In October 1955, the Manchester Evening News sent my uncle to interview Benny Hill – Jerry F
In some respects Mr. Benny Hill is the most irritating young man I have ever tried to interview. Irritating in the nicest possible way, you understand. For he has one of those restless, quick-silver minds that flit like a butterfly, always just out of reach. After about five minutes of his company you have formed the opinion that life for Mr. Hill is a series of lightning impressions, just one long comic-strip without beginning or end.
The simple business of ordering a meal, for instance, becomes under Benny Hill’s expert stage-management a sketch ready shaped for intimate revue. He becomes, by numbers, an amorous Frenchman hungry for crepe suzettes, a coy spinster lunching with Laurence Olivier. Robert Mitchum asking for the sauce-bottle as if it was the last round from the magazine before the Indians close in.
It is all brilliantly funny. You laugh so much that you lose your appetite and with it any thread of ordered conversation you may have been painfully spinning.
And then suddenly you get an uneasy feeling that you’ve seen it all before — or something very like it. The tossing curls, the rolling eyes, the cheeky grin, that pouting lower lip. It’s part of the act. Quite unconsciously Benny Hill is giving you The Treatment. What costs the BBC 50 guineas for eight minutes you are getting for nothing…
Now mark that word “unconsciously.” I do not believe for a moment that Benny Hill is putting on an act just for my benefit. There was nothing of the professional “show off” about this likeable, essentially simple young man. It is just that Benny Hill is doing what is expected of him. He has been doing it for so long now that it has become second nature to him.
The clue to Benny Hill, TV comic — and perhaps the clue to a whole brand-new generation of popular favourites thrown up ready made by the new Frankenstein, television — slipped out in one single sentence from the man himself.
I was delicately — oh, so delicately — steering him on to the subject of Benny Hill. Let’s forget for a minute, I implored, the comic bus conductors, the fretful spinsters, all those frustrated little men trying to do all those simple things little men find it so hard to do with dignity (like changing on the beach). How about Alfred Hill, the chemist’s son, of Eastleigh, Hampshire? What is he like in ordinary life?
And in that moment the mask slips. That volatile, indiarubber face is suddenly still. A serious, rather worried young man looks out at you.
“It’s very difficult to be ordinary, isn’t it?”
For almost exactly half of his 30 years Benny Hill has had no private life to speak of. For as long as he can remember he has been the Boy Next Door (“the boy from the Maypole,” he calls himself). The Local Boy Who Made Good.
It began just after his 16th birthday, when the stockroom clerk from the Eastleigh Woolworth’s took to playing the drums with the local dance band.
He was just “one of the boys,” a “card” in straw hat and jazzy suit. A Cheeky Chappie, who blatantly copied Max Miller.
“I was ‘King Knock-off’ himself,” he’ll tell you, unashamed. “I pinched my material where I could find it. I was the local Show-off. And nobody seemed to mind.”
What he doesn’t tell you is that though the patter and the “gags” might have been borrowed from Miller and Trinder, the mannerisms, the quirks of that puckish face that can sketch a character, a situation in a second belonged exclusively to Benny (né Alfred) Hill.
Fifteen years later Benny Hill remains the Local Show-off. Or as I would prefer to think of him, The Boy Next Door. It is a character that, consciously or unconsciously, he has carefully preserved. It is the pattern which this new generation of TV comics must follow if they are to become famous. Watch Benny Hill handle a Services audience in “The Centre Show.” Watch Max Bygraves. Watch Dave King. All look like honest working lads who have rushed home from the factory, had a quick wash-and-brush-up, wolfed down a kipper, kissed Mum and popped round to the local to spend the evening with the Boys.
That is exactly what they are. And what is much more important, what this new huge unfathomable TV audience expects them to be. Honest working-lads out for a bit of fun with the boys. Good, clean fun. For Mum and Dad will be watching. And Mum never did like those French jokes.
Listen to Benny Hill, that home-spun philosopher. “The days of the great stylists — the Jolsons, the Cantors, artists who could hold an audience by superb showmanship alone — are gone. What they want now is the Life and Soul of the Party. The local show-off who has cheeked his way up there on to the stage and somehow is getting away with it.”
