Biography: Benny Hill
Part Two of Two
After Sunderland Benny was out of work for nine weeks. During this period he spent time writing a number of new sketches, creating new material out of many comic situations that had long been in his mind and then set his sights on the newest medium in entertainment...television.
"I rang up Lime Grove (where the BBC were based) and spoke to Bill Lyon Shaw. We met, and when he had read some of my sketches he got on the house telephone to Ronnie Waldman and said: 'There's a chap here who has some material that may be suitable for TV. Can you spare time to read it?' 'I'll read it now,' said the Head of Light Entertainment, and I was in the Holy of Holies less than twenty minutes after arriving at Lime Grove.
"There was a big bundle of manuscripts on the desk. 'Pick any one you like,' I said to Ronnie Waldman. He thumbed through the bundle, picked a manuscript at random and said: 'Explain it. You read it to me...'"
Benny read through the script and Waldman seemed suitably impressed. "Who do
you think would put that type of material over best?" he asked.
"Me!" Benny said.
He smiled: "Maybe you're right."
Then he picked up the telephone and spoke again to Bill Lyon Shaw. Within an hour Benny was booked to appear on TV's "Kaleidoscope."
"Kaleidoscope" was a long running light entertainment magazine that had started in 1946 and was broadcast on Friday nights. Comedy sketches and stand-up routines were a regular feature and during the course of its run a number of British comedians starred in the series and some made their TV debuts. Tony Hancock appeared in "Fools Rush In", his first TV series (a series of extended sketches) in 1951 and Dick Emery made his TV debut in 1952, all under the "Kaleidoscope" umbrella.
Benny had his first sketch 'banned' on this series. In the routine Benny was to play a Customs Officer who was giving a TV lecture, urging all holidaymakers to be good citizens and to declare their nylons and little bottles of perfume. At the end of the lecture the cameraman shouts "Cut! You're off the air." "And about time, too." Says the Customs man as he takes off his cap and wipes the sweat from his brow. As he removes his cap a shower of watches and cigarettes fall out. Pretty tame stuff. But the BBC banned the sketch saying that it would give the false impression that Customs Officers were dishonest.
Almost four years to the day that Benny made his radio debut he headlined his own show on BBC television. "Hi There!" went out on 20th August 1951 at 8.15pm. The 45 minute one-off show, written entirely by Benny Hill and produced by Bill Lyon-Shaw starred Benny and Ernest Maxin in a series of sketches in which Benny played a Frenchman who was bewildered by England, a man baffled by a moving belt in a self service restaurant and three foreign waiters.
It would be another four years before Benny was to get a full series. In the meantime he continued to work regularly on radio and in 1954 he joined the cast for a spin-off series of the hugely successful "Educating Archie." The series, which starred ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy, Archie Andrews, had been the launch pad for the careers of such notables as Bernard Bresslaw, Dick Emery, Bruce Forsyth, Tony Hancock and Sid James. However, when Benny joined the cast Archie's best days were already behind him. The spin-off was called "Archie's the Boy" and was something of an experiment to move Archie out of the classroom and into the real world. It was an experiment that failed and for the next series the original format was revived. Benny did not return.
The BBC agreed that the time was now right for Benny to appear in his own extended TV series. The first edition of "The Benny Hill Show" written by Benny and his writing partner Dave Freeman, was broadcast on Saturday 15th January 1955. The first show was a flop. In an article headed 'Alas Poor Benny', one critic called the show "Ill-rehearsed". "Patchy and lacking cohesion" fired one critic, whilst Kenneth Baily said that Benny had "little new to offer". Benny was taken aback by such criticism, but took heed of the comments and he and Freeman changed the format of the second show. It clearly worked and the following week the critics were full of praise.
Within weeks Benny Hill became a major star. He may have been the first British comedian to be created by television but he took the medium by storm and soon became its master. The televisual methods he employed were nothing short of groundbreaking in their day. In the second show he introduced a spoof quiz based on a panel game called "Find the Link", in which a panel of four guests had to guess the element that the two contestants had in common. In this sketch Jeremy Hawk played the chairman but it was Benny who played all four panellists. By recording all the various sequences separately and then editing them together Benny was able to play Josephine Douglas, Moira Lister, Peter Noble and Kenneth Horne. Today such a trick is commonplace, even old hat, but when first broadcast in January 1955 it was totally new. Benny had found a format for success. Viewers loved to see him parodying other TV shows and mimicking other TV stars. By the end of that first television year he was quite deservedly named Personality of the Year in the Daily Mail National Television Awards.
