Jemima Lewis: Why did the British disown Benny Hill?

His demise was painful to behold: like watching an elderly uncle being kicked to death by young thugs

Share
Related Topics

I have my reservations about David Cameron - that tiny, cherubic mouth; the way he begins each policy discussion with the words "I want", to which I find myself shouting "Never gets!"- but credit where it's due. Far from being a spineless people-pleaser, Cameron seems to be deliberately courting controversy. How else to explain the Benny Hill thing?

On tomorrow's Desert Island Discs, the Tory leader will publicly confess his love for Benny Hill's 1971 hit song "Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)". Radio 4 has been trailing the programme with a clip in which Cameron claims that he knows all 600 words and often sings them as a party piece.

If his aim was to generate maximum publicity, he has hit the jackpot. The press could hardly have been more scandalised if he had chosen "The Internationale". Cameron's playlist also includes "This Charming Man" by The Smiths: a song, so far as anyone can tell, about a sexually confused young bicyclist who gets seduced by a man in a big car. Plenty for Conservative traditionalists (and environmentalists) to chew on there, you might think - yet no one has paid it the slightest notice.

What is it about Alfred Hawthorn Hill that makes him persona non grata among his own people? The rest of the world adores him; his shows have been sold to 140 countries and still attract audiences in the billions. Yet the British remain deeply embarrassed by their most popular comedy export.

It was not always thus. When I was growing up in the 1970s, my father insisted there was nothing on television worth watching except Benny Hill and the Six O'Clock News. My sister and I were too young to understand either, but since there was nothing else on offer, we tried our best. We observed with quiet bafflement how, with the first blast of the "Yackety Sax" theme tune, my mother's eyes would fill with tears of merriment and my father would grasp his corduroy knees in anticipation of the hilarity to come.

Admittedly, not everyone shared this enthusiasm. Once, while having tea in front of Crackerjack at a friend's house, I grumbled that we were allowed to watch only Benny Hill at home. My friend's mother gaped at me in horror. "You shouldn't be watching that sexist rubbish," she practically screamed. I blushed until my armpits prickled, partly because she had said something that sounded like "sex", and partly because she seemed to be criticising my parents. After that, I kept our family viewing habits to myself - but I began to feel a protective fondness for Benny.

The more unfashionable he became, the more I learnt to love him. In the 1980s, Hill came under concerted attack from feminists and (the killer blow) the new wave of alternative comedians. Ben Elton denounced him as a "dirty old man, tearing the clothes off nubile girls while chasing them round a park". This was not strictly true (Hill thought it was funnier to get the girls to chase him), but it was said in a tone of such moral righteousness that only the most reactionary braveheart dared to question it. The curious thing about the alternative comedians was that they would not brook any alternative. Despite their socialist pretensions, they despised the coarse, working-class, vaudeville tradition from which Hill's comedy derived. Theirs was the humour of the middle-class dinner party: all politics and irony and verbal jousting. The sheer physical exuberance of Hill and his Angels suddenly seemed gauche by comparison.

Hill's demise was painful to behold: like watching an elderly, confused uncle being picked on by young thugs. As his ratings slid, he cranked up the bawdiness levels, hoping to give the British public more of what it once loved. But times had changed: comedy had become self-conscious, and young people knew better than to laugh at gags about saucy nurses.

In 1989, Hill was dropped by ITV. His ratings were still strong, but the Zeitgeist was against him. Three years later, he died alone in his tiny flat in Teddington; his corpse was discovered only when neighbours complained of the smell.

I sometimes wonder whether it is this that stands in the way of Hill's rehabilitation. The British public is haunted by the manner of his demise and death - and guilt is not conducive to laughter. Any feminist argument against him has long since been lost. By today's standards, Hill's sketches seem tame to the point of quaintness. His Angels, though scantily clad, at least looked like real women: they had dimpled thighs and buck teeth, and they wobbled when they ran. The average rap video, featuring a bejewelled patriarch surrounded by oiled, undulating female flesh, is a much worse assault on feminist sensibilities.

Hill wanted us to laugh at lechery, not condone it. Men who lusted after women usually came to a sticky end: Ernie the Milkman was slain with a rock bun hurled by his love rival, Two-Ton Ted from Teddington. It's old-fashioned, nostalgic, surprisingly clean fun: just the thing, in fact, for a Conservative on a desert island.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture