Benny Hill was a cheeky monkey, and it takes one to know one. In this case, that one is Judge Bill Gibron.
Our reviews of Benny Hill Complete And Unadulterated: The Hill's Angels Years: Set Four (1978-1981) (published January 31st, 2006), Benny Hill Complete And Unadulterated: The Naughty Early Years, Set Three (1975-1977) (published November 16th, 2005), Benny Hill Complete And Unadulterated: The Naughty Early Years, Set Two (1972-1974) (published February 16th, 2005), and Benny Hill: The Complete Megaset, The Thames Years 1969-1989 (published March 30th, 2011) are also available.
Let's crank up the venerable "Yakety Sax" one more time!
"Benny Hill? He's…an alien."
With those infamous words, Monty Python member John Cleese forever set the tone of any discussion of Benny Hill and his importance to British comedy. While not so much an outright dismissal as an unqualified noncommittal, it has long been understood that in the realm of real wit and comic invention, there are Python, the Goons, and their descendants, and then there's everyone else. And then just maybe, if the wind is right and everyone's had a few pints, you'll consider the sex farce foibles of one Alfred Hawthorne Hill.
For many Americans, the first tacky taste of Hill's brand of bawdy burlesque came in 1979, when his one-hour shows were whittled down into easily digestible half-hour hunks and shipped around the world. It was there that Benny blossomed, becoming a worldwide icon to the sophomoric and the double entendre. From baggy-pants buffoonery to the sometimes sharp, satirical stand-up, Hill was just plain genial, gentleman's humor. Using a combination of the "Carry On" spirit with a dash of the old-fashioned vaudevillian, he made his program a veritable variety showcase, offering a little bit of the bad for every conceivable taste. Yet many find him to be a stupid, sexist pig, trading on tired old clichés and the breach of the body part to make his merriment.
It's a real shame Hill is considered such a second-class concept in sketch comedy. Granted, most of his gags have hairs on them older than your grandmother's wattle, and he never met a pair of breasts he couldn't ogle like an orphan on wet-nurse day, but one does not achieve international stardom on the basis of talentlessness—unless, of course, one has recently won American Idol (*rimshot*). Taking a look at the new box set from A&E entitled Benny Hill, Complete and Unadulterated: The Naughty Early Years, Set One, one gathers a new appreciation of Hill's many gifts. Not only was he an incredibly engaging performer, but he was also an ingenious writer, an excellent song stylist, a fabulously skilled physical performer, and capable of occasional leaps into brilliance. Oh yeah, and he's funny, too.
Facts of the Case
In 1969, Benny Hill was lured away from the BBC to become a featured attraction on fledgling Thames Television. This box set from A&E represents the first two and one-half seasons of the Thames version of The Benny Hill Show. Season One is represented by Shows One through Four, and Season Two contains Shows Five through Nine. For some odd reason we are treated to only Shows Ten and Eleven from Season Three (with Twelve and Thirteen left in the ether, somewhere). While it is impossible to discuss everything in each show, here is a rundown of the content from the DVD case covers:
Disc One: Season One
• Episode One
• Episode Two
• Episode Three
• Episode Four
Disc Two: Season Two
• Episode Five
• Episode Six
• Episode Seven
• Episode Eight
Disc Three: Seasons Two and Three
• Episode Nine
• Episode Ten
• Episode Eleven
There is a lot more to Benny Hill and his reign as Britain's biggest comic guilty pleasure than most Americans even begin to know. Before we ever saw a single syndicated second of this burlesque bozo with the face of a demonic cherub (to steal a line from Michael Caine), he had been a staple on the BBC for nearly 20 years (from 1950 to 1969) before jumping ship and becoming the regal centerpiece of upstart Thames Television's light entertainment division. After almost two decades as the UK's most popular comedian—and its most controversial—Hill was summarily dismissed from Thames without so much as a tribute. But by this time, countless reruns of his truncated series (down to 30 minutes from its normal 50-plus) had made him a worldwide phenomenon and humor icon to both young and old.
Watching the 11 shows presented on this DVD box set from A&E, one is instantly struck by two things. First, The Benny Hill Show actually contains about as much music and music-inspired comedy as it does straight sketch or spoof work. Secondly, the well-known "bawdy" humor is placed alongside a lot of gentle lampooning, dead-on parodies, odd impersonations, and even some political satire (who would have known?). Indeed, watching the nearly 10 hours of content here shows you that Hill was more than just a comedian with a thing for the ladies. While far from a thinking man's humorist, he was definitely a drinking man's comic.
