Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The disturbing popularity of Benny Hill

Sometimes in my dreams I have an odd vision of a rotund man being chased around by scantily clad girls at double speed. Policemen and vicars appear and disappear from the margins, people brandish umbrellas and canes. People are slapped and they fall over.  I wake up in a cold sweat.



This vision haunted me during my childhood and it has a habit of popping into my mind every time I expound the superiority of British comedy to Americans.

"Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Alan Partridge, Blackadder...oh and The Office with Ricky Gervais."

And someone will inevitably conjure up those two words that will bring me crashing down to earth.

"Benny Hill?"

I'll stammer and try to find a way of proving he wasn't British. I'm like Donald Trump floundering around looking for Barack Obama's Kenyan birth certificate.



Benny Hill died in 1992 and while a new climate of political correctness had sidelined his show he remained immensely popular.

While other popular British entertainer such as Morcambe and Wise failed to make it big in America, Hill succeeded spectacularly while not even marketing himself at the United States.

The Telegraph reported in his obituary: "By 1985 not a single day would pass without The Benny Hill Show being screened somewhere in America, and many stations would broadcast the programme twice a night. At San Jose penitentiary the prisoners threatened mayhem unless they were allowed to watch him."

Although I'd like to pass him off as American it appears he was born in Southampton - the city in which the right wing and rightly annoying former Sun columnist Gary Bushell attempted to erect a statute of Hill in.

Hill did some stage work and radio before finding the ideal medium for his slapstick brand of humor, TV.



By the 1970s he had a huge following in countries as diverse as Cuba, France and China. Perhaps slapstick manages to cross the language barrier, thus explaining the huge popularity of Norman Wisdom in Albania.

Apparently the Russians pointed their television aerials towards Finland to pick Benny Hill's show- until, under the freedoms of glasnost, they were allowed to receive the programme on their own network.  By the time of his death Hill had taken Britain's obsession with bottoms and boobs and made it into a global phenomenon becoming the world's most popular comedian in the process.


Hill himself acknowledge his universal appeal saying: "I can get my face slapped in six different languages".

Hill was originally inspired by Charlie Chaplin and it turns out Chaplin was later revealed to be a Hill fan. Michael Jackson was another fan.

"I just love your Benny Hill!" the singer, and future best pal of the chimp Bubbles,  told the British press during a 1970s tour. "He's so funny!".

I could never understand the appeal of Hill but grew up with kids who were addicted to the show. Yet I was also aware there was a class thing going on here. Hill's fans were primarily blue collar. They were more likely to rate a game of darts as a good night out and probably less likely to exclaim: "Gosh. Let's go out and see Madame Butterfly tonight."

Increasingly, intellectuals started sneering. Comedian and left wing activist Ben Elton, who co-authored Blackadder, famous claimed The Benny Hill Show was single-handedly responsible for a number of incidences of rape in England.

Elton later claimed he had been taken out of context. He later appeared in a parody on Harry Enfield and Chums, Benny Elton, where he was 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.


Whatever the claims and counterclaims the accusations that Hill's comedy was offensive to women stuck, notwithstanding the explanation of his friend and producer Dennis Kirkland  that the women  chased Hill in anger for undressing them, all of which was done accidentally by some ridiculous means.
Hmmmm.

Hill's show was cancelled in the late 1980s after Thames TV chiefs claimed, rather unconvincingly, that audiences were falling and Hill was looking tired. He never recovered from the shock.



Hill who said he had a mental age of 17, never married. Reports later emerged that Benny Hill wasn't very funny in real life, or at least at all funny. Reports surfaced suggesting he was odd and controlling.

He showed a particular attraction for young working-class girls - "I get a kick out of taking them to places they would not normally visit," he explained.

The comedian avoided educated and intellectual women, and matrimony held no appeal.

He said he proposed once at the age of 23, but was turned down.

"Secretly I was relieved", he said. "It was like watching your mother-in-law driving your new car over the cliff edge. You have mixed feelings about it."

OTHER BRITISH HOWLERS

Brits may get uppity about comedy but we have certainly produced some bad ones as well as gems. Some of the worst were.

TERRY AND JUNE - Flabbily unfunny suburban sitcom about a middle aged couple who play golf, garden and do other middle aged suburban stuff in sensible pullovers.



BIRDS OF A FEATHER - Spikily unfunny suburban sitcom about two criminals' wives

KENNY EVERETT - Like Benny Hill on crack, although he had some funny moments.

HARRY HILL - No relation but too off the wall to be funny.

LAST OF THE SUMMER WINE - Sitcom about three elderly men who wander round a Yorkshire village. The only joke in this show seemed to revolve around a woman with wrinkly stockings and the fact she had wrinkly stockings.

ALLO ALLO - You wouldn't think the work of the French resistance in Nazi occupied Germany would make for good comedy and for the most part it didn't.

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT - Sitcom about the family of a property developer. A veritable yawnathon.

SORRY - This one lived up to its name. There's only so far you can stretch the joke of a 41-year-old man called Timothy who still lives with his mother.

FREDDIE STARR - He may not have eaten any hamsters but the infamous headline is about all he's famous for these days.

ARE YOU BEEN SERVED? This Seventies department store sitcom still appears Stateside at times. Laughs revolved around Mr. Humphries' exaggerated homosexuality and Mrs. Slocombe's "pussy."












