League tables of artistic precedence nearly always have the capacity to startle. There is something rather sobering, for example, in the discovery that the most successful UK male recording artist of the post-war era is actually Cliff Richard. Who, according to the standard criteria of fame, fortune and international repute, is the greatest British comedian of the 20th century? Chaplin, obviously. The second most successful? Almost certainly the Cumbrian-born Stan Laurel. And the third? Here, alas, Eric Morecambe, Tony Hancock and Max Miller are revealed as homespun provincial also-rans. The answer is Benny Hill.
He died in poverty 10 years ago this month, two years after being dropped by Thames TV. But posterity has vindicated him spectacularly. The anniversary of his death is about to be commemorated: by a brace of forthcoming books, Mark Lewisohn's Funny Peculiar: the True Story of Benny Hill and Dennis Kirkland's The Strange and Saucy World of Benny Hill, and a bevy of documentaries and TV and radio specials. Meanwhile, the statistics testify to his achievement. Hill's small-screen escapades, originally on BBC1, transferring to ITV in the late 1960s, ran for more than 30 years. Routines stripped down to a series of visual, foreigner-friendly gags, he became Thames Television's most lucrative export, syndicated to half of the countries on the globe; and he remains the jewel in their back catalogue.
Hill also left an estate valued at £7m, and countless fans across the globe. "I just love your Benny Hill!" the young Michael Jackson told a bemused English music-press critic during a 1970s tour. "He's so funny!" Showbiz conventions being what they are, it seems scarcely necessary to add that he was an shy and solitary man who lived modestly, spent his last years smarting from his rejection by the TV company whose fortune he had made, and who, a decade later, is more or less forgotten.
It would be odd if there weren't some kind of parable lurking here amid the random debris of post-war light entertainment, the world that gave you Steptoe & Son, Till Death Us Do Part, Mike and Bernie Winters, and countless other denizens now drifting beyond the grasp of the TV history men. Essentially, it is the story of a performer who, having made his way to the top in one medium, had the ability to switch his talent to the one that was taking its place, and rode the wave for 30 years, only to discover, finally, that the new medium had changed beyond the point where he could control it.
Like the vast majority of post-war comedians – Morecambe and Wise, Larry Grayson, Dick Emery – Hill (he was "Alfie" Hill until his brother opined that "Benny" would look better on the posters) cut his professional teeth on the old variety-hall circuit, where the bill's resident funny man might shamble on stage in the wake of, say, a troupe of acrobats, a song-and-dance act and a performing horse. The Southampton-born son of a surgical-appliance fitter (and somehow, in the light of his future career, it is impossible to read this description of the paternal trade without laughing), he was a semi-professional vicar-impersonator by his teens, fetching up, after war service, as the straight half of a comedy duo starring a pre-On The Buses Reg Varney.
Already, in the late 1940s, the fledgling medium of television liked the look of Benny. Unlike some of the gnarled veterans of pre-war variety, he was young and photogenic, and he had a relish for the kind of visual gag that went down well on the small screen. The Benny Hill Show, which began as early as 1955 – its compère had just turned 30 – was one of BBC television comedy's early successes. There were occasional film cameos (the toy-maker in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, for instance), and the odd stab at "serious" acting – Bottom in a celebrated 1964 TV version of A Midsummer Night's Dream – but TV was where Hill flourished where, for nearly 35 years, on a stage crowded with all manner of jostling competition – Ken Dodd, Harry Worth and all the others – he held his own.
As a general rule, and irrespective of the medium, the idea of lost artistic "Golden Ages" should be treated with deep suspicion. The English novel of the 1840s may have produced Dickens, Thackeray and the Brontës, but dozens of its alternative household names have simply fallen off the literary map. Pop elegists infallibly characterise the late 1970s as the era of the Sex Pistols, the Jam and the Buzzcocks, but memory insists that the real contemporary enthusiasm was lavished on disco and power ballads. The same is true of the variegated world of early 1970s TV comedy.
Even as a child, I was aware that Eric and Ernie, Dad's Army and Porridge resided far, far higher in the comic pantheon, light years beyond the dogged innuendos of Are You Being Served? Benny Hill stood at a slightly curious angle to these small-screen classics. For a period of nearly 10 years, I watched him with huge enthusiasm, while realising that the experience never once fell into the stock patterns of comic call and response, that there was something else burrowing away there, down below the obvious attractions of smut, smirking and big-breasted helpers.
Part of this was to do with the distinctive tensions that something like The Benny Hill Show could produce in the average middle-class household of the mid-1970s. For a start, it was on ITV, which was practically a guarantee of lowbrowed unrespectability. Then, of course, there was the content. (Crowd of scantily clad women flocks into an anonymous-looking building on whose exterior hangs a partially unfurled banner reading HOMES TO LET. They emerge, pursued by Hill and sidekicks, as the banner drops a further couple of inches to read HOMMES TOILET – was it supposed to be set in France?)