Yes, Hill loved the ladies and enjoyed making them the center of his snickering schoolboy shenanigans. But arguments that he was some sort of mean-spirited chauvinistic clown who forced women to be the degraded brunt of his jokes are just outright ridiculous. Okay, so objectifying a gal does smack of a pre-Summer of Love simplicity that our society has long since grown out of, but to blame any social setbacks on a little slap-and-tickle or a dirty limerick is dumb. Hill's humor stems from the reaction to, not the act against, the individual involved. We don't giggle when a girl loses her top—what's funny is the befuddled look on the voyeur's face when he sees something he's only imagined he'd ever experience. Sure, there are skits where Hill comes across as a cad mixed with a masher, trying every trick in the book to get close to an unlucky lady. And it's hard to ignore the constant reference that objects of his desire are purely categorized into the sexual department. But Benny is always the punch line here. He never lets the prurient turn unseemly, and everything has an aura of innocent naïveté. While some will shout that he fails to take seriously any of the issues between men and women, one also needs to remember that this is, first and foremost, a comedy show. Looking for moral philosophizing or ethical idealism in the realm of the fart joke is as foolish as the complained-about material. Like a wise man once said, this is humor, so have a sense of it.
The delights to be discovered in this DVD are far too many to specifically delineate. But after watching all 11 episodes in a row, one begins to see the pattern in Hill's programming. His shows are a combination of variety and sketches, of both serious and comical performers. There is always a big production number (usually featuring Hill and the Ladybirds) and a few other minor musical moments (referred to as Benny's Ballads). Comedy pieces run the gamut from small, incidental elements (called blackouts in the vernacular, but referred to here as "Benny's Quickies") to full-blown narratives (usually a parody or takeoff on some cultural reference point, such as films or TV shows). Hill does impersonations, plays in drag, and generally uses every bit of ammunition in the arsenal of witty anarchy to sell his sentiments.
Since Hill himself scripts every single word of an episode—from one-liners and comic Q&A to bawdy, brash song lyrics—there is an intense consistency of tone that really makes the series stand out over crafted-by-committee offerings. One cannot deny that The Benny Hill Show is a direct reflection of the creator's own proclivities and concept of comedy. This may be the reason why some have difficulty with his act. If you are not tuned in to what Hill thinks is witty—or at least willing to meet him halfway—you'll look upon his laughable lewdness with a rather jaundiced eye. But Hill is harmless, and his show—especially in this initial Thames version—is a souvenir from a time when TV farce was neither blue, nor screwed, nor tattooed. It was just funny.
Looking over the elements involved in a typical Benny Hill show, there are certain standouts among the divergent components. Dealing with them individually, one can get a better idea of the hierarchy to humor in which Hill works.
• Benny's Quickies
• Benny's Bloopers
• The Fred Scuttle Interviews
• Character-Driven Diversions
• Up-Tempo Song Parodies and Bawdy Ballads
• Poetry Corner
• Head-Scratching Musical Interlude
• Short Form Sketch Pieces
• Long Form Sketch Pieces
If there is one shortcoming to this delightfully addictive box set, it's the relatively small amount of programming offered. Indeed, the catalog of Hill's hilarity spans decades worth of shows, so to only offer 11 episodes here (and a strange, season-breaking set at that) seems a little skimpy. The other odd thing is that A&E advertises this set as "naughty." Frankly, Benny Hill is anything but. In light of Jackass, Girls Behaving Badly, and numerous other reality-based excursions into the ribald, ridiculous, and randy, Benny's show is a little like a kid saying "ca-ca" over and over again. There is no nudity, zero foul language, only the slightest hint of sexual innuendo, and, compared to the clothing currently popular in this wildly craven culture, the babes in even the bawdiest Benny balderdash are like cloistered nuns. So how this series defines "wicked" is anyone's conjecture. Impish and mischievous? Absolutely. But by today's standards, the once-salacious comic is just a tired old jokester. Anyone offended by his antics in this modern maze of extreme amusements needs a funny bone transplant, pronto.
The Benny Hill Show is an icon to a long ago ideal of delight and this DVD offering is just enough to wet your weird whistle for more—more fast-motion chases; more sickly old men getting their heads slapped; more buxom babes getting their "talents" appreciated; and more of the near-timeless treasure that is the life and laughter created by one Benny Hill.
