BENNY HILL was one of the world’s most successful comedians. In 1990 “The Benny Hill Show” could be seen on 97 TV channels throughout the world. He spoke at least four languages he had learned by ear – but his racy skits and slapstick gags needed no translation. His was a language that entertained the world. Yet an elusive personality hid behind his apparently easy smile. He didn’t own a car and never drove one. He lived modestly in a rented furnished apartment. Some of the finest comedy skits that will survive generations were first created on scraps of paper, or the cardboard that came back with his shirts from the dry cleaners. But the most visible personal possessions in his apartment – those that would stay with him to the end – did represent his greatest passion. Two television sets and three video recorders.
Benny Hill was born Alfred Hawthorne Hill, son of Alfred and Helen Hill, on January 21, 1924 in the port town of Southampton. He had one brother, Leonard, and a sister, Diana. Both his father and his grandfather had been circus clowns, but his father – following a harrowing period as a soldier and prisoner during World War I – became the manager of a shop selling surgical and rubber goods. It was a business best known for its supply of “surgical appliances” and “French letters” or condoms, making Benny’s father the subject of many a smutty schoolboy’s jest. The young Benny was a regular visitor to the Southampton Palace and Hippodrome theatres, home to touring revues and variety shows and was soon seduced by their slapstick and sauciness. Also a great fan of the cinema and radio, Benny was a natural mimic, and would immediately recreate the stars he had seen at the movies from Charlie Chaplin and Maurice Chevalier to James Cagney and even Mae West.
The young Benny first performed in a school production of “Alice in Wonderland” as a rabbit, and at the age of 14, joined “Bobbie’s Concert Party”, a semi-professional troupe of performers. He left school at the age of 15, and took a job in the stock room at a local Woolworths before becoming a milkman with his own milk cart and a horse named Daisy. In September 1941, at the height of the Second World War, Benny, just 17, moved to London intent on a showbiz career. Walking from theatre to theatre, he was finally offered the job of ‘Assistant Stage Manager and Small Parts’ in the show “Follow The Fun” at the East Ham Palace. More revues would follow, but Hill was soon picked up for wartime service. He became a driver for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers where, not long after D-Day, he found himself driving through the combat zones of France and into Germany. It was a job that forced him to drive thousands of miles, and on leaving the army, he promised himself that he would never drive again. With the war over, Benny applied for a transfer to the Central Pool of Artists known as “Stars in Battledress”, a military touring revue company. His first show, “Happy Weekend” opened in Calais and toured military bases. More work followed, along with the opportunity to hone his talents.
By the time he left “Stars in Battledress” in 1947, he was ready to take on the world. Benny considered Alfred Hill too formal a name for show business, and although he tried Alf and Alfie Hill, neither sounded right to him. After much consideration, he took his name from the popular American comedian Jack Benny. Benny Hill began playing the variety circuit in music halls and working men’s clubs without enormous success, but his first big break was as the foil to British comic Reg Varney in a revue called “Gaytime”. Radio work and more revues soon followed, but in this period, Benny had more success as Varney’s straight man than as a stand-up comedian. Benny made his live television debut with Varney in 1949 in a revue called “Here’s Mud In Your eye” and recognised immediately the enormous potential that television offered. He sat down and began devising skits that would work for the new medium. Television would prove a perfect partner for the two sides of Benny Hill: His boundless energy and creativity married to an intense shyness and need for privacy. Through television he could entertain millions, while only actually being watched in the studio by the close friends and associates he trusted. He would become the first British comedy star made famous by television – and his inventiveness would change the shape of television comedy for those who followed.
In the 1950’s he was hired by BBC Television on the strength of his written sketches, and became an established TV comic for the revue “Hi There!” amongst others. 1953 found Benny starring in the TV revue “Showcase”, and his success led to the BBC contracting him for a new show to be called “The Benny Hill Show” which premiered in 1955. In 1956 Benny made his film debut in “Who Done It?”, and thereafter worked consistently in television while taking on occasional film roles in such movies as “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines”, “Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang” and “The Italian Job”. His songwriting career also proved a success in the early 1960’s when he was signed to the Pye recording label. There followed such songs as “Gather in the Mushrooms”, “Transistor Radio” and “Harvest of Love” – all of which became Top 20 hits – and the No. 1 hit of 1971, “Ernie: The Fastest Milkman in the West”, a song based on his early career with “Daisy” and a fellow milkman who went by the name of Ernie Carrington.
By now beloved in Britain, Benny Hill signed an exclusive contract with Thames Television in 1969 which soon propelled him and “The Benny Hill Show” into a world of international fame and acclaim. Benny’s expert feel for television took every advantage that the new medium had to offer. In Benny’s world, everything could be speeded up or slowed down, run forwards or backwards, right side up or upside down. With his wide array of characters from the eternally hopeful Fred Scuttle, to the infernally misunderstood Chow Mein, on a small television screen for millions of viewers, Benny Hill ruled the world. But while the star of the show was always Benny, he was never afraid to let others take the spotlight, and many of his fellow performers can also stop traffic in cities around the world. There were always girls in Benny’s show, but it was with the birth of “Hill’s Angels” that his team became truly well-rounded. Among other longstanding Angels, there could be seen the future co-star of the hit U.S. sitcom “Frazier”, Jane Leeves. The Hill’s Angels were soon followed by The Little Angels, precocious toddlers for whom Benny’s characters were the perfect foil.
In the late 1970’s, Don Taffner began to promote the sale of “The Benny Hill Show” in the U.S. But it wasn’t until 1978 when WTAF in Philadelphia stepped up to the plate that Benny’s breakthrough began. In the Fall of 1979, half-hour editions of “The Benny Hill Show” began to air in Philadelphia, and before long TV stations all over America leapt on Benny’s bandwagon. With little publicity or promotion, word-of-mouth made “The Benny Hill Show” a must-see, and Benny’s popularity soared. By the 1980’s however, the political climate in Britain was changing. Feminist protests over Benny’s humour were undercutting his enormous success. In 1989 – when “The Benny Hill Show” could be seen five nights a week in France – Benny returned from the Cannes TV Festival, and found himself summoned to the head office of Thames Television. There, a recently appointed Head of Light Entertainment gave him the news that “The Benny Hill Show” was to be cancelled. Ironically though times changed, the timelessness of Benny Hill’s appeal has never faltered. With roots that run deep in comic history, the comedy of Benny Hill continues to bring laughter to the world to this day. Suffering from a chronic heart condition, Benny Hill died sometime over the Easter weekend of April 1992 at the age of 68 while watching television and working on a new commission. Still enormously popular and loved the world over, he had just been contracted to create a fresh series of “The Benny Hill Show” and was working on new material when he passed away. The new series was not to be, but we are fortunate to have a golden treasure of comedy that continues to entertain. Benny Hill will be greatly missed, but his comedy lives on.