1924 - 1992
Part One of Two
Benny Hill was born into something of an amateur showbiz background. His paternal grandfather, Henry, had been a street clown, his uncle, Leonard, had performed a circus high-wire act which ultimately cost him his life, and his father, Alfred, had run away from home at the age of sixteen to join Fossett's Circus.
But Benny's father was not said to have been the most pleasant of gentlemen. A number of hardships and missed opportunities left him something of an embittered man with an uncompromising attitude. Because of this he was nicknamed "the Captain", even though he only ever reached the rank of private after his showbiz career was curtailed by the outbreak of World War One.
Returning home at the end of hostilities, having been gassed in France and then held Prisoner of War in Belgium, Alfred turned his back on show business and went to work as a clerk. By 1920 he had met and married Helen Cave and the couple settled in Helen's hometown of Southampton. The following year the couple celebrated the birth of their first child, a boy whom they christened Leonard. Benny, who was named Alfred Hawthorne Hill, was born three years later on 25th January 1924 (not 1925 as often stated). A third child, Diana, was born in 1933.
All of the Hill children grew up closer to their mother than their father who it has been said would constantly try to prove that he was stronger, cleverer and more able than any of his offspring. And if Alfred Senior had returned from the war a bitter man then a missed opportunity at work did nothing to mellow his character. Alfred had been offered the chance to buy a partnership in the surgical appliance shop where he worked. He was unable to raise the necessary funds and the business, a backstreet outlet selling abdominal supports, tonics and (mainly) contraceptives, became hugely successful and made its owner, Jack Stanley, a millionaire.
As a child, Benny faced schoolyard taunts from his fellow pupils at Shirley Infant School about the fact that his father sold what was then popularly known as 'French letters'. In order to combat these, the youngster turned to humour and used his father's profession to his advantage by allowing the other children to believe that he was well versed in all matters sexually related. Benny began to indulge in the type of schoolboy smut and saucy postcard humour that would eventually become his trademark. According to his brother, Leonard, one of Benny's earliest jokes went:
Teacher (to latecomer): Where have you been?
Schoolboy: Up Shirley Hill.
Teacher (to late arriving schoolgirl): Who are you?
Schoolgirl: Shirley Hill!
Around this time Benny landed a part in a school play. Years later he recalled: "I was a Guinea Pig in 'Alice in Wonderland.' No costume. I merely wore a card saying what I was supposed to represent. But it was a speaking part. I had to come on the stage and say 'Here, here!'" By this time Benny had already extended his range beyond simple playground comedian. At home he began to impersonate the voices he heard on the 'wireless' and by the age of ten he could do fair impressions of many of the comedians of the day including Max Miller and Rob Wilton. He also began singing in a local church choir.
By now Benny's schoolwork was beginning to take second place to his desire to entertain. "By some fluke," he wrote in 1955 "I gained a scholarship for Taunton School, but I never managed to reach the sixth form. My general feeling about school days are that although I was never classed as brainy, I certainly had fun. And I could always remember what I wanted to remember. Who cares about 1066 and all that?"
From the age of 13, Benny was selling himself around Southampton as an amateur entertainer. His repertoire was still fairly limited and when asked years later what sort of act he did he replied; "Max Miller's!" The following year he landed his first semi-professional engagement with Bobbie's Concert Party. He had two short spots on the show. He then took his act around the working men's clubs where his saucy Max Miller routines were better appreciated.
When the time came for Benny to leave school, at fifteen, he found a job in the local coal company. "They offered me fifteen shillings a week." He said. "For a youngster fresh from school it was not an interesting job; in a small office, overlooking the weighbridge, checking each cart as it came in." The job lasted for just three weeks. Alfred Senior had a friend who was the manager of a local Woolworth's store and it was arranged that Alfred Junior would begin work as a stock room clerk.
He worked at the Woolworth's store for six months. "Before I quit that job it had two big effects on me." He later recalled. "I fell in love and I learned about people."
"The girl I fell in love with was Jean, two years my senior. The romance did not last, because her attitude towards me was one of amused tolerance. 'You make me laugh, sonny boy,' she used to say." What had a more lasting effect though was Benny's observance of the people he came into contact with. "That comes naturally when you work in a chain store," he said, "because you meet thousands of people. Unconsciously, at first, I began to notice foibles and mannerisms. I began to develop a mirror-like memory for faces and voices."
