The Benny Hill Show gave the world a form of British humor that was both cheeky and slapstick. It aired for over 3 decades on British television and for over 10 years it was a syndicated hit on American TV.
It was a show that was full of wacky buffoon-like characters, ridiculous chase scenes, loads of double-entendres, and of course the immensely lovable Benny Hill himself. His show was as British as a tea and biscuits. It separated itself from Monty Python, which employed more cerebral humor, by presenting viewers with jokes and gags that didn’t require an Oxford seduction to get.
Sure, a lot of the humor was pretty low-brow, but Hill’s unique brand of comedy made him one of the most popular performers in the world.
Who Was Benny Hill?
Benny Hill’s birth name was Alfred Hawthorne. He was born on January 21, 1924, in Southampton, England. Before he discovered his affinity for comedy, he worked several odd jobs to get by. He was a talented drummer and worked for a time as an assistant stage manager.
He adopted the name Benny partly inspired by one of his comedic idols, Jack Benny. After WWII, Hill performed on a radio show called Variety Bandbox. He made his TV debut in the revue Here’s Mud In Your Eye in 1950.
Hill was actually the first British comedian to find fame through television. The BBC recognized that he was wildly gifted as a comedian and hired him on for another revue show called Hi There! In 1951.
The Benny Hill Show premiered in 1955 and appeared on the BBC until 1968. In 1969, Hill signed a contract with Thames Television. For its entire run, Hill retained the majority control of the show’s direction and penned the majority of its scripts and music.
The Show Was Similar To A Vaudeville Production
The Benny Hill Show was formatted similarly to a variety show. Each episode started out with one or two ‘quickies’ which were short witty sketches. After that, there was an opening ballad or monologue and musical number.
After the innuendo-packed musical ballad, the show would follow up with various sketches, acts, guest spots, and fake blooper reels. Every episode ended with an absurd chase scene set to the ‘Yakety Sax’ theme music. This bit would feature various members of the cast, in addition to stock characters like cops, priests, and old ladies in hot pursuit of Hill.
The show also featured hot, young models that were known as ‘Hill’s Angels’ or occasionally his ‘Hee Haw Honeys’.
Hill’s Role On The Show
Benny played numerous characters but most of them were pretty dim-witted. A common theme was for his characters to be constantly looking for love but routinely having zero success in that department. While some of his characters attempted to do things like look up women’s skirts, they were always whacked in the head for attempting such a morally bankrupt act. His most popular character, Fred Scuttle, was a jolly, social chap who tried out a whole bunch of different jobs over the years.
It Was A Global Hit
In the 70s, the show expanded to international markets. It began to air in over 140 countries including the United States. The show was widely appealing to many different types of people. It wasn’t an intellectual comedy so it was a lot more accessible to viewers of all age groups and education levels.
The series had a close connection to the form of physical comedy made popular by Charlie Chaplin who happened to be one of Hill’s biggest influences. Chaplin also had an appreciation for Hill’s work as well. He reportedly had a collection of rare recordings of The Benny Hill Show in his possession.
Slapstick, double entendre, burlesque, and visual gags kept The Benny Hill Show going. Its amusing scripts were sprinkled with biting one-liners that demonstrated Hill’s perfect comedic timing. Hill was also known for his ridiculously goofy facial expressions which proved to be one of his biggest comedic assets as well.
Hill’s Success Outside Of Television
Benny Hill couldn’t be confined by the bounds of the television screen. He was also an accomplished film star. He appeared in films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Italian Job while he was still producing his hit television show.
One of Benny’s biggest loves was music and songwriting. Hill also wrote music for more shows than just his own. Several of his tunes even ended up charting. Ernie: The Fastest Milkman in the West even ended up becoming a number 1 hit.
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And stay tuned to find out which celebrities are huge Benny Hill fans.
It Couldn’t Survive The Changing Times
Even though The Benny Hill show enjoyed continuous success during its tenure on the air, Thames Television canceled the series in 1989. They cited rising production costs and slipping ratings as the primary reasons for their decision but in reality, the show was probably dropped because of the changing social and political climate at the time. Political correctness was on the rise and the show was beginning to be accused of sexism.
The Benny Hill Show continued to be profitable for years after it was canceled. Three years after Thames pulled the plug on the show, they invited him back to stage a return back to the airwaves but unfortunately, he passed away before production could begin.
