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Hill, Benny (1924-1992)


Main image of Hill, Benny (1924-1992)

The first British comedian to attain fame through television, Benny Hill (born Alfred Hawthorne Hill in Southampton on 21 January 1924) was a major star for over forty years. Indeed, he was one of the most popular comedians Britain has ever produced - not only in this country, but also worldwide, with his television shows having been sold to at least 109 countries (Hill's emphasis on visual humour transcending language barriers).

Famed now for his bawdy, 'naughty boy' seaside-postcard humour, Hill was actually one of the cleverest and most innovative of comedians working in television in the 1950s and 1960s. The saucy, sex-obsessed sketches seemingly decorated with acres of scantily-clad young women (for which he is mainly remembered) came later; their preponderance in his shows eventually leading to Hill becoming an unworthy victim of political correctness.

Following war service in the army, and gaining stage experience in troop concerts, Hill began working in variety theatre, making the occasional guest spot on radio shows such as Beginners Please (1947-48) and the Doris and Elsie Waters show Petticoat Lane (You Want It, We've Got It) (1949) .

Hill made his television debut in Music-Hall (BBC, tx. 23/3/1949), followed by Mud in Your Eyes (BBC, tx. 21/10/1950), appearing in the latter with his then stage partner, Reg Varney, before receiving his major break as the star turn in the revue show Hi There! (BBC, tx. 20/8/1951) .

The following years saw Hill acting as guest compere on a number of BBC variety shows, including Starlight Symphony (1951), The Centre Show (1953), The Services Show (1953), and for the nine-episode run of Showcase (1954). In these, Hill began to develop the format of parodic sketch that would seal his success over the next two decades. His popularity with viewers was such that he was voted television personality of the year for 1954.

The Benny Hill Show (BBC, 1955-68) was to see Hill's brand of comedy attain near-perfection. Mimed sketches (influenced by Hill's love of silent comedy) were a major element, and many of his famous comic characters, including Fred Scuttle, took their bow in the shows. Hill's innuendo-laden comic songs also became a notable element.

The show was notable, above all, for Hill's parodies of television shows, genres and personalities. In this Hill fully exploited the new possibilities of television special effects technology, allowing him to appear simultaneously in a wide variety of roles (of both sexes) in the same sketch. Hill was rewarded with the 1965 BBC Personality of the Year Award.

Hill wrote all of these shows in collaboration with Dave Freeman (they had first worked together on The Centre Show). They also collaborated on Hill's sole sitcom series, Benny Hill (BBC, 1962-63), which showcased his versatility in comic characterisations via a different story in each episode.

While predominantly a BBC man in these years, Hill had made some sporadic one-off specials, again called The Benny Hill Show, for ATV between 1957 and 1960, and had appeared as Bottom in Rediffusion's A Midsummer Night's Dream (ITV, tx. 24/6/1964). In 1969, however, Hill made the final move to ITV. Contracted to Thames Television, he was to remain with the company for the remainder of his television career.

It is the shows that Hill made for Thames between 1969 and 1989 (again just called The Benny Hill Show, and all now scripted by Hill alone) that have become embedded in the public's consciousness as representative of his humour. The style of Hill's comedy was initially little different to that of his BBC years, but the emphasis on sexual innuendo, coupled with the use of buxom young women, became more pronounced as the years wore on. The introduction of leggy, suspender-adorned dance troupe Hill's Angels in 1980 only reinforced the impression that Hill was mutating from a 'naughty boy' into a 'dirty old man'.

Throughout his years at Thames, Hill was to venture away from the successful format of these shows only once. This was with the dialogue-free, comparatively gentle, half-hour comedy Eddie in August (ITV, tx. 3/6/1970), which, disappointingly for Hill, encountered a muted reception from viewers and critics alike. In 1971, he had a surprise Christmas number one hit with his single Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West).

Despite achieving worldwide fame - including in America - with the Thames shows, Hill was ignominiously dropped by that company in 1989, owing to the perceived out-datedness of his comedy. He was never to work in television again.

Hill died from a heart attack on 18 April 1992, but not before he had won an award which, given his love of silent comedy, was a source of great pride - the Charlie Chaplin International Award for Comedy at the 1991 Festival of Comedy in Vevey, Switzerland.

John Oliver

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Benny Hill Show, The (1969-89)Benny Hill Show, The (1969-89)

Massively successful, often controversial comedy sketch series

Thumbnail image of Midsummer Night's Dream, A (1964)Midsummer Night's Dream, A (1964)

ITV adaptation of the Shakespeare play, with Benny Hill as Bottom

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