Although Benny Hill (1924-1992) had been a staple of British television since the 1950s, he remained practically unknown outside of the United Kingdom until someone at Thames Television got the bright idea of syndicating cut-down, 30-minute versions of The Benny Hill Show in the United States. To say the show proved popular would be an understatement. Benny Hill became something of a phenomenon in the late-1970s, from the moment old reruns of his show began airing on late-night American TV. (The fact that many local stations unwittingly ran these shows with their occasional nudity intact didn't hurt, in those pre-VCR/pre-cable days.) Benny-mania soon spread to all corners of the globe, but ironically Hill's long run on British television was nearing its end. In these politically-correct times, Hill's brand of unapologetic lewdness was suddenly deemed distasteful and, in the greatest of ironies, for a time the British comedian seemed to be everywhere except in Britain.
Is Hill's comedy as crude, juvenile, and sexist as feminist groups would have you believe? You bet. It also happens to be quite funny. As actor and Benny Hill fan Michael Caine says, "Everything serious is sent-up. [Feminists] think they're the only ones being sent up. Everything is."
Indeed, while Hill may be guilty of objectifying beautiful women, jokes are always at the expense of the silly, hot-blooded men pursuing them, never the women themselves. And while Hill's Puckish leering became his trademark, his unending pursuit of long-legged blondes was but one facet of this multi-talented comedian.
A&E is wise to bring Benny Hill's comedy in undiluted form as Benny Hill Complete and Unadulterated: The Naughty, Dirty Years, a boxed set of the first 11 one-hour shows from Hill's Thames Television series, which began airing in 1969. These are the complete shows, not time-compressed, running about 50 minutes apiece, in a form unseen in the United States. What's more, the set includes three episodes filmed entirely in black and white. A technicians' strike in late-1969 all but zapped the color out of British television for several months (many other series were affected, including the first season of Upstairs, Downstairs) and the three black and white Hill shows included here haven't been seen anywhere since their original run.
As with most of A&E's British imports, the set is pricey ($49.95) but, typical of that studio's releases, the transfer is faultless and the shows are handsomely packaged.
Adding enormously to the appeal of this set is the inclusion of an excellent documentary, Benny Hill: The World's Favorite Clown. Produced by the BBC and Thames Television in 1991, the 52-minute, 4:3 documentary is a gem, following Hill, in the last year of his life, around England and France, from glamorous tributes to the local dry cleaner. Still looking fit and full of energy, Hill discusses his art, which is supplemented with excellent clips from shows going back to the 1950s.
The documentary features interviews with Hill's crew and repertory cast, including Henry McGee, Bob Todd, and Bella Emberg. (Tribute is likewise paid to the late Jackie Wright, the diminutive -- 4'11" -- bald man endlessly abused on Hill's show.) Also interviewed are Michael Caine (who worked with Hill on The Italian Job), Mickey Rooney (who says he wrote a script for him and Hill: Wait Till the Swelling Goes Down), Burt Reynolds -- and two unlikely, die-hard Benny Hill fans: writer John Mortimer and newsman Walter Cronkite.
Hill comes off in interviews as very gregarious and approachable, a truly Continental man who accepts one award in (what sounds like fluent) French -- all quite a contrast to his lowbrow image, or his famously enigmatic offscreen life. Reportedly he lived alone in a single room of a large building (whose entire second floor went unused), never owned a car, lived quietly and did his own shopping. "Am I shy?" Hill asks, responding quite seriously, "I'm far too shy to answer that."
The set also includes brief but helpful liner notes by writer Robert Ross, and a trivia game of marginal interest.
Benny Hill appeared in several high-profile features: he played the fireman in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and the toymaker in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), for instance, but his film work gives no hint of the persona he refined on the television series on which he had full creative control. Even his single starring feature, Who Done It? (1956), released to DVD by Anchor Bay, is a by-the-numbers innocuous comedy.
TV was really Hill's medium. As Michael Caine accurately describes him, Hill had "a face like an evil cherub sent by the devil." He claims Chaplin as his major influence, but has none of that artist's sentimental and polemic weaknesses. What Hill does share are Keaton's ingenuity and appreciation for visual gags, Stan Laurel's occasional surrealism, Milton Berle's wholesale joke-appropriation, Sid Caesar's ear for foreign dialects, Red Skelton's clownishness (and habit of laughing at his own jokes), and Spike Jones's exquisite timing and taste for extremely corny puns. Mostly though, Hill's like a schoolboy caught telling a dirty joke back behind the shed, or like the British picture postcard come to life.
The hour shows are broken up into between about nine and fifteen segments, with at least one reserved for The Ladybirds, a female vocal trio who look like they might moonlight as receptionists. They cover hit songs of the day: "Age of Aquarius," "Can't Take My Mind Off of You," etc.
Hill dominates the rest of the show, a jumble of film and TV parodies, fast-paced, Keystone Kops-style comedy (filmed in fast motion and usually accompanied by a sax-dominated version of "Yakety Axe," Hill's signature theme), sketch comedy straight out of Burlesque, and British music hall-style novelty songs.
Video & Audio
As common to British television of the period, The Benny Hill Show alternated between videotape (for interiors) and film (exteriors). For the most part, these transfers look very good. They may never look like IMAX movies, but given the limitations of the format and outdated technology, they look quite acceptable, and technologically an improvement transfer-wise over similar shows from the period, such as A&E's DVDs of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Each show comes with well-defined, useful chapter menus, generously providing up to 15 chapters per hour show.
The argument can be made in favor of the 30-minute condensed versions over the hour-long shows, as Benny Hill does seem to play better in small doses. He was, like Morey Amsterdam, a "human joke machine," and without a clearly definable persona audiences could latch onto. But in an age of TV comedy where slick has replaced silly and bawdy is banned, Benny Hill's old-fashioned leering seems poised for a comeback.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.