Monday, April 23, 2012

Benny Hill...a Further Celebration...

A couple of years ago I did a blog post about a DVD release that's referred to as a Mega-Set. The collection contains comedy sketches and songs lifted from Benny Hill's television programs for Thames Television (1969-1989). The selling price is still rather high...even nearly 2 years later...but I did write a blog entry about the Mega-Set complete with the titles of each DVD installment. A and E had been releasing Benny Hill DVD's under the title of The Naughty Early Years- Benny Hill: Complete and Unadulterated. There were three volumes released with that title in the mid-late 2000's. Each DVD represented a specific time-frame. The first Volume, which I have, represents the years of 1969 through 1971. Volume 2, the other one I have, represents the years of 1972 through 1974. Two important documentaries on Benny Hill appear as extra's. On Set 1 there's the celebrity-driven tribute titled The World's Favorite Clown which features interviews and footage of Hill during his final years. On Set 2, DVD 3, there's the episode of A&E's Biography focusing on his life, career, and social impact in Europe, America, and all over the globe titled Benny Hill: Laughter and Controversy. I'll post some more pics further down the blog entry. I didn't purchase any of the other DVD's in the A&E series because there was lack of publicity for them and by the time I found out that more Volumes had been released I searched for them on Amazon and the selling price was a bit too much at that point in time. Volume Four, titled The Hill's Angels Years, represents 1979 through 1981 and the selling price for that particular release is only $18.51...down considerably from it's original selling price in 2006 of $49.95. Volume Five, also titled The Hill's Angels Years, represents 1982 through 1985. This particular volume is not in stock but used copies are available for as low as $14.00. The last Volume, set 6, concentrates on the final three years, 1986-1989.

For quick reference: The first three sets are referred to The Naughty Early Years and the second three sets are called The Hill's Angels Years.

Benny Hill DVD Megaset This link will take you to my 2010 blog entry when I wrote about the then upcoming Mega-Set. I didn't post any images from my personal collection but this time around, as you can see, I decided to do so.

For a lot of people in the United States, Benny Hill didn't hit the airwaves until 1979 and when he did the show was often scheduled in a late-night slot and in some places it aired numerous times during the overnight hours. I assume a reason for this was because the program was an import from another country and another reason was that it was syndicated which left it's air-time in the lap of local stations that carried the show. I don't recall ever seeing an episode of his show any earlier than 11pm. During summer break from school I'd be a night-owl and would see his show on a couple of television stations. Each program that had aired on the same night, but on different channels, were different...a perfect example of the unique aspect of Benny's programs that aired in America. The America broadcasts were compilations of sketches that appeared originally in the television specials that Hill put together throughout the '70s and '80s. As it's been pointed out by several people more knowledgeable about television programming than I am, a typical half-hour Benny Hill program in America could feature a sketch from 1973 followed by a sketch from 1982 and then followed by a song/poem recitation from 1976. The sketches were all strung together, edited flawlessly, and presented as if it were an actual live production. Each episode would end with Benny, in character, being chased by a crowd of people to the tune of Boots Randolph's rendition of "Yakety Sax". The two VHS videos in this picture were released by HBO in the 1980's when his syndicated program in America was in it's peak. I have several more VHS tapes that HBO released but those are the first two I purchased in the late '90s from an outlet mall that specialized in selling VHS was right around the time DVD's were just starting to become the preferred choice and so a lot of the tapes were selling for incredibly low prices. I bought all my Vincent Price horror movies, well, 95% of them, from that same outlet store...but that's another topic altogether!

I purchased these particular VHS tapes because I had never seen his BBC material. These three VHS videos are filled with hilarity and show a younger Benny Hill...from the early and mid '60s...experimenting and having all kinds of fun with the recording and audio techniques of the day. He'd been doing television specials since 1951 but it wasn't until later that decade that he began appearing with more and more frequency. These VHS tapes were released in the late 1990's and a DVD set became available in 2005. One of the highlights on practically any episode is when he tackles other celebrities...from those in England to those in Canada and America. A lot of the BBC episodes feature topical humor, too, which will perhaps go over a lot of people's heads. I didn't understand quite a few of the jokes that got thunderous applause and laughter until I did some research. There's an uproariously funny parody of the American series, Bonanza, featured on one of the tapes. The parody is titled Bo-Peep. The straight-man during these BBC shows was Jeremy Hawk but because these shows weren't reran and shown all over the world he isn't as well remembered as a Benny Hill cast-member; but Jeremy Hawk was a good straight-man...he rarely, if ever, broke up on camera. I don't think Henry McGee ever cracked a bit of laughter while working in the sketches (unless it was scripted). There was a scene that takes place during breakfast and Hill, apparently ad-libbing based on McGee's reaction, quotes a line from a cereal commercial that McGee appeared on. The camera shows a glimpse of McGee in near-laughter but he pulls himself back together before completely breaking up. One of the funniest sketches among the many was an offering called 'Hotel Sordide' which had been used as the name of a couple of other sketches...but in this particular one Hill plays a French waiter in the hotel who delivers food to a couple who are obviously not husband and wife but are seeing one another in secret. Hill, whose character can hardly speak any English, ends up mixed in with the lovers spat as Henry McGee and the woman in the sketch scream at one another about cheating, affairs, poor sexual performance and stuff like that there. It's a very funny sketch and one that I assume took place in the late '70s.