Before he died, Hill released one last special in 1991 titled Benny Hill in New York.
Benny Hill’s Lonely End
Even though he was a celebrity of global fame, Hill pretty much kept to himself. Very few people had anything bad to say about him. He lived a humble life, refusing to spend his substantial wealth on frivolous things.
He never owned a car or a house. He wore second-hand clothes until they were completely worn out. Hill never married or had any kids and passed away alone in his apartment On April 20, 1992. He died from a heart attack and was found two days later sitting in his favorite recliner In front of his TV.
Before His Death, He Was Treated As An Outcast
By the late 80s, Hill’s comedy routine was increasingly being labeled as sexist, smutty, and politically incorrect. But Hill’s good friend and TV critic, Gerry Bushell, thought that his friend was being unfairly treated. It seemed strange to him that someone of Benny’s talent would be treated as a pariah by the same audiences and press that had embraced him as a comic hero just years before.
People were depicting him as some kind of sexist monster but if you actually watched his show, you would find that the men were the most often targets of his humor. They were always inadequate in some shape or form and were prone to bumbling about, running into lamp-posts, getting slapped, and embarrassing themselves on a regular basis. It was always the women that ended up having the upper hand.
Bushell believes that Hill’s comedy was harmless. If anything, Hill was drawing attention to sexism by lampooning it – not by embracing it.
Following his death, a commemorative plaque was put up on display on the site of his old school, Taunton’s College on Hill Lane, as a memorial to his life and many accomplishments.
Sure, some might find some of Hill’s comedy to be fairly controversial to today’s standards. But, it provides students of comedy with the opportunity to observe how tastes in humor have changed and developed over the years.
Regardless of how you might view Hill’s comedy, it’s clear that he has had made an incredible impact on the entertainment industry. He is one of those rare performers that get the honor of going down in history as a legend.
Benny’s old buddy, Gerry Bushell, has been behind the efforts to erect a statue to honor the comedian.
Sculptor Graham Ibbeson, who’s previously produced beautiful homages to stars like Cary Grant and Eric Morecambe, has finished making a mold of Benny’s Fred Scuttle Character. Ibbeson has described Hill as one of the greatest television comedy exports ever to come from Britain.
Unfortunately, the project has stalled. The city of Southhampton is open to the statue being erected but they are unwilling to commit any tax dollars to its construction. The fate of the stature is currently in limbo. There is a fundraising effort that has been organized to get the project off the ground but to date, it has yet to bring in the needed funds to make it a reality.
Benny’s High Profile Fan Base
Benny has quite a few celebrity fans of his comedy that have been pretty outspoken about their appreciation for his contributions to the world of comedy. We already mentioned how Charlie Chaplin revered Hill but there were quite a few other big-time contemporary entertainers that saw Benny as a visionary.
Johnny Carson and his sidekick Ed McMahon were both famous fans of Hill’s material and tried repeatedly to get him to come out to LA to be a guest on Carson’s talk show.
Hill always declined their offers, however, saying that he didn’t want to travel all the way to California just for a TV spot.
Adam Carolla has also repeatedly mentioned on this Radio and TV shows that he’s a huge fan of Hill. Humorously he once was quoted as saying that he believed Benny Hill to be as “American as The Beatles”. Carolla has also played tribute to Hill on The Man Show.
Michael Jackson was another celeb to idolize Benny Hill. He told a member of the British Press during one of his tours in the 70s that he loved Benny Hill and that he thought he was extraordinarily funny. Prog-rock band Genesis featured Hill as his character Fred Scuttle, in the video for their 1987 hit single “Anything She Does.”
Other self-admitted famous Benny Hill fans include Burt Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Walter Cronkite, and Anthony Burgess. Most recently, Snoop Dogg admitted to being a big Benny Hill fan in a 2011 interview with The Observer.
The world lost a comedic treasure in 1992 when Benny Hill passed away at the age of 68. Sure, some of his humor isn’t quite up to today’s politically correct standards, but he was a groundbreaking visionary for his time.
There likely will never be another comedian quite like him, although Benny’s legacy will never die.
Benny Hill was such a prominent figure in British culture for so many years. His show was one of the biggest success stories in British television history and at one point was one of the most-watched television programs of all time.
We’d love to hear from you! Which British sketch comedy show did you enjoy the most, The Benny Hill Show or Monty Python’s Flying Circus?
Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
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