Rise and fall of a comedy king
11 Feb 2008 1 comment. tbs.pm/2182
“In his home country at least, in these supposedly enlightened and broadminded times, Benny Hill is taboo.” – Mark Lewisohn, Benny Hill’s biographer, writing in 2002.
Benny Hill in the seventies and first half of the eighties was Britain’s most successful television comedian, his specials for Thames attracting up to 20 million viewers and often knocking Coronation Street off the top of the ratings. In America he was said to be more famous than the Queen. His familiar mix of bawdy seaside postcard humour, pretty girls in scanty clothing, comedy songs (he also had a number one hit in 1971 with a comedy song ” Ernie”), send-ups of popular television shows and commercials, the chase scene at the end of each show, and characters such as the incompetent Fred Scuttle was a huge success for ITV, which was notoriously short of comic talent and Hill was even more important to them after Morecambe and Wise’s defection from the BBC was seen to fail and Kenny Everett transferred to the BBC in 1981.
Hill at the start of the eighties was ITV’s most successful comedian, but by the end of the decade he had been finished by Thames and the consensus in the entertainment industry was that his humour was sexist, outdated and unfunny even if his last shows were still attracting 12 million viewers. So how did Britain’s most successful comedy star – and other similar old school comedians – fall by the wayside and become ridiculed as the eighties progressed?
Anyone tuning into a comedy show thirty years ago would find a hugely different style of humour to that on offer today, where racist and sexist references are largely avoided, with the exception of Little Britain, and the emphasis is more on pop culture (the Mighty Boosh, Russell Brand) and observational comedy (Jack Dee being the best known exponent of this), although the trend to observational comedy was already established in the seventies with Billy Connolly and Jasper Carrott developing large followings.
Apart from Benny Hill, a typical television comedian would crack jokes at the expense of minorities and women to huge applause, the most (in)famous example of this would be the late Bernard Manning, whose jokes were mostly on the lines of, “there was this Irishman, a Paki and a queer…”. Television comedy aimed at a mainstream audience was, by today’s standards, totally politically incorrect and in some cases actually offensive. Shows with black characters such as the notorious Love Thy Neighbour and Rising Damp had the characters pilloried and insulted at every opportunity, the LWT sitcom Mind Your Language about an English school for foreigners played on every stereotype available, and Irish characters such as the builder O Reilly in Fawlty Towers were portrayed as stupid, drunk and lazy.
Gays, when not being the butt of jokes on The Comedians, were usually portrayed as mincing nancy boys as in Are You Being Served and encouraged to camp up every aspect of their behaviour. Young women largely without exception were always portrayed as pretty, sexually available and encouraged to wear revealing clothing and behave like bimbos . Although it must be said much seventies humour is far more humorous than that of today, and I have often found political correctness to be a form of censorship and prudery, certainly a show like Mind Your Language would never be shown now.
Benny Hill’s first problems occurred not from the left-wing of the comedy business, which would destroy him in the eighties but which was an underground cult in the seventies, but from traditional right-wing moralists who disliked the tone of his show. Although Hill’s BBC shows in the sixties escaped from the wrath of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, as these were far less bawdy than his Thames shows, in February 1970 Mary Whitehouse complained about a sketch where a vicar appeared with his fly undone, stating the sketch was done “in very poor taste”. T
he following year the conservative Christian Festival of Light complained about Hill to the IBA and bemoaned, “cheap laughs from obscene puns, suggestive double entendre, perversion or promiscuity have usually been the province of the schoolboy lavatory wall humour. We see no reason why Mr Hill should project this nauseating stuff into the nation’s living rooms.” However, the IBA and Thames were quick to retaliate by saying Hill’s shows attracted 20 million viewers and were popular with all age groups: his humour was of the traditional British seaside postcard variety. Also the criticisms from Whitehouse and the Festival of Light were tame compared with the furore, when Whitehouse and alternative comedians formed an unlikely alliance against Hill, after 1978 when The Benny Hill Show became more adult in its content.
Although the material on The Benny Hill Show throughout the seventies had a naughty, mildly titillating edge to it, it was no worse than on any other peak time comedy shows, but from 1979 onwards his humour developed a new direction which would lead to his downfall.
