Benny Hill died watching Teletext. It was what he would’ve wanted.
On Easter Monday, April 20, 1992, his body was discovered slumped peacefully on the sofa in his pokey, rented Teddington flat, two empty dinner plates to his right, two of his weight-watching low-cal drinks to the left, £300 in cash turfed out of his pockets, specs on, shoes and socks off, shirt undone. “Benny was looking quite smart for a change,” observed Dennis Kirkland, lifelong friend and producer.
He’d died of a second heart attack, very probably connected to over-eating. In the words of Benny’s autobiographical Number One hit Ernie, you might say “a rock cake caught him underneath the heart”.
He left £7,548,192. Unfortunately, because he’d failed to amend a will prepared in 1961 whose only beneficiaries – his mum, dad, brother Leonard, and sister Diana – were now all dead, the mountain of Hill cash went to seven nieces and nephews he hardly knew. This was not what he would’ve wanted.
They called him Britain’s greatest television comedian. He was without a doubt our greatest comic export (in 1990, The Benny Hill Show was on in 97 countries around the world, although not, ironically, the UK, because Benny was sacked from Thames TV in 1989), and his famous fans included Michael Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Frank Sinatra and Charlie Chaplin. Though he couldn’t even bring himself to utter what he called “the dirty female c-word”, he was haunted by spurious tabloid accusations of impropriety and eccentricity (“I WAS BENNY HILL’S LOVE SLAVE”, News Of The World, 1985). And he died alone, one kidney less than he was born with, and, as Kirkland puts it, “so much laughter yet to give”.
What a shame he never married, eh?
Born Alfred Hawthorne Hill in Southampton on January 21, 1924, they called him “Alfie”, and he drove the fastest milk cart in the South.
Showbiz was in the family’s blood: his dad, Alfred, and grandfather, Henry, had been circus clowns (although they both went legit in later life, dad as the manager of a surgical appliances shop, granddad a totally unqualified dentist), but young Alfie’s first job out of school aged 15 was as a weighbridge clerk at the Phoenix Coal And Coke Company, then on to Woolworth’s as a stockroom boy (low point: cleaning up dogshit in the store). A brief spell filling in as a comedy vicar for six shows with a troupe called Bobbie’s Concert Party whetted his greasepaint glands, but this was to be little more than a false start, so, against his stern father’s wishes, he really did become a milkman, and really did ride a horse-drawn cart around Eastleigh. (One co-worker, who ended up staying with Hann & Son’s Dairy for 42 years, was called Ernie Carrington – join the dots yourself.)
At night, he played guitar and did the odd comic interlude for Ivy Lillywhite & Her Friends, and the experience was sufficient to inspire him to pack a cardboard suitcase, gather up his £25 “life savings”, and decamp to London. As Dennis Kirkland puts it so dramatically in his over-fond 1992 book Benny: The True Story, “a world war, closing theatres and hostile audiences were just around the corner, but nothing was going to stand in the way of his rise to stardom.”
Renaming himself Benny after US comic Jack Benny (“Alfie Hill sounds like a cheap barrow boy,” he decided), the 17-year-old wannabe endured what has now become a clichéd showbiz apprenticeship: traipsing around long-gone music halls, kipping in concrete air-raid shelters on Streatham Common, doing his Cagney impression for London impresario Harry Benet and becoming Assistant Stage Manager (“a glorified errand boy”) at the East Ham Palace in a show called Follow The Fun for £3 and 10 shillings a week, then joining a touring revue, Send Him Victorious. Because he was on the road, Benny’s call-up papers failed to reach him, and he was chucked into a police cell when the authorities finally tracked him down at Cardiff’s New Theatre (“I was treated like a criminal,” he said). Though innocent of any draft-dodging deception, an armed guard duly escorted him to camp at Catterick in Yorkshire, fuelling a lifelong fear of authority.
He was haunted by spurious tabloid accusations of impropriety and eccentricity
Private Hill 14332308 joined the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as a driver/mechanic. A rotten mechanic and a useless driver, it was his natural gift for foreign languages that carried him through when his unit were packed off to Dunkirk after D-Day. Ironically, in light of later weight problems, Benny was too fit to audition for concert parties during hostilities, so when the fighting stopped, he wasted no time in auditioning for the army’s Central Pool of Artists (Stars In Battledress) and began touring army bases in musical revues with such innocuous, squaddie-unfriendly names as Happy Weekend and It’s All In Fun.
