Benny Hill, 1924 – 1992
It’s evidence of changing attitudes, that this once giant of TV comedy is largely forgotten about apart from his legion of fans. Benny Hill’s shows ran for almost 40 years on TV, at their prime they were must see TV. However as attitudes changed and the 1990’s rolled in, Hill’s seaside postcard style of humour fell out of popularity both with viewers and the powers that be at ITV and his shows were cancelled. Soon after, in ailing health, Benny Hill died alone in 1992. It’s sad that in today’s world of multi channel TV his shows never get a repeat airing, apart from the very occasional show on ITV3.
Born Alfred Hawthorne Hill, on 21st January 1924, in Southampton.
On leaving school, Hill had a number of jobs including working at Woolworth’s, a milkman, a bridge operator, a driver and a drummer.
He would finally start his entertainment industry career by becoming assistant stage manager with a touring review.
The army beckoned when, in 1942, he was called up and trained as a mechanic, but transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment division before the end of the war.
Alfred Hill was inspired by the “star comedians” of British music hall shows, and so set out to make his mark in show business. For the stage, he changed his first name to ‘Benny’, in homage to his favourite comedian, Jack Benny.
Over the course of his career Hill had many celebrity fans including Michael Jackson, Charlie Chaplin, Burt Reynolds to name but a few.
Hill never married or sort the lifestyle his earnings could afford him, choosing instead to remain in a council flat. By the late 1980’s Benny Hill’s health was in decline and after suffering a mild heart attack on 24 February 1992, doctors told him he needed to lose weight and recommended a heart bypass. He declined, and a week later was found to have kidney failure.
Hill died at the age of 68 on 20 April 1992. On 22 April, after several days of unanswered telephone calls, his producer, Dennis Kirkland, climbed a ladder to the balcony of Hill’s 3rd floor flat and upon seeing the body through a window had the neighbours call the police. The police broke into the flat and found Hill, dead, sitting in his armchair in front of the television. Hill’s cause of death was recorded as coronary thrombosis
Towards the end of his army career we saw that Hill was part of Combined Services Entertainment division. Between the end of the Second World War and the dawn of the popularity of television with the British public, Hill worked as a radio performer.
His first appearance on television came in 1950. There was also a sitcom anthology, Benny Hill, which ran from 1962 to 1963, in which he played a different character in each episode. In 1964, he played Nick Bottom in an all-star TV film production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He also had a radio programme lasting for three series called Benny Hill Time, on BBC Radio’s Light Programme from 1964 to 1966. It was a topical show, like a March 1964 episode which featured James Pond, 0017, in “From Moscow with Love” and his version of “The Beatles”. He played a number of characters in the series, like Harry Hill, and favourite, Fred Scuttle.
In addition to all of this there were audio recordings including: Gather in the Mushrooms, (1961), Pepys’ Diary (song), (1961), Transistor Radio (1961), Harvest of Love (1963), and Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West) (1971). He also appeared in the 1986 video of the song Anything She Does by the band Genesis. Hill’s song, Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West), on the Best of Benny Hill album, was the UK Singles Chart Christmas number one single in 1971.
Many people forget that Benny Hill also had in parts in nine films including: Who Done It? (1956); Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965); Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), in which he played the relatively straight role of the Toymaker; The Italian Job (1969); and, finally, a clip-show film spin-off of his early Thames TV shows (1969–73), called The Best of Benny Hill (1974).
However as we said at the top of the post it will always be for The Benny Hill Show that he is best remembered.
Hill started The Benny Hill Show way back in 1955 on the BBC, where it largely remained until 1968, except for a few quick flirts with ITV station ATV between 1957 and 1960 and again in 1967.
In 1969, his show moved from the BBC to Thames Television, where it remained until cancellation in 1989. It is reputed that the late John Howard Davies, the Head of Light Entertainment at Thames Television who had cancelled the show, stated there were three reasons why he did so: “The audiences were going down, the program was costing a fortune to make, and he (Hill) was looking a little tired”
Three years after it’s cancellation Thames Television gave in to pressure from fans of the show and put together a number of re-edited shows. Hill died on 20 April 1992, the same day that a new contract arrived in the post from Central Independent Television, for which he was to have made a series of specials. Hill turned down competing offers from Carlton and Thames.