A&E's presentation of Benny Hill, Complete and Unadulterated: The Naughty Early Years, Set One looks spectacular. Each 1.33:1 full screen episode crackles with absolutely brilliant color, excellent depth, shimmering warmth and amazing clarity. You can literally see the intricate patterns in Hill's wild outfits and marvel at the post-psychedelic set designs. There is also an interesting development with this set, one that reflects a work stoppage by British technicians during the course of the show's first few seasons. As a result three episodes here are presented in black and white (which, strangely, diminishes some of their fun). These monochrome offerings are considered very rare, since they were never rebroadcast (Hill would later recreate most of this material in color). Still, the vast majority of this presentation looks pristine. A&E should be commended for such great work. Sonically, things are about the same. The Dolby Digital Stereo reconfiguration of the old Mono tracks doesn't do a lot to challenge the channels, but there is a tad more fullness to the overall sound than you may have experienced in previous Benny Hill reruns. The songs, especially, resonate with more presence than the auditory attributes of the syndicated shows.
Unlike other box sets of British television shows offered by the company, Benny Hill, Complete and Unadulterated: The Naughty Early Years, Set One has a wonderful added feature that, once again, requires some praise on the part of A&E. Offered by the BBC (and occasionally shown on BBC America), Benny Hill: The World's Favorite Clown is a one-hour documentary chronicling the career and the craft of Benny's comedy. Getting into details regarding his dismissal from Thames, the toll taken by the criticism—in the mid '80s—of Hill's politically incorrect take on the world, and featuring interviews with several of the stand-out performers from his show, this is a very touching and telling showcase. While it would have been nice to have a little more info on poor old Jackie Wright (the sound effect of Hill slapping this classic second banana's head is enough to send many into fits of hysterics—this critic included) or Hill's motion picture work (his costar from The Italian Job (1969), Michael Caine, has nothing but praise for Benny), this is still a sensational career retrospective. Aside from an insert with a broad overview of the show, there is also a trivia quiz (presented, as are all the extras, on Disc Three) that includes several straightforward, and some very quirky, questions about Hill and the series. Answers receive a film clip congratulations or appropriate negative response, with a final score awarded at the end.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The one minor quibble that's going to be discussed here is simple, to be addressed when—or even if—the next DVD box set of The Benny Hill Show is made available. Hill is by far the only recognizable star of this set, yet each show has dozens of regulars and guest stars. A comprehensive biography or cast/crew list would be nice, if only to give some of the players much deserved recognition. DVD should be more than just a preservation instrument—it should also be a teaching tool. Learning who some of the straight men (and game women) were, as well as a few key names behind the scenes, would go a long way to filling in the gaps in the saga of Benny Hill. These people helped make Hill. A little acknowledgment only seems fair.
Now, more than ever, we need a Benny Hill revival. Comedy is at a crossroads, a crackpot conundrum where the insult stakes of a Don Rickles are being channeled into the self-serving irony of Generation XYZ until it all comes out bitter and bilious. We are currently supposed to find the heightening of flaws and the systematic shaming of any and all people as the funniest thing since Gabby Hayes. Surprisingly, for all his sex farce foolishness and ridiculous ribaldry, Benny Hill knew what was funny.
Sure, he may not have the genius surrealism of a Monty Python (nothing can compare to what is perhaps the greatest comedy troupe of all time), nor is he tied into the pop culture current like an SCTV or a Saturday Night Live. Long after people stop finding the madcap mediocrity of MADtv as funny as a rubber crutch, and send most stand-ups packing off to play cruise ships and retirement homes, Benny will still be around to teach us the basics. He will remind us of how much humor there is in a pair of hooters. He will help us recall that nothing is more hilarious than a shot to the nutsack. His cockeyed, comic leer will keep us from taking any situation—from a kick in the ass to a splash of seltzer—too seriously. And he will aid us in our own mastery of the double entendre, the triple take and the befuddled glare.
If he were writing the song today, Paul Simon may very well place this cheeky chap in the stead of Joe DiMaggio as the object of our nation's lonely eyes. Or maybe not. But one thing's for sure: Benny Hill has been given a bum rap in the realm of classic comedy. He definitely belongs in the pantheon, if not somewhere near the top. Benny Hill, Complete and Unadulterated: The Naughty Early Years, Set One is a marvelous start to what is hopefully a long line of DVD packages.
Though it has a couple of negligible issues, Benny Hill, Complete and Unadulterated: The Naughty Early Years, Set One is acquitted of all charges and is released on its own recognizance. But let it be known if we see it hanging around the park again, peeking up the skirts of old ladies, the Court will have to throw the book at the bugger.
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Scales of Justice
• Documentary: Benny Hill: The World's Favorite Clown
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