Although the BBC regarded some of Benny's material as 'near-the-mark' they were not foolish enough to interfere with the format of the shows. Some of the humour was saucy, but it was never overtly offensive and if you understood the innuendo the chances are you were laughing along with it. Also, Benny was hot property and with the new ITV channel about to start in 1955 the Beeb wanted to hold on to every ace in the pack. At that time they didn't have that many.
In 1956 Benny Hill was earning £350.00 per show. By 1957 that had increased to 650 guineas. A 1958 memo from the BBC's head of Light Entertainment, Tom Sloan, revealed that the Corporation's audience research figures revealed that The Benny Hill Show was pulling in an estimated audience of 12 million viewers, and thus they were prepared to pay £1,000 per show. In fact in what was then an unprecedented move, the BBC allowed Benny to record a number of one-off specials for the rival ATV company because they were worried about losing him. Between 1957 and 1960 he recorded eight 'specials' for ATV.
It is near impossible now to judge just how these shows would stand up to the test of time because, as is tragically the case of much British TV archive material the 16mm film was destroyed after it was deemed of no further commercial value.
Benny's success on TV led to offers of West End revue and in 1955 he starred alongside Tommy Cooper in a Bernard Delfont production called "Paris By Night", which ran for twelve months at the Prince of Wales Theatre. But Benny was never really comfortable on the stage, his experience at Sunderland had soured him, even though the year after he became TV's biggest star he returned in triumph to the very theatre where he had been slow hand clapped.
There was also the offer of film work but Benny seemed to have more success in supporting roles than in starring ones. In 1956 he starred in a film called "Who Done It?" written by T.E.B. Clarke. Years later when told by a reporter that the film was going to be televised Benny allegedly said, "In that case I'm taking the next plane to Marseilles." His next film was in 1959, "Light Up The Sky", in which he co-starred with Tommy Steele as part of a musical double act. In 1965 he had a cameo role as the fire chief in "Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines."
In 1968 Benny appeared in one of his most celebrated film roles as the Vulgarian toy maker in the excellent Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The movie, one of the best loved family films of all time, proved by its longevity and the fact that each generation of children that discover it are captured by its spell, owes more to Benny Hill than most people realise. Despite being credited for the screenplay it has been suggested that Roald Dahl contributed less to the finished article than Benny Hill did. In fact Benny worked for five weeks alongside director Ken Hughes to inject more comic moments into the films scenes, especially the initial ones featuring Caractacus Potts.
Following this Benny made only one other feature film, "The Italian Job", made in 1969 and starring Michael Caine and Noel Coward. As with his previous movie Benny injected a fair amount of humour into "The Italian Job" adding his characters obsession with obese women. But this proved to be his last outing into the world of celluloid. Shortly after "The Italian Job" he abandoned plans for his own screenplay called "I Love You, I Love You, I Love You." Blake Edwards wanted Benny for a cameo in his 1969 film "Darling Lili" starring Julie Andrews and Rock Hudson. Benny even auditioned for it. Apparently Edwards asked Benny if he could do a French accent. Benny, who spoke French fluently, asked "Would you like a Paris accent? East side or west side?" Edwards was not amused and hired someone else.
In 1962 the BBC made a series of 6 twenty-five minute episodes called 'Benny Hill'. In a departure from his usual format this series featured Benny in a sitcom situation in which he played a different character every week. Two more series followed by 1963.
After this Benny returned to his usual format and enjoyed many more successful years at the BBC. But, in 1969 Richard Stone approached Philip Jones, the Head of Light Entertainment at the fledgling Thames Television, and asked if the company was interested in signing Benny to a contract. Jones absolutely jumped at the chance. It was a partnership that saw Benny and Thames win no fewer than 11 major television awards, and more importantly for the star himself, become the first ever British comedian to conquer US television.