Intriguingly, this divided the parental audience along class lines. My council estate-born father, a regular visitor to the old-style variety halls, who had seen Max Miller in the flesh, reckoned that all this was hilarious. My mother, whose idea of TV comedy was Wendy Craig in Butterflies, was less sure.
Almost as potent – and I am sure I was aware of this, even as a child – was the odd, ritualistic air that hung over the proceedings. Other TV comics merely came on and told jokes or enacted sketches. But The Benny Hill Show, as my father pointed out, was an attempt to reproduce what was effectively a variety-hall bill on the small screen: sketch, impersonation (Hill as mad inventor "Fred Scuttle", or the "r"-less Japanese businessman pronouncing "Nicholas" as "Knickerless"); then an anonymous singer ("Ladies and Gentlemen, will you please welcome the lovely Dolores Cupcake...") never to be heard of again; then another sketch, with a dinner-jacketed Hill emerging at the close to announce that they hoped to be with us again very soon, and God bless you all.
One laughed, but one laughed because one was expected to, when the foreseeable became actual, because there were spaces in the performance that laughter had to fill. I once read an account of a Lennie Bruce concert, in which Bruce developed a complicated routine with seven or eight different threads. When, finally, after five minutes, the joke snapped shut, the audience let out an audible, collective sigh. Albeit in a less dramatic way, Hill had the same effect. When the fount of water pouring at waist-height from the man standing coyly in the ornamental garden turned out to be Hill turning a sprinkler on, you laughed out of sheer relief.
But you laughed at other things, too. One was the fantastic collection of accomplices that Hill inveigled on to the screen with him. Again, like the old variety acts – Harry Tate and his company, the Crazy Gang – what he did couldn't be done solo. The sketches needed extra bodies, in this case bizarre sidekicks like the gargoyle-faced Bob Todd, unctuous Henry McGhee, and the weird little bald old man with the Ulster accent. Another was the light, bright ray of fantasy that played over this vivid, comic-postcard world of vengeful mothers-in-law, lodgers, milkmen and women undressing at open windows. "Ernie", Hill's hit single – three months on the charts in the autumn of 1971 – was a classic example of this surreal side: the Wild West brought to a romantic spat between an amorous milkman ("His name was Ernie – and he drove the fastest milkcart in the West") and his baker rival.
"One day Ted saw Ernie's horse and cart outside Sue's door/ It drove him mad to find it was still there at half past four/ As he rushed out into the street hot blood through his veins did course/ He went across to Ernie's cart, and he didn't half kick his horse..."
"Whose name was Trigger," the female chorus obligingly glossed.
Beneath it all ran a curious melancholic, forlorn undertow. However gratuitous some of the sexual stuff, Hill was nearly always the loser, the fall-guy, the butt. There were whimsical little silent-film sequences of him dressed as a clown performing circus tricks that went wrong. Not much is known of his private life – no doubt more details will emerge later this month – but there seem to have been a couple of early romances that went wrong, and, despite proposing at least twice, he never married. The final glimpses of Hill in his late-1980s decline, confined to his house by a heart condition that prevented him from walking more than a few yards, are desperately sad. He was reported to be shattered by Thames's decision to drop him (and died while a contract for a new, American show was still in the post). But one wonders if the seeds hadn't been sown a great deal further back. Roy Hudd, who saw him on the variety bills half a century ago, thought that he never seemed at ease with his audience, which is an alarming thing to be said of a professional entertainer.
By this stage, it had all gone badly awry. "Alternative" comedy hit the established order hard in the 1980s. Ben Elton, among several disapproving luminaries of the genre, drew a comparison between rising rape statistics and the legendary chase sequences involving "Hill's Angels". However facile this might seem in retrospect (and personally, I found Elton's mid-1980s rants much more offensive than Hill's supposed "sexism"), it was symptomatic of the era. In 1989, Hill, by this time TV comedy's most widely distributed international star, found himself summarily thrown off the British screen. He lived another three years, in sight of a revival – a comeback series was in production with Central Television – before a final, fatal heart-attack.
Ten years on, perhaps not too many lofty claims should be made for Benny Hill, whose humour was, as they say, of its time and rather too obviously in tune with some of the prejudices of its audience (although it might be pointed out that the humour that doesn't slant itself towards the prejudices of its audience could be filed on the back of a postcard – when foreigners stop being funny, then English comedy will have ceased to exist). At the same time, it was without malice, and inclusive rather than exclusionist. Which is to say that Hill wanted you to laugh with him, not at somebody else. In the age of Graham Norton and the rest of the late-night comedy barbarians, there are worse epitaphs.
D J Taylor's novel 'The Comedy Man' will shortly be reissued in paperback by Duck EditionsReuse content