Arguably the most visually successful performer since the great Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hawthorne Hill became one of the most accomplished funny men of his era, whose cheeky grin and feigned air of innocence made him one of televisions biggest stars and won him a legion of fans around the world.
Born in 1924, the son of a surgical appliance fitter, Benny Hill's career began in music hall variety (he had a spell as Reg Varney's straight man), and progressed to television via radio where he had starred in Educating Archie. His TV debut came in 1949 but it wasn't until 1955 that the BBC awarded him his first series. In 1964 he won plaudits for his portrayal of Bottom in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and then, in 1969 he switched to Thames TV, where he stayed for the next twenty years.
Initially his shows were a mixture of visual slapstick gags, short sketches, comedy song routines (he had a number one hit in the UK in 1970 with Ernie, The Fastest Milkman In The West), and send-ups of other popular television figures of the time, using his great ability for mimicry. He developed a number of stock characters of whom Fred Scuttle became the most popular, and surrounded himself with a team of regulars that included Nicholas Parsons, Henry McGee, Jack Wright and Bob Todd. (Frasier star Jane Leeves also got her first TV break on the show). In the mid seventies Hill injected the traditional British 'Saucy Postcard' humour of Donald McGill into his sketches and introduced a team of scantily clad dancers known as Hills Angels. The ratings soared. For the next decade Benny Hill was one of the top names on television, and even became a hit in the USA where so many British comedians had failed before him. Then in the late 1980's Hill's show was accused of being sexist and voyeuristic, and in 1989, amidst a mounting tide of criticism, and after 18 series and numerous specials, Thames TV quite simply dumped him.
Many felt that the TV company had simply axed The Benny Hill Show in order to win over a minority of critics and to show that they were in tune with the new age of 'political correctness'. In other words it was no more than a PR stunt. Indeed it's fair to say that at the time of the axing 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 three years later Benny Hill was invited back, this time by Central Television. Before the show could be completed he died on 29 April 1992.
Indisputably one of the last great masters of a deceptively complex and sophisticated brand of visual humour, Hill's modest genius effortlessly transcended national and cultural boundaries, and in the process confirmed his international standing as one of greatest clowns of the late twentieth century. Although the man himself is no longer with us, as long as an audience exists for truly inspired visual comedy, the name Benny Hill will always be synonymous with genuine comedic quality.
Published on November 29th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus & SRH (2000) for Television Heaven.