Friday, January 15, 2016

Benny Hill...my favorite British comedian...

In December of 2014 I posted a blog entry marking the occasion of Benny's birth year 90 years earlier in 1924. I didn't post a blog in January of 2015 marking the 60th anniversary of the debut of The Benny Hill Show on the BBC because I'm notorious for not keeping track of anniversaries, birthdays, and milestones except for a chosen few. But as I began looking through some of the photo's saved on my computer of Benny from various stages of his career I happened to read that January 15th is the day that Benny debuted as the star of his own self-titled comedy special. No stranger to British audiences in 1955 he had been seen in a series of comedy programs and specials as early as 1951 but those didn't carry the title of The Benny Hill Show.

It should come as no surprise that I'm a fan of Benny Hill...he's my favorite British comedian by far. Although he isn't the only British entertainer that I'm familiar with he is by far my favorite. Television specials hosted and written by Benny under the specific title of The Benny Hill Show aired, on and off, from January 15, 1955 to May 1, 1989. The last television special in May of 1989 was his 58th and final for Thames TV. The syndicated half-hour series that originated in America in 1979 and had expanded globally continued to air regardless of the cancellation of the series by Thames TV. There happened to be more than 100 half hour programs that had already been compiled since 1979 that re-airing them over and over to fill the lack of new footage coming over became the norm for several years. In the early '90s Benny ventured over to America to check out potential spots to tape comedy material for a proposed series of specials titled Benny Hill's World Tour. The first special, focusing on New York, is the only program that became a reality due to the slow nature of the shooting schedule, delays, and the usual perfectionism Benny had been known for. The special finally hit the air on the USA Network on May 30, 1991. It didn't air in his homeland until 1994 (2 years after his death!).

I discovered the comedy of Benny Hill as a teenager in the early 1990s. Here in my part of America the local channels aired Benny's program in the late-night/over-night hours although research shows his programs in some parts of the United States aired as early as 9pm.

The syndicated half hour programs, comprised of sketches originally seen on his full-length hour long programs in the U.K., began airing in 1979. The batch of syndicated programs that aired for the first several years in local syndication in America featured material that had originally aired as early as 1969 (the first year Benny began making television specials for Thames TV).

After the phenomenal success of the edited programs in America it didn't take long for those clip-fest programs to find their way onto the television screens of people all over the planet. As it's been pointed out by official historians and biographers alike the popularity of Benny Hill in America kicked open the bolted doors of just about every country across the globe and this half hour program of sketches suddenly gave Benny global fame the likes of which a decidedly television-created star had never known.

This isn't to say Benny's mass popularity translated into critical acclaim, praise, acceptance, or any other similar synonym you can think of. Critical praise of Benny Hill is limited and in some countries it's muted. The irony of Benny's global success and the acclaim from abroad stood in sharp contrast to the cold and condescending remarks by television critics. Baffled, mystified, and dumbfounded could easily have been the adjectives to describe television critics in America once the program started to become such a hit in local syndication that episodes of the show began to air for what seemed like every other hour in the same market but on a different channel. It also wasn't uncommon for multiple local channels to air the program at the same time during late-night.

To further illustrate the phenomenal success of Benny's program in America newspaper columnists began to go on the attack in their editorials...attempting to link Benny's programs to increased crime, the rise of AIDS, increased rape, and just about anything else. During my research for this blog entry I come across a scathing article about the program carried in a Florida paper on July 5, 1982. The author attempted to find the reasoning behind Benny Hill's success. To the author's credit he supplied Arbitron ratings information supplied to him for WTVT-TV (Channel 13) during May 1982 and compared the numbers of Benny Hill's half hour of so-called "sexist smut" to it's chief competition, NBC's Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. The article's author couldn't understand how Carson's classy presentations had consistently been, in that market at least, toppled by Benny Hill's "vulgar, tasteless, and sexist" excesses.

According to the numbers provided in the 1982 article Benny's program averaged 36,000 viewers locally to Carson's 13,000. There wasn't any demographics numbers provided for Carson but according to the report Benny's program attracted nearly double the amount of male viewers than females (21,000 male; 15,000 female). Obviously the goal on reporting the demographic numbers for Benny's program is the author's way of driving home the sexist accusations. Hmm, judging by those numbers, there must be a lot of female sexists out there if we're to buy the author's argument about Benny's comedy being sexist.

In an article dated July 4, 1983 it had been reported that WVNY-TV (Channel 22) had decided to stop airing Ted Koppel's Nightline series at 11:30pm in order to make room for Benny Hill's program. The station's programmer explained his decision by citing the ratings reports, too. The local ABC channel  decided to start an 11pm newscast. The newscast would run to 11:30pm and be a lead-in to Koppel's national program. The only problem was Benny Hill's syndicated series aired on the local channel at 11pm and the program director didn't want to push Benny's hugely successful series to 12:30am. He cited that Benny's series at 11pm had attracted more than 50,000 viewers on average and Koppel's series attracted nearly 10,000 and so the removal of Ted Koppel's program in favor of the higher rated Benny Hill series made perfect business sense to him.

Benny Hill's birthday is coming up...born on January 21, 1924. He died on April 20, 1992 at the age of 68.

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