Regardless, this collection of 58 one-hour specials, from which the half-hour The Benny Hill Show, syndicated in America and elsewhere, was derived, are laugh-out-loud funny, which much timeless comedy, especially in terms of its suggestive Mack Sennett-like pantomime and slapstick. Included are several very good biographical extra features about the mysterious, strange man Hill was off-camera.
Though Alf(red) "Benny" Hill (his stage name being derived from comedian Jack Benny) was one of Britain's most popular postwar comedians, he was all but unknown elsewhere, despite supporting appearances in a few big international movies like Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), and The Italian Job (1969).
Possibly inspired by the success of Monty Python's Flying Circus and, to a lesser extent, other exported comedies like Fawlty Towers and Rising Damp, Thames Television, which had been airing 3-4 hour-long Benny Hill specials every year since 1969, made a deal in the late-1970s to rework these shows into a 30-minute syndicated series. Typically airing on UHF stations concurrent or immediately following the 11 o'clock news, The Benny Hill Show was an instant smash, partly for Hill's comedy, but also for its double-entendre humor, scantily clad women (and even fleeting nudity), which somehow made it past the censors in some markets. (It did on WKBD-50 in Detroit, where I first saw it.)
What virtually no one in America realized was that Hill had been at it for decades. As his manager, Richard Stone, rightly points out in the A&E Biography episode included as an extra feature, Hill was the first British comedian "made" by television - contemporaries like Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan rose through the ranks of radio and, before that, music halls and the like. Stone also points out that Hill's unique blend of silent era-style slapstick and gleeful smuttiness was more like something out of the American tradition of burlesque than anything British.
In any case, the earliest Benny Hill Shows date all the way back to 1951 (rendering A&E's titling of the 1969-72 episodes as the "naughty, early years" quite inaccurate). Some of these early shows survive, but what everyone remembers are those he made under the terms of his long association with Thames Television, which lasted from 1969 to 1989, at which point Hill was unceremoniously sacked without warning, from which he professionally but never personally quite recovered.
Like the silent era clowns who'd recycle sight gags in their two-reel comedies, Hill reworked a lot of the same material over-and-over again (a gymnasium sketch from an early-'60s show glimpsed on Biography is reworked in the mid-'70s virtually unchanged). The earliest Thames shows are little different from the last, but it hardly matters - most of it is surefire funny.
The format largely stayed the same: each hour special featured a pleasing mix of sketch comedy; short blackout gags; TV, movie, and song parodies; patter songs and recitations rife with hilarious double-entendres; and under-cranked silent movie-style pantomime, often (and famously) accompanied by Hill's theme song, Yakety Sax written in 1963 by James Q. "Spider" Rich.
Hill was, famously, a perfectionist workaholic who felt uncomfortable around strangers and stuck close to the tight-knit stock company of players and crew he trusted. Virtually all the shows prominently feature cultured, articulate Henry McGee as Hill's straight man, with Bob Todd, a tall older man, often playing blustery authority figures, while tiny (4'11"), elderly Irish comedian Jackie Wright was Hill's perennial patsy. Among the myriad sexpot types appearing in sketches and sometimes billed as "Hill's Angels" were Hill's close friends Louise English and Sue Upton, along with Jane Leeves, later one of the stars of Fraiser.
The program changed only slightly through the years. Early on, Hill's specials featured actual musical guests like Petula Clark and Cleo Laine, but this seems to have been dropped gradually. In later years the show got smuttier and more explicit, but Hill tried to counter criticism by incorporating children into his sketches, which doesn't work too well because the kids just don't have the timing Hill or his veteran supporting comics had. Feminists hated the show, but the argument could also be made (and indeed is made, on one of the documentaries) that in these sketches Hill, Todd, and Wright, are foolish, dirty old men. They always lose (i.e., never get the women into bed) and the women always come out on top. So to speak.
Video & Audio
Filmed in that standard of '60s-'80s-era British television of videotaped interiors, shot-on-16mm exteriors, The Benny Hill Show looks just fine in this 18-disc presentation. (Note: Three shows are in black and white, the rest are color.) The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is likewise fine, above average. There are no subtitle options (a shame, given all those wonderful Benny Hill songs) and the discs are Region 1 encoded.
The packaging: In a word, awful! Instead of slimcases, the set comes in a flimsy paper box with no open side; the consumer must gingerly open a fragile paper flap to access the discs. Inside are three standard-size DVD cases, and each of those is crammed with six single-sided DVDs, numbered 1-18. Each numbered disc includes 3-4 episodes but what they might be isn't stated anywhere on the disc.
And that's about all the help you're going to get as far as finding specific shows, or remembering where you left off. There's nothing on the discs and precious little on the three DVD cases to guide the viewer. A foldout insert includes a useless, daunting, and unforgivably prolix listing of vaguely titled sketches: "Costa Coco," "The Vagabond," "Cheeky Birds 2!" "Holiday" - but no air dates, no episode list, no nothing of any use to the viewer. Extra features, spread across the 18 discs, are equally impossible to find; nowhere is there any mention of where each extra can be found.
In short, finding a favorite sketch or even accessing the discs generally and playing the shows in order is impossibly complicated; I've had to stick a piece of scrap paper in with the set just to keep track of where I am in the set, and what shows I've seen. This is one of the worst designed DVD boxed sets I've ever come across.
If you can find them, several extra features are very worthwhile. The two hour-long documentaries, The World's Favorite Clown and Benny Hill: Laughter & Controversy (the latter an episode of A&E's Biography) are both very good, probing into the enigmatic Hill's private life and the source of his unceasing drive to make people laugh. The former features an eclectic group of interviewees, including Michael Caine, Walter Cronkite, Burt Reynolds, and Mickey Rooney (with whom Hill had hoped to make a film called Wait Till the Swelling Goes Down). The latter includes colleagues like McGee, Reg Varney, and producer-director Dennis Kirkland, the latter telling the sad story of finding Hill's body.
Hill's a fascinating character, like a benign Ebenezer Scrooge who lived frugally in a largely empty, cavernous apartment; despite his millions, he cloistered himself virtually in a single room, with a black & white TV, no less. And yet he was anonymously quite generous and charitable toward others. And despite his wink-wink-nudge-nudge reputation for bawdiness he was an extremely polite gentleman who spoke four languages fluently.
Also included is Hill's interesting television short Eddie in August, a three-part interview with some of "Hill's Angels," and an innocuous trivia game.
Despite the terrible packaging, the 585 sketches included on these 58 episodes are packed with some wonderful, timeless comedy. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I found each show to be enormously enjoyable and the set, despite some misgivings, is Highly Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is on sale now.