In 1947, Benny was de-mobbed, and went back to theatreland, this time with £50 in his pocket, and moved into a flat off London’s Bayswater Road with three girls. Wahey! Cue: the 23-year-old Benny Hill chasing his flatmates around the kitchen in their underwear. Not quite. Kirkland notes, “Benny, for once in his life, was not interested in women, he had little money and even less time. All he wanted to do was break into the showbusiness bigtime.”
All work and no play made Ben a dull boy. But was he turning gay? Before the war, he’d done a show with some gay dancers who’d asked him outright if he was “queer”. Not understanding the question, he replied, “Not really, but I’ve got my funny little ways . . .”
In a routine on telly in 1974, Benny played a West Country village idiot type who, typically, spoke in rhyming couplets: “Dad says, it’s time that you got wed/I said I’d rather drop down dead.”
In real life his sex life was always a sketchy, speculative area, and conjecture was high that he was either a closet homosexual or some marauding devotee of the dirty mac. In the 20-odd years that Kirkland knew Benny, he didn’t have one serious girlfriend, offering the explanation that women wanted to mother him, “maybe give him a cuddle and laugh at his jokes, but they didn’t very often want to sleep with him”. Benny often took ladyfriends away with him on foreign trips, but they were usually disappointed that his idea of a perfect night in Paris would involve sitting in the hotel room watching French TV in search of comedy ideas.
“A world war, closing theatres and hostile audiences were just around the corner, but nothing was going to stand in the way of his rise to stardom.”
In his 1992 book Star Turns, the twin tale of Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd (both men died within hours of each other), veteran comedy writer Barry Took notes: “[The war] was a time when love of the human, not to say carnal, side of life was revealed to the young soldier.” He later asserts that “he had simple, even schoolboyish, sexual needs.” Although Benny never confirmed or denied it, the insinuation here is that he was a sucker for prostitutes. The author notes that in later life, Benny’s travels would repeatedly take him to places like Hamburg, Marseilles, Bangkok and Tokyo, “all of them noted for the number and ingenuity of the local ladies and gentlemen of easy virtue. Had he wished, he could’ve led a fully-extended sex life to the benefit of all concerned.”
In case you’re interested, Benny preferred his women small and dark, not blonde and bosomy. When shooting the only show he ever made especially for American TV, The World Of Benny Hill, the producer Don Taffner, a New Yorker who’d marketed Thames TV’s programmes in the States since 1968, lined up an audition room full of likely looking lasses with “the most enormous boobs we had ever seen” (Kirkland). The casting director said to Benny, “Your kind of girls, eh?” Nope. They were sent away, in favour of ladies who were “normally built”.
Benny’s TV persona, imprinted on public consciousness over 40 years, was that of a sexually incorrigible, impish ladies’ man, an ogler, an incompetent. In reality, he was shy and continually disappointed by sex. A meticulous professional, and incredibly innovative in his early TV work (consider his ground-breaking split-screen parodies of What’s My Line and Juke Box Jury in which he played all the panelists at a time of televisual infancy), he has been often dismissed as an unsophisticated clown – indeed, in the mid-80s Ben Elton famously led the charge that Benny’s continued trade in seaside postcard smut was making it unsafe for women to walk the streets.
His myth is a complex one alright. Accounts of the private Benny Hill are of a gentle, generous fellow. The Daily Star called him “Mr Mean”, after not uncommon sightings in Teddington of a distinctly un-showbizzy-looking Benny poring over tins of food in a supermarket, and trudging home with plastic bags. This is where his reputation as a recluse comes from, and yet, he was probably checking the food for fat content and calorie-count during a dietary period, and the carrier-bag man is simply one who eschewed the trappings of wealth, and preferred to live alone, no staff, no personal assistant, no gardener (no garden). A cleaning lady, Lynne, was “barely tolerated”, and ordered not to move anything. In effect, she cleared around his mess.
“A slob at home”, according to pal Kirkland, his apartment at Fairwater House was characterised by an unmade bed, dirty dishes, and heaps of paper everywhere (Benny was a constant scribbler of ideas on the backs of fag packets and napkins, and frequently submitted TV scripts scrawled on the cardboard inserts you get with hotel-laundered shirts). This was not a place you might invite young ladies back to.
