|Birth name||Alfred Hawthorne Hill|
|Born||21 January 1924|
|Died||20 April 1992 (aged 68)|
Teddington, Greater London, England
|Notable works and roles|
Light Up the Sky! (1960)
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965)
Alfred Hawthorne "Benny" Hill (21 January 1924 - 20 April 1992) was an English comedian, actor, singer and writer, best remembered for his television programme The Benny Hill Show, an amalgam of slapstick, burlesque, and double entendre in a format that included live comedy and filmed segments, with Hill at the focus of almost every segment.
Hill was a prominent figure in British culture for nearly four decades. His show proved to be one of the great success stories of television comedy and was among the most-watched programmes in the UK with the audience peaking at more than 21 million in 1971.The Benny Hill Show was also exported to half the countries around the world. In 2006, Hill was voted by the British public number 17 in ITV's poll of TV's 50 Greatest Stars.
Alfred Hawthorne Hill was born on 21 January 1924 in Southampton on the south coast of England. His father, Alfred Hill (1893-1972) (later manager of a surgical appliance shop that mostly sold condoms), and grandfather, Henry Hill (born 1871), had both been circus clowns. His mother was Helen née Cave (1894-1976). After leaving Taunton's School in Southampton, Hill worked at Woolworths and as a milkman, a bridge operator, a driver, and a drummer before becoming assistant stage manager with a touring revue. He was called up in 1942 and trained as a mechanic in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, British Army. He served as a mechanic, truck driver, and searchlight operator in Normandy after September 1944 and later transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment division before the end of the war.
After the Second World War, Hill worked as a performer on radio, making his debut on Variety Bandbox on 5th October 1947. His first appearance on television was in 1950. In addition, he attempted a sitcom anthology, Benny Hill, which ran from 1962 to 1963, in which he played a different character in each episode. In 1964, he played Nick Bottom in an all-star TV film production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. He also had a radio programme lasting for three series called Benny Hill Time on BBC Radio's Light Programme, from 1964 to 1966. It was a topical show; e.g., a March 1964 episode featured James Pond, 0017, in "From Moscow with Love" and his version of "The Beatles". He played a number of characters in the series, such as Harry Hill and Fred Scuttle.
Hill's film credits include parts in five full-length feature films including Who Done It? (1956), Light Up the Sky! (1960), Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and The Italian Job (1969). He also made two short-subject films, The Waiters (1969) and Eddie in August (1970), the latter being a TV production. Finally, a clip-show film spin-off of his early Thames Television shows (1969-1973), called The Best of Benny Hill (1974), was a theatrically released compilation of Benny Hill Show episodes.
Hill's audio recordings include "Gather in the Mushrooms" (1961), "Pepys' Diary" (1961), "Transistor Radio" (1961), "Harvest of Love" (1963) and "Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)", which was the UK Singles Chart Christmas number-one single in 1971. He also appeared in the 1986 video of the song "Anything She Does" by the band Genesis.
Hill had struggled on stage and had uneven success in radio, but in television he found a forum that played to his strengths. The Benny Hill Show had a music hall-derived format combining live on-stage comedy and filmed segments, and its humour relied on slapstick, innuendo, and parody. Recurring players on his show during the BBC years included Patricia Hayes, Jeremy Hawk, Peter Vernon, Ronnie Brody, and his co-writer from the early 1950s to early 1960s, Dave Freeman. Short, bald Jackie Wright was a frequent supporting player who in many sketches had to put up with Hill slapping him on the top of his head.
Hill remained mostly with the BBC through to 1968, except for a few sojourns with ITV and ATV stations between 1957 and 1960 and again in 1967. In 1969, his show moved from the BBC to Thames Television, where it remained until cancellation in 1989, with an erratic schedule of one-hour specials. The series showcased Hill's talents as an imaginative writer, comic performer, and impressionist. He may have bought scripts from various comedy writers, but if so, they never received an onscreen credit (some evidence indicates he bought a script from one of his regular cast members in 1976, Cherri Gilham, to whom he wrote from Spain, telling her he was using her "Fat Lady" idea on the show in January 1977).