After Hill, Thames second most successful comedian was Kenny Everett, whose use of dancers in provocative clothing and poses, near the bone humour and rapid fire sketches were attracting 14 million viewers on Monday nights and were giving the conservative and sterile world of ITV comedy a much needed credibility boost, just as punk rock at the same time was causing a shake up in the music industry. Hill appealed to more viewers than Everett, particularly older traditional ITV viewers, but mediocre ratings for a Boxing Day special in 1978 persuaded Hill and his new producer Dennis Kirkland, who had seen Everett’s television career take off and had worked with Ken Dodd and Eric Sykes previously, that an approach similar to that used by Everett was needed to keep Hill at the top of the comedy tree. Thames was also desperate to retain Hill’s popularity as the transfer of Morecambe and Wise to the station had been seen as less than successful and their career was to decline in the early eighties.
The new-look Benny Hill Show was unveiled on April 26th 1979 to an audience of over 20 million and this set the tone for his shows for the next six years. A send-up of the Kenny Everett Video Show, with Hill’s straight man Henry McGee dressed up as Everett, and dancers imitating Hot Gossip under the name of Hot Gossamer, was far nearer the bone than previous shows and once again led Mary Whitehouse to go on the offensive, citing a sequence where a dancer licked a lollipop as being obscene. However, this was tame as the shows were to become far more “adult” in content in the eighties, while the more adult nature of Hill’s material in the early eighties saw his comic strip being dropped from Look In magazine.
As the eighties began, criticism of Hill soon spread beyond Whitehouse and more sensitive viewers who found Hill to be too “blue”. In particular, the use of a new dance troupe based on Hot Gossip caused uproar in certain circles. A very controversial special shown on January 7th 1981 showed two dancers in slow motion vaulting over a vaulting horse, with the camera focusing very closely on the dancer’s bodies, and the rest of the show was laden with coarse humour. This show led thirty women from Sheffield to send in a petition to Thames slamming the “lewd, rude and downright disgusting dancing and the way it had been shot with cameras zooming up for saucy close ups. We think there is a limit to how far this show should degrade women.” However, Thames was to retort by saying the show was still extremely popular and predictably The Sun, which was to become Hill’s biggest ally in the eighties and whose male readers were often big fans of the show, printed a defence of Hill against prudes and “loony lefty feminists” by saying he was a ” saucy comedian” and his shows always topped the ratings, so most viewers didn’t mind.
Hill, along with many other of the old guard of comedy, was to become a hate figure for the emerging alternative comedy scene. Starting off in the punk era, with many of its entertainers being former punk rockers and/or middle class university graduates, the new wave of comedians was determined to replace the perceived sexism, racism, homophobia and non-political nature of the old generation of comedy – most alternative comedians were stridently left wing – with a new politically aware style of observational comedy.
Its performers and audiences, who were mostly from the same backgrounds as the comedians, were desperate to avoid using Bernard Manning or Benny Hill style material that was still prevalent on television, although it must be said frank references to sex, especially by feminist comediennes such as French and Saunders, were often included in the comedian’s act and the language used was far stronger than that in the mainstream.
Alternative comedy first made its appearance in a little-watched late night BBC1 comedy show, Boom, Boom, Out Go the Lights, which featured performances from the Comedy Store, the home of alternative comedy in the early eighties, but the growing influence of the movement saw regular slots for the new wave being created on BBC2 .
In 1982 the alternative movement was to score its first big success with its first alternative sitcom, The Young Ones, penned by Ben Elton, who was to later demonise Benny Hill, and featuring leading lights of alternative comedy Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer as a group of anti- social college students constantly arguing in a decrepit terraced house, which was completely the opposite of the mostly middle class and safe, if often quite amusing, sitcoms offered on the two main channels. Viewing figures of 8 million were excellent for BBC2 and the show was to make major stars of its performers.
It also made Ben Elton into a major force as a scriptwriter and as a stand-up comedian, whose talents were soon to be found on BBC1, where he alternated between stand up and as a successful scriptwriter on Blackadder. A second series of The Young Ones in 1984 was even more successful: the alternative comedy scene had arrived in the mainstream, although there was still considerable scope for traditional comedians in peak time slots and the two co-existed uneasily in the mid eighties.
