Alfred Hawthorne "Benny" Hill (21 January 1924 – 20 April 1992) was an English comedian and actor, best remembered for his television programme The Benny Hill Show, an amalgam of slapstick, burlesque and double entendre in a format that included live comedy and filmed segments, with him at the focus of almost every segment.
A prominent figure in British culture for nearly four decades, his show proved to be one of the great success stories of television comedy. Among the most watched programmes in the UK, the audience peaked at over 21 million in 1971. The show generated impressive revenues for Thames Television, and retains a following in much of the world decades after Hill's death.
Alfred Hawthorne Hill was born on 21 January 1924 in Southampton, on the south coast of England. His father, Alfred Hill (later manager of a surgical appliance shop), and grandfather, Henry Hill, had both been circus clowns. After leaving school, Hill worked at Woolworths, as a milkman, a bridge operator, a driver and a drummer before becoming assistant stage manager with a touring revue. He was called up in 1942 and trained as a mechanic in the British Army. He served as a mechanic, truck driver and searchlight operator in Normandy after September 1944 and later transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment division before the end of the war.
After the Second World War, Hill worked as a performer on radio. His first appearance on television was in 1950. In addition, he attempted a sitcom anthology, Benny Hill, which ran from 1962 to 1963, in which he played a different character in each episode. In 1964, he played Nick Bottom in an all-star TV film production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. He also had a radio programme lasting for three series called Benny Hill Time, on BBC Radio's Light Programme, from 1964 to 1966. It was a topical show, such as a March 1964 episode which featured James Pond, 0017, in "From Moscow with Love" and his version of "The Beatles". He played a number of characters in the series, such as Harry Hill and Fred Scuttle.
Films and recordings
Hill's film credits include parts in five full-length feature films including Who Done It? (1956), Light Up the Sky! (1960), Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), in which he played the relatively straight role of the Toymaker, and The Italian Job (1969). He also made two short subject films, The Waiters (1969) and Eddie in August (1970), the latter being a TV production. Finally, a clip-show film spin-off of his early Thames Television shows (1969–73), called The Best of Benny Hill (1974), was a theatrically released compilation of Benny Hill Show episodes.
Hill's audio recordings include "Gather in the Mushrooms" (1961), "Pepys' Diary" (1961), "Transistor Radio" (1961), "Harvest of Love" (1963) and "Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)", which was the UK Singles Chart Christmas number one single in 1971. He also appeared in the 1986 video of the song "Anything She Does" by the band Genesis.
The Benny Hill Show
Hill had struggled on stage and had uneven success in radio, but in television he found a form that played to his strengths. The Benny Hill Show had a music hall-derived format combining live on-stage comedy and filmed segments, and its humour relied on slapstick, innuendo and parody. Recurring players on his show during the BBC years included Patricia Hayes, Jeremy Hawk, Peter Vernon, Ronnie Brody, and his co-writer from the early 1950s to early 1960s, Dave Freeman. Short, bald Jackie Wright was a frequent supporting player, who in many sketches had to put up with Hill slapping him on the top of his head.
Hill remained mostly with the BBC through to 1968, except for a few sojourns with ITV station ATV between 1957 and 1960 and again in 1967. In 1969, his show moved from the BBC to Thames Television, where it remained until cancellation in 1989, with an erratic schedule of one-hour specials. The series showcased Hill's talents as an imaginative writer, comic performer and impressionist. He may have bought scripts from various comedy writers but, if so, they never received an onscreen credit (there is evidence that he bought a script from one of his regular cast members in 1976, Cherri Gilham, whom he wrote to from Spain and told her he was using her "Fat Lady idea on the show" in January 1977).
The most common running gag in Hill's shows was the closing sequence, the "run-off", which was literally a running gag in that it featured various members of the cast chasing Hill, along with other stock comedy characters such as policemen, vicars and old women. This was commonly filmed using "under-cranking" camera techniques, and included other comic devices such as characters running off one side of the screen and reappearing running on from the other. The tune used in all the chases, Boots Randolph's "Yakety Sax", is so strongly associated with the show that it is commonly referred to as "The Benny Hill Theme". It has been used as a form of parody in many ways by television shows and a small number of films. The Wachowskis used the same style (and musical theme) in a scene in the film V for Vendetta (2006). It also appears in the cult film The Gods Must Be Crazy.