After leaving Woolworth's, Benny took a job as a milkman. "Because of regulations, no milk was delivered before 7.0 am and my day often ended by 1.0 pm. The absolute freedom of the job was the attraction." The rest of the time Benny was 'doing the rounds' of the local concert parties. "Of course I had no real act. I wildly improvised on everything I heard on the radio or saw at the local variety houses." In addition to these 'five-bob' appearances Benny got a job in a semi-pro dance band as a drummer. "This was at the behest of a local music teacher, Mrs Lilywhite, who made me a member of Ivy Lillywhite's Band. I soon began to average 30 shillings a week with concerts and drumming."
At this stage in his career Benny took a major decision. "Was it worth while keeping on with the milk round if I could make 30 bob a week so easily on the stage? I was still going the backstage rounds of the local variety theatres, hoping the comedians would ask me into their dressing-rooms or come out and have a drink with me. I hung on every word they said. At last I found two comedians who listened when I said I wanted a job."
"They were just building up a new act. 'All right, son,' they said. 'We'll give you a start. Now, listen. Next week we play Chesterfield and the week after that we'll be down south again. Leave us your address and we will write to you directly we get back. Then you can start in the act.' I scribbled my address, then went back (to work) the next morning and gave in my week's notice." Benny never saw the two comedians again.
Although he had no wage packet to look forward to at the end of the following week Benny claimed that he was not too downhearted. He had saved a little money from his concert performances and his drumming with Ivy Lilywhite's band and with just a little more capital he decided he could take the risk and try his luck in London. "Mum or dad would have lent me the money," he said, "...but it was my own fault I'd given in my notice on the milk-round. So I sold my drum kit for £8.00 and with that I came to London."
Benny arrived at Waterloo Station in September 1940 clutching an envelope on which he had written the names of some famous suburban variety houses -the Metropolitan, Edgeware Road; the Empress, Brixton; the Chelsea Palace. They were just names to him so he stopped a policeman for directions and the kindly bobby mapped out a route for him so he could get to them by bus.
"At the Chiswick Empire they did not want to know about Alf Hill." Benny wrote. "I had much the same reception at the "Met," but at the Chelsea Palace I was lucky enough to arrange to see Harry Benet (a well-known panto and revue impresario of the time) at his office the next morning." In fact it was at the Empress in Brixton that Benny got his first bit of luck. One of the acts there was Sid Seymour and the Mad Hatters. Benny asked for Sid at the stage door and the comedian came to see him. He told Benny that he had nothing for him but suggested the Chelsea Palace where his brother, Phil Seymour, an agent himself, was presenting a show called "Follow the Fun." Although Benny never got to see Phil Seymour he made a suitable enough impression on the theatre manager, Harry Frockton Foster, for an appointment to be made with Harry Benet.
Benny recalled that first day in London; "It was now getting late and I wanted to make my £8.00 last as long as possible. So I bought some fish and chips and slept that cold September night on Streatham Common." The next morning after breakfast and a wash and brush-up in Lyons Corner House café, Benny made his way to Benet's office at 11 Beak Street, Soho. Benet was impressed with the young 17 year-old and said, "Alright lad, I'll engage you as property boy."
"And can I play parts?" asked Benny
Benet laughed. "There'll be small parts, too."
"Son," Benet said, "many years ago I started George Lacey at £2.00 a week." (Lacey was the star of "Follow the Fun"). "I'll start you on £3.10s."
Benny started his London stage career a few days later when "Follow the Fun" opened at the East Ham Palace, and in addition to handling all the props he had a one-line part as a policeman. Within a few days though, Benny found himself with a bigger part than he could have imagined.
"One of the stars of the bill was Hal Bryan, and I was behind the back-drop setting props when I heard him out on the stage singing some lines that I had not heard at the first house -'I'm all alone...Wish I had someone to talk to'. At once I cottoned on. His partner had missed his cue, and Hal Bryan was out there in front, alone. I was the nearest, so to save the situation I walked on stage. Hal whispered the lines for the sketch and somehow we managed to get through it." Benny was congratulated by all the cast and crew and as Bryan was leaving the theatre he stuck a 10-shilling note in Benny's hand and said, "You're going to be a trouper, son."
