The Rise And Fall of Benny Hill
Benny Hill wanted his women to be more naive than he was, women who would look up to him. He also said it was fellatio he wanted, or masturbation. “But Bob, I get a thrill when they’re kneeling there, between my knees and they’re looking up at me. And I want them to call me Mr Hill, not Benny. ‘Is that all right for you , Mr Hill?’ That’s lovely, that is, I really like that,” I asked him why and he said, “well, it’s respectful.” – Bob Monkhouse (from Mark Lewisohn’s Benny Hill biography – ‘Funny, Peculiar’).
ON the morning of 19th April 1992, which was Easter Sunday morning that year, and just two hours after he had been speaking to a television producer about the possibility of yet another come-back, 75 year-old Frankie Howerd collapsed and died of heart failure.
Benny Hill, who was seven years younger than Howerd, was quoted in the press as being “very upset” and was reported as saying, “We were great, great friends”. Indeed they had been friends but he hadn’t given a quote about his fellow comedian, he hadn’t been asked for one – he couldn’t have been – because he was already dead.
The quote about Howerd had come from Hill’s friend, former producer and unofficial press-agent Dennis Kirkland who had not been able to get in contact with Hill for a couple of days and had started to worry.
It wasn’t until the 20th, the day after Howerd had died, that a neighbour noticed an unpleasant smell coming from Flat 7 of Fairwater House on the Twickenham Road in Teddington.
The neighbour contacted Kirkland, who was a regular visitor to the Teddington apartment block, and it wasn’t long before the television producer was climbing a ladder and peering through the window of Hill’s second floor flat. Inside he saw his friend surrounded by dirty plates, glasses, video-tapes and piles of papers slumped on the sofa in front of the TV. He was blue, the body had bloated and distended, and blood had seeped from the ears. Hill had been dead for two days.
Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill had both been part of a big wave of ex-servicemen comedians that came to prominence after the second world war. This amazing generation of performers, in some form or other, would eventually almost take over light-entertainment, initially on the radio and subsequently television, in the fifties, sixties and seventies.
Benny Hill, although he was still known by his original name Alfie Hill, had first come to London during the war. He arrived at Waterloo station on the Southampton train in the summer of 1941 having given up his milk-round and sold his drum kit for £8 to fund this next stage of his life. He had no other plan in his head but to succeed as a comic performer on the London stage and had three addresses of variety theatres in his pocket. He was just seventeen.
More by luck than judgement and after a week or two of sleeping rough in a Streatham bomb shelter, the naive Hampshire boy managed to get a dogsbody job from a kindly agent. Hill remembered this in 1955:
At the Chiswick Empire they did not want to know about Alf Hill. I had much the same reception at the “Met”, but at the Chelsea Palace I was lucky enough to arrange to see Harry Benet at his office the next morning.
Harry Benet offered Hill £3 per week to be an Assistant Stage Manager (with small parts) for a new revue called Follow the Fan. Years later Hill would often joke that although he was no longer an ASM he still had small parts.
12 months or so later Hill, now eighteen, had become eligible for conscription. He was having the time of his life and he naively thought that by travelling around the country (he was now with Send Them Victorious, another revue) he could pretend he had never received the OHMS manila envelope ordering him to enlist.
The ruse worked until November 1942 when the revue was at the New Theatre in Cardiff for the last engagement before the pantomime season. Two military policeman presented themselves at the theatre stage door and Hill was ‘advised’ to ‘give himself up’. Within a month Hill found himself a private in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as a driver/mechanic.
He couldn’t drive and knew nothing about engines and Alfie Hill played no useful part in the war. After VE day, and when he was in London on leave, he applied to be part of the services’ touring revue called Stars in Battledress.
Benny Hill, who by now had changed his name (Jack Benny was one of his favourite comedians), had two auditions at the Windmill. On both occasions, and after barely finishing his first gag, Hill got a dreaded ‘Thank you, next please’ from the manager somewhere in the darkness of the stalls.
For Hill, after failing his second audition at the Windmill, it was back to the working men’s clubs in places like Dagenham, Streatham, Tottenham, Harlesden and Stoke Newington. In those days the Soho agents never actually mentioned money and used to show the amount that was to be paid by laying fingers on the lapels of their jackets. One finger, one pound, two fingers meant two pounds – but it was nearly always the former for Benny in those days.