From the start of the 1980s the show featured a troupe of attractive young women, known collectively as "Hill's Angels". They would appear either on their own in a dance sequence, or in character as foils against Hill. Sue Upton was one of the longest serving members of the Angels. Jane Leeves appeared as well. Henry McGee and Bob Todd joined Jackie Wright as comic supporting players, and the later shows also featured "Hill's Little Angels," a group of cute children including the families of Dennis Kirkland (the show's director) and Sue Upton.
The alternative comedian Ben Elton made a headline-grabbing allegation, both on the TV show Saturday Live and in the pages of Q magazine (in its January 1987 issue), that The Benny Hill Show was single-handedly responsible for the incidences of rape in England during the period in question, and also suggested the programme incited other acts of violence against women. But a writer in The Independent newspaper opined that Elton's assault was "like watching an elderly uncle being kicked to death by young thugs". Elton later claimed his comment was taken out of context, and he appeared in a parody for Harry Enfield and Chums, Benny Elton, where Elton ends up being chased by angry women, accompanied by the "Yakety Sax" theme, after trying to force them to be more feminist rather than letting them make their own decisions.
In response to the accusations of sexism, defenders of Hill have said the show used traditional comic stereotypes to reflect universal human truths in a way that was not malicious and fundamentally harmless. Hill's friend and producer Dennis Kirkland said it was the women who chased Hill in anger for undressing them, all of which was done accidentally by some ridiculous means. An article on 27 May 2006 in The Independent quoted Hill and Kirkland as saying they believed this misrepresentation demonstrated critics could not have watched his programmes.
In an episode about Hill transmitted as part of the documentary series Living Famously, John Howard Davies, the Head of Light Entertainment at Thames Television who had cancelled the show, stated there were three reasons why he did so: "The audiences were going down, the programme was costing a vast amount of money, and he (Hill) was looking a little tired."
The loss of his show was devastating for Hill (or, as one former supporting player put it, "He started to die from there") and what followed was a self-inflicted decline in his health. In 1990 a new show was produced complete with Hill and his usual team, called Benny Hill's World Tour: New York!.
In February 1992, Thames Television, which received a steady stream of requests from viewers for The Benny Hill Show repeats, finally gave in and put together a number of re-edited shows. Hill died on 20 April 1992, the same day that a new contract arrived in the post from Central Independent Television, for which he was to have made a series of specials. He had turned down competing offers from Carlton and Thames.
The shows were very popular on French television with actors dubbing all the dialogue in French.
Johnny Carson and side-kick Ed McMahon were both fans of Hill and tried several times to get him to come to Los Angeles and be a guest on Carson's The Tonight Show. Hill always declined, citing not wanting to travel the great distance to California.
Radio and TV host Adam Carolla claimed that he was a fan of Hill and that he considered Hill "as American as the Beatles". Indeed, during an episode of The Man Show, Carolla performed in what was billed as a tribute to "our favourite Englishman, Sir Benny Hill" (Hill was never knighted) in more risqué versions of some of the sketches. Carolla played a rude and lecherous waiter, a typical Hill role, and the sketch featured many of the staples of Hill's shows, including a Jackie Wright-esque bald man, as well as the usual scantily clad women.
Michael Jackson was a Hill fan: "I just love your Benny Hill," the young Jackson told a bemused English music-press critic during a 1970s tour, "he's so funny!" During the decline in Benny Hill's health, he was visited by Jackson, who was in the UK at the time.
The British prog-rock band Genesis may or may not have been fans of Hill, but in 1987 they filmed a video for their song "Anything She Does", featuring Benny as his character Fred Scuttle, an incompetent security guard who lets a ridiculous number of fans backstage at a Genesis concert.
In Benny Hill: The World's Favourite Clown, filmed shortly before his death, celebrities such as Burt Reynolds, Michael Caine, John Mortimer, Mickey Rooney and Walter Cronkite, among others, expressed their appreciation of and admiration for Hill and his humour – and in Reynolds' case, the appreciation extended to the Hill's Angels as well. More surprisingly, perhaps, the novelist Anthony Burgess made no secret of his admiration for Hill. Burgess, whose novels were often comic, relished language, wordplay and dialect, admired the verbal and comedic skill that underlay Hill's success. Reviewing a biography of Hill, Saucy Boy, in the Guardian in 1990, Burgess described Hill as "a comic genius steeped in the British music hall tradition" and "one of the great artists of our age". A meeting between the two men was described in a newspaper article by Burgess and recalled in the Telegraph newspaper by the satirist Craig Brown.