When "Follow the Fun" ended its run Harry Benet retained Benny as baggage master for the panto "Robinson Crusoe" at the Bournemouth Pavilion. "Eventually I worked my wage up to £5 a week," wrote Benny, "and did much work in sketches, usually as feed or straight man. I did not seem to be cut out for comedy in those days."
Because Benny was now of 'call-up' age he was expecting to get his papers enlisting him into the war effort. However, because of his wandering life-style these never seemed to catch up with him. Then, in November 1942, the fourth night into "Send Him Victorious" at Cardiff's New Theatre, the military police turned up and arrested him. He spent four miserable nights at Cardiff police station before being marched off to Lincoln Barracks and put to scrubbing floors in the detention room. The next three-and-a-half years were spent in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers where he served in France, Holland, Belgium and finally, Germany.
In the closing stages of the war he was picked for 'Stars in Battledress' and the last nine months of his Army service he spent in Command Services Entertainments. The popular story that the Army discovered him was dismissed by Benny when he wrote: "No, the Army did not discover me. In fact, when I was in Germany with an entertainment unit, the officer in charge took a dim view of my style and insisted on compering the show himself. Most of my time was spent lumbering huge wicker baskets and crates of stage props."
However, not everyone took a dim view of Benny's act and a sergeant by the name of Harry Segal, who had been an old pro of the music halls since childhood spotted something that he liked about Benny's performance. He encouraged a downhearted Benny to persevere and gave him confidence with gentle encouragement. During an outbreak of influenza, which had hit the unit, Segal ordered Benny out onto stage to do a solo act. Among the audience was a Colonel Richard Stone, in charge of Combined Service Entertainment throughout Europe. After the war Stone became Benny's life-long friend and agent.
Benny came out of the Army with a £54.00 gratuity, his de-mob money, and returned briefly to Southampton. But he soon travelled down to London again and decided to try his luck at the capitals famous Windmill Theatre. But during his audition he choked on his first gag and got the dismissive "Next please!" from the theatre's owner, Vivian Van Damm. At the time of this audition he still billed himself as Alf Hill, but decided that he now wanted something that sounded a little more 'up-market.' It was his brother, Leonard, who suggested Benny, Jack Benny being one of his idols. So Alf Hill became Benny Hill.
In the meantime, Benny Hill still had to support himself and he fell back on his old stomping ground of the working men's clubs averaging around one pound a performance. There were very few breaks and even when they came along they paid nothing at all. In 1947 he appeared at the Twentieth Century Theatre in Notting Hill Gate in a revue called "Spotlight", which featured another aspiring young entertainer called Bob Monkhouse. As this revue was a showcase for new talent where agents would come to look at new potentials there was no fee involved for performing there.
Around this time, though, Benny began appearing on radio with great regularity. His first radio appearance was on 30th August 1947 in a variety show called "Beginners Please!" Although the show had a limited audience (it went out at 11.45 on a Saturday morning), Benny's routine was well received by top booking agent Joe Collins (father of actress Joan) and star-maker Carroll Levis. As a result of this Benny was rewarded with a spot on the hugely popular "Variety Band-Box."
It was also around this time that ex-Colonel Stone, now a theatrical agent, reappeared on the scene and worked to get Benny into the professional theatre. His first job was to secure Benny a summer season at the Cliftonville Lido in Kent as a feed for the star turn; Reg Varney. There were two comedians up for the part - Benny and a young man by the name of Peter Sellers. Benny got the part on the strength of an English calypso, which he wrote and performed to his own guitar accompaniment.
The revue that Varney and Hill appeared in was called "Gaytime" and it went down very well with audiences. But the weakest part of the show was Benny's solo spot and he was always uncomfortable performing it. Nevertheless, "Gaytime" did three seasons before the duo were signed up for the touring version of a London Palladium revue called "Sky High". Again Benny's solo was seen as the weakest part of the show and when it arrived in Sunderland Benny was greeted at first with silence, then jeers and finally a slow handclap. Benny walked off the stage completely demoralised. A week later he resigned from the partnership.
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