Kirkland would say, “Why do you throw all your clothes on the floor?” Hill would reply, “Because they won’t stick to the ceiling.”
TV Times once set up an “at home” photograph of Benny with dolly-dancers Hill’s Angels at his previous residence, a flat in Queens Gate, London, and the stylists had to literally deck the living room out with new furniture, pictures and ornaments, so it would look “lived in” (he barely used the room). Once the shoot was over, he insisted the Angels took anything they wanted. This was in the late 70s. He still had a black and white TV.
A straight man at home, Benny Hill’s first big break after the war was as a straight man on stage – to Reg Varney, later the turtle-necked star of On The Buses. The revue was called, prophetically, Gaytime. Varney and Hill worked the boards together for two successful years, until a particularly Northern audience in Sunderland slow-handclapped his solo spot, and, devastated, he quit. Instead of finishing him off, it made him even more determined to succeed, and the booking had at least hooked him up with uber-agent Richard Stone, with whom he would loyally stick until his death.
In the 50s, Benny’s eventual, unstoppable rise to fame began – not onstage at the Cliftonville Lido, but on telly. Only one in 20 households had a set in 1950, but Benny saw the fuzzy box’s potential for comedy, and hibernated in dirt-cheap London digs to write sketches for TV, longhand. Forty of these skits under his arm, he accosted BBC Head Of Light Entertainment, Ronnie Waldman, and a star was effectively born.
The double-entendres were there from the start, and Benny soon earned a “ribald reputation”. In 1952, compering The Centre Show (filmed at the Nuffield Centre servicemen’s club), he ran into trouble with a gag involving the football pools and Scotland Yard’s well-known phone number, Whitehall 1212: “A football coupon was lost last night in Chelsea. Will anyone who finds it please contact Scotland Yard, telephone Whitehall home-away, home-away.” A home win was worth one point, an away win two points – geddit? The services entertainment unit, Department AG3 didn’t. They thought he’d said “Homo-way, homo-way”, thereby insinuating that Whitehall was full of homosexuals, and – the TFI Friday of its day – the show’s script was thenceforth checked and censored for such offensive fripperies.
By the time of his next TV engagement, hosting Showtime, Benny was earning £300 a week (the national average age was £10); his rent was £3 a week. The Benny Hill Show came in 1955, and, even though the Daily Mirror initially deemed it “patchy and lacking cohesion”, it soon picked up, and Benny was suddenly a Royal Variety Show kinda guy, getting film offers (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Italian Job), doing Schweppes commercials, and being poached by the toddler ITV in 1969, where he stayed for 20 years.
TV success meant he could jack in the live performance altogether. “He made no secret of his hatred for live theatre,” recalls Dennis Kirkland, “It made him sweat; literally shake with nerves”. He turned down chat show after chat show (from Parkinson to Johnny Carson), and only appeared at a glittering showbiz tribute to the late Eric Morecambe thanks to a schoolteacher sketch that involved him reading from a book.
It was not nerves, but fear of flab that led Benny Hill to start popping amphetamines in the early 70s, prescribed as appetite-depressants. The effects of his out-of-control speed habit characterised location filming in the early 70s, where the lure of the catering truck would have Benny gobbling the pills at seven in the morning and “running at 400mph”, as Kirkland unhappily remembers it. In 1976, he had his kidney out (“the tumour was benign, it used to smile a lot,” he joked), and it’s likely this was as a result of liquid retention caused by the speed.
And we all thought those chase sequences at the end of The Benny Hill Show were done with a speeded-up camera.
Nicking all the cakes during tea breaks and pretending to wander off, deep in thought, while he scoffed them all is not a happy image of Benny Hill to take away with us. He was only 16 and a half stone (his brother Leonard was 23 and a half when he died), but the belly which made him our “cuddly, lovable, roly-poly funnyman” bothered him greatly. This did not sit well with his love of fine food and fancy restaurants (“I have plenty of will power, but not a lot of won’t power”). Incidentally, there was no disorder to his eating: his habit was to methodically consume each item on his plate individually – all the mushrooms first, then the spuds, then the steak and so on.