The most common running gag in Hill's shows was the closing sequence, the "run-off", which was literally a running gag in featuring various members of the cast chasing Hill, along with other stock comedy characters such as policemen, vicars, and old women. This was commonly filmed using "under-cranking" camera techniques, and included other comic devices such as characters running off one side of the screen and reappearing running on from the other. The tune used in all the chases, Boots Randolph's "Yakety Sax", is so strongly associated with the show that it is commonly referred to as "The Benny Hill Theme". It has been used as a form of parody in many ways by television shows and films. In a 2015 UK-wide poll the show's theme song was voted number 1 on the ITV special The Sound of ITV - The Nation's Favourite Theme Tune.
From the start of the 1980s, the show featured a troupe of attractive young women, known collectively as "Hill's Angels". They would appear either on their own in a dance sequence or in character as foils against Hill. Sue Upton was one of the longest-serving members of the Angels. Jane Leeves appeared, as well. Henry McGee and Bob Todd joined Jackie Wright as comic supporting players, and the later shows also featured "Hill's Little Angels", a group of cute children including the families of Dennis Kirkland (the show's director) and Sue Upton. Jenny Lee-Wright (who first appeared on Hill's show in 1970) earned the nickname 'The Sexiest Stooge' - coined by Hill.
The alternative comedian Ben Elton made a headline-grabbing allegation, both on the TV show Saturday Live and in the pages of Q magazine (in its January 1987 issue), that The Benny Hill Show was single-handedly responsible for the incidences of rape in England during the period in question, and also suggested the programme incited other acts of violence against women. A writer in The Independent newspaper, though, opined that Elton's assault was "like watching an elderly uncle being kicked to death by young thugs". Elton later claimed his comment was taken out of context, and he appeared in a parody for Harry Enfield & Chums, Benny Elton, where Elton ends up being chased by angry women, accompanied by the "Yakety Sax" theme, after trying to force them to be more feminist rather than letting them make their own decisions.
In response to the accusations of sexism, defenders of Hill have said the show used traditional comic stereotypes to reflect universal human truths in a way that was not malicious and fundamentally harmless. Hill's friend and producer Dennis Kirkland said it was the women who chased Hill in anger for undressing them, all of which was done accidentally by some ridiculous means.
In late May 1989, Hill announced that after 21 years with Thames Television he was quitting and taking a year off. His shows had earned Thames £26 million, with a large percentage due to the success of his shows in the United States.John Howard Davies, the head of Light Entertainment at Thames Television, was cited by the British press as the man who sacked Benny Hill when the company decided not to renew his contract. Having become a hate figure among fans of the show, Davies appeared in an episode about Hill transmitted as part of the documentary series Living Famously, and stated he cancelled the show for three reasons: "The audiences were going down, the programme was costing a vast amount of money, and he (Hill) was looking a little tired."
In February 1992, Thames Television, which received a steady stream of requests from viewers for The Benny Hill Show repeats, finally gave in and put together a number of re-edited shows. Hill died on the same day that a new contract arrived in the post from Central Independent Television, for which he was to have made a series of specials. He had turned down competing offers from Carlton and Thames.
Johnny Carson and side-kick Ed McMahon were both fans of Hill and tried several times to get him to come to Los Angeles and be a guest on Carson's The Tonight Show. Hill always declined, citing not wanting to travel the great distance to California.
As related on the BBC programme Living Famously, Hill visited the home of Charlie Chaplin after Chaplin's death. Chaplin's son Eugene took Hill into his father's private study and showed him several Benny Hill videotapes on a shelf. Eugene told Hill that his father was a great fan and used to watch the tapes with great enjoyment in his final years. Hill, a major fan of Chaplin, was reportedly moved to tears.
Radio and TV host Adam Carolla claimed that he was a fan of Hill and that he considered Hill "as American as The Beatles". During an episode of The Man Show, Carolla performed in what was billed as a tribute to "our favourite Englishman, Sir Benny Hill" (Hill was never knighted) in more risqué versions of some of the sketches. Carolla played a rude and lecherous waiter, a typical Hill role, and the sketch featured many of the staples of Hill's shows, including a Jackie Wright-esque bald man, as well as the usual scantily clad women.
