Last laughs from Benny Hill's school of humour: Ostracised at home, the comedian received a warm reception in the US. David Lister reports
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Tuesday 12 April 1994
The comedian, though, was indeed depressed. His executive producer, Don Taffner, said yesterday that Hill was suffering from melancholy in between the bouts of filming, dejected by the way he had been refused access to the airwaves in Britain - the victim of a prevailing political correctness.
The setting of Hill's last sketches is untypical, a bar on the South Street seaport in New York where many of the familiar music- hall style gags take place.
In another sketch he is chased by a bevy of young women, again a typical and admittedly flagging ending to his shows, but this time the park is Central Park. Ostracised by British television, Hill wrote and filmed his final sketches in New York. The comedian made two half-hour shows for American audiences a few months before his heart attack. The first, under the title, Benny Hill Unseen, will be shown tonight on ITV, the second next month.
Mr Taffner, the American television executive who produced the shows, said yesterday: 'Benny was very happy during the filming but terribly melancholy as soon as it had finished. He really felt hurt the way he was treated in the UK.'
The comedy in the last Benny Hill sketches is overall fairly typical of the visual gags of his later years, but there are throwbacks to the more intellectually inventive Hill. For his American audience he indulges in a parody of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. He plays both the Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh parts, with evident parodies of both. Again the humour is of the music hall variety. 'There's not even a lock on the lavatory.' 'What's the difference? There's nothing worth stealing.'
The television sketches were the first the comedian made outside the United Kingdom, and were intended for a series, Benny Hill's World Tour, which was never completed. These sketches take place in New York. Others were planned for Australia and the far east. In 1991, when the sketches were filmed, British television had made Hill an outcast.
Thames Television refused to make any more shows even though they were by far its biggest earning exports with Benny Hill being watched in almost every country in the world. Accusations of sexism had frightened television executives into dropping Hill from the schedules.
The idea of taping a series in the United States was suggested to Hill by Mr Taffner. He told him American fans wanted to see him in an American setting. Hill was doubtful.
Mr Taffner recalls the comedian telling him: 'I want the subject of our sketches to be part of US culture. After all.
'There are certain words that are perfectly innocent in England, but can be very objectionable when used in America,' though he added almost bitterly, 'American audiences have more enthusiasm than their British counterparts and they're not afraid to show it.'
The programmes which have been shown in the US received rave reviews there. As well as Hill's regular cast, they include the actress, Lee Meredith, and Joey Faye, a star of American vaudeville since the Thirties.
Ironically, the mini-Hill revival comes just after the critically acclaimed West End opening of the play Dead Funny which tells of a Dead Funny Society, an obsessive group of Benny Hill worshippers.
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