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

Saturday 27 May 2006 00:00 BST

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.

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