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Alfred Hawthorne "Benny" Hill (21 January 1924 – 19 April 1992) was an Englishmarker comedian, actor and singer, notable for his long-running television programme The Benny Hill Show.

Beginnings

Alfred Hill was born in Southamptonmarker and grew up in Wilton Road, Upper Shirleymarker, where he and his brother attended Taunton's School. During World War II, Hill was one of the scholars evacuated with the school to Bournemouth Schoolmarker, East Way, Bournemouthmarker. After leaving Bournemouth School, Hill worked variously as a milkman in Eastleighmarker, a bridge operator, a driver and a drummer before he finally got a foot in the door of the entertainment industry by becoming an assistant stage manager. Inspired by the 'star comedians' of British music hall shows, Hill set out to make his mark in show business. For the stage, he changed his first name to 'Benny', in homage to his favourite comedian, Jack Benny. Hill began appearing at working men's clubs and Masonic dinners before graduating to nightclub and theatre jobs. Hill auditioned for Sohomarker's famed Windmill Theatremarker (home of Revudevillemarker, a popular show of singers, comedians and nude girls), but he was not hired. Benny's first job in professional theatre as a performer was as Reg Varney's straight man, beating a then unknown Peter Sellers for the role.

Private life

Hill only had a few "friends", although colleagues insist he was never lonely but content with his own company. He never married, although he did propose to three women—one the daughter of a British writer—but was rejected by all three. Although he owned the family home in Southampton he never owned his own home in London, nor a car, preferring to rent, first a large double apartment in Queensgate, London, for 26 years until 1986, and then a small flat in Teddingtonmarker, within walking distance of the studios of Thames Televisionmarker where he taped his shows. His mother died in 1976 aged 82 and Benny kept the family house at 22 Westrow Gardens in Southampton as a shrine to her, not changing anything. Before his move to Teddington, whilst looking for somewhere else to live in the Richmondmarker area of London, he lived at 22 Westrow Gardens. Travelling was the luxury he permitted himself. Hill became a first-degree Francophile, enjoying frequent visits to Marseillemarker. Until the 1980s, he could enjoy anonymity in France's outdoor cafés, public transport, and socialising with local women. Besides mastering French, he could also speak enough German, Dutch and Italian for travel purposes. Hill's overseas holidays were often gathering missions for comedy material, some inspired by foreign surroundings, or borrowed from regional acts. Hill was a distant relative of the Australian actress and singer Holly Valance (Hill's cousin was Valance's grandfather).

Early career

Between the end of the war and the dawn of television, Hill worked as a radio performer. His first appearance on television was in 1949 in Hi There. He continued to work intermittently until his career took off with The Benny Hill Show in 1955 on BBC Television. Recurring players on his show during the BBC years included Patricia Hayes, Jeremy Hawk, Peter Vernon, Ronnie Brody, and his co-writer from the mid-1950s to early 1960s, Dave Freeman. He remained mostly with the BBC through to 1968, except for a few sojourns with ITV station ATV between 1957 and 1960 and again in 1967. He also had a short-lived radio programme, Benny Hill Time, on BBC Radio's Light Programme from 1964 to 1966. In addition, he attempted a sitcom anthology, Benny Hill, which ran for three series 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.

Films and recordings

Benny Hill's film credits include parts in nine films including Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965); Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), in which he played the relatively straight role of the Toymaker; The Italian Job (1969); and, finally, a clip-show film spin-off of his early Thames shows (1969–73), called The Best of Benny Hill (1974). Hill's audio recordings include "Gather in the Mushrooms", (1961), "Pepys Diary", (1961), "Transistor Radio" (1961), "Harvest of Love" (1963), and "Ernie " (1971). He also appeared in the 1986 video of the song "Anything She Does" by the band Genesis. Hill's song, "Ernie ," on the Best of Benny Hill album made the UK chart as Christmas number one single in 1971. A link to the lyrics is provided in the External Links section of this article.

The Benny Hill Show

In 1969, his show moved from the BBC to Thames Television, where The Benny Hill Show remained until cancellation in 1989, with an erratic schedule of one-hour specials.

