BATTLING FOR BENNY
Benny Hill was Britain's biggest ever comedy export, shown in more than 100 countries and adored the world over; especially in the USA. Benny's comedy was marinated in the honest vulgarity of English popular humour.
This shy, modest man was genuinely a people's comic, loved by millions but strangely detested by the likes of Ben Elton and other chattering class snipers. To them, Benny was "sexist".
The sanctimonious Elton denounced him as "a dirty old man." Women are getting raped, he ranted, and there's Benny Hill tearing the clothes off nubile girls while chasing them round a park. Had Ben actually bothered to watch Benny's shows he might have noticed that the girls always ended up chasing HIM.
If anything Benny's jokes were anti-men. It was the blokes who walked into lamp-posts. The blokes were always the losers. Especially if they were small and bald and slappable. Women on Benny's shows fared far better than say Carol Cleveland on Monty Python who tended to be wheeled on in stockings and suspenders as a fetching bit of eye-candy.
So why was Benny shunned while the Pythons are still revered? Simple. It's all about class. The Pythons, who I adored, were from the right Oxbridge background. University boys. Benny went to a bog standard secondary modern in Hampshire. His bawdy down-to-earth humour was never likely to play well with hectoring professor's son Ben Elton.
Of course there was far more to Hill's comedy than mild seaside postcard smut (not that there's anything wrong with that). He was the first comedian of the television age, and the first to use the medium as a target. A typical Benny Hill show mixed parodies of TV hits with visual comedy, clever mime work, comic songs and character comedy. Lisping Fred Scuttle, Ernie the Milkman and Chow Mein the Chinaman are remembered with affection to this day.
And OK it may be that he was past his prime. But Benny still brought in millions of viewers. None of that seemed to matter, though. Benny Hill was old school and so he had to go, because one of the odd thing about po-faced eighties 'alternative' comics and their TV executive groupies is that they couldn't abide any alternative to their brand of PC student union humour.
In 1989 the gutless trendies at ITV shamefully caved in to Elton and other joyless prudes who you suspect had never even watched the show to begin with. Benny Hill was summoned to Thames TV and sacked in a humiliating ten minute meeting. He had generated millions of pounds for the company and yet they treated him like a cloakroom attendant who'd been caught with his hand in someone's jacket pocket.
The great man was devastated and there is little doubt that Benny's sacking hastened his death in 1991. Since then, not one of the fashionable comedians who TV has invested millions in have had a quarter of Hill's success, although Little Britain, whose stars cite Benny and Dick Emery as influences, has done best - and has run out of charm much faster. If Elton thought Benny was anti-women, Lord knows what he makes of the way elderly Dorises are portrayed by David Walliams and Matt Lucas as puking, incontinent grotesques. While Mitchell and Webb's comedy sketches, that involve punching and killing women, have been broadcast without a voice raised in protest.
Through-out the Nineties, the dead-hand of Political Correctness, coupled with the desire to be seen as hip and commissions inspired by the phoney god of demographics, managed to drive all the laughs out of prime time television.
Harry Hill's inspired TV Burp is now the only comedy show on ITV that transmits between 6pm and 9pm.
A whole generation of working class British comedians has been denied access to the medium that would and should have made them household names.
Ironically, Benny Hill's show remains a ratings smash wherever it is broadcast. It was number one on BBC America in 2005, but so far the Beeb has shied away from repeating the shows here. Apparently there is too much "stigma" attached to his name. They seem to have forgotten that the PC prudes had it in for the Carry On films in the '80s too - for the same feeble-minded reasons (alleged "sexism").
The Carry Ons which were also once banned from our screens and now rightfully cherished and shown on Channel 4 and the BBC. Even Carry On Henry where Sid James as the monarch does go looking for a wench to rape…Yet, bizarrely, Benny Hill is still seen as beyond the pale.
Abroad, the prejudice doesn't exist. Benny Hill enthusiasts range from Barry Humphries to Tom Wolfe via Greta Garbo, Clint Eastwood and Snoop Dog. Every big US act seems to love our Benny. Even the Black-eyed Peas are fans.
At Christmas 2006, Objective Productions made a documentary for C4 where they tested Benny's humour on a young British audience. To nobody's surprise but theirs he went down a treat.
* It is a national scandal that Hill's legacy is unrecognised in his own country. Which is why I'm leading a campaign for a statue to be raised to honour his memory. We have the backing of the Heritage Foundation, Graeme Ibbeson, who sculpted the excellent Eric Morecambe bronze at Morecambe) has the design and a platoon of stars are ready to drum up the cash. We even have various councils fighting for the statue to be located in their town.
Stump up some of the cost, chaps, and he's yours…..
Anyone donating £100 or more to the Benny Hill statue will have their name permanently linked to Benny's splendid erection. Please make cheques out to the Arts & Entertainment Charitable Trust (registered charity 1031027) and post c/o the Heritage Foundation, Green Acres, 3 Birchwood Chase, Great Kingshill, Bucks HP15 6EH . Payments can be accepted under Gift Aid. All Benny fans can now buy a handsome 11-inch cold-cast bronze version. They cost £95 (plus £10 p&p) – and money from each sale goes towards the statue's construction. Buy online from here.
IT'S been fun to watch the backlash against Ben Elton gaining momentum on the stand-up scene. Mark Steel put him in Room 101. Stewart Lee reckoned he is more despised than Bin Laden who "at least lived his life according to a consistent set of ethical principles." Toby Young put it best, saying Ben Elton "started out as an alternative comedian railing against Thatcherism and now earns a fortune writing librettos for truly awful West End musicals. His name has become a by-word for shameless hackery. He's the biggest sell-out of his generation."