the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s, but from 1980 onwards his shows became even more sexually explicit, particularly with the introduction of Hill's Angels, whose appearances often featured gratuitous close-up shots of various parts of their anatomy. (nothing however that would come as surprise to viewers of Baywatch.) To certain people this was the time his show began its "descent into smut", and began to attract (even more) criticism from the likes of the National Viewers and Listeners Association and the Festival of Light. Feminism was also beginning its steady march through the British left and trades union movement, and its exponents waxed lyrical on the subject of Benny's denigration of the female gender. To cap it all the 1980s saw the arrival of 'alternative comedy', which like all new revolutionary movements, sought to disparage and denigrate what had come before, and indeed it was Ben Elton who famously condemned Benny's comedy for consisting of little more than "chasing naked women about the park". Of course Elton was ultimately simply displaying his ignorance; for one thing Benny Hill's women were never naked, and for a second thing he never chased women, they chased him.

The beginning of the end was when John Howard Davies took over as Head of Light Entertainment at Thames in March 1988, and began a reappraisal of the station's output. Four weeks after the screening of what proved to be the last edition of the Benny Hill Show on the 1st May 1989, it was Davies told Benny that they were dropping him from the schedules. At the time The Sun blamed "po-faced left wingers" and "gutless Thames TV bosses" for the decision to cancel the show, a view that was widely shared at the time and Benny has since been characterised as "an unworthy victim of political correctness" (4) as one informed source put it, whilst another perhaps less informed source has blamed "these evil talentless women along with the likes of that evil talentlouse ben elton" (5).

As convenient as it might be to accept that explanation the truth was that it was costing Thames Television £450,000 for each hourly show, the ratings had slipped, and whereas in the 1970s he had attracted viewers from across the social spectrum, by the 1980s his shows were attracting an almost exclusively working class male audience (the least attractive audience profile for advertisers)(6). In fact, to be honest, Benny was simply re-cycling the same old gags again and again, years of overindulgence had led him to put on weight and become, as his agent rather bluntly put it, a "fat old man", and his final Thames shows were indeed rather self-indulgent and simply not that funny.

The Final Years

Benny might have found himself cast into the television wilderness in 1989, but he was not quite forgotten. For one thing his old shows were continually being repeated the world over, so surely someone, somewhere, would commission him to do a new series? Don Taffner had the idea of a new show Benny Hill's World a series of six hour long shows to be shot at various locations around the world. Taffner eventually managed to finance a 'New York' edition (much of which was actually shot at Teddington), but the resulting show failed to impress (and convinced Thames that they'd made the right decision in cancelling the show). The trouble was that, given Benny's propensity to recycle material, there was little incentive for anyone to buy any new shows, when they could broadcast the old ones for a fraction of the cost. In the meantime however there was plenty of lucrative foreign TV commercial work available, and Benny was happy enough being paid to travel to such locations as Hawaii until something better turned up.

Benny's fortunes began to improve in 1991; he was subject of a very complimentary BBC documentary Clown Imperial in the same year that he was awarded the Charlie Chaplin Award for Contributions to Comedy. Rumours were circulating that Benny might to a series for Channel 4, whilst somewhat ironically Thames Television (having lost their TV franchise in October 1991 and been forced to become an independent producer) approached Benny with the idea of making some new shows. However by that time negotiations were well advanced with Central Television for a new series, so much so that Central had already sold the shows to the ITV network and been allocated the transmission slots. The proposed Central series never materialised for reasons that will soon be evident.

On the 10th February 1992 Benny was admitted to the Cromwell Hospital in South Kensington after suffering difficulty breathing. The cause was ascertained to have been a heart attack. He was at the Cromwell for eight days, but four hours after being discharged he was re-admitted to the Royal Brompton Hospital in Chelsea after complaining once more of breathing difficulties (this time it was water on the lungs), before being discharged on the 24th February 1992. Benny was told by his doctors that he urgently needed a heart bypass, but that due to the evidence of heart disease he might not survive the operation. He decided against having the operation, even though that it meant that he could quite literally drop dead at any minute.

