How the king of comedy was also the king of erotica.
In November 2021 I wrote an article for The Reprobate about the return of Benny Hill to British television screens, in 1980s compilation shows that aired on the That’s TV channel. Thankfully these un-PC repeats didn’t cause the social order to collapse and, even more thankfully, the shows are still being shown, pretty much daily. And because I can’t get enough of them, and have some further observations about them, I thought it was time to offer another article on the subject to this website’s dear editor.
The first thing to note is that The Benny Hill Show is now being shown in the mornings, usually around 9am. That’s right, even in the weird, semi-puritanical UK of 2023, at 9am on free-to-air television you can frequently see a parade of beautiful women in sexy underwear, bikinis and other states of undress! (And – more outrageously now – the end credits feature images of Benny as Rolf Harris and in blackface.) There may still be limits, though: I haven’t watched every single episode shown but I think I’m right in saying that they haven’t shown the very sexy episodes at this hour, the ones with the nipples, like the Dracula vs Supergran sketch and the showering girls in the Australian-made show. I could be wrong though – Tales Of The Unexpected on Sky Arts is endlessly repeated on that channel at all times of the day and there are bare breasts in the stories A Harmless Vanity and The Reconciliation (but they don’t show Skin, which has a lot of nudity, and they cut out the topless scene from The Vorpal Blade).
Back to Benny though, and back to boobs, because the two are inseparable. There is one compilation episode that features the stunning Corinne Russell baring her considerable side-boob not once but twice, first in the wonderful take-off of the Holiday programme and then in the extraordinary balloon striptease sketch. This brings me on to my first observation, albeit one that perhaps isn’t the most revelatory ever: that Benny Hill was a master of the erotic. I’ve been thinking about the care with which he achieved this, and how it would be utterly impossible now.
Firstly, there was the design of the girls’ costumes. By all accounts, this was precisely worked out. Stockings, suspenders, basques, bras, panties, garter belts… all would have been chosen for their erotic appeal. They’d be colour-co-ordinated, and how sheer they were would be noted – most of the panties aren’t see-through as even Benny knew that he couldn’t get away with pubic hair at 8pm on ITV (if ever they release this show on 4K Blu-ray, though, prepare for some exciting reveals). The programme’s swimming costumes and bikinis were, as we got into the 1980s, briefer than ever, showing more thigh and side-boob, and sometimes for dance routines, the Hill’s Angels would be topless save for a couple of flowers on their chests.
Benny chose his girls very carefully and had an unerring eye for what red-blooded males liked, and he did go for a mix of chest sizes despite what some say. Then there was the way they were shot, very obviously from the male gaze, as they now say. Watch the end-of-show chase in which a gaggle of policewomen in their underwear are chased across a field and note the deliberate slow-motion to emphasise the bouncing boobs. Or watch this Hill’s Angels routine and note the thrusting of pelvic regions towards the camera, and the lingering on cleavages. I’m not saying any of this in a finger-wagging, isn’t-this-so-terrible-and-sexist fashion because that sort of thing bores me to death and I don’t see anything wrong with being honest about sexual attraction. I know that for the vast majority of women who worked with Hill, this was the highlight of their careers, and I believe that human beings have to make the most of the gifts they’re naturally and randomly given, whether it be brains, brawn or beauty, to make their way in the world. I’m just noting this to make my point that our man was king of sexy.
Benny was seemingly omniscient in orchestrating the titillation, as meticulous in making saucy content as he was in constructing his often-intricate comedy sketches. The girls, the costumes, the photography, the editing – all these elements were tightly controlled by men, or women who acquiesced. Mark Lewisohn’s 2002 biography of Benny quotes ‘Ernie’ record producer Wally Ridley as saying of him: “He approached it in 50,000 different ways but the core of his whole being seemed to be sex. Every song he wrote was about it and he wouldn’t stop talking about it.” The entertainer who, according to Ridley, “couldn’t stop talking about sex for five minutes” was obsessed with female pulchritude, and it very much comes across in his ITV shows. By the late 1970s, he’d been one of the UK’s top entertainers for 20 years and had accrued much power and, taking full advantage of TV becoming less censorious, he lived his sexual fantasies out on screen. There will be nothing like it ever again.
Hill’s mid-period was arguably his golden period. The early 1970s stuff is okay but a little stuffy, brown and dull at times, the late 1980s stuff is hackneyed, tired and very repetitive (with no compensations in the form of scantily clad females, who had been largely jettisoned by that point thanks to Ben Elton and his mates), but the late 70s and early 80s material is oft a joy; colourful, zippy and sexy. Is it a coincidence that it is also the sexiest period? Did the freedom to be overtly sexual go hand in hand with the freedom to be imaginative and funny? Possibly. There is certainly no doubt in that period that a very high percentage of the sketches and dance performances were predominantly sexual, both a celebration of the glories of the female form and a chronicle of man’s pursuit of women. Scores of the sketches are based around men seeking to seduce women, to see women’s underwear, to be thrilled at a woman’s bare skin, to absolutely obsess over finding favour with a female. It is a throbbing celebration of heterosexual desire that you never see on mainstream British television anymore.
Benny’s other passions included food and drink, so keep an eye on how many of his sketches featured such things, particularly in later years. It was this passion that eventually killed him. What fun he had with it, though – and better to enjoy yourself and have a slightly shorter time on this planet than deprive yourself of what you enjoy and have a longer, greyer existence. That’s my opinion, anyway.
My other main takeaway from watching the shows again is the comic talent on show, chiefly Hill himself, who at his peak was truly brilliant. He is faultless in his timing and line readings, whether performing as a female Scottish TV censor, a French film director, a quiz show host, an elderly American, or a confused aristocratic woman. Henry McGee is at his best keeping an entirely straight face while interviewing one of Benny’s eccentric characters. Little Jackie Wright is unique and wonderful as the put-upon little bald man, even if acting was not his forte – his look and demeanour were all that was needed, as talent spotter supreme Hill knew. Bob Todd is hysterical as another stooge, often drunk (as he was in real life on set; what a pleasurable existence he seemingly had), often in grotesque drag. Hill’s Angel Louise English is both incredibly beautiful and hugely talented, a wonderful singer, dancer and performer. Very much the standout of the Angels, her gifts saw her excel in the entertainment business. Hill was flushed with pride when she made her West End debut.
The show is better than I remember from when I watched these compilation shows a couple of years back – I’ve chortled a lot more. Whether that’s to do with a cognitive decline that is sending me back to childhood or forward to senility, or just a sharper appreciation of the cheery, gag-packed, quirky comedy that Hill specialised in, I couldn’t say. All I know is that comedy with old men chasing beautiful young women in stockings and suspenders is not necessarily a bad thing. Take that, Ben Elton!
Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!