One of Benny Hills strengths was that he always moved with the times. Along with the legendary Fred Scuttle, Benny introduced a host of new characters including the Chinaman; Mr Chow Mein. He also correctly gauged public taste by introducing a lot more glamour into his shows, especially with a troupe of girls that would become affectionately known as 'Hills Angels'. Benny's jokes became more daring, the innuendo much 'nearer-the-mark'. The public response was to lap it up. And the higher the viewing figures the more daring the show got. But the permissive age was about to collide head on with a political correctness backlash, and there would be casualties.
Many critics accused Benny Hill of treating women as no more than sex objects, brainless bimbo's whose only justification on his shows was for a bit of titillation and slap and tickle. In fact its fair to say that Benny treated his women with far less contempt than some other British successes such as 'On The Buses' or the 'Carry On' series of films. Benny was well aware of the backlash and immediately toned down the act, dropped the "Angels" and returned to less offensive humour. But the damage had been done.
In 1989 Thames Television's new Head of Light Entertainment, John Howard Davies invited Benny in for a meeting. Having just returned from a triumphant Cannes TV festival Benny assumed that they were to discuss details of a new series. Instead John Howard Davies thanked Benny for all he had done for Thames Television and then sacked him.
Benny had plenty of offers from elsewhere. American television offers came flooding in and he allegedly turned down a $6m offer to make 26 half hour shows in the US because he preferred the security of his home territory. But there were no offers from home. Ideas were tossed back and forth including a series of specials for London Weekend Television, but nothing ever came of them. Benny Hill retired gracefully and with dignity. He was financially secure, in fact he always had a pile of royalty cheques unopened above his fireplace in his Teddington flat, and he took to travelling to his favourite holiday locations, visiting local cinemas and spending time with ex-Angel, Sue Upton, now married and with a family of her own. To her children he was always Uncle Benny.
Fan mail continued to pour in from around the world and Benny aimed to answer every letter personally. In 1991 Thames TV were still making millions of pounds from worldwide sales of the 'Benny Hill Show'. In August of that year he was honoured at the 11th Vevey Comedy Festival in Switzerland with the Charlie Chaplin Award for International Comedy.
By 1992 there were three major television companies vying for Benny's contract. He turned down Thames Television, as well as Carlton (who would eventually replace Thames when the latter lost their franchise), and in the end decided to sign with Nottingham based Central Television. But Benny's health had been suffering for some time. His weight had increased due to overeating and his heart was weak. On 11th February 1992 Benny was admitted to hospital with chest pains. A heart bypass was suggested but Benny turned this down. He was released from hospital after eight days but within hours of returning home he had a relapse.
This time it was diagnosed that he was suffering from kidney failure. Another spell in hospital followed. In the meantime Thames Television, who were continually bombarded with requests from viewers for 'Benny Hill Show' repeats finally gave in and put together a number of re-edited shows. They tore straight into the TV top twenty. A few weeks later on 18th April 1992 Alfred Hawthorne Hill, aged 68, passed away, alone in his flat.
With the passing of Benny Hill, the world of comedy lost one of its greatest clowns. He broke the language barrier in much the same way as his idols; Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and his impact on a generation can easily be compared with these masters of mirth.
Although the final years of his life were surrounded by controversy his lasting legacy is surely beyond doubt. Benny Hill took the medium of television comedy whilst it was still in its infancy and helped shape its future in much the same way that Keaton and Chaplin influenced comedy on the big screen. Like all great clowns he always ensured that the only person who ended up as the butt of the joke was himself. His humour was at times a little crude, but was always delivered with a cheeky grin and a saucy twinkle in his eye. There was nothing malicious about it and at its most basic level it was no worse than school playground humour.
Benny Hill made the world laugh-and for that we should all be grateful.
Biography: Laurence Marcus 2003
Sources of Reference: Life Is Funny (Articles published in weekly parts in TV MIRROR commencing 15th January 1955. Written by Benny Hill.
Star Turns written by Barry Took published in 1992
Benny Hill Merry Master of Mirth written by Robert Ross published in 1999.
Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy written by Mark Lewisohn published in 1998.
for Television Heaven