A look at Hill's years at the BBC can be explored further Here. On April 20th the BBC took a look back at Hill's career on the 20th anniversary of his death. Their information can be found Here

This VHS is something that I bought because the back of the cover shown some screen shots featuring Benny in sketches that I hadn't seen at that point in time. I was way more familiar with his late '70s and early '80s sketches that were on the HBO videos...I hadn't seen the earliest of the Thames material (1969-1975) and so I purchased this VHS. I loved the sketches that I saw and it wasn't too long afterward that the A&E company began releasing their Benny Hill DVD series which I wrote about at the top of this blog entry. When I purchased the A and E set I was introduced to complete episodes of his shows. His programs ran like your standard variety show: songs, dances, comedy sketches...but I was so used to the edited sketch formula of the syndicated series in America that it was like watching a completely different show. In many episodes there would be a musical number performed by a group known as The Ladybirds. These music performances never appeared in the America broadcasts (1979-1989) and they hadn't appeared on the HBO video tapes or the one you see in the image above. So, when I saw the clips in The Best of Benny Hill tape and then the full episodes on Sets 1 and 2 of the A and E company, in addition to the 3-Volume set of the BBC material and those HBO released video tapes, I felt as if my viewing of all things Benny Hill was complete...and then came the Mega-Set in 2007...combining all the A and E DVD releases in one collection...and then that Mega-Set was re-released in 2010 with new cover art but same selling price.

In the documentaries I wrote of earlier you'll learn about Benny's childhood, his comic influences, his rise to stardom, and his personal life...and you'll hear candid commentary from his supporting cast on their experiences working on Benny's programs and working with the man himself. Since the Thames material is what's more well-known all over the world that's mostly what appears in the documentaries...with a clip or two from the BBC shows added in to highlight his earliest performances on television. Hill had a regular cast of supporting players in all of his shows. The one that gets the most attention is Jackie Wright, the Irish comedian known by millions of Benny Hill fans as the "little bald man in the Benny Hill sketches" who is forever being slapped on the head and kicked in the rear by any number of cast-members...mostly by Hill but there's been times when any number of Hill's Angels have slapped and kicked Jackie Wright, too. Often, Hill's character would do something naughty toward one of the Angel's and, in error, the Angel would take her anger out on innocent bystander, Jackie Wright.

One of the most popular sketches that would surface at various times during the Thames Television run (1969-1989) would involve Hill at a bus stop wearing a trench coat and at first glance it would appear that he was holding up a newspaper as if he's reading it. Standing in the middle of Hill and Wright, in the same bus line, would be one of the Hill's Angels. Seconds later the woman would shriek, touch her bottom as she reacted to being pinched, and because Hill's hands were supposedly occupied holding up the newspaper, the woman would slap Jackie Wright, instead. After another incident involving a female in line at the bus stop, the woman would storm off after slapping Jackie Wright. These kinds of sketches were often played in mime fashion...usually with an up-tempo instrumental playing in the background. The loud slaps and other sound-effects were inserted, obviously, for comic effect. The mime/fast-paced chase routines that appeared regularly enabled many of his skits to transcend the language barrier, too.

I don't know too much about the BBC cast other than Jeremy Hawk and Patricia Hayes appearing frequently in the programs. In some of the earliest Thames episodes Nicholas Parsons was Hill's straight-man. Henry McGee remained the permanent straight-man, though, and remained a fixture on all of Hill's subsequent programs. Bob Todd often appeared. He was the big guy who also had hardly any hair. Sue Upton and Louise English were a couple of the Hill's Angels that have become synonymous with the series...but I don't know the names of any of the others off the top of my head....but....

I came across a web-site called Benny's Place and for those who want in-depth analysis and information about all things Benny Hill as well as the names of his cast-members through the years click the following Link. Along the left side of the page you'll see pics of Benny as different characters as well as pics of other cast-members, too. 

Nicholas Parsons is still among the living and heard regularly on radio. June Whitfield, who appeared on a few of the BBC specials, is also still among the living. The main cast is no longer living. Jackie Wright passed away in January 1989 but had stopped appearing on Hill's specials in 1983. Bob Todd passed away in October of 1992. Patricia Hayes, also from the BBC era, passed away in September 1998. Jeremy Hawk passed away in January 2002. Henry McGee passed away in January 2006...     

Benny Hill passed away on April 20, 1992. This salute, used many times by Hill in his programs, is one of his most recognizable. It didn't really matter which hand he used...whether right or was sure to appear during any number of sketches revolving around his character, Fred Scuttle.   

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