"Benny Hill? He's...an alien."
With those infamous words, Monty Python member John Cleese forever set the tone for any discussion of Benny Hill and his importance to British comedy. While not so much an outright dismissal as an unqualified non-committal, it has long been understood that in the realm of real wit and comic invention, there is Python, the Goons (and their descendents) and then there's everyone else. And then just maybe, if the wind is right and everyone's had a few pints, you consider the sex farce foibles of one Alfred Hawthorne Hill.
For many Americans, the first tacky taste of Hill's brand of bawdy burlesque came in 1979, when his one-hour shows were whittled down into easily digestible half hour hunks and shipped around the world. It was there that Benny blossomed, becoming an icon to the sophomoric and the double entendre. From baggy pants buffoonery to the sometimes sharp, satirical stand-up, Hill was just plain genial, gentleman's humor. His program a veritable variety showcase, offering a little bit of the brash for every conceivable taste. Yet many still think of him as a stupid, sexist pig, trading on tired old clichés and the breach of the body part to make his merriment.
It's a real shame he's considered such a second-class concept in comedy. Granted, most of his gags have hairs on them older than your grandmother's waddle, and he never meet a pair of breasts he couldn't ogle like an orphan on wet nurse day, but someone does not achieve international stardom on the basis of talentlessness. Thanks to A&E's release of Benny Hill: Complete and Unadulterated - The Naughty, Early Years (Set Two), (Set One came out last year) one gathers a new appreciation of Hill's many gifts. Not only was he an incredibly engaging performer, but he was a brilliant writer, excellent song stylist, fabulously skilled physical comedian and capable of the occasional leaps into brilliance. Oh yeah, and he's funny, too.
In 1969, Benny Hill was lured away from the BBC to become a featured attraction on fledgling Thames Television. This box set from A&E represents the second half of series three, and all of series four and five of this version of The Benny Hill Show (picking up directly where the first box set left off). Season 3 is represented by shows 1 and 2, Season 4 contains shows 3 through 6 and Season 5 is made up of the remaining four shows – 7 through 10. While it is impossible to discuss everything in each show, here is a rundown of the content from the DVD menus:
Season 3, Part 2:
Episode 1: Benny Quickie: Sweet Chess/ Benny's Ballad: "Oh Zandoona"/ Fred Scuttle's Health Farm and Keep Fit Brigade/ Fam and Fufan: A Poem by Folomon Faint John/ Pierre De Tierre: Avant-Garde French Filmmaker/ The Lonely Miss Fox/ Sylvia McNeil sings "I Don't Know How to Love Him"/ Percy Thrower interviews Amos Thripp, Head Gardner/ Benny's Quickies: Television Secrets/ Chow-Mein at Customs and Immigration/ Benny's All Star Finale
Episode 2: Benny Quickie: Undercover Nazis/ Benny's Ballad "Wild Wild Women"/ Nicholas Parsons talks to the children of St. Solomon's School/ Trespassing at Lakeside Park/ Medical Memory Lane/ Air Travel and Benny's Duet "Those Days"/ Benny Quickie: Nemo The Fastest Quick Change Artist in the World/ Television Director Fred Scuttle; Scuttlevision/ Poor Prunella/ Noel Coward's Little Things/ Meeting People: Chow-Mein meets Nicholas Parsons/ Benny's Ballad: Harvest of Love
Episode 3: Benny Quickie: Slot Machines/ Benny's Ballad: "The Dustbins of Your Mind"/ Meeting People with Hugh Paddick/ Benny's Ballad" "Fad Eyed Fal"/ Woodstick/ Autumn Fashion Parade/ Berlin Youth Choir Recital