Traditional comedy also suffered three massive blows in 1984. Eric Morecambe died, which meant the end for Morecambe and Wise (though their later shows had become poor and it is debatable whether they would have been in a peak time slot on ITV for much longer); Tommy Cooper died on stage during a comeback appearance; and Dick Emery passed away a few weeks later.
As for Benny Hill, who was ITV’s most popular solo comedian, the show continued unabated with its lewd references, provocative dancing and lingerie-clad women, and Thames still defended the show on ratings grounds. However, the knives were out against Hill, even though Dennis Kirkland and Hill were keen to point out that men always came out worse in many sketches and the women were portrayed as stronger figures.
By the mid eighties, even though the dance routines had been toned down, Benny Hill was now regarded as one of the most loathed comedians in the country among his detractors. Also ratings were starting to fall in Hill’s last years on television, which added to his opponents’ glee, but Thames continued to persevere with Hill’s shows, which earned £ 20 million a year in export sales, as the end of Morecambe and Wise had left them with little in the way of popular comedy, ITV companies still wary of hiring alternative comedians as this would alienate their traditional audience.
A typical roster of ITV comedians in 1985 was made up of Hill, Cannon and Ball, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Cricket, The Grumbleweeds and Roy Walker – all traditional acts who were rooted in the past. Meanwhile Channel 4 and, to a lesser extent the BBC, were keen to use the new wave of comedians and 4 in particular became the unofficial home of alternative comedy on Saturday nights; entertainers that ITV employed were not welcome.
However, even ITV knew it had to adopt the new wave of comedy and appeal to a more educated viewer, and in April 1984 launched the highly successful Spitting Image satire series, where grotesque puppets of politicians and celebrities voiced by impersonators became a massive success.
Hill’s critics became even more vociferous as the eighties continued. The controversial television critic Nina Myskow, who had a reputation for scathing reviews and rubbished in very harsh terms the ailing soap Crossroads in her News of the World column, knowing that the soap was still popular with the tabloid’s readers and would create a hostile reaction, also attacked another News of the World favourite, Benny Hill ,when she referred to Hill’s show as “worse than any nightmare, the same tacky, tedious trash except worse and older. You can only get away with it if you don’t look like the sort of rancid creep who terrorises women on trains.” The TUC women’s committee also called for the show to be banned and Woman’s Weekly voted the show their most disliked programme of 1986.
The simmering conflict between traditional and alternative comedy came to a head when Ben Elton, often seen as the leader of the movement, attacked Hill in an interview with Q magazine in January 1987. Elton raged against Hill: “I believe the non-use of stereotypes is noticeable in my act. I mean you have in the late 80s Benny Hill chasing half naked women around a park when we know in Britain women can’t even walk safe in a park anymore. And while Benny Hill is chasing naked women around a park, I could say f!”£ a thousand times on the telly and it wouldn’t be nearly as offensive as that.”
Predictably The Sun, whose readers made up a large part of Hill’s audience and who were probably not fans of Elton’s work, laid in to Elton, although it must be said his comments were way over the top and he had more or less labelled the modest Hill, who was actually very shy towards women, as a rapist. The battle between fans of Hill, mostly tabloid reading and working or lower middle class and either traditional Labour or working class Tories; and the middle class, left wing Guardian reading fans of Elton and alternative comedy was shown in The Sun‘s response to Elton’s remarks on their comedy hero, who was always keen to say he read the paper.
The Sun, which generally despised middle class left-wingers as condescending and jumped up, commented on Elton’s well off background (Hill also came from a middle class background but his act appealed far more to Sun readers), “Now Benny had a rival, a sneering little prig / In shiny suit from public school, who liked to have a dig” in a poem written by Richard Littlejohn set to the tune of Ernie. An editorial referred to Elton as a “prattling prig” with a following that was a tenth the size of Hill’s, which was not strictly true as Elton was the scriptwriter for Blackadder, which was attracting 15 million viewers, and was seen as relatively mainstream, but presumably The Sun was referring to Elton’s highly politicised stage act which was less popular than Hill’s.
