The sketch show, famous for slapstick and scantily clad women, is returning to British television this Christmas, after the Freeview channel That’s TV bought the rights to the episodes (amid rumours of interest from Netflix). But will it stand the test of time in the Me Too era? Three writers of different ages watch with fresh eyes...
Michael Hogan: “As a schoolboy, the slapstick and silliness tickled me”
Benny Hill was a big deal in my hometown - and not just because he was the foremost TV funnyman of his day. I grew up in the Suffolk port of Felixstowe, where Hill had a disabled friend in a care home which he often visited. I was aware of his celebrity status before I actually saw his show, because people whispered, nudged and tried not to stare (unsuccessfully) whenever he was spotted around town.
When I finally watched my first episode in the mid-Seventies, I found it hard to reconcile the shy, sheepish man who pushed a wheelchair along the seafront with the larger-than-life figure on our teak Grundig TV screen.
The Benny Hill Show was huge, attracting 21m viewers at its 1971 peak - the same year that Hill scored a Christmas number one with “Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)”. He was a bona fide pop cultural phenomenon - a status easier to earn back then. There was not much else to watch.
To my schoolboy eyes, it didn’t seem terribly different to other sketch comedies of the era - the likes of Dick Emery and The Two Ronnies. The humour was hit-and-miss but those sped-up chase scenes set to “Yakety Sax” were always knockabout fun, like a scantily clad Keystone cops. My father and grandad would chortle merrily. My mother and grandma would tut or roll their eyes.
I knew there were gags I wasn’t getting, double entendres which flew over my bowl-cutted head. It was the slapstick, wordplay and silliness that tickled me. The Benny Hill Show was set in a heightened, cartoonish world - like a children’s programme but with adult humour, meaning it felt thrillingly transgressive. It was also associated with being allowed to stay up late on a school night, which was a large part of the appeal.
Looking back, it was often racist, with frequent use of blackface, but mainly absurdly sexist. “Of its time”, as the euphemism goes. It was like Page Three, Carry On or the saucy seaside postcards sold by the gift shops along Felixstowe prom. Women were implausibly curvy, often wearing nurse’s uniforms. Their clothes had a habit of falling off. Men were leering, lecherous and hapless. The joke was usually on them.
Will I be tuning in to its Christmas comeback? Possibly when my own children are safely tucked up in bed. And only then to marvel at what once passed for primetime entertainment. I’d rather remember him as the devoted friend pushing a wheelchair.
Guy Kelly: “It was a different time... but let’s hope they’ve hired an editor”
An under-appreciated benefit of being a feature writer in a newspaper office is that you can have practically anything on your computer screen, at any time, and no questions will be asked.
Spent six hours stuck down a Wikipedia rabbit hole that started with “Robert Buckland MP”, went via “Dabiq, the now defunct online magazine used by Isil”, and somehow ended at “List of animals with fraudulent diplomas”? All just research.
Watching Match of the Day? No problem, the sports desk probably asked for some help.
All hypotheticals – I work very hard. But yesterday, as I opened YouTube and shakily typed in the words, “The Benny Hill Show”, I found myself gulping, shrinking the window, and preparing to blurt the words, “They asked me to watch it!” at any and every bypasser.
I was born in 1991 – a year before Benny Hill died. I know who he was, know he is regarded as one of the giants of light entertainment’s golden age, but I also know he’s regarded as sexist, racist, all the other ists, and about as fashionable as feudalism.
Besides, to my generation he is simply “That man who resembled Adam Boulton and scampered about, honking the breasts of aghast, scantily-clad young women to a jaunty saxophone tune.”
Truly, I was under the impression that was his act: always scampering, always honking, as if staying still and going without regular sexual assaults would mean he’d die – like some sort of pervy shark.
Still, I holstered my standard-issue millennial cancellation gun and gave him the benefit of the doubt, before starting a playlist of clips.
The first hinged on the punchline that women start putting on weight as soon as they get married. The second, a Roy Orbison parody, featured a giddy impression of Jimmy Savile. In the third, Hill blacked up.
I pictured the e-mail from HR I’d be receiving any moment, but pressed on. Next up was a gentle one about a fishmonger lobbing a salmon at a customer who wanted to say he’d caught it himself. Then a good silent gag about a bank robbery.
And then one set in a library. “Have you got a book called ‘Men: The Superior Sex’?” the customer asks. “You’ll find it over there,” the female librarian replies, “under ‘Fiction.’”
I think we’d generously call that “hit and miss”. If they insist on resurrecting it, let’s hope they’ve hired an editor.
Alice Hall: “This has not aged well”
If, like me, you’d never heard of Benny Hill, let me offer a trigger warning: coming into his ‘comedy’ cold is quite the experience. Did people in this country seriously watch this, in their millions?
The first episode I found, The Oddball Club Cabaret (1985), had a straightforward premise: to the backdrop of a tinkly theme tune, men encounter a series of situations where they are portrayed as ill-fated fools - mostly at the expense of glamorous women in skimpy swimwear - before the set transforms into a burlesque-style cabaret. In another, The Loser (1981), Benny plays an unlucky man who fails at a series of jobs, before discovering a treasure chest that solves his woes.
The unsolicited touching, ogling and sexism are obviously abhorrent - although the gender dynamics are not far off some of those kicking around in pop culture today. I was reminded of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines music video, where a naked Emily Ratwajowski danced around him (Thicke later admitted he had “wanted to make a Benny Hill-type video, something fun”).
Still, I’m doubtful that the smutty, voyeuristic skits of Benny Hill can capture a new generation.
I could hardly watch the scene where Benny, clad in a postman outfit, prods a woman’s chest to the backdrop of a ‘honk’ sound. As for the returning theme of the senile nagging wife vs the desirable younger girl - it has not aged well.
Those who grew up with the show will no doubt have fond memories of watching it. Perhaps the rickety camera work and dodgy jumps between scenes add to the nostalgia? I’m aware the humour is considered to be of its time. But the only explanation I can reach for how this show was such a hit is that back then there were only three TV channels.