The kerfuffle over the famous comedian’s return to UK TV
Benny Hill is back on UK television screens for the first time in 20 years, something that has caused a minor stir. Which is in itself hilarious. There is, I understand, this thing called the internet and something called YouTube, and on there is an awful lot of Benny Hill.
I’ve just typed his name in and the top result is Benny Hill – World of Sport, which has 3.4m views; then there’s Benny Hill – Heroes through the Ages, which has 8.4m views; further down the page, there’s his video for Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West), which has 5m views. The comments under the videos are almost entirely affectionate; a typical one reads “Benny Hill was a comedy genius without question. He brought joy and happiness to millions, he was the best in the business”. Another one reads: “I was a child in the 70s and am proud to say that Benny Hill moulded me into the man/pervert I am today lol.”
The point is that those complaining about Hill returning to TV should wake up. They should realise that much of the population, particularly younger people, hardly watch TV now, instead consuming masses of content on the web instead. The bellyaching is risibly dated.
Is Hill himself dated? Well, in a way, of course – most old comedians are (except Laurel and Hardy, who have, if anything, got funnier!). It’s more complex than that, though: Hill was a brilliant comic who sometimes did bad comedy. Some of Hill’s output was shonky, particularly towards the end, but some of it was terrific. Some sketches are dreadful, some are inspired, a not uncommon ratio among creatives. If you were picking a highlights reel you’d need to do it carefully. Do it right and you’ll still have the audience chortling, as was the case in 2006 when Channel 4 showed some Hill sketches to youths and were surprised (and presumably disappointed) when they found him funny.
There’s little doubt, though, that even by the mid-1970s Hill was repeating himself. In an era where viewers only had access to past shows through personal memories, you could get away with this; nowadays we can dissect a performer’s lifetime output. By the time he got to his last specials in 1989, some routines and gags had been recycled several times. He was also something of a magpie, stealing jokes from many sources. His material could be corny.
What a natural comedian he was, though. Just look at that cheery face. Then put a big red afro wig on him, and it’s even funnier. Hill had that rare and cherished ability amongst comedians to have the audience warm to him before he even spoke. He did a huge variety of impersonations, including female characters. Technically, he could be meticulous, putting weeks of effort into a scene that would last seconds on screen. The editing on some of his best sketches is brilliant, greatly enhancing them, whether it be a spoof of bad movies or a chase involving sexy nurses. The speeding up of the action and the dubbed soundtrack have been done with care and attention to maximise laughs; the style is instantly recognisable.
It’s not easy to create iconic tropes and routines, which is what he did: the chase at the end of each show with that music; the rapid head-slapping of little Jackie Wright (and others) with the sound amplified; his Fred Scuttle salute; and, of course, lots and lots of stockings and suspenders, regularly flashed up on-screen on the pins of the unspeakably gorgeous women that Hill employed as his ‘Angels’. And it’s mainly the sexy nature of Hill’s work, or the ‘sexist’ nature of it as the likes of The Mirror have it, that is the most remarked upon and ‘controversial’ aspect of his stuff.
I think it was Spitting Image who, back in the Eighties, mocked Hill in a Points of View-type sketch by having a letter writer intone something along the lines of: “Benny Hill gets a lot of criticism but his show is by far the best to masturbate to.” Hah. Throughout the Seventies, the naughtiness quota did gradually increase. By 1979, in a sketch in which Benny plays Dracula, there are actual bare breasts: the vampire is outside a ‘Girls College’, looks up at the window and spots a beautiful young woman sat there in her underwear (with stockings and suspenders, natch); she then simply removes her bra. Remember this was shown at 8pm at night on ITV. Your view on whether this was a wonderful thing, an expression of unfettered sexual freedom, or something reprehensible and harmful, may depend on your age and/or sex and/or politics. Yet it’s the early-Eighties shows that are probably the sauciest he did: some of the Hill’s Angels dance routines are basically soft porn*. A show Hill did in Australia in 1977 also contained nudity.
The Benny Hill Show is like absolutely nothing you will see on TV in 2021. The repeats on the That’s TV Gold channel (which are slightly raggedy compilations from 1988) are therefore little time portals to another age. A more honest age, perhaps. TV from a time when makers gave the public what they, the public, wanted to see – around 20 million viewers would regularly tune in – as opposed to now when it seems that many programmes are what the makers of the programmes want you to see, which will likely mean political correctness, sexlessness and humourlessness. Back in the Seventies, a man might come in from work after a tough day of manual labour, having earned just enough money to support his family, and, quite frankly, he deserved a telly treat in the form of beautiful women not wearing very much, along with some ribald humour.
Then, along came the puritanical middle-class radical feminists to stamp out the pleasure of the working-class man (or, for that matter, working-class woman – because Benny Hill was beloved by both sexes), whose back-breaking labours rarely allowed them the luxury of having nothing more important to worry about than ‘sexist’ television shows. Campaigning against the ‘objectification’ of the show, they also reduced the employment prospects of other women, ones who happened to be better looking than them, models and actresses who in the main loved working for Hill. In the last year or two of the show, the ladies were largely replaced by small children, and it didn’t work nearly as well. At his funeral, Hill’s Angels were there in force, all wearing stockings and suspenders in tribute.
Benny is unlikely to be forgotten, not least because those who dislike him keep publicising him to show how progressive they are. The rest of us should just carry on watching, whether it be on a TV screen or a computer screen.
* Despite the 1970s having the reputation as the sexiest/sleaziest decade, I contend that popular culture reached its sexy apex in the early 1980s. I’m basing this view on lots of things, including Top of the Pops, James Bond films, and Hill. On TOTP in 1982, Chas and Dave and the Tottenham Hotspur squad sing their FA Cup Final song accompanied by a few lovelies clad in white stockings and suspenders – can you imagine 2021’s rainbow laces-wearing, knee-taking, PR-controlled-to-their-eyeballs millionaire dullards doing anything like this now?! 1983’s 007 movie Octopussy is, I’d say, the sexiest Bond film of them all, with a fair amount of flesh and innuendo – the opening naked lady credits even had to be cut to avoid a 15 rating.)
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