What happened to Benny Hill wasn’t funny. His life ended like many of his sketches, in tragedy. In 1990 his show was being shown in 97 countries, although no longer in the UK. It could be argued that at the time, along with Mohammed Ali, he was one of the most famous names and faces on the planet. Twenty-four years after his death, his show is still seen in many places around the world, but in the UK he seems to be most remembered for Yakety Sax, the music that ended his show, with him being chased by an assortment of girls and other characters that he had upset in various ways. He was often the loser, the fall guy, the one chased.
For some he was never chaste, he was the epitome of sleaze, the archetypal dirty old man, who encouraged the view that women were just mere sex objects. It seems to me that this is very unfair. He no more corrupted the nation than McGill’s postcards did, although both were pilloried, McGill was even found guilty of breaking the Obscene Publications Act in 1954, and by definition, officially corrupting the nation’s morals. At least Benny didn’t end his days in an unmarked grave. If you want to risk being corrupted do visit http://saucyseasidepostcards.com/ and have a good giggle as you head down to hades.
It must have been a huge disappointment for Benny Hill, when, after returning from the Cannes Television Festival in June 1989, where he had been feted; he was arbitrarily dismissed from Thames Television.
Much of his humour was based on disappointment. The short sketches and longer story lines often ended in disillusion if not outright tragedy. I remember one long story of a loser – a man, who everything he tried or touched, resulted in failure – that did end in the ultimate heartbreak. He was finally seen standing at the side of a lake with a rope around his neck, a large rock tied to the other end. As the rock slipped from his grip and into the water, a balloon was seen to rise from the lake, and on the end of its string, a large fish was seen hanging. As surreal an image as you would want to find anywhere. As the fish rose into the waterless air, Benny was dragged down to the bottom of the lake, passing a treasure chest that lay open, its contents of precious stones and jewellery spilling out in a final mockery.
As prop makers, our problem was how you make the balloon rise through the surface of the lake. A real one would instantly have collapsed if pushed down in the water, so we made one in fibreglass. Peppered with holes so it filled up, it was difficult just to get it under the surface. In the end a diver had to operate it from the bottom of the lake, a fish-line pulling it up into the air once it had cleared the surface. Salvador Dali eat your heart out.
We worked for Benny Hill for over thirteen years, and I met him many times, usually in the various rehearsal rooms that were used. Large rooms over pubs, the bar area of a rugby club, other clubs that made a little extra income letting out their halls in the daytime.
We were given the work by the designer or the prop buyer, or – very rarely – in a production meeting at Thames Television. Sometimes the reference was verbal, backed up with a page from the script, at other times we were given an embryonic drawing by Benny himself. There was always a deadline, but we knew that before the date of the studio arrived we would have to present the props for approval. If Benny didn’t like it, it would have to be remade. He must have liked what we did otherwise we would not have been allowed to continue making things. You did not presume to understand more than he did about how effective something might be – he wanted what he wanted and that was that. Maybe we had to figure out a way to achieve what was required, but I had understood from the start that ‘why don’t we change this to …’ or ‘wouldn’t it be funnier if…’, were not options. Of course there were times when a prop could be made and finished. If we had been asked for an 8-inch high tuba, then we knew where we were, it either looked like one or it didn’t. One prop that never got finished was a snake that was to be mistaken for a rope. We tried it several times, without success.
‘Looks too much like a rope!’ ‘Now it looks too much like a snake!’ I am sure you can guess what happened next.
I used to arrive at the rehearsal room with a vanload of props for Benny to look at. It was always politic to not quite complete things, leaving maybe the final colour or some other finish to his discretion.
‘Would you prefer this or that?’ or ‘we can do it another way if you prefer’ was always better than ‘this is what you are having’. That would have been met with a blank refusal to even consider what was on offer. We usually got our own way.
Benny liked to have his lunch on his own, sitting in the corner of the rehearsal room as everyone else trooped off to the pub. He always brought his lunch and a soft fizzy drink in a plastic carrier bag. Over the years he was presented with many upmarket briefcases and other leather bags for birthday presents but like the eponymous bag lady he stayed faithful to the carrier bag. Not that he ever looked like a bag lady, rather a humble civil servant on holiday in the 1950’s. Grey flannel trousers, sports jacket, open necked shirt with the collar overlapping the collar of the jacket; just a hint of casual rebellion from the rather more formal work wear. Sometimes a cravat would be added to the sartorial elegance.
In all the years I knew him, he was always polite, even-tempered and supportive of what we did for him, even when he really didn’t want me around. I had arrived at the rehearsal room in the Rugby Club off the Twickenham Road in Richmond. It was lunchtime and everyone was leaving or had left for the pub. After unloading my little pile of props in the corner, there was nothing to do but wait. Benny was sitting at the far side of the room about to start his lunch. He glanced up at me, then turned away. I sat quietly trying to be as invisible as possible. He glanced up several times more before sighing loudly.
‘Alright, lets have a look at what you have brought,’ he said. The ‘I want to have my lunch in peace’ was left unsaid, and I quickly showed him, got his approval, and left. I imagine there was an even bigger sigh of pleasure as he finally had the room to himself.
So lets shed tears of laughter and sorrow for both McGill and Hill. They both put sauce on the plate, only to have it thrown in their faces like a custard tart by the prurient arbiters of taste.
Below is a link to a Thames Television Benny Hill Show that has a good selection of props.
The first sketch had several darts sticking out of Jackie Wright’s head. The second sketch the ostrich featured here.
17.54 minutes in – several bows and arrows in the cupid sketch.
26.20-minutes in – the bath turning into a sofa.
30.28 minutes in – Several versions of the globe for the dance routine based on Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’.
43.40 minutes in – Ice cream cone for the ice cream van.
51.25 minutes in – Beach tents filmed at Thorpe Park as was the chase at the end of the show.
Alastair and I spent many a happy hour at Thorpe Park and other locations. It was often stressful but like a rich man complaining of the problems created by his wealth, no one would be listen if we tried to grumble about spending time at a Theme Park with Benny Hill and a coach load of pretty young women. Those were the days.