Graham Reid | | 5 min read
When writer Tom Hibbert sought out Benny Hill in the early 90s for a “who the hell does Benny Hill think he is?” magazine article, he found the shy, defensive star tucking into cod and chips in a pub surrounded by old friends.
That was the odd thing about Benny Hill who died in 1992: he was desperately ordinary to the point of eccentricity.
With Hill in the South London pub that day was his long-time friend and television producer Dennis Kirkland, egging him on into weak routines and innuendo-laden one-liners of which Hibbert was contemptuously dismissive.
They were much like Hill’s television programmes – the stuff of end-of-the-pier comics and old seaside postcards. In the post-Thatcher alternative-comedian world of the 90s, Hill was an anachronism.
But if he was a man out of time it is worth remembering his television shows were syndicated to 97 television channels in 1990 and were regularly picking up viewing audiences in excess of 20 million in Britain.
If anyone can claim to have known the reclusive star it is Kirkland, who was friends with Hill for over 25 years. His biography Benny offered close-up insights of this enigma whose work was admired by Charlie Chaplin and held in contempt by feminists, critics and television lobbyists.
Kirkland may have been the right producer for Hill, but unfortunately he is an appalling writer, from the literary school of “from that moment on we got on like a house on fire.”
The biography is largely anecdotal, rambling and vaguely thematic (Women and Benny, Making The Show and Obsessions are typical chapter headings) yet it shines a small light into the closed world in which Hill operated.
Kirkland is not blind to Hill’s faults and -- despite the obvious limitations of a book which emblazons across its front cover “the true story by his best friend” -- it paints a picture of a nervous, immature man who genuinely did not understand the accusations frequently levelled at him.
The reason for that may lie in the world Hill grew up in.
Father and grandfather were circus clowns in their youth, and Hill’s overbearing father – called “The Captain” by all the family – encouraged his son’s natural humour but was horrified by his desire to turn it into a profession.
So the young Hill became withdrawn, increasingly focused on making a success of himself and living parsimoniously. Even when earning 30 times the national wage in the mid-50s, he still travelled to the television studios by Tube and lived in a cheap London board house.
It was a pattern of eccentric modest living that he maintained throughout his life. When he died it was in a soulless apartment he had rented fully furnished.
“Benny owned hardly anything in it,” says Kirkland. “Not even the crockery in the kitchen belonged to him. The pictures were of the harmless variety brought by the crate and professional decorators working on a limited budget.
“Benny had no collection of framed paintings or prints of his own, no family photographs, no ornaments or knick-knacks of any kind collected on his travels. The flat was totally without personal touches.”
What it did have were television sets and video recorders – black-and-white television many years after colour came in, says Kirkland, recounting his futile attempts to get Hill to update his technology.
And it was in front of those pieces of equipment that Hill would spend most of his spare time, and on which he created a career which allowed him to leave a fortune of $20 million.
Even in the 50s Hill may have been a man whose humour was grounded in the past but he embraced television immediately. Unlike other stage comics who saw the new medium devouring their best material in one swift bite, Hill saw its potential.
“The future of entertainment lies with television,” he told London critic Fred Cooke at a time when only one in 20 British households had a set.
Through his long career television took to Hill with the same enthusiasm.
He was in demand for commercials and talk shows (he never did the latter but was paid enormous sums for the former) and kept his shows snappy and simple. Yet it was also the very simplicity and repetitiveness of The Benny Hill Show which finished it.
The accusations of sexism gained impetus although Hill, mildly defensive, would offer small but provocative rejoinders to the likes of comedian/writer Ben Elton.
Elton, noting the number of rape incidents had increased, asked how could women walk in safety when Benny Hill had just been on television chasing half-naked women through a park?
“I don’t chase girls, they always chase me,” Hill would offer weakly. “That’s the joke.”
But he more pointedly noted that the material by the newer comedians “was outrageous and yet they have the nerve to attack me.”
He watched one episode of the alternative comedy shows in which naked men were seen cavorting.
“Is that a very good idea in the middle of the Aids crisis?
“And I was amazed by an episode of Filthy Rich and Catflap [co-written by Elton] when one chap buried an axe in another man’s groin with tremendous force. I couldn’t believe my eyes. For a minute I thought I was seeing my first snuff movie.”
And when The Sun, in February 1981, criticised his show in an editorial as “intent on appealing only to the dirty-raincoat brigade ... a show that looks like a naughty underwear catalogue snapped through a hole in the floor“ Hill offered only a small but tart observation: “Is it The Sun that has the page three girls?”
But Hill seldom made a public statement. He was a private man whose idea of pleasure was eating and drinking. He was a glutton, says Kirkland, enjoyed private relationships with women and popped amphetamines to control his weight and speed him up.
He shopped locally -- “had no books, not even in storage” -- lived for his work and, ironically given the criticism, counted among his fans Michael Jackson (who visited him on his sickbed), Frank Sinatra and the inmates of San Jose Penitentiary who rioted when an early lights-out meant they couldn’t see the show.
The circumstances of his death highlight the contradictions of the man.
Loved by millions, he died alone over Easter weekend in 1992, seated on the sofa in front of television.
“Ironically, Benny was looking smart for a change,” says Kirkland, who freely acknowledges that at home Hill was “a slob.”
“There were two empty plates to the right and a couple of low-calorie drinks to the left of him. He had obviously settled in for a typical Benny evening. One of the plates was a bowl. I think he had been eating cornflakes.”
And, typical of Hill’s disorganised private life, he left no will and the small circle of friends whom he had often said he would remember have ended up with little. Nieces and nephews he seldom saw have become his beneficiaries.
Appropriately a private funeral was held for family and friends, another star-studded memorial service later ... the two worlds in which Hill moved kept as separate in death as they had been in life.
Kirkland, by being so close to Benny Hill, can give the details of the life of this comedian. But the meaning – somewhere between the image of an idiotic smirk or twinkling knowing eyes, and an apartment with dirty dishes permanently stacked in the sink and a bed always unmade – is left for us to determine.