Alfred Hawthorne Hill, Jr. was born in Southampton. After leaving school, Hill worked at Woolworth's, as a milkman, a bridge operator, a driver and a drummer before becoming assistant stage manager with a touring review. He was called up in 1942 and trained as a mechanic, but transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment division before the end of the war.
Inspired by the "star comedians" of British music hall shows, Hill set out to make his mark in show business. For the stage, he changed his first name to 'Benny', in homage to his favorite comedian, Jack Benny.
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 was in 1950. In addition, he attempted 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 favorite, Fred Scuttle.
Films and recordings
Benny Hill's film credits include 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). Hill's audio recordings include Gather in the Mushrooms, (1961), Pepys' Diary, (1961), Transistor Radio (1961), Harvest of Love (1963), and Ernie (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.
The Benny Hill Show
Hill had struggled on stage and had uneven success in radio. But in television he found a form that played to his strengths, allowing him a format that included live comedy and filmed segments, with him at the focus of almost every segment. It was to prove one of the great success stories of television comedy, keeping Hill a star for nearly four decades, generating impressive revenues for Thames TV, and remaining a cult series in much of the world long after Hill's death.
The show had a music hall-derived format and its humour relied on slapstick, innuendo and parody. Recurring players on his show during the BBC years included Patricia Hayes, Jeremy Hawk, Peter Vernon, Ronnie Brody, and his co-writer from the early 1950s to early 1960s, Dave Freeman. Short, bald Jackie Wright was a frequent supporting player, who in many sketches had to put up with Hill tapping him on the head.
Hill remained mostly with the BBC through to 1968, except for a few sojourns 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, with an erratic schedule of one-hour specials. The series showcased Hill's talents as an imaginative writer, comic performer and impressionist. He may have bought scripts from various comedy writers but, if so, they never received an onscreen credit (there is evidence that he bought a script from one of his regular cast members in 1976, Cherri Gilham, whom he wrote to from Spain and told her he was using her "Fat Lady idea on the show" in January 1977.)
The most common running gag in Benny Hill's shows was the closing sequence, The "run-off", which was literally a running gag in that it featured various members of the cast chasing Hill as part of the chase, along with other stock comedy characters, such as policemen, vicars, old ladies, and so on. This was commonly filmed using 'under-cranking' camera techniques, and included other comic devices such as characters running off one side of the screen and reappearing running on from the other. The tune used in all the chases, Boots Randolph's "Yakety Sax", is so strongly associated to the show that it is commonly referred to as "The Benny Hill Theme". It has been used as a form of parody in many ways by television shows and a small number of films. The Wachowskis used the same style (and musical theme) in a scene in the film V for Vendetta (2006). It also appears in the cult film The Gods Must Be Crazy.
From the start of the 1980s the show featured a troupe of attractive young women, known collectively as 'Hill's Angels'. They would appear either on their own in a dance sequence, or in character as foils against Hill. Sue Upton was one of the longest serving members of the Angels.
The alternative comedian Ben Elton made a headline-grabbing allegation, both on the TV show Saturday Live and in the pages of Q magazine (in its January 1987 issue), that The Benny Hill Show was single-handedly responsible for the incidences of rape in England during the period in question, and also suggested the programme incited other acts of violence against women. But a writer in The Independent newspaper opined that Elton's assault was "like watching an elderly uncle being kicked to death by young thugs". Elton later claimed his comment was taken out of context, and he appeared in a parody for Harry Enfield and Chums, Benny Elton, where Elton ends up being chased by angry women, accompanied by the "Yakety Sax" theme, after trying to force them to be more feminist rather than letting them make their own decisions.
In response to the accusations of sexism, defenders of Hill have said the show used traditional comic stereotypes to reflect universal human truths in a way that was not malicious and fundamentally harmless. Hill's friend and producer Dennis Kirkland said it was the women who chased Hill in anger for undressing them, all of which was done accidentally by some ridiculous means. An article on 27 May 2006 in The Independent quoted Hill and Kirkland as saying they believed this misrepresentation demonstrated critics could not have watched his programmes.
In an episode about Hill transmitted as part of the documentary series Living Famously, 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 programme was costing a vast amount of money, and he (Hill) was looking a little tired."
The loss of his show totally devastated Hill (or, as one former supporting player put it, "He started to die from there"), and what followed was a self-inflicted decline in his health. In 1990 a new show was produced complete with Hill and his usual team, called Benny Hill's World Tour: New York!.
In February 1992, Thames Television, which received a steady stream of requests from viewers for The Benny Hill Show repeats, finally gave in 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.
Charlie Chaplin was a fan of Hill's work: Hill had discovered that Chaplin, his childhood idol, was a fan when he was invited to Chaplin's home in Switzerland by Chaplin's family and discovered that Chaplin had a collection of Hill's work on video. Hill and Dennis Kirkland were the first outside the family to be invited into Chaplin's private study. Hill was awarded the Charlie Chaplin International Award for Comedy at the 1991 Festival of Comedy in Vevey, Switzerland.
