In 10 Words or Less
All the mischievous British imp you could ever want
Loves: Comedy, sketch comedy
Likes: Benny Hill, British TV
Dislikes: Badly-aged comedy
Hates: Having childhood nostalgia disrupted
The Story So Far
It was a long wait for DVD fans looking to revisit the comedy of Benny Hill, as for a long time there were just two compilations, Golden Greats (August 2001) and The Best of Benny Hill (July 2001), available to satisfy them. Then, from 2004 to 2007, A&E Home Video stepped in and released six volumes of complete episodes, covering the comic's years at Thames Television, while Benny Hill: The Lost Years (2005) filled in the blank spots, providing further unseen material. DVDTalk has reviews for several of these titles: Set 1 | Set 2 | Set 3 | Set 4 | Set 6 | Golden Greats
A product of its times, "The Benny Hill Show" could never work as a television series today, simply because of the emphasis on politically-incorrect comedy, including a focus on the desirability of women and some mildly degrading characters (broken-English speaking Chow Mein and the several blackface characters), without any redeeming factors or artificial drama (for some reason you can depict women as purely desirable if you put them at risk or offer a prize.) Some may call it objectifying and insulting, but when the goal is to make people laugh, and not simply at the people at the center of the joke, then it's just good ol' fashion comedy, not some kind of mind crime.
Part vaudeville act, part variety show, the series is the main reason people known the adorably mugging Brit, despite a well-established comedy career from before Thames Television ever put a single episode on the air. This show is the only reason 99 percent of Americans know him though, and even so these episodes won't look familiar, as they are not the cut-down syndicated editions that aired on late-night TV in the U.S. A&E restored the full-length shows for the "Complete and Unadulterated" collections released over the past four years. This release brings together those six sets into one neat package.
With the release of these episodes, America got to see "The Benny Hill Show" with something it never had before: structure. A Benny Ballad, the opening word-play song, with support by singing trio The Ladybirds early on, before the jiggle brigade of Hill's Angels came aboard, serves a similar function as the monologue on "SNL," before the show blasts ahead with an array of quick hit sketches, including themed montages. A longer scene and a musical bit often were in there somewhere, along with regular musical guests, singing covers of popular songs. The series had a distinct rhythm, despite a somewhat chaotic mix of material, giving the shows genuine energy.
The thing about this series is it demands your attention if you're going to get anything out of it. Sight gags and silent-movie comedy abound in this show, requiring you to actually watch to get the joke. It's quite impressive how advanced the props used on the show are and how complex the set-ups can be, for the time. Frequently breaking the fourth wall, Hill had a gift for using the conventions of television and film in his comedy, playing with technical difficulties, special effects and visual illusion to great effect, proving he wasn't just about the easy boobie joke. Some of the sight gags are so perfectly executed that instead of drawing laughs, they elicit respect at the skill, innovation and creativity that went into them.
While there's still a great deal to enjoy about the incredible 585 sketches included in this box, the memories I had of the show were more fun. Perhaps it's because I was a young boy when I first watched the series, which added a forbidden thrill, but these shows are tame at this point, and are frequently rather cheesy, especially during the dated dance sequences and forced kiddie-humor of "Hill's Little Angels" in the later sets. It's not like many of Hill's joke-book-quality punchlines were all that fresh when they were told on the series, but now they have an added sheen of age that makes them more quaint than anything. That Hill repeats several of the gags throughout the series' run only cements their status as golden oldies. Of course, then he'd break out a sight gag like the intro to "TV Titles" that's truly hilarious and you forget you're watching show that are around 30 years old.
The key difference between this collection and the original sets is the packaging. Instead of using individual cases as before, the same 18 DVDs are collected in just six single-width keepcases, each with an added two-disc tray inside. The six cases are then held in a sturdy cardboard keepcase. The discs aren't any different than the previous releases, with mildly animated full-frame main menus that offer a choice of episode, with a sketch selection beyond that. There are no audio options, no subtitles and no closed captioning.
The full-frame episodes look fantastic, considering their age, with a clean image and nice vivid color (with the exception of three episodes in the first set that were broadcast in black and white, due to a labor problem.) The level of detail isn't too high, but what there is is captured well, and without any noticeable damage or digital artifacts. The scenes shot on location are a bit duller, have more grain and can exhibit some dirt and damage, in comparison to the studio footage, a fact the show has fun with at one point with a sight gag any DVD snob can appreciate.
The audio is delivered as Dolby Digital Stereo mixes of what was certainly mono sound at the time, and the results are gorgeously clear-sounding episodes that do the trick when it comes to the series' dialogue and music. Everything's coming right down the middle, as you'd expect from a show of this age, but sketch comedy rarely requires a dynamic mix to get the job done.
All of the extras from the previous collections are included here, though the liner notes seem a bit light, with a breakdown of all the sketches and a pair of fun facts. Getting into the DVDs, each disc features a short interactive quiz about the show, with 15 questions each. Depending on the accuracy of your answer, you are shown a short clip of Hill, though if you get it wrong, you aren't told the correct answer, which is a bit aggravating. It's cute, but nothing you're likely to revisit.
A trio of shorts accompany the first three sets, starting with The World's Favourite Clown on Set No. 1. Clocking in at just under an hour, the biography was made at the end of the funnyman's life, but you wouldn't know it from looking at him, as he seems as spry as ever and in good spirits as he talks about his life, including the disappointing cancellation of his show. Interviews with Mickey Rooney, Burt Reynolds, Walter Kronkite and Michael Caine give the piece added star power, and there's no glossing over the unusually private life he lived, despite his participation. A&E's 45-minute "Biography" episode on Hill, "Laughter and Controversy" is on the second set, and it's a more serious look at the comic than anything else included here. Painting Hill's life as empty and solitary, with a one-track mind toward success in show business, it's an appropriate history of the man, but it doesn't fit with the tone of the rest of the package.
The final, and most intriguing of the three found pieces is on the third set, and that's Eddie in August, the half-hour "silent" film Hill was allowed to direct for Thames Television as part of his deal to join the network. It's a classic piece of Benny Hill comedy, full of the slapstick and physicality that marks his best work, though with more of a story to it. Several scenes from this film made their way into the regular series, which makes this a unique piece of Hill history and a welcome rarity.
A three-part featurette on the show's famous female dancers, "I Was a Hill's Angel," is spread over the final three sets, and totals 38 minutes. It seems that time has been rather kind to these ladies, as they are still quite attractive. As they chat about how they got on the show and what it was like to work with Hill, it's interesting to hear some of the behind-the-scenes info shared, including Hill's increasingly conservative view of the girls' costumes and that one of the Angels went of to be a well-known actress in America. It's a simply-constructed piece, but the enthusiasm of the Angels in sharing their memories makes it work quite well.
The Bottom Line
It's just right that the first few sets are called the naughty early years, as naughty is the perfect word for Hill's brand of humor: inappropriate, but not bad enough to get anyone into any real trouble. Though time has left Hill's show something of a relic comically, it's a relic that can still draw laughs and serves as a great example of classic comedy. Though there's nothing new here to convince owners of the previous collections to double-dip, it's a great way for the curious to dive in and likely the best a Hill fan is going to get for some time, with an incredible amount of material, a solid level of quality and a handful of thoughtful found extras. Those familiar with the show may want to try a rental first though, to see if the longer episodes mean as much to you as your memories do.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.