Benny's humor after leaving the BBC eventually became much more slapstick and pantomime, a move that guaranteed his programs to be universal given the elimination of a language barrier. Those programs became a hallmark of the Thames Television-era. Those programs (several specials broadcast throughout the year) were packed with bizarre poems, elaborate song and dance segments, all styles of comedy (both spoken and visual), and a fondness for theatrical staging created a Vaudeville-era showcase and a throwback to traditional comedy during a time when younger English comedians were embracing a so-called modern style of humor. Benny's age at the time of his first Thames production in 1969 was 45 and as the following decade opens we reach the mid 1970s and Benny's television specials are remaining enormously popular. After 10 years at Thames (1979) and numerous one-hour comedy specials, a decision is made to syndicate Benny's programs for American audiences.
In America the Benny Hill programs aired as half hour clip-filled presentations of sketches that originated during the first 10 years of the Thames TV association. The series ran in late night time-slots (or early morning time-slots, just before sunrise) on hundreds of local television stations in America. The hodgepodge look of the clip-filled series and the fact that Benny's age changes dramatically from sketch to sketch added to the uniqueness and appeal. Those at Thames TV and even Benny himself are quoted as being in disbelief that the programs attracted such a strong audience and fan base in America...but once the series became a smash hit in syndication in America it was like the floodgates opened up and from 1979 onward Benny Hill seemed to rule international humor...even though he'd been a big hit on British television since the 1960s. Yes, if you're keeping track, the year that Benny's sketches came to America in 1979 he was 55 years old. As I mentioned earlier, due to the American aired episodes being a compilation package, his age fluctuated 5-10 years within a single half-hour episode.
The Angels also played heavily in the sped-up silent sketches...a filmed segment that appeared on all the Thames TV episodes...and often it consisted of Benny and his familiar co-stars (Henry McGee, Jackie Wright, Bob Todd). A typical presentation starts out calmly and eventually works itself into a frenzied display of sight gags. It's in these sped-up presentations that one of the most memorable sight gags became immensely popular and referred to by many viewers as "the slapping of the head of the little bald guy".
The sped-up presentations make generous use of camera tricks (called under-cranking) and those appear at various moments in any number of episodes. In the closing segments of his programs, often a sped-up gag reel, the action is played under the saxophone solo of Boots Randolph's "Yakety Sax" as Benny eventually is chased by everybody he meets as the credits roll.
As the 1980's progressed, more and more younger comics were starting to come out of the woodwork and many of them had a much different style of comedy. In the mid-late '80s several British comedians seemingly took it upon themselves to launch into anti-Benny Hill tirades. Feminists received a much louder voice and the language-stifling unofficial censorship policy, popularly known as political correctness, played a part in Benny's eventual cancellation at Thames TV in 1989.
By that time Benny had started to incorporate a lot of cute humor into the sketches...lots of children become part of the sped-up sketches...and in typical fashion Benny allowed the other people in the comedy sketches to come out as the winner. As mentioned earlier, Benny usually always played the bum, the loser, the fall guy, the bad luck charm. In any comical sketch in which Benny seemed to be coming out on top of a situation, something always happened to change his fate. If he happened to be a pirate and stumbled upon a chest...he'd visually relish the idea of being rich...only to open the chest and find a sign that read "It's Lonely In Here!" and he'd make one of his famous comical expressions at the camera, start crying, and the scene would cut to something else. Another sight gag one might see is of Benny spraying deodorant under his arms and then suddenly noticing huge paint spots in his arm pits...often leading to this classic facial expression...
Silent movies were a huge inspiration to him and that's evident right from the start of his television career. He was the recipient of a prestigious Charlie Chaplin award in 1991. In the BBC era Benny often presented films from a fictional character named J. Arthur Clinker, billed as "the fastest film maker". Benny's straight-man in the BBC telecasts was Jeremy Hawk (a role later taken up by Henry McGee during the Thames TV era).