However his act was getting more and more polished and in 1948, in some rehearsal rooms across the road from the Windmill Theatre on Great Windmill Street, he had an audition as Reg Varney’s straight-man in a revue called Gaytime.
There were just two people auditioning for the part and Hill performed an English calypso (this would have been pretty rare just after the war) which he sang to his own guitar accompaniment:
We have two Bev’ns in our Cabinet
Aneurin’s the one with the gift of the gab in it
The other Bev’n’s the taciturnist
He knows the importance of being Ernest!
After his act, Hill was told by Hedley Claxton, an impresario who specialised in seaside shows, that he had got the job. The other contender for the role that afternoon in 1948 was a young impressionist from Camden called Peter Sellers. A few years later, Hill astutely told Picturegoer: “Watch Peter Sellers. He’s going to be the biggest funny man in Britain.”
Hill and Reg Varney’s double act was a hit with the public and they were signed up for three seasons of Gaytime and subsequently a touring version of a London Palladium revue called Sky High.
In the early fifties, unlike many performers and agents who either feared it or thought it would be a flash-in-the-pan, Benny realised that television would be huge. He knew, however, that it gobbled up material and could end the career of Variety artists who had successfully performed the same material all their lives. So Hill started to write hundreds and hundreds of sketches and eventually submitted them in person to the same Ronald Waldman who had said just three years before written ‘he didn’t make me laugh at all’.
This time Waldman, now BBC’s head of light entertainment, was actually very impressed and offered Benny Hill his own show right there and then.
‘Hi There’ went out on the 20th August 1951 at 8.15pm. The 45 minute one-off show featured a series of sketches wholly written by Benny Hill and was relatively well-received. It wouldn’t be until four years later that Hill had his own series and in January 1955 the first ever ‘The Benny Hill Show’ was broadcast on the BBC. Hill was always an uncomfortable performer on stage and the new medium of television utterly suited his “conspiratorial glances and anticipatory smirks” to camera and after a shaky first episode the rest of the series was a big success.
Benny Hill never looked back and was a mainstay of British television for the next thirty five years. Initially his shows appeared on the BBC and then subsequently on Thames Television from 1969 when the new London weekday franchise needed some high-profile signings.
The ‘cherub sent by the devil’, as Michael Caine once described Hill, became a huge star all over the world. It seemed at one point, just as many in the UK were starting to find his comedy rather old-fashioned and sexist, that the rest of the world thought Benny Hill was British comedy.
Twenty years after Hill made his first series for Thames Television their new Head of Light Entertainment John Howard Davies invited him into the offices for a chat. Benny assumed that they were meeting to discuss details of a new series.
Davies thanked him for all his series he had made for Thames and then promptly sacked him. Hill never really recovered from the shock and considering what he had done for the company over the previous two decades he was treated badly and without respect. It was only three years later that he was found dead in his apartment just a stone’s throw from the Thames Television studios in Teddington.
There is no doubt that Benny Hill had a strange relationship with women. He was very confused about the accusations of sexism in the latter part of his career and he felt that his comedy hadn’t really changed and he’d been doing almost the same thing for decades. This was true, he literally had been telling the same jokes for decades always happy to recycle his own material. But if he and his material hadn’t changed, society had, and an elderly man surrounded or chased by scantily-clad women made for uncomfortable viewing.
It appears that Hill never really had a proper relationship during his lifetime. The closest he got to marriage was with a dancer from the Windmill Theatre called Doris Deal around the mid-fifties. He took her for meals in London, they held hands, and it was assumed they were seeing each other, but when Hill had procrastinated a little too long and told her he wasn’t ready for marriage she promptly left him.
There were other close albeit non-romantic relationships with women through the years including a young Australian actress called Annette André who would eventually star in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). He may have even proposed to her but if he did she said she pretended not to notice.
Benny Hill, famous throughout the world by surrounding himself with young women, was either scared of intimate sexual intercourse or, as some un-named sources have implied, he was impotent. It was probably a combination of the two. Bob Monkhouse later spoke of his friend:
The notion that Benny was a lonely man is so depressing and wrong. He just liked his own company. He was very happy walking alone, living alone, eating alone, taking holidays alone and going to see shows alone. I often wonder whether he needed anybody else in his life at all…except perhaps a cameraman.