Episode 4: Benny Quickie: Church Mission/ Benny's Ballad: "When I Was a Lad"/ Benny's Television Bloopers/ Fred Scuttle Striptease Cabaret/ The Christmas Booze-Up/ The Ladybirds sing "Don't Stop the Music"/ Benny's Advertising Bloopers/ Yackanory/ Benny's Ballad: "Portable TV Set"/ An American in Britain and Benny's Ballad: "The Common Market Square Dance"
Season 4, Cont.:
Episode 5: Benny Quickie: Dearest Heart Take/ Benny's Ballad: "Carol"/ Fred Scuttle: Security Guard/ Programme Planner/ Benny Quickies: Television Secrets/ The Orange Blossom Sound plays "What Am I Doing Hanging Round"/ Chow-Mein At Home with Henry McGee II/ Jackie Wright's Holiday/ Benny's Duet: "Lover Come Back to Me"
Episode 6: Benny Quickie: Beanz Meanz Beanz/ Benny Accompanies Lee Gibson: "Mad About You"/ Confrontation: Mervyn Cruddy Speaks Out/ Reflection Ballet/ Poetry Corner/ The Deputy/ Lee Gibson and John John Keefe sing "Happy Together"/ American Generation Gap/ Benny Quickies: Advertising Bloopers/ The Dalton Abbott Railway Porter Choir
Episode 7: Benny's Quickies: Bad Cling/ Benny's Ballad: "News of the Family"/ Spot Black. Germany Calling/ Fun at the Flicks/ Berry Cornish sings "A Child's Question"/ Benny Quickies: Misunderstandings/ Los Zafiros/ Phone In with Ludovic Kennedy and Humphrey Bumphrey/ The Band in the Park: Continental Capers
Episode 8: Benny Quickie: Batman!/ Benny's Ballad: "Dapper Dan the Lady Killer Manl"/ Fred Scuttle's Channel Tunnel/ Benny Quickies: Indiscretions/ The Great British Dancing Finals with Terry Wobegone/ Anne Shelton sings "Galilee Song"/ Departure Lounge with Mervyn Cruddy/ Benny Quickies: No Milk!/ The Ladybirds sing Broadway Melodies/ Bo Peep: Nursery Rhyme Interpretations
Season 5, Cont.:
Episode 9: Benny Quickie: Romantic Pipe Smoker/ "Faith" by E.M. Barrister/ Esnor Benny Presents Diana Darvey and El Sidney, performing "Sway"/ Spy Games/ Benny Quickies: Three Beans on Toast/ Design sings "Second Love"/ Film Time: Director Sam Speiler/ Benny Quickies: Counting/ The Minstrel Boy/ Mr. TV Times Contest
Episode 10: Benny's Quickie: A Little Boy?/ Benny's Musical Sermon: "The Good Book"/ Benny's International Bloopers/ Fred Scuttle: Scuttle's Escorts/ Benny Quickie: You Say Hawaii/ Match of the Week: Golden Goalies and their Silver Saves/ Judith Durham and the Hottest Band in Town perform "Strut Your Stuff"/ Coalpits/ The Ladybirds sing "Yesterday Once More"/ Benny Quickie: Hooch/ The Short and Unhappy Romance of Ted Tingle/ Benny Quickie: Hooch II/ Mexican Medley
There is a lot more to Benny Hill and his reign as Britain's biggest comic guilty pleasure than most Americans even begin to know. Before we ever saw a single syndicated second of this burlesque bozo with the face of a demonic cherub (to steal a line from Michael Caine) he had been a near 20 year staple on the BBC (from 1950 to 1969) before jumping ship and becoming the regal centerpiece of upstart Thames television's light entertainment division. Then, after another near 20 years as the UK's most popular comedian – and it's most controversial – he was summarily dismissed from Thames without so much as a tribute. Yet by this time, countless reruns of his truncated series (down to 30 minutes from a normal 50+) had made him a worldwide phenomenon and humor icon to both young and old.
Watching the 10 shows presented on this DVD box set from A&E, one is instantly struck by two things. First, The Benny Hill Show actually contains about as much music and music-inspired comedy as it does straight sketch or spoof work. Secondly, the well-known "bawdy" humor is placed along side a lot of gentle lampooning, dead-on parodies, odd impersonations and even some political satire (who would have known?). Indeed, watching the almost nine hours of content here shows you that Hill was more than just a comedian with a thing for the ladies. While far from a thinking man's humorist, he was definitely a drinking man's comic.
