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Whatever Happened To Benny Hill? - Grant Smeaton Reassesses A Lost Comic Icon

Charlie Chaplin, Michael Jackson, A Clockwork Orange author Anthony
Burgess and rap star Snoop Dog may be artists rarely mentioned in the
same breath. When it comes to comedy, however, this fantasy
dinner-party quartet have all at different times outed themselves as
fan-boys of one of Britain's great lost comic icons. Not that Benny
Hill, who died in 1992, three years after his long-running prime-time
TV sketch show was cancelled, is celebrated much in his own country.
While France hails Hill as a farceur on a par with Jacques Tati and
America airs endless re-runs of his shows, in Britain there are no
retrospectives shown or statues put up in his home town as with other
funny-men of his generation. Yet Hill emerged from a similar music hall
background as his peers, and, during his hey-day, was arguably bigger
than them all. So what happened?

This is something actor and writer Grant Smeaton puts under the
spotlight in Whatever Happened To Benny Hill?, Smeaton's latest
excursion into pop cultural iconography, which examines Hill's rise and
fall through a mock-up of one of his TV specials. These ribald one-offs
featured Hill and his regular ensemble performing sketches with Hill
playing characters such as the eager to please
Fred Scuttle and a Chinaman whose accent often led to a series of
misunderstandings, ending with a finale of a silent-movie chase scene
set to a parping saxophone theme and usually involving a troupe of
scantily-clad young women. While Smeaton's show, co-written with
Raymond Burke, will feature only three actors, the spirit of Hill,
observed during a mis-spent youth, will be much in evidence.

“He was a big part of my growing up through the 1970s,” says Smeaton.
“I remember watching the shows alongside Stanley Baxter and Morecambe
and Wise. But then I realised that Benny Hill had done so much more
stuff than everybody else, and had made TV series over four decades,
churning out four episodes a year and doing this huge amount of work.
Then there was the way he fell from grace towards the end of his
career, and was dead within two years of having his show being
cancelled. He was really just an ordinary man who devoted his life to
his work, and I think when that was taken away he found himself living
in a vacuum, and went out of control, eating more and drinking more,
which ultimately led to his death. I thought that was an interesting
tale to tell.”

If it hadn't been for Ben Elton and the early 1980s alternative comedy
set, Smeaton might be telling a different story. Up until the early
1980s, The Benny Hill Show was a British institution, on which a
mixture of schoolboy humour, slapstick and deceptively clever wordplay
had arguably influenced more revered peers such as The Two Ronnies and
Morecambe and Wise. Smeaton singles out the famous Morecambe and Wise
sketch in which making breakfast becomes an elaborately choreographed
tour de force as a direct lift from Hill. Yet only when Hill's
nudge-nudge innuendos became blatantly smutty with his Hot
Gossip-inspired troupe of leggy lovelies, Hill's Angels, it seems, did
the comedy police clamp down.

Motor-mouthed stand-up Elton was particularly vehement, going so far as
to suggest that The Benny Hill Show was single-handedly responsible for
incidents of rape during the period. The irony of Elton's stance, of
course, is that he and his generation went on to become the new comedy
establishment, whose university educations may have set them apart from
Hill and co, but whose willingness to embrace the mainstream saw them
chum up with some very strange bedfellows. Elton himself teamed up with
composer Andrew Lloyd Webber for musicals The Beautiful Game and
Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies, not to mention his
collaboration with rock band Queen on jukebox musical We Will Rock You,
both liaisons a long way from Elton's roots.

Yet Hill's showbiz background too was infinitely different from the
Hills Angels years. Born Alfred Hawthorne Hill in Southampton, the
young wannabe's career began as a prop boy in a touring review before
joining the army's Combined Services Entertainment division after being
drafted. Hill took on the name Benny in honour of his favourite comic,
Jack Benny, and toured the club circuit before becoming straight-man to
future On The Buses star Reg Varney. After stints on radio and in
sitcom, the earliest incarnation of The Benny Hill Show began in 1951,
with Hill one of the first comedians to recognise television as a
creative medium in itself in terms of his use of technical trickery and
sped-up film sequences. It was this aspect of Hill too that appealed to
Smeaton.

“I was always interested in the style of Benny Hill's humour,” he says,
“and try and recreate that very televisual style onstage. So each scene
looks like a Benny Hill sketch, but there's a twist that looks at
different aspects of his life. He was very pioneering in a way, and was
really the first comedian to break television, and use different ideas
like split screens and so on, and in a way he was much more
sophisticated in his early days than he became later on when he pushed
things too far. Those later years with Hills Angels are what most
people remember, but that was right at the end of his career. Up until
then it was all about schoolboy humour, and that immaturity was part of
the appeal.”

Whatever Happened To Benny Hill? Isn't the first-time Smeaton has
picked up the mantle of such a familiar real-life pop culture idol. In
his Herald Angel-winning show, Bette/Cavett, Smeaton dragged-up as
Bette Davis to recreate the ageing screen goddess' legendary TV
appearance on Dick Cavett's chat show. While Smeaton's take on Benny
Hill looks set to be different in form, his fascination for myth-makers
remains unabashed.

“I guess it's just exploring my memory from my childhood,” he explains,
“looking at the TV when things were so bright and optimistic then, and
relooking at them now.”

Smeaton's first experience of Hill was as a ten year-old buying Hill's
novelty record, Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West), an epic yarn
of love, death and gold tops which was 1971's Christmas number one. Two
years previously Hill had appeared in patriotic caper movie, the
Italian Job, having previously been seen in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, while in 1964 he was
taken seriously enough as a comic actor to have played Bottom in a TV
production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. None of this
mattered much, however, when Hill was unceremoniously dumped by TV.

“With Benny Hill the whole alternative thing came in and swept
everything that had gone before away,” says Smeaton. “It was dismissed,
and I don't think it should be. He did go too far towards the end, and
that polarises peoples point of view of him, so people in this country
don't want to remember him or reassess him. But all that stuff was only
one little part of his career, and you have to look a bit closer and
deeper at what was going on beyond that. We don't overlook the critical
aspects of how things turned out, but there's a whole lot more going on
with Benny Hill that I think needs to be celebrated.”

Whatever Happened To Benny Hill?, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, July 20th-23rd
www.tron.co.uk

The Herald, July 12th 2011

ends

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