All the mischievous British imp you could ever want
The Story So Far
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 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.
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