Yes, Hill loved the ladies and enjoyed making them the center of his snickering schoolboy shenanigans. But arguments that he was some sort of mean-spirited chauvinistic clown who forced women to be the degraded brunt of his jokes, is just outright ridiculous. Okay, so objectifying a gal does smack of a pre-Summer of Love simplicity that our society has long since grown out of, but to blame any social setbacks on a little slap and tickle or a dirty limerick is dumb. Hill's humor stems from the reaction to, not the act against, the individual involved. We don't giggle when a girl loses her top – what's funny is the befuddled look on the voyeur's face when he sees something he's only imagined he'd ever experience. Sure, there are skits where Hill comes across as a cad mixed with a masher, trying every trick in the book to get close to an unlucky lady. And it's hard to ignore the constant reference toward the objects of his desire as anything but sexual in categorization, but make no mistake about it, Benny is always the butt of the punch line here.
He never lets the prurient turn unseemly and everything has an aura of innocent naiveté about it. While some can shout that he fails to take seriously any of the issues between men and women, one also needs to remember that this is, first and foremost, a comedy show. Looking for moral philosophizing or ethical idealism in the realm of the fart joke is as foolish as the complained about material. Like a wise man once said, this is HUMOR, so have a sense of it.
The delights to be discovered on this DVD are far too many to specifically delineate. But after watching all 10 episodes in a row, one begins to see the pattern in Hill's programming. His shows are a combination of variety and sketches, both serious and comical performers. There is always a big production number (usually featuring Hill and his backup singers, The Ladybirds) and a few other minor musical moments (referred to as Benny's Ballads). Comedy pieces run the gamut from small, incidental elements (called black-outs in the vernacular, but are referred to here as Benny Quickies) to full-blown narratives (usually a parody or take-off on some cultural reference point, like films or TV shows). Hill does impersonations, plays in drag and generally uses every bit of ammunition in the arsenal of witty anarchy to sell his sentiments.
Since Hill himself scripts every single word of an episode – from one-liners and comic Q&As to bawdy, brash song lyrics – there is an intense consistency of tone that really makes the series standout over other, crafted by committee, offerings. One cannot deny that The Benny Hill Show is a direct reflection of the creator's own proclivities and concept of comedy. And this may be the reason why some have difficulty with his act. If you are not tuned in to what Hill thinks is witty – or are at least willing to meet him halfway – you'll look upon his laughable lewdness with a rather jaundiced eye. But Hill is harmless, and his show – especially in this timeless Thames version – is a souvenir to when TV farce was neither blue, screwed or tattooed. It was just funny.
Looking over the elements involved in a typical Benny Hill show, there are certain standouts among the divergent components. Dealing with some of them individually, one can get a better idea of the hierarchy to humor Hill is working in. We begin with:
Benny Quickies: Fans of Laugh-In, Love, American Style or any other cheeky comedy variety show crafted since the birth of the boob tube will find these illustrated dirty jokes a resplendent reminder of what the sketch does best. Sure, some of the riffing here is as old as Joan Collin's contraceptives, but the overall effect is immediate and entertaining. Set Two contains some very memorable bits, from his usual collection of bloopers and blunders to the look behind the scenes of television and film in the making. Indeed, all of these mini-moments of merriment represent Hill at his best; short, sweet and timed to a T.
The Fred Scuttle Interviews: One of the truly classic characters Hill ever created, Fred Scuttle is Everyman as idiot savant. With his thick tongue sticking out like a child about to get a lolly, his granny glasses pushed far down his nose and his open-palmed salute, this jack-off of all trades appears on a frequent basis – usually as a representative of Thames Television – to wax idiotic about some insignificant drivel. On this set, we get several wonderful selections. Especially funny are Scuttle's running of a strip club, an escort service, a fat farm, and a company digging the English Chunnel. Each and every time, Scuttle is a hoot, even when he's using specific cultural references that are either so dated or particular to England that we will never fully comprehend them. It's Hill's winning personality that sells this silliness in the end, as the comic gets lost in the character and truly becomes a glorious goofball.