Johnny Carson and side-kick Ed McMahon were both fans of Benny Hill and tried several times to get him to come to Los Angeles and be a guest on Carson's The Tonight Show. Hill always declined, citing not wanting to travel the great distance to California.
Radio and TV show host Adam Carolla claimed that he was a fan of Benny Hill and that he considered Hill "as American as the Beatles." Indeed, during an episode of The Man Show, Carolla performed in what was billed as a tribute to "our favourite Englishman, Sir Benny Hill" in a more risqué takeoff of the sketches that Hill popularised. (Note: Hill was never knighted) Carolla played a rude and lecherous waiter; a role Hill essayed numerous times in his shows—and the sketch featured many of the staples of Hill's shows, including a Jackie Wright-esque bald man, as well as the usual scantily-clad women.
Michael Jackson was a Benny Hill fan: "I just love your Benny Hill!" the young Jackson told a bemused English music-press critic during a 1970s tour. "He's so funny!". During Benny Hill's decline in his health he was visited by Jackson, who was in the UK at the time.
In Benny Hill: The World's Favourite Clown, filmed shortly before his death, celebrities such as Burt Reynolds, Michael Caine, John Mortimer, Mickey Rooney and Walter Cronkite, among others, expressed their appreciation of and admiration for Hill and his humour – and in Reynolds' case, the appreciation extended to the Hill's Angels as well. More surprisingly, perhaps, the novelist Anthony Burgess made no secret of his admiration for Hill. Burgess, whose novels were often comic, relished language, wordplay and dialect, admired the verbal and comedic skill that underlay Hill's success. Reviewing a biography of Hill, Saucy Boy, in the Guardian in 1990, Burgess described Hill as "a comic genius steeped in the British music hall tradition" and "one of the great artists of our age". A meeting between the two men was described in a newspaper article by Burgess and recalled in the Telegraph newspaper by the satirist Craig Brown.
In 2006, broadcaster and critic Garry Bushell launched a campaign to erect a statue of Hill in Southampton, with the support of Barbara Windsor, Brian Conley and other British comedy favourites. Those taking part in the first fundraising concert included Neville Staple, Right Said Fred and Rick Wakeman.
In a June 2011 interview in The Observer, the American rapper Snoop Dogg declared himself to be a fan of Benny Hill.
In a 2011 interview British actor and director Mark Noyce stated that Benny Hill was his all-time favorite comedian. He was quoted as saying "he was way ahead of his time and an absolute master of his art. I would have loved the opportunity to have met him and I hope he will be remembered as the genius I believe he was."
Hill's health declined in the late 1980s, 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.
Hill was buried at Hollybrook Cemetery near his birthplace in Southampton on 26 April 1992. In October 1992, following rumors that he was buried with large amounts of gold jewellery, an attempt was made by thieves to exhume his body. When authorities looked into his open grave the following morning "The vandals had dug down, exposing his coffin ... Within two hours of the discovery, cemetery staff had refilled the grave and covered it with a half-ton concrete slab."
Although still shown worldwide, The Benny Hill Show has not been shown on UK terrestrial, networked television since a tribute season on Channel 4 in 1992, and not on satellite or cable since a run on the now defunct channel Granada Plus – now ITV3 – in 1999. To quote his biographer Mark Lewisohn, "In Britain, Benny Hill is taboo". In the United States the show has recently been aired on the BBC America cable channel and over Tribune Broadcasting's Antenna TV digital subchannel network. An Australian channel, Seven Network, showed some episodes as part of a Great Comedy Classics slot. On the new Australian channel 7TWO, The Benny Hill Show is shown frequently. In Italy, Sky television broadcasts it quite regularly on Comedy Channel. And in Finland the channel MTV3 MAX presents The Benny Hill Show every weekend. Canada's VisionTV airs episodes of the show weekly.
In 1998 Channel 4 featured Hill in one of its Heroes of Comedy programmes.
On 28 December 2006, Channel 4 broadcast the documentary Is Benny Hill Still Funny?. The programme featured an audience that comprised a cross-section of young adults who had little or no knowledge of Hill, to discover whether Hill's comedy was valid to a generation that enjoyed the likes of Little Britain, The Catherine Tate Show and Borat. The participants were asked to watch a 30-minute compilation that included examples of Hill's humor from both his BBC and ITV shows. The responses and results demonstrated that none of the sample of viewers took offence at any of the sketches shown. Hill's silent "Wishing Well" sketch was discovered to be the most popular. The alternative comedian Ben Elton, who had criticized Hill for sexism, was interviewed in the programme. Elton said he still had reservations about certain aspects of Hill's sketches, but claimed to be an admirer of Hill's talent and abilities as a comic performer.