I research a lot and a couple of years ago I came across several articles originally printed in British newspapers that featured younger comedians making disparaging remarks about Benny's style of comedy and it's "old-fashioned" look. The thing that baffled me is the idea of a comic viciously attacking another comic. Isn't it kind of an unwritten rule that comics are all in it together...creating laughter? Unless there are 2 comedians engaging in a mock-feud (like Fred Allen and Jack Benny), it seems kind of crude for one comedian to bash another on the merits of what's funny. Humor is subjective...thankfully.
After the cancellation of the Thames TV contract in 1989, Benny's syndicated television programs in America eventually came to an end even though a couple of local stations in my area continued to air repeats of the clip-fests into the early 1990s. A local ABC station in Columbus aired the program in the overnight hours (late Saturday, early Sunday) opposite the last half hour of Saturday Night Live on NBC. Another station aired the program at an even later time-slot on Sunday mornings. Benny's fame in America led to a 1991 television special taped in New York. It's official name is Benny Hill's World Tour: New York. It was filmed/taped on-location in the spring of 1990 but it aired early in 1991 on the USA cable channel. It became the first and only hour long Benny Hill television special to originate outside of England.
It was going to be part of a "World Tour" series but only the New York special became a reality...his health played a deciding factor in the non-materialization of the other proposed specials (I touch on that later in the blog).
The television special proves that he was in top comic form...and there are several video clips of sketches from the 1991 television special on YouTube. One of the funniest is the Rap Song...
Look up Victorian burlesque or read up on English music hall comedy and you'll immediately notice Benny Hill's biggest inspiration. He not only played the roles of Princesses and Queens but also of Kings, Dukes, Princes, and court jesters.
Enjoy the pictorial salute...I start things off displaying one of those A&E DVD releases of the Benny Hill program...in the image at the bottom right I display the VHS tapes of his BBC programs. Those episodes are all in black and white. Located on one of those tapes is a hilarious parody of "Bonanza" titled Bo-Peep. Benny, thanks to camera tricks, plays the parts of Ben Cartwright, Little Joe, and Hoss. Patricia Hayes, one of Benny's earliest supporting players, plays the part of Bo-Peep. She accuses the sons of stealing her sheep. In yet another sketch during the BBC era Benny does an exaggerated spoof of Mick Jagger and the rest of the Rolling Stones.
This is by no means a complete representation of Benny Hill's female impersonations. At various moments in his programs, both on the BBC and for Thames TV, he often impersonated movie actresses and political figures. Some of the usual targets happened to be Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Thatcher, and Mae West. In the four pictures to the left, Benny is dressed up as non-celebrities. Often the females happened to be nags or holier-than-thou...or scheming gold-diggers. In his series of commercial parodies he often played the part of the housewife demonstrating numerous items found in the kitchen, laundry, or the bathroom. One of the BBC sketches featured Benny as both Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and later as Mae West and W.C. Fields. Much later, during the Thames TV era, Benny brought back his impression of Mae West and W.C. Fields many more times in comical encounters. As far as the female vocals it typically depended on the kind of female. Most of the nagging wives had a high pitched, irritated voice. The snooty females all had a similar vocalization that played into that type...complete with haughty laughter and an arrogant demeanor about themselves and others. The larger picture seems to come from a soap opera spoof...and in those sketches Benny played the females as overly dramatic and prone to breaking into tears very easily. In that larger image the character looks as if she's thinking of some sort of scheme to either break up a relationship or enter into one. The image at the top left appears as if Benny applied the snooty/aristocratic vocalization to that character.
I hope more and more people discover Benny Hill as time goes by. Thanks to the internet it's easy to search for his comedy and seek out others that enjoyed his humor for the sheer happiness it brought. To over-think and over-analyze Benny's style of humor is doing a disservice to it's intention. It's not hard hitting, satiric humor in the same category of those that are in the David Frost tradition. Benny's humor allows one to embrace their inner silliness and laugh at life's experiences and see the absurdity in a lot of everyday situations. In his own kind of way he was a trailblazer...he's one of the first British comics to explore television's capabilities. Benny may have been the only British comic of his generation to embrace television and not look at it in a scornful manner (as film and stage comics tended to do).
Simply put, Benny's humor will last as long as people enjoy laughing.
|Benny Hill: 1924-1992|