BENNY HILL: A man out of time

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BENNY HILL: A man out of time

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So the young Hill became withdrawn, increasingly focused on making a success of himself and living parsimoniously.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.

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Charley Hopp - Dec 28, 2008

Sounds like this article is more of a slam of a beloved world personality. Fact is, The Benny Hill Show is the most successful comedy television show in history. Shown for decades and broadcast in over 100 countries. I think Benny should be remembered for his comic genius and good natured personality rather than a "slob" as brought up by this author. We don't need to hear this. RIP Benny, we still love you.

Bartek - Jan 9, 2009

SLOB?!

Its not author`s right to say so, about such great comedian.

RIP in peace Bill.
I will remember this great person till end of life.

Douglas Paul - Jan 10, 2009

Why do we have to read this sort of rubbish about the late, great, Benny Hill, who was the funniest Comedian the world has ever seen?
As with anything else on our television screens, we have the option to change the channel if we don't like what we're seeing.
Benny Hill should never have been sacked and his shows should be freely available for viewing on television all over the world.
Besides, look at all the rubbish we have to sift through now that comes on our screens!!

Yours Sincerely,
Douglas Paul

Benny Hill Aficionado,

Toowoomba
Queensland
Australia

W.B. - Jan 11, 2009

It should also be noted that many of the Benny-haters (including the writer of this hatchet job) have been overly partisan towards shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus" which, in terms of "offensiveness," were actually WORSE than Benny when they were first on, but are beloved by the same illuminati that so sneered at Mr. Hill. Also, it's amazing that the same types that claimed a link between Hill's shows and the incidences of rape (with no statistical evidence to back them up) have been silent about possible links between "Python" sketches such as the "Dirty Vicar" and violence against women; not to mention sketches on that show that seemed to glorify cruelty towards domestic animals such as cats or dogs. And that's not counting the snarky, often mean-spirited tone that came through in a lot of their sketches, a tone that's been emulated by many so-called "comedians" and "comedy shows" to this day. But because the Pythons were Oxbridge-educated, they've long gotten a free pass from the very same types who consider Hill and his show to be so terrible. In other words, it's the "snob" factor.

Another factor in Hill's '80's downfall, besides his creatively "jumping the shark," was the increasing influence of certain special interest groups (such as feminists and the homosexual lobby) - an influence that has only spread further in the years since.

"Willie Tredder" - Jan 16, 2009

All right, Hillfans, kindly take a deep breath and read Graham Reid's essay again -- this time being careful to distinguish Reid's opinions from those of such verminous Hill critics as Tom Hibbert and Ben Elton. I believe you'll see that Reid is trying to be fair and balanced. He may not have completely succeeded in this, but his intention seems to have been to show why it's fair to say, with Mark Lewisohn, that our Ben was "funny, peculiar." As for his being "a man out of time," I can only agree to this extent: the best of Benny Hill is timeless!

Douglas Paul - Jan 16, 2009

No,

The whole point is that a very clever, experienced and very, very funny Comedian like Benny Hill should never have been sacked and his shows should never have been removed from television. These new, alternative, so-called "Comedians" around now (some of which have the gall to publicly criticise Benny, but shall remain nameless here) are NOT FUNNY!!!!! In fact, a book should be written about them, called FUNNY: NOT AT ALL!!!!!!!

Once again, if viewers don't like what they're watching, they have the option to .....wait for it, wait for it,....CHANGE THE CHANNEL!!!!! just as we do when these idiotic alternative "Comedians" come on our screens, who, by the way, I find extremely offensive!!!!!!

Yours most Sincerely,
Douglas Paul

Toowoomba
Queensland
Australia

David payne - Aug 10, 2011

Fans tend to see there idols through rose tinted glasses.
They say "that was his private life" and it's nothing to do with anyone, but they are ashamed by it and cannot cope with the fact that he was just a human with some really odd habits.
If he had done lots of work for charity in private then people would say good on him, if he molested young boys they would say " that was his private life"
You cannot have it both ways and you must accept that benny was out of date even in the late 50's and appealed to old men in raincoats and the uneducated..after all that was the ones who watched the most television.
Hill knew what kind of people watched television, they were like him, voyers who sat by the television with the trousers around there ankel's.
He lived a sad old dull life and by the looks of it he was also a queer, his close friend lol... come on folks... Cliff richard, dirk bogard... they had lifelong close male friends and we all know what happened to them.
Admit it... You like Benny Hill, why is it popular in prison???? half naked women that they can wank over

Ken Nicol - Oct 8, 2012

David Payne; I agree, people do tend to view their idols through rose tinted specs, quite ridiculously so. But as far as the rest of your words are concerned, may I ask if you were sober at the time of writing?

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