However, for all Hill was still attracting decent ratings for his show and he had tried to make it appeal more to a family audience again, the end was coming to his career in television, which stretched back to the forties. In 1987 Thames decided not to commission any specials from him, although Television and Radio, which was published that year, has a large photograph of Hill on its Thames pages, where he is still being hailed as the station’s main celebrity.
Also Hill’s shows were costing £ 450,000 each and Hill’s demands for studio time and full OB units were annoying Thames, especially as he was no longer a ratings topper. 1987 saw a further weakening of the comedic old guard when The Two Ronnies announced their retirement and Cannon and Ball decided to quit after their act started to go downhill. There was also an unofficial ban placed on Bernard Manning around this time and other comedians made popular by The Comedians show found their work drying up. Benny Hill must have seen the writing on the wall as most of his contemporaries were either dead, retiring or not having their contracts renewed.
Apart from the cost of his shows and lower ratings, Hill could have been part of the wider scheme at ITV to move upmarket after 1985, when BBC1 began to dominate the ratings. Aware that the station was starting to fall behind, and needed to attract more affluent and better educated viewers, ITV had decided to cull certain shows that had a downmarket image and were unattractive to advertisers.
World of Sport was first to go and this was joined by Crossroads, Game for A Laugh, Cannon and Ball, old school variety shows and sports such as darts and wrestling. ITV even had a stab at risque comedy when it introduced the feminist comedy Girls on Top starring French and Saunders, which was none too successful, however, and then scored a bigger and longer running success with Rik Mayall playing an obnoxious, devious Conservative MP in The New Statesman. Alternative comedians, albeit now closer to the mainstream, Hale and Pace were offered a show after a stint on Saturday Night Live on Channel 4.
To Benny Hill, with all the changes around him and his show looking anachronistic and the constant criticism he faced, it looked like his style of comedy would be next for the axe. Thames head of light entertainment, John Howard-Davies, commented when the decision was made to end Hill’s contract, “You have to get the right demographic profile to satisfy the advertisers, the right cost per unit, that’s what ITV is about.” Aware that it was franchise renewal time in 1991, and Thames was seen as a more upmarket ITV contractor serving some of the most affluent viewers in Britain, the Benny Hill Show, which was outdated (if still quite funny in places as Benny had gone back to his more traditional style of humour), was not going to form part of Thames portfolio when renewal time came. However, Hill after he was sacked must have had the last laugh in his afterlife as Thames lost the London franchise to Carlton, who proceeded to move so far downmarket, and drag the rest of ITV down with them, that London viewers must have regarded the later Benny Hill Shows as high art.
The axe finally fell on Benny Hill’s forty year television career on May Day in 1989, when what was to be his his last show was aired. Four weeks later Hill and Kirkland were called into the offices of Thames Television to be told that the show was to be axed. Hill’s biographer Mark Lewisohn refers to Hill’s sacking as “the last guttering flame of an extinct genre”, but Hill’s allies at The Sun were more forthright, blaming “po-faced left wingers and gutless Thames TV bosses who couldn’t stand by their man.” Once again Hill, who was apolitical, was seen by The Sun as part of their populist right-wing agenda and Hill’s enemies were again trotted out as the usual hate figures for the newspaper: feminists, left-wing television executives, alternative comedians and middle class socialists.
However, even though ratings were respectable, the real reason for Thames ditching the show was that it was seen as old fashioned and becoming repetitive and expensive to produce rather than any left-wing conspiracy or an attempt to appease the likes of Ben Elton. Thames was also keen to try out a new vehicle for Rowan Atkinson, Mr Bean, a silent comedy show about an incompetent and gormless man that owed, although Atkinson would not admit to it, a passing resemblance to Hill’s silent sketches.
Hill was to die in 1992 after a massive heart attack – in a cruel twist for him as Central had offered him a contract which arrived at his flat the day he died – and his death marked the end of the old style of British comedy. With most of his contemporaries retired, blacklisted or dead, it now fell to the one time angry young men and women of the alternative comedy movement to dominate the comedy scene.