Michael Jackson was a Hill fan: "I just love your Benny Hill," the young Jackson told a bemused British music-press critic during a 1970s tour, "he's so funny!". The British prog-rock band Genesis may have been fans of Hill. In 1987, they filmed a video for their song "Anything She Does", featuring Hill as his character Fred Scuttle, an incompetent security guard who lets a ridiculous number of fans backstage at a Genesis concert.
In the Omnibus episode Benny Hill - Clown Imperial filmed shortly before his death, celebrities such as Burt Reynolds, Michael Caine, John Mortimer, Mickey Rooney, and Walter Cronkite, among others, expressed their appreciation of and admiration for Hill and his humour -- and in Reynolds' case, the appreciation extended to the Hill's Angels, as well. The novelist Anthony Burgess made no secret of his admiration for Hill. Burgess, whose novels were often comic, relished language, wordplay, and dialect, admired the verbal and comedic skill that underlay Hill's success. Reviewing a biography of Hill, Saucy Boy, in the Guardian in 1990, Burgess described Hill as "a comic genius steeped in the British music hall tradition" (as were Chaplin and Laurel, two of Hill's childhood idols) and "one of the great artists of our age". A meeting between the two men was described in a newspaper article by Burgess and recalled in the Telegraph newspaper by the satirist Craig Brown.
In 2006, broadcaster and critic Garry Bushell launched a campaign to erect a statue of Hill in Southampton, with the support of Barbara Windsor, Brian Conley, and other British comedy favourites. Those taking part in the first fundraising concert included Neville Staple, Right Said Fred, and Rick Wakeman.
Hill never owned his own home in London, and instead preferred to rent a flat rather than buy one. He rented a double-room apartment in the London district Queen's Gate for 26 years until around 1986 when he moved to Fairwater House in Teddington. While looking for somewhere to live, he stayed at 22 Westrow Gardens in Southampton. He also never owned a car, although he could drive.
Despite being a millionaire many times over, he continued with the frugal habits that he picked up from his parents, notably his father, such as buying cheap food at supermarkets, walking for miles rather than paying for a taxi unless someone picked up the tab for a limousine, and constantly patching and mending the same clothes even when the balance on his account at the Halifax Building Society reached seven figures.
Hill never married and he had no children. He had proposed to two women, but neither accepted. Shortly after his death in 1992, actress Annette Andre said that she turned down his proposal of marriage in the early 1960s. Because of his eccentricity and reclusive lifestyle, rumours circulated that he was gay, but he always laughingly denied them.
Hill was a huge Francophile and enjoyed his visits to France, notably to Marseille, where until the 1980s, he could go to outdoor cafes anonymously, travelling on public transport and socialising with local women. He spoke French fluently and also knew basic German, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian. Foreign travel was the only luxury that he permitted himself, and even then, he would stay in modest accommodations rather than five-star hotels.
Hill's health declined in the late 1980s. After a mild heart attack on 24 February 1992, doctors told him he needed to lose weight and recommended a heart bypass. He declined, and a week later was found to have kidney failure. He died at the age of 68 on 20 April; on 22 April, after several days of unanswered telephone calls he was found dead in his armchair in front of the television. The cause of death was recorded as coronary thrombosis. Hill was buried at Hollybrook Cemetery near his birthplace in Southampton, on 26 April 1992.
During the night of 4 October 1992, following speculation in the media that Hill had been buried with a large amount of gold and jewellery, grave robbers excavated the grave at Hollybrook Cemetery and broke open the coffin, the open grave's condition being found by a passer-by the following morning. After a police examination of the scene, the coffin was re-closed and the grave filled back in by cemetery workers, and as a security measure, a 1-foot-thick concrete slab was placed over it.
In 1998, Channel 4 featured Hill in one of its Heroes of Comedy programmes. In 2002, DJ Taylor of The Independent ranked him the third greatest British comedian of the 20th century after Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.
On 28 December 2006, Channel 4 broadcast the documentary Is Benny Hill Still Funny? The programme featured an audience that comprised a cross-section of young adults who had little or no knowledge of Hill, to discover whether his comedy was valid to a generation that enjoyed the likes of Little Britain, The Catherine Tate Show, and Borat. The participants were asked to watch a 30-minute compilation that included examples of Hill's humour from both his BBC and ITV shows.