The penalty in all this is that a million-strong TV audience is no respecter of persons. It twiddles a knob and there you are. Why, it’s Benny Hill! Good Old Benny. Come on, make us laugh. Mum’s just put the kettle on. Dad’s finished with the paper. Go on, Benny. Have a go! We’re easy.
“If Clark Gable or Alan Curtis walked in that room they’d run for their lives. But it’s not Hollywood they’re looking for. It’s the Boy Next Door. And since Alan Curtis doesn’t live next door they have to make do with me.” To a serious-minded young “comic” absorbed in his career — and any young “comic” who reads nothing but gag books, writes nothing but material for his act, and keeps a library of his own tape-recordings, must, I think, be regarded as serious minded — this can become unnerving at times.
Not so long ago – he was playing Leeds that week — he slipped out for a bite of supper between shows.
Being the simple, uncomplicated soul he is, he made for the local fish-and-chip bar. In a moment the place was in an uproar (to get an exact picture of Benny Hill being welcomed by his fans while he tries to eat fish and chips, you must see him do it in dumb-show).
Why, it’s Benny Hill! Good old Benny! Saw you on the Telly last night. What a lark, eh? Do us one of those impersonations. Benny! (This from the proprietor.)
Now, like every good comic who ever was, Benny worries about his act. Between shows he locks himself away from his audience to go through an hour of merciless self-examination.
But here was his audience. (It’s Benny Hill, off the Telly. He’s a scream!) The Show Must Go On.
“Tell you what I’ll do,” says Benny, “I’ll do a turn if it’s fish-and-chips on the house.”
So 30 customers got fish-and-chips (value 2s. 6d.) and four minutes of Benny Hill (value £600 a week) free.
But there is a moral to the story. “Believe it or not,” says Benny, “The proprietor was furious. ‘You’ve cost me four quid!’ You see ? He expected to get me for nothing — just the way he does when he switches on his TV set.”
“It’s so very difficult to be ordinary, isn’t it ? A heart cry from a sensitive artist in the art of making the extraordinary seem ordinary.
The fact is, of course, that no ordinary life is possible under such circumstances. For six days a week — from midday to midnight — he is on show. A non-stop variety turn called Benny Hill, Funny Man. Most afternoons just now you’ll find him at Ealing Studios, where he is making his first film. The part is tailor-made for Benny Hill — brash young Boy Next Door aspiring to be a private detective.
People who work around film studios are a cynical lot. But they talk in respectful astonishment of almost fanatical zeal to learn his job.
His director, Basil Dearden, has worked with the best of them — Formby, Hay, Trinder, Gracie Fields. He thinks that, properly developed, Hill could be the best of them all.
“Most professional comics need an audience all the time. Benny is that rare thing — a spontaneous comedian. He can be funny to order without any elaborate build-up. That is why he is a natural for the screen. He has the sort of face that you can take home with you.”
Later that same day I watched Benny facing a different kind of audience altogether — an audience predominantly male attracted to a spectacular West End imitation of the Folies Bergeres.
The clowning was as brilliant as ever. But I sensed a shame-faced, rather sheepish note about it. As if Mum wouldn’t have approved of Our Benny up there among all those nudes…
One day a week Benny Hill returns to being just Alfred Hill. He is deliberately vague when you ask what he does with his Sundays. There is a girlfriend in the background, you gather. And their favourite exercise is to plan day excursions (by bus and train — he doesn’t run a car and says he doesn’t need one) to unfamiliar places with unusual names —like Oxted and Wivenhoe and Dumpton Gap.
Occasionally he’ll drop in on Mum and Dad back home in Eastleigh (a busy railway junction just outside Southampton).
He likes going home. They don’t expect anything of him there. He’s just the Boy Next Door on a day off. Nobody is going to tell him he’s a scream and ask for a turn.
In Eastleigh they’re not yet on the Telly…
Reproduced with permission
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Jerry F 2023