28 comments:

  1. I am only gonna say theese once....

    'allo 'allo is one of my all-time favourite Brit Shows

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    1. lol Scots lass - it certainly had its moments

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  2. I remember having had the same nightmare after watching the show just once, so I have avoided it all my life. I remembered women with ridiculous make-up being chased around by a fat old man and then hitting him, all in a dark background and without dialogue. Nightmare fuel indeed. Still, someone running while the 'jakety sax' sounds is pretty funny (though it gets old).

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    1. you have summed it up rather nicely Starla

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  3. I have heard seen only Are you being served, guess I am lucky not to have to witness Benny and his slapstick.
    It's funny how movies and shows have class based appeal, there is a prominent rural-urban divide when it comes to art and music too.
    Hope you are doing well. Have a great July, sweat a little while we get wet in the monsoon. :)

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    1. I know Rek - it's like Are You Been Served has been exported across the whole world

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  4. I remember Benny Hill as the toymaker in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Then I saw his show on PBS in the 80s and some of it was funny, but I'm not that into toilet humour for the most part. Loved the Yakety Sax song. Surprised you left The Goodies off your list.

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    1. Wow i didn't know he was in Chitty Chitty Bang bang, JoJo - you are right - The Goodies was a naff show but when I watched it at about the age of four it was my favorite show on TV

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  5. Words cannot describe how much I loathe that show...and that man.

    It recently replaced Alfred Hitchcock Presents on my favorite tv station here and I'm PISSED.

    Oh, and that's pissed as in mad by the way, not drunk.

    And that's mad as in angry, not crazy.

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    1. Indeed Jen - hmm Benny Hill replaces Hitchcock is a bad deal

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  6. My Dad used to watch Benny Hill when I was a kid. I never understood what he saw in it that he thought was funny. Monty Python I have always loved. It will always make me laugh, I think.

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    1. Agreed,Daisy - tis slightly more clever than Benny

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  7. i have to admit that i used to watch benny hill ages ago, goodness me! brilliant article, david.

    hope you're doing well.

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    1. Thanks Betty - always great to hear from you - hope you are doing well too.

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  8. My story's the same as Daisy's. I admit, I'm tired of "Are You Being Served," so often repeating on PBS, when there are so many great recent comedy shows to air. (OK, they do air "Vicar of Dibley," which I adore, and "Doc Martin," ditto.) (God, I WISH I could live somewhere as beautiful as the fictional Portwenn!)
    Some Dark Romantic

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    1. I know Mina -I can't understand why US TV runs with some British comedies, like Are You Being Served and Keeping Up Appearances and ignores others. For real - I think it's filmed in Port Isaac in Cornwall.

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  9. Another great read David!

    I loved Benny Hill and the real old guy! My Dad would really get a good laugh out of it. I had no idea about his private life.

    I watch channel 3 or is it 4 sometimes over here in the USA, the English channel. We get a few of those programmes you listed. I think they most probably don't have the copyrights to show some of the programmes. It would be nice to see more over here.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog David. Enjoy the rest of your week and weekend!

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    1. My dad got the endless slap in the head to mimic Hill on little Jackie. Good lord will these people lighten up one of me biggest knocks on liberals is their high brow inability to have even the slightest ability to laugh at themselves. Seems everything has to go through this PC filter in Benny Hill's case feminism.

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  10. Oh thank you Jacqueline - there is much to be said for more. Tis always a pleasure to stop by your blog.

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  11. I just wish they would bring back Pete and Dud!!!!!!! In a class of their own.

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  12. That was indeed classic commedy ...

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  13. I remember my parents watching this when I was a kid and my dad sitting there and laughing til he couldn't breathe. Thanks for the clips!

    Random Ramblings
    The Life of Lisa
    Maple Grove Cemetery

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  14. LISTEN UP!!!!
    Benny Hill considered funnier than Monty Python by two TV stations (WOR and WLVI). Benny Hill considered the funniest ,man in the whole UK (according to 1983 Current Biography).

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  15. There is a huge difference between the clever and slightly naughty late '60s-mid '70s Benny Hill (which we got in the U.S. starting in the late '70s) and the later, awful, unfunny, just plain old and tired Benny Hill of the '80s and beyond (unfortunately, the only exposure to Benny Hill most of those younger than myself have had). I've been scouring the internet to find his "The Birds and the Bees" video in commemoration of his 90th birthday today, but it seems to be blocked everywhere here in the U.S.

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  16. Agree with the main thrust of this but VERY harsh on Harry Hill. I'm not a fan of his routine but on TV Burp he was fantastic.

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  17. Benny Hill - the greatest comedian ever! I thank God he brought him into our lives. He never gave me nightmares but lots of laughs. RIP dear friend.

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    1. I'm also a big fan of Benny Hill and I, too, seen a lot of the 1980s sketches that aired here on American television and they're comical, to me, at least.

      I think all the talk about having nightmares upon seeing his sketches is a bit overly dramatic.

      I've seen a lot of his work from the BBC programs that were shot in black and white and I've seen practically all of his Thames Television output. He's funny and entertaining from the beginning of his career in the mid 1950s to his last television special in 1991.

      The thing that puzzles me is why does Benny's home country constantly come off as apologetic? His programs happened to be popular all over the globe and all the British media seem to do is cover their faces in shame.

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    2. The bad press is an early example of the media molding public opinion they hated Benny so should you. He took the sillyiest material and said if I portray this person it will be funny. It worked to perfection. The girls were eye candy so the guys and girls weren't focused on him no different then Hee Haw in the US. My guess is if their were a new comic today no women trying to break in would jump at a chance to work on his show.

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