Remembering Benny Hill 20 Years After His Death

Benny Hill, flanked by lingerie-clad women including Jane Leeves. (Bettmann-Corbis/AP Images)

Benny Hill was all of the Three Stooges wrapped into one. The English entertainer, whose slapstick humor owed a healthy nod to old British music hall routines, was an acquired taste –– one which plenty of people happily acquired.

This Friday (April 20) marks the twentieth anniversary of his death at age 68 of coronary thrombosis.

Hill was the star of several long-running, eponymous British TV shows from the 1950s through the late 1980s, most of them simply titled The Benny Hill Show. They were widely syndicated worldwide, as well as being rerun on BBC America after his death.

In sketches, he played a variety of characters, the majority of them none too bright. His routines featured an emphasis on physical comedy, the singing of humorous ditties, and appearances by flocks of buxom beauties. As to the last, Hill’s hapless characters were always on the prowl for  female companionship, though rarely did they find success with the ladies.

The closing scene of every Benny Hill show was particularly memorable and is, to this day, referred to as a “Benny Hill chase scene.” With Boots Randolph’s zippy, saxophone-heavy “Yakety Sax” playing on the soundtrack, Hill and his fellow cast members would be shown racing around, falling down, getting bonked, and otherwise acting like fools, sped up and enhanced by the addition of wacky sound effects.

Hill was never a highbrow comedian. His appeal was basic and puerile. Others might make jokes about politics, or parody current theater and movies, or spoof social trends. Hill just tried to look up women’s skirts or down their blouses, usually getting whacked on the head for his efforts.

As feminism reemerged as an issue in the ‘70s and ‘80s, his crude humor came in for its share of criticism as being sexist. At its heart, though, Hill’s persona was so childish and simple that no one was really all that offended by him.

The comic star also appeared in several movies, including Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1964), The Italian Job (1969) and playing the Toymaker in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1965), but it was on TV that he found his greatest fame.  He did, however, manage to score a hit song, “Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)”.

The double entendre-filled novelty song held the coveted spot of No. 1 single on the UK pop charts for Christmas in 1971.

Off-camera, Hill lived a quiet, unostentatious life. He never married (the British press reported that all three times he proposed to women, they turned him down) and spent his time away from the television studio in a rented flat.

Much of his work, including collections of old shows and sketches, is available on YouTube and on DVD.

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Are you a Benny Hill fan?

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