The most common running gag in Benny Hill's shows was the closing sequence, which was literally a "running gag" in that it featured Benny Hill and other male characters lecherously chasing scantily clad female characters, who would usually end up turning the tables and chasing Benny. This was commonly filmed using stop motion and time-lapse techniques for comic effect. The tune used in all the chases, "Yakety Sax", 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 a small number of films. Some video games also use this type of running gag. The Wachowskis used the same style (and musical theme) in a scene in the film V for Vendetta (2006). It also appears in the cult movie The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Reflecting opinion of the time within certain quarters the 1980s alternative comedian Ben Elton denounced him as a "dirty old man, tearing the clothes off nubile girls" . The Independent newspaper opined the vendetta was "like watching an elderly uncle being kicked to death by young thugs"..

In response to such claims his close 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. An article on 27 May 2006 in The Independent quoted Hill and Dennis Kirkland as saying they believed this misrepresentation demonstrated critics could not have watched his programmes.

Celebrity fans

Charlie Chaplin, who died in 1977, was a fan of Hill's work: Hill had discovered that Chaplin, his childhood idol, was a fan when he was invited to Chaplin's home in Switzerlandmarker by Chaplin's family and discovered that Chaplin had a collection of Hill's work on video. Hill and Dennis Kirkland were the first outside the family to be invited into Chaplin's private study. Hill was awarded the Charlie Chaplin International Award for Comedy at the 1991 Festival of Comedy in Veveymarker, Switzerland.

Radio and TV show host Adam Carolla claimed that he was a fan of Benny Hill and that he considered Hill "as American as the Beatles." Indeed, during an episode of The Man Show, Carolla performed in what was billed as a tribute to "our favourite Englishman, Sir Benny Hill" in a more risqué takeoff of the sketches that Hill popularised. Carolla played a rude and lecherous waiter—a role Hill essayed numerous times in his shows—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.

In Benny Hill: The World's Favourite Clown, filmed shortly before Hill's 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's case, the appreciation extended to the Hill's Angels as well). In 2006, the broadcaster and critic Garry Bushell launched a campaign to erect a statue of Hill in Southamptonmarker, 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.

Death

Hill's health began to decline in the mid 1980s. He suffered heart problems, and on 11 February, 1992, doctors told him he needed to lose weight and recommended a heart bypass. He declined and was diagnosed a week later with renal failure. Benny Hill died on or about 19 April, 1992, Easter weekend, alone in his flat at 7 Fairwater House, Twickenhammarker Road, Teddingtonmarker, South West Londonmarker, at the age of 68. On 21 April, neighbours called the police, who then found Hill, deceased, sitting in his armchair in front of the television. Ironically on the day Hill purportedly died, a new contract arrived in the post from Central Independent Television. He died of natural causes. His death coincided with that of Frankie Howerd, who died on 18 April—one day before Hill—aged 75.

Hill was buried at Hollybrook Cemeterymarker near his birthplace in Southamptonmarker on 28 April, 1992. In October 1992, following rumours that he was buried with large amounts of gold jewellery, an attempt was made by thieves to exhume his body. However, when authorities looked into his open coffin the following morning, there was no treasure. Consequently, only the culprits know whether anything valuable was inside. Hill was reburied with a new coffin lid and a solid slab across the top of the grave.

In Hill's will, he left his estimated £10 million (GBP) estate to his late parents. Next in line were his brother Leonard and sister Diana, both of whom were also dead. This left his seven nieces and nephews, among whom the money was divided.

Posthumous reception

Although still shown worldwide, The Benny Hill Show has not been shown on UK terrestrial, networked television since a tribute season on Channel 4 in 1992, and not on satellite or cable since a run on the now defunct channel Granada Plus in 1999. To quote his biographer Mark Lewisohn, "In Britain, Benny Hill is taboo." It has recently been aired on the BBC America cable channel. An Australian channel, Seven Network, showed some episodes as part of a "Great Comedy Classics" slot.

In his entry on Hill for the Dictionary of National Biography, Barry Took wrote: "Popular as he was when he was alive, after his death he disappeared from the public consciousness very quickly, and if remembered at all it was largely for his grossness and lack of subtlety."

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's comedy style, to discover whether or not the alternative comedians' criticism of Hill 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 early BBC and later Thames shows. The responses and results demonstrated that none of the sample of viewers took offence at any of the sketches shown.

Hill's silent "Wishing Well" sketch was discovered to be the most popular. Alternative comedian Ben Elton was interviewed in the programme. Although still having reservations on certain aspects of Hill's sketches, Elton admitted he was an admirer of Hill's talent and abilities as a comic performer.

References

  1. The Independent - Why did the British disown Benny Hill?, published 27 May 2006
  2. Benny Hill profile, screenonline.org.uk. Retrieved 21 March 2009.


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