A few months later on the 19th April 1992, the comedian Frankie Howerd died and amongst the tributes recorded in the British press was the reported comment from Benny Hill about how "upset" he was at the news of Howerd's death. The actual source of this comment was Dennis Kirkland, Benny's producer throughout most of the 1980s. He hadn't heard from Benny for a couple of days and so on the following day Kirkland called at Benny's flat, got no answer and ended up climbed up a ladder to gain access. He discovered Benny's body slumped in an armchair in front of the television. According to his death certificate Benny Hill died of coronary thrombosis "on or about twentieth April 1992", but he'd probably been dead for anything up to forty-eight hours, and so some accounts give a date of the 18th or 19th April.


Throughout his life Benny Hill was indifferent to money and often never bothered banking the cheques he received. He had no interest in clothes, never owned a car (although he could drive) and never bought a house, despite becoming a millionaire many times over, preferring to live in a succession of respectable if unspectacular leased flats, which he furnished with whatever oddments of furniture he'd received as a quid pro quo for opening a store somewhere or other. Even when he became wealthy he continued with the frugal habits he had picked up from his parents (or more especially his father); buying cheap food at supermarkets, walking for miles rather than paying for a taxi, unless someone else picked up the tab for a limousine, patching and mending the same old clothes again and again, even when the balance on his account at the Halifax Building Society reached seven figures. His one extravagance was foreign travel, and even here he preferred staying in modest pensiones rather than five star hotels.

His relationships with women were never successful; either they rejected him or he refused to commit to them and they lost interest, and he never married. According to Bob Monkhouse (who was as close as anyone ever became to Benny Hill) he wasn't really that interested in what we might refer to as 'performing the act'. His main interest was in picking up 'factory girls', ordinary working class and inevitably star struck women, who would call him 'Mr Hill' and were happy to perform fellatio on him without expecting anything much in return. He even acquired a job lot of see-through nightdresses and Max Factor perfume as gifts to be bestowed on those women who performed according to expectation.

Fifteen years after his death his reputation in the United Kingdom remains somewhat tarnished and even today there are those that almost spit with fury when ever his name his mentioned, although (rather like Ben Elton) they appear to have based their opinions on received wisdow rather than their own direct experience of his work. Indeed his reputation for 'denigrating women' seems a trifle unfair given that even Monty Python had Carol Cleveland as their resident brainless sexual object, and Spike Milligan's Q series used to regularly feature selected young lovelies clad in stockings and suspenders for no discernible reason, none of whom attracted a fraction of the opprobrium lavished on poor Benny. In 2006 Channel 4 sought to address the question in Is Benny Hill Still Funny? in which they sat a selected audience of twentysomethings in front of a TV screen to watch some of Benny's old show. The general conclusion reached was that Benny Hill was indeed still funny, and entirely unoffensive.

His legacy is likely to be his series of Thames's TV shows (if only because much of his BBC work was never kept) although it should not be forgotten that he had a brief and perhaps unlikely career as a pop star when his comic song Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West) (based partly on his brief reallife experiences as a milkman back in 1941) was the Christmas No 1 in 1971. Interested parties should note that the YouTube website features a wide selection of material from Benny Hill's shows.


NOTES

(1) His middle name was spelled 'Hawthorn' not 'Hawthorne', although throughout his life it was frequently mispelt as the latter including apparently on his death certificate.
(2) In 1969 Taunton's School was reorganised as a Sixth Form College for boys and became the Richard Taunton College.
(3) Composed by Randy Randolph and James Rich this was a minor US hit in 1963 but is now probably better known simply as the 'Benny Hill theme'
(4) According to John Oliver on screenonline.
(5) From a user named martinwilliamrandall posting a comment on YouTube.
(6) London Weekend Television did much the same to The Goodies in 1981; signed the show from the BBC and then decided it was to expensive and dumped the show from the schedules.


SOURCES

Mostly taken from Funny, Peculiar: The True Story of Benny Hill by Mark Lewisohn (Sidgwick and Jackson, 2002). Some account was taken of his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography but not much ,as it is rather short and contains a number of factual inaccuracies. Ditto for the entry in the Internet Movie Database. Other sources consulted

  • The Benny Hill Show http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/guide/articles/b/bennyhillshowthe_7773365.shtml
  • John Oliver - Hill, Benny (1924-1992) http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/473323/index.html
  • Benny's Place Featuring Louise English and Hill's Angels http://www.runstop.de/bennysplace/sitemap.html
  • Is Benny Hill Still Funny? On 28 December 2006, Channel 4 http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv_and_radio/story/0,,1979117,00.html

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