Certainly humour of a type seen in the Benny Hill Show was never to make an appearance after 1992, and the show was never repeated in Britain during the nineties (although, in the ultimate irony, the one time home of alternative comedy Channel 4 shows compilations of Hill’s sketches from the seventies on Bank Holidays), but the now dominant alternative gang had lost a lot of their anger by the nineties – not to mention their hate figure Margaret Thatcher after 1990 – and certainly they were savvy enough to know that mainstream audiences would not tolerate endless political comment and ranting.
Harry Enfield, the one time darling of Saturday Night Live, developed a very successful sketch show in the nineties on BBC1 that owed more to Dick Emery than the Comedy Store. French and Saunders moved very successfully away from feminist humour after the poor reception of Girls on Top to a relatively mainstream sketch show on BBC1, which was followed by the distinctly middle of the road, middle class and inoffensive sitcom The Vicar of Dibley where Dawn French played a woman vicar.
Ben Elton had an equal about turn in the nineties – even agreeing with some of Margaret Thatcher’s policies in a BBC interview – and wrote a sitcom for BBC1, The Thin Blue Line, about a group of hopeless police officers that could have been written in the seventies as it was so innocent and apolitical. However, this moderation in attitudes was relative, as though most of the anger had gone out of The Comedy Store veterans by 1995, there was to be no return in their work to racial stereotypes, women being portrayed as sex objects and gay characters being shown as mincing nancy boys. I would call their work 90s mainstream, to the Right of the early eighties alternative comedy but to the Left of Hill and his contemporaries, a kind of centrist comedy that had a broad appeal rather like the New Labour Party that emerged in the mid nineties that wanted to bury the left-wing past.
Mark Lewisohn wrote in 2002, “In Britain Benny Hill is a dead comedian. No one performs his style of humour anymore, and though some comics admire his work, there is no obvious influence on the rising generations.” However, there has been a backlash against so-called “political correctness” in humour and entertainment programmes, not to mention in other areas of the media, over the last decade that has gathered strength in the last few years. Soccer AM, a distinctly laddish show on Sky Sports on a Saturday morning that mixes football with entertainment, has its female presenter Helen Chamberlain, who appears in so called “lad-mag” photo shoots, behave provocatively and the show has a Soccerette, where a good looking female football fan appears in team colours on a catwalk accompanied by whistling from the mostly male audience. (How Benny Hill must be laughing from his grave.)
While the bulk of comedy is still mildly PC and observational, “political correctness” has been kicked in the head by the arrival of Little Britain, where every stereotype is made fun of, in particularly the PVC clad gay loner, Dafydd, “the only gay in the village”, who apart from having his Welsh accent made particularly ridiculous, appears as a very extreme gay stereotype. Similarly the disabled, ethnic minorities, fat people and the ‘chav’ underclass are made fun of in a way that would have been unthinkable ten years ago and would have had Ben Elton screaming abuse in the eighties.
To a lesser extent, Catherine Tate uses “politically incorrect” humour in her act, particularly the teenage character Lauren, who insults everyone and everything. However, the former new wave has been largely quiet over the show and perhaps know that a backlash against political correctness and safe mainstream humour had to arrive eventually. Also, since comedy programming has been greatly reduced on the television since the eighties, any new comedy show attracts attention and the producers of Little Britain and The Catherine Tate Show knew that shocking the audience would be the best way to deliver ratings.
As for Benny Hill, he has undergone a revival of sorts in recent years. Channel 4, which once despised his style of comedy, now shows clips from his seventies shows, although Hills Angels dance routines are never shown, and even Ben Elton now admires his silent sketches, comedy songs and send ups of television shows as being clever and well written. Last Christmas Benny Hill’s humour was tested out on media studies students in a Channel 4 documentary and his programme found an approval rating of over 60 per cent and most found him to be harmless and amusing, rather than the sexist monster he was portrayed to be in the eighties.
Far from being “taboo”, as Mark Lewisohn portrayed him in 2002, Hill is now becoming an acceptable comedy icon, same as re runs of The Two Ronnies attracted large ratings when shown on BBC1 last year and Morecambe and Wise have never really gone out of fashion. While it is unlikely many people could now sit through a Bernard Manning stand up routine from the seventies, and would cringe at Mind Your Language, Hill and his contemporaries, who were mostly very talented and very amusing, are undergoing a welcome re evaluation.