Another unhappy image is that of the dirty old man in the dock. In October 1985, former Page Three girl Stefanie Martin, 35, kissed and told to the News Of The World, accusing Benny of forcing her to “perform” while he pleasured himself (“He undressed me, and then stripped to his underpants, he looked like a white whale”). This continued, on the promise of a speaking part in his show, for six years. He didn’t exactly deny it, simply saying, “It wasn’t the way she made it sound at all”. One Hill’s Angel, Nikki Critcher, claimed she had to slap his face when he squeezed her breasts really hard in a rehearsal. Kirkland leaps to his defence: “Benny was not someone who touched other people much.”
And yet, he touched millions. What the Daily Mail persists in referring to as “political correctness” – but which I prefer simply to think of as the new enlightenment – made his “funny little ways” obsolete in the late 80s. In dying in 1992, he at least spared us the all-new Benny Hill Show proposed by Central. It would never have played. Either his seaside postcard sexism would have required neutering, or it would have been exposed in the cold, hard light of social progress as lecherous, dangerous and moribund.
Back in 1974, three doctors salivating as a female patient undressed was funny, but not any more, despite the best efforts of Nuts and Zoo to turn back the clock. I’m selfishly glad I was able to enjoy Benny Hill when I was young and guileless and apolitical and the world was a more innocent place, but – like punk rock, 9/11 and Hitler – he could never happen again.
Interviewer: “You lived life with a big L.”
Benny: “And sometimes I suffered pain with a big P . . .”
A BENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS
What people said about Benny Hill . . .
“The funniest comedian in the world. My all-time hero.” Michael Jackson
“I only want to do two things: I want to sing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and I want to go to a Benny Hill rehearsal.” Frank Sinatra
“He is huge in Australia. Everything stopped in our house for Benny Hill.” Jason Donovan
“He looks like he’d goose his own grandmother.” Howard Rosenberg, Los Angeles Times
“There’s only one Benny Hill.” Burt Reynolds
“He has a face like an evil cherub — a cherub sent by the Devil.” Michael Caine
THAT JOKE ISN’T FUNNY ANYMORE
Some rum Benny Hill lines
As Tommy Tupper, chat show host: “Did you hear about the actress who was so dumb, she couldn’t count to two without taking off her blouse?”
As Mr Chow Mein, comedy Chinaman, going through British Immigration: “I have my beliefs.”
Immigration Officer: “Ah, your beliefs. Buddha.”
Chow Mein: “No! No Buddha, no sugar. Just my beliefs!” (He holds up his briefs)
Singing mock-’60s ballad, My Garden Of Love: “There’s beetroot for the day you said you’d be-true-to me/And a sweet pea for the sweet way you always used to . . . smile at me.”
Fashion Designer Marie Quaint: “Wouldn’t you men like to see your wife in something long and flowing?”
Jeremy Renault MP: “Yes, a river.”
As Mervin, hellraising stage actor: “They were practising witchcraft, and not just lady witches, they had men witches . . .”
Mervin: “It’s true, I tell you!”
Reading from showbiz diary: “Went to showbiz party. Met Jim Davidson, a fine comedian and a gentleman. Talked to all three of them.”
LICENSED TO HILL
Benny’s supporting cast
Ubiquitous stooge, he of the constantly-slapped noggin, this Belfast-born former trombonist was Benny’s whipping boy for 25 years. Died, aged 83, in 1989 (he quit the show, due to ill-health in ’83, but old footage was edited in).
Former straight actor, he appeared in Softly Softly, and turned to comedy as Charlie Drake’s straight man, going on to work with Benny for 22 years. Even stooged for the Honey Monster in Sugar Puffs ads. Still a bachelor, living in Fulham.
“Toddy” had no showbiz training, and was a farmer when Benny gave him a tryout. He stayed for 20 years. Scouse indie-pranksters Half Man Half Biscuit immortalised him in song in 1986 with Ninety Per Cent Of All Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd.
Amorphous singing-dancing dollybird collective replacing Dee Dee Wilde and her Troupe, inspired by Kenny Everett’s Hot Gossip. Benny used to audition the girls at his Queens Gate flat. Notables: Louise English, Lorraine Doyle, Jenny Westbrook.
Far and away the most famous Angel (Benny’s favourite: “Sue is pretty and she is funny”), Upton appeared in umpteen sketches, the show’s female lead after Jenny Lee Wright’s departure. Her family would invite Benny round for Christmas (he never came).
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