The cherub-faced master of slapstick and doubleentendre, Benny Hill (1924-1992) revived the nearly forgotten art of burlesque comedy for British audiences during his forty-year run on British television. When his works were re-edited and syndicated during the late 1970s and early 1980s, he became an international comedy star. As his worldwide fame peaked, Hill's occasionally bawdy humor was deemed politically incorrect in certain quarters, and his comedic career ended in controversy.
Began As a Music Hall Performer
Born Alfred Hawthorn Hill on January 21, 1924, he was the son of Alfred Hill Sr., a manager of a surgical goods store in Canal Walk, Southampton, and the former Helen Cave, a clerk at Toogoods Rolling Mills. The senior Hill had previously harbored show-business ambitions, running away from home to join the circus when he was 16 years old. Although he mainly cleaned animal cages and put up tents, Hill's father was allowed a few treasured turns as a clown before his World War I army enlistment cut his brief career short. Later, the elder Hill would dress up his young namesake as a clown and the boy would entertain his mother, father, and older brother Leonard with his antics.
A self-professed show-off, young Alfie Hill first began performing in school, teaming up with friends to do impersonations of the Mills Brothers or in solo turns, Louis Armstrong and Jack Buchanan. Besides being an excellent mimic, Hill was a fairly accomplished musician who—at his father's urging—sang and played guitar and drums. The Hill family often took the youngster to nearby Music Halls to see variety shows laden with pretty girls and top-flight comedians. In later years, Hill would claim that he was not a music hall performer in the classic tradition, but he listed among his early influences an obscure British comic named Peter Waring and “cheeky chappie” Max Miller, as well as American movie comic Danny Kaye. These variety performers quickly moved from sketch to song to monologue with the same sort of ease that Hill himself later exhibited. Under the approving eye of his family, the youngster donned a redcheckered suit and began performing jokes and routines that he heard at the music halls. This led to several semi-pro appearances at local working men's clubs where he impressed onlookers with his confident delivery and timing.
Despite occasional bookings, Hill—who finished school at age 14—found it necessary to take employment as a coal company clerk, stockroom clerk, and milkman, where he was subjected to the ire of housewives fed up with war-time rationing. These short-lived jobs only added to his ardor to be in show-business full-time. At the age of 16, he hired on as a guitarist, drummer, and occasional singer for an aggregation called Ivy Lilywhite and Her Boys. Never a great vocalist, Hill could croon hits of the day passably enough, but his mind continually wandered back to comedy. Before Hill arrived, the comedy had been handled by the group's trumpeter, but always looking for an opening, the youngster began working more bits of business into the show. Playing Boy Scout huts and working men's clubs, he developed enough confidence to strike out on his own in war-torn London.
Hill was turned down by every working show in London, but eventually he found regular employment as a property man and assistant stage-manager at the East Ham Palace. When many of the town's actors left the stage to fight in World War II, the 17-year-old performer got the chance to take on bit parts and even play straight man to comedian Hal Bryan during the runs of Follow That Fun and Send Him Victorious. Constant moving about to various cheap rooming houses resulted in the youngster missing his draft notice until he was 19 years old. Once conscripted, he served in Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers as a driver. Hill proved an unremarkable and undecorated soldier, but he was able to forge a connection with the post-war touring company of Stars in Battledress where he garnered valuable experience doing his stand-up routines and emceeing the show. It was during this era that the young comic began to bill himself as Benny Hill, after one of his American comedy favorites, Jack Benny.
The late 1940s was a tough time for Hill. He worked for small pay when he worked at all, but he dreamt big. Occasionally he would latch on to a small part in a traveling variety show, but he made his biggest early splash as a straight man for comic Reg Varney. “As a ‘feed,’ Benny was brilliant,” Varney told John Smith, author of The Benny Hill Story. “We became very close, and in fact we became so good that he had only to look at me and he knew just what was required when we were on the stage together.” Working for three seasons in a show called Gay Times, Hill and Varney proved a successful team. Afterwards, they were hired for a 1950 show called Sky High. As a bonus, Hill was given a solo spot during the show's first half, but he bombed horribly. “I know it's awful to say,” Varney told Smith, “but Benny's act was always the weak link in that show.” When the spot was canceled, Hill decided that he did not want a career as a straight man, and after finding a replacement, he and Varney parted ways.
Made His Name on Radio and Television
Hill made his first television appearance in 1949 on a show hosted by Alfred Marks and Vera Lynn called Music-Hall, but his still undeveloped monology style fell flat. Although television was fast making in-roads in London, radio was still the mass media powerhouse and Hill secured guest appearances on such programs as Henry Hall's Guest Night, Listen My Children, The Third Division, Variety Bandbox, Beginners Please, and Midday Music Hall. These lowpaying spots did little for his languishing career as a solo performer and he was desperately in need of a showcase. Despite the disparaging attitude of his peers concerning the new medium, Hill began to write comedy sketches with television in mind. Finding a sympathetic ear at the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) television division, he filmed several sketches, gags, and black outs based on his observation of everyday people for the 1951 program Hi There! Compared to his stage act, the show—which featured an early version of his Fred Scuttle character—was well received. Subsequently, the BBC offered the 26-yearold comic a regular spot on their radio show Anything Goes.