Character Driven Diversions: Aside from Scuttle, Benny has a few other wacky packs to offer up for inquiry. There is miserable man about town Mervyn Cruddy and the awkward athlete Ginger Tompkins. Perhaps the most politically incorrect character is his malapropos-prone Chinese businessman, Chow-Mein. Though he's absolutely hilarious (many of the mispronunciation jokes are delightfully complex), the "l for r' and "me so solly' ideal can be viewed as very offensive.
Up Tempo Song Parodies and Bawdy Ballads: Second only to comedy, Hill loved music and an average Benny Hill show can have up to four songs incorporated into its entertainment. Unless they are cover versions interpreted by the featured singers or originals offered by the bands who created them, Hill is responsible for the musical material. Relying a little too much on the frantic folk songs of Eastern Europe (many of the offerings here sound like send-ups of gypsy campfire fodder) the comic still creates some highly memorable musings. Of particular note are "Dustbins of Your Mind", "When I Was a Lad", "News of the Family and "The Good Book. Each is filled with verbal wit and bursting with a cleverness lost on most crafters of comic novelty numbers.
Head Scratching Musical Interlude: Benny championed a couple of strange singing "sensations" during the run of his series. The first was the coven of spinster's-in-training known as The Ladybirds. Featuring about as fetching an example of English bar maids as you'll come across in variety entertainment, these gals were blessed with decent pipes, but some pretty paltry particulars to enclose them in. Still you have to love the oversized spectacles from the Brett Sommers/Match Game '77 collection, worn without a single sense of shame by the middle matron of the group.
Odder yet is Betty Cornish, a zombie-style cover girl who sings lower echelon folk rock like the SS is torturing her. Her surreal song "A Child's Question" is a bewildering highlight of this set. Yet, for the most part, the musical interludes are a lot of fun. Yet it will be impossible to figure out just what to make of the specter like Sylvia McNeal (and her weird rendition of a Jesus Christ Superstar song) or Design (who come across like a badly cloned version of The Mamas and the Papas). This is the material that is almost always missing from the syndicated versions of the show. And sometimes, the cuts are mercilessly necessary.
Sketches: In smaller doses, Hill is usually dead on. When he is working a one note notion for all it's worth, his decision to milk it and then move along is brilliant. Examples of such performance perfection are seen in his interview skits, the occasional poetry readings and the usually hilarious feature film parodies. Indeed, Hill has a little more difficulty with the long performance piece. Of course, a lot of it is inspiration. An idea (a parody of Woodstock for the elderly) just doesn't survive the padding out of its running time. In other instances, the premise just runs out of gas (like the W. C. Fields/ Mae West mediocrity of "Lulubelle"). But the good far outweighs the bad here, with many of the sketches reaching heights of absolute hilarity. Good examples include the cowboy spoof "The Deputy", the hilarious trek through "The Short and Unhappy Romance of Ted Tingle" and the delirious dance contest, featuring that most familiar of Hill's formulas – fast motion antics applied to music (usually the instantly identifiable "Yackety Sax").
But perhaps the best bits here revolve around Hill and his crazy cast of regulars, including the geniuses that are Bob Todd and Little Jackie Wright. Each gets an amazing showcase (Bob as a particularly repugnant German, while Jackie's cast iron cranium gets plenty of smacking as he takes a budget holiday). When they all come together, either as the Berlin Youth Choir or the Dalton Abbott Railway Porter Choir, the results are resplendent. Barely able to keep a straight face, and using Jackie's unusual tenor voice to great effect, these musical moments of mirth mixed with viciously inventive dialogue become masterworks of merriment. Benny may be accused of some sexual shortcomings, but when he works in sketch or song, the results can be incredibly infectious.
Indeed, if there is one shortcoming to this delightfully addictive box set, it's the relatively small amount of programming offered. Indeed, the catalog of Hill's hilarity spans DECADES worth of shows, so to only offer 10 here seems a little skimpy. The other odd thing is that A&E advertises this set as "naughty" and, frankly, Benny Hill is anything but. In light of Jackass, Girls Behaving Badly and numerous other reality based excursions into the ribald, ridiculous and randy, Benny's show is a little like a kid saying "ca-ca" over and over again. There is no nudity, ZERO foul language, only the slightest of sexual innuendo and, compared to the clothing currently popular in this wildly craven culture, the babes in even the bawdiest Benny balderdash are like cloistered nuns.