In 2006, broadcaster and critic Garry Bushell launched a campaign to erect a statue of Hill in Southampton, with the support of Barbara Windsor, Brian Conley and other British comedy favourites. Those taking part in the first fundraising concert included Neville Staple, Right Said Fred and Rick Wakeman.
Hill never owned his own home in London, and instead preferred to rent a flat rather than buy one. He rented a double-room apartment in the London district Queen's Gate for 26 years until around 1986 when he moved to Fairwater House in Teddington. While looking for somewhere to live, he stayed at 88 Westrow Gardens in Southampton. He also never owned a car, although he could drive.
Despite being a millionaire many times over, he continued with the frugal habits that he picked up from his parents, notably his father, such as buying cheap food at supermarkets, walking for miles rather than paying for a taxi unless someone picked up the tab for a limousine, constantly patching and mending the same clothes even when the balance on his account at the Halifax Building Society reached seven figures. The only luxury that he permitted himself was foreign travelling and even then, he would stay in modest accommodation rather than five-star hotels. In one of his obituaries, a story was told of how he reportedly refused to mend his mother's leaky roof because it was "too expensive" and after she died, he kept the family home in Southampton as a shrine to her and did not change a thing at all.
Hill never married nor had children. He had proposed to two women, but neither accepted. Because of his eccentricity and reclusive lifestyle, rumours circulated that he was gay, but he always laughingly denied them.
Hill was a huge Francophile and enjoyed his visits to France, notably to Marseilles, where until the 1980s he could go to outdoor cafes anonymously, traveling on public transport and socialising with local women. He spoke French fluently and also knew basic German, Dutch and Italian.
Benny Hill's health declined in the late 1980s. After a mild heart attack on 24 February 1992, doctors told him he needed to lose weight and recommended a heart bypass. He declined, and a week later was found to have kidney failure. He died at the age of 68 on 20 April 1992. On 22 April, after several days of unanswered telephone calls, his producer, Dennis Kirkland, climbed a ladder to the window of Hill's second-floor flat and upon seeing the body through a window had the neighbours call the police. The police broke into the flat and found Hill, dead, sitting in his armchair in front of the television. Hill's cause of death was recorded as coronary thrombosis.
Hill was buried at Hollybrook Cemetery near his birthplace in Southampton on 26 April 1992. In October 1992, following rumours that he was buried with large amounts of gold jewellery, an attempt was made by thieves to exhume his body. When authorities looked into his open grave the following morning "The vandals had dug down, exposing his coffin ... Within two hours of the discovery, cemetery staff had refilled the grave and covered it with a half-ton concrete slab."
Although still shown worldwide, The Benny Hill Show has not been shown on UK terrestrial, networked television since a tribute season on Channel 4 in 1992, and not on satellite or cable since a run on the now defunct channel Granada Plus – now ITV3 – in 1999. In the US the show has been aired on the BBC America cable channel and over Tribune Broadcasting's Antenna TV digital subchannel network. An Australian channel, the Seven Network, showed some episodes as part of a Great Comedy Classics slot. On the Australian channel 7TWO, The Benny Hill Show is shown frequently. In Spain, Televisión Española broadcasts the show regularly every week to a large viewership. In Italy, Sky television broadcasts it quite regularly on the Comedy Channel. In Finland the channel MTV3 MAX presents The Benny Hill Show every weekend. Canada's VisionTV airs episodes of the show weekly.
In 1998 Channel 4 featured Hill in one of its Heroes of Comedy programmes. On 28 December 2006, Channel 4 broadcast the documentary Is Benny Hill Still Funny? The programme featured an audience that comprised a cross-section of young adults who had little or no knowledge of Hill, to discover whether his comedy was valid to a generation that enjoyed the likes of Little Britain, The Catherine Tate Show and Borat. The participants were asked to watch a 30-minute compilation that included examples of Hill's humour from both his BBC and ITV shows. The responses and results demonstrated that none of the sample of viewers took offence at any of the sketches shown. His silent "Wishing Well" sketch was discovered to be the most popular.