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British TV’s saucy comedian with a flair for smutty jokes and slapstick routines. Old Fred Scuttle himself.
While many British comedians of the 1950s and 1960s simply transferred their talents to TV, Alfred Hawthorne “Benny” Hill was the first comic to be purely a product of television. He went on to become a British institution.
The Benny Hill Show has been screened by every major channel in the world, it has won a British Academy Best Comedy Show Award and television’s top entertainment prize, the Golden Rose of Montreux.
Common themes in the show – which regularly attracted over 15 million viewers in Britain – were the husband-beating wife, buxom women, and silent, high-speed chase scenes between Hill and the other characters.
Sketches, zany monologues and cheeky songs blended with fast-moving comic sequences.
His songs and rhymes were rendered with the cheeky look of a happy idiot that constantly broke into a leer. Benny was aided by his regular ensemble – hardly an episode went by without Henry McGee and Jack Wright (the small bald ‘slaphead’) – and the famous Hills Angels.
He was always at his best when sending up television itself, particularly commercials for soap powder and washing-up liquid.
During the Sixties, Benny also appeared in a number of successful films: In 1965, he featured as the Fire Chief in Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, in 1968, he played the Toymaker in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
In 1969 Benny played the computer expert in the classic The Italian Job.
In 1970 he joined Thames TV for a series of one-hour specials. As usual, he wrote all the material, songs and sketches along with his now regular cast of ‘extras’.
His top TV show was mirrored by a #1 in the pop charts with Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West), which was the Christmas hit that year and stayed in the charts for 17 weeks.
In 1979, he finally conquered America when his show, compiled from 10 years of his work for British television, was screened twice-nightly from coast to coast, galvanising audiences with the gaminess of his gags and topping the ratings there.
His fame in the US was such that a 1988 survey of Florida schoolchildren revealed that, although many of them did not know London was the capital of England, they all associated one person with Britain: Benny Hill.
A riot once broke out in a California jail when prisoners were prevented from watching his show, and a US Mafia boss only agreed to do a documentary interview with Thames Television on the condition that they arranged for Benny to do a stint at the mobster’s Las Vegas casino!
It was an overnight success that had taken him 40 years to achieve, and his share of the American sale of his show by Thames Television was £250,000.
The forces of political correctness finally had their way in 1989 when Thames Television cancelled the programme due to complaints about its smuttiness and because its old-fashioned sexism had become increasingly intolerable.
Although there was no sign of his popularity waning, Thames refused to renew his contract, and after 34 years, his show came to an end.
Many felt that Thames had simply axed The Benny Hill Show to win over a minority of critics and to show that they were in tune with the new age of ‘political correctness’.
At the time of the cancellation, Hill had already toned down the act and dropped the Angels’ dance routines.
The show continued to make millions of pounds around the world, and although over the next three years, Hill often talked in interviews about a comeback, it was to be the end of his career.
He died alone in his frugal London apartment of a heart attack on 20 April 1992, aged 67.