Although Hill understood that television was his future, he continued to take roles on radio sitcoms such as Educating Archie and its follow up Archie's the Boy. His popularity on the rise, he emceed such televised programs as The Centre Show (1953) and Showcase (1954), live variety shows that smartly showcased his ability to jump in and out of quick sketches and underplay jokes. By 1955, Hill was given a series of variety specials dubbed The Benny Hill Show. Working double-entendre and non-sequitors into his monologues and wacky mime into his sketches, his work earned him the London Daily Mail's TV Personality of the Year Award. Steady television work ensured his rise in popularity as stage performer and he proved quite a success starring with Shani Wallis in the live production of Fine Fettle. However, disquieted by audiences who favored the routines he performed on television over new material, the comic eventually eschewed live performance altogether.
Like his contemporary Peter Sellers, Hill hoped to parlay his popularity on radio and television into success on the big screen. The seldom seen 1956 mystery spoof Who Done It? proved to be his only starring cinematic appearance, however. In later years, he was smartly used as a character actor in such films as Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, (1965) Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, (1968) and The Italian Job (1969). Showing a good business head, Hill also re-used the better audio comedy moments from his television work as part of a series of BBC radio Light Programme's titled Star Parade, Benny Hill Time, and Benny's Bandbox.
Apart from a long series of filmed commercials for various products, Hill's most successful spin-off came as a recording artist. Starting in 1961, he began recording a series of novelty songs for the Pye l that routinely earned him airplay and included such hits as “Gather in the Mushrooms” (#24 UK, 1961), “Transistor Radio” (#12 UK, 1961), and “The Harvest of Love” (#20 UK, 1963). Later recording for EMI, Hill's song about one of his own characters, “Ernie (Fastest Milkman in the West),” became a number one hit in the UK in 1971 and was successfully revived after his death (#29 UK, 1992).
Dubbed King Leer
Television comedy exploded in Britain during the 1960s the same way it had previously in American during the 1950s. Hill was mindful, however, of how quickly television ate up material and he limited his output to several specials each year. Initially hosting standard variety format episodes, the BBC persuaded the comic to appear in his own sitcom for three seasons. The show was successful, but Hill preferred to work in sketch comedy and negotiated his way back to a BBC variety show by 1967. The deal allowed him complete creative control over the entire product he delivered for air.
From that point onward, Hill wrote everything for his televised specials without filtering or interference from the BBC. The comic's creative method was deceptively simple. He traveled widely, obsessively writing gags and visual sequences as they occurred to him. When he compiled enough material, he began filming and editing shows. The resultant product mixed filmed segments, quick sketches, monologues and silly songs in a zingy, speedy format that predated the American smash Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Indeed, the cheeky comic hoped he could parlay his UK success into an American series, but his two summer replacement specials for CBS's enormously popular Red Skelton Show proved to be ratings failures.
Hill stunned the British entertainment world in 1969 when he allowed his contract with the BBC to lapse and then signed with newly licensed Thames Television channel. Now filming in color and working with his dependable stock company of second bananas which included Henry McGee, Bob Todd, and the little bald-headed man Jackie Wright, Hill fashioned the work that would eventually introduce him to comedy fans worldwide. In 1979, Thames reedited many of Hill's specials into half-hour programs and began to syndicate them around the globe. This, along with the emerging home video trend of the of the 80s, made Hill an international star.
The comedian's act, based in burlesque and music hall double-entendre, had always featured scantily clad females as props. During a silent movie type chase scene with Boots Randolph's hit “Yakety Sax” blaring in the background, some fetching female was inevitably featured in various stages of undress for a quick moment or two. When standards for family entertainment changed during the late 70s, however, Hill amped up his use of women as props. In 1979, he hired four beautiful show girls and dubbed them Hill's Angels—actress Jane Leeves from Frasier was briefly a member—and began building his more suggestive brand of comedy wound them. His longtime fans, who had seen no worse on Dean Martin's old variety show, loved it. Younger viewers either dismissed him as out-dated or complained of his crude insensitivity. For their part, the press began to refer to Hill as King Leer. Although Hill did cut back on the raunchier material, the damage to his reputation had been done. By 1989, despite strong ratings, Thames Television terminated the comic's contract. His last batch of specials were independently produced and distributed.
Heart problems hospitalized the 67-year-old comedian on at least two occasions, but he rejected the idea of surgery. On April 20, 1992, he was found dead in his home by his friend/director Dennis Kirkland. Next to him was an unsigned contract to create a new series for ITV. At the time of his death, Hill was reportedly worth ten million pounds, yet he lived like a member of the suburban working class. He did not own a car and—always a loner—he never married or spawned any children. The comedian's will left everything to his parents, brother and sister, all of whom had passed away before he did.
Death has neither curtailed Hill's popularity nor controversy. The DVD age brought all of his works into the marketplace again, but in late 2007, BBC America announced that it would no longer air Hill's shows because they were seeking a different image. The prior year Jemima Lewis, writing for The Independent, questioned the politically correct forces that brought the twinkly-eyed comic down before concluding, “Hill wanted us to laugh at lechery, not condone it. Men who lusted after women usually came to a sticky end: Ernie the Milkman was slain with a rock bun hurled by his love rival, Two-Ton Ted from Teddington. It's old-fashioned and nostalgic, surprisingly clean fun[.]”
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