So how this series defines "wicked" is anyone's conjecture. Impish and mischievous? Absolutely. But by today's standards, the once salacious comic is just a tired old jokester. Anyone offended by his antics in this modern maze of extreme amusements needs a funny bone transplant, pronto. The Benny Hill Show is an icon to a long ago ideal of delight and this DVD offering is just enough to wet your weird whistle for more - more fast-motion chases; more sickly old men getting their head slapped; more buxom babes getting their "talents" appreciated; and more of the near-timeless treasure that is the life and laughter created by one Benny Hill.
A&E's presentation of Benny Hill: Complete and Unadulterated - The Naughty, Early Years (Set Two) looks spectacular. Each 1.33:1 full screen episode crackles with absolutely brilliant color, excellent depth, shimmering warmth and amazing clarity. You can literally see the intricate patterns in Hill's wild outfits and marvel at the post-psychedelic set designs. About the only time you see any degradation in quality is when the video image turns to film for outdoor antics. Yet this is more a source issue, and not a result of the remastering. Even with their faded, occasionally grainy aspects, this presentation looks absolutely pristine overall and A&E should be commended for such great work.
Sonically, things are about the same. The Dolby Digital Stereo reconfiguration of the old Mono tracks doesn't do a lot to challenge the channels, but there is a tad more fullness to the overall sound than you may have experienced in previous Benny Hill reruns. The songs, especially, resonate with more presence than the auditory attributes of the syndicated shows.
Unlike other box sets of British television shows offered by the company, Benny Hill: Complete and Unadulterated - The Naughty, Early Years (Set Two) has a wonderful added feature that, once again, requires some praise on the part of A&E. Giving us an episode of Biography – entitled "Benny Hill: Laughter and Controversy" - that focused on Hill, we get a nice overview of his life and career, along with some heartfelt reminiscences from cast and crew members. Hearing director/friend Dennis Kirkland describe how he came to find Hill at the end of his life is just heartbreaking. While it tends to skip over some substantive bits (like the controversy alluded to in the title of the piece), the presentation is still a pretty good encapsulation of Benny's amazing career. Aside from an insert with a broad overview of the show, there is also a Trivia Quiz (presented, as are all the extras, on Disc 3) that includes several straightforward, and some very quirky, questions about Hill and the series. Answers receive a film clip congratulations or appropriate negative response and a final score is awarded at the end.
Now, more than ever, we need a Benny Hill revival. Comedy is at a crossroads, a crackpot conundrum where the insult stakes of a Don Rickles are being channeled into the self-serving irony of Generation XYZ until it all comes out bitter and bilious. We are currently supposed to find the heightening of flaws and the systematic shaming of any and all people as the funniest thing since Gabby Hayes. Surprisingly, for all his sex farce foolishness and ridiculous ribaldry, Benny Hill knew what was funny. Sure, he may not have the genius surrealism of a Monty Python (nothing can compare to what is perhaps the greatest comedy troupe of all time) nor is he tied into the pop culture current like an SCTV or a Saturday Night Live. Long after people stop finding the madcap mediocrity of MADtv as funny as a rubber crutch and send most stand-ups packing off to play cruise ships and retirement homes, Benny will still be around to teach us the basics.
He will remind us of how much humor there is in a pair of hooters. He will help us recall that nothing is more hilarious than a shot to the nutsack. His cockeyed, comic leer will keep us from taking any situation – from a kick in the ass to a splash of seltzer – too seriously. And he will aid us in our own mastery of the double entendre, the triple take and the befuddled glare. If he were writing the song today, Paul Simon may very well place this cheeky chap in the stead of Joe DiMaggio as the object of our nation's lonely eyes. Or maybe not. But one thing's for sure: Benny Hill has been given a bum rap in the realm of classic comedy. He definitely belongs in the pantheon, if not somewhere near the top. Benny Hill: Complete and Unadulterated - The Naughty, Early Years (Set Two) is a marvelous reminder of this man's underappreciated talents.
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