Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Best of Benny Hill (1974)

Directed by John Robins
Starring Benny Hill, The Ladybirds, Sue Bond, Rita Webb, Jackie Wright

“Those hot pants of hers were so damned tight, I could hardly breathe."

Reruns of the Benny Hill Show were a staple of the UHF channels here in Boston for most of the 80's. At the time, we were awash with crazy bullshit like Loose Screws and Slumber Party Massacre II, so there were plenty of other places to find pretty girls in their underthings. As a result, I never really paid much attention. The few times I did watch, I usually came away more confused than anything else. There is something completely inscrutable to a lot of Benny Hill's more well-known bits. For example, he liked slapping people in the back of the head a lot. One good wallop might have been suitably hilarious, but he'd do it twenty times, as if it would be exponentially funnier with each repetition. Perhaps it was, to British audiences in the early 70's, but it just seemed odd to an American teenager. Then, of course, there was his signature: the short, silent film, sped-up for extra hilarity. I really don't understand how that was funny in any era.

Still, it's been a couple decades since I watched Mr. Hill, and having spent a dizzying amount of hours recently diving into other Brit sexploitaion films of the era - see Confessions of a Pop Performer, Zeta One, What's Up Nurse, etc - I figured it was high time to give him a second chance, and to answer that burning question: Yeah, sure, boners are popped, but is Benny Hill really funny?

The Best of Benny Hill
collects bits and sketches from the early days of Benny's show - 1969-1974. There was a previous incarnation of the BHS that ran on the BBC in the 1950's, but that has so far remained unavailable. The version most of us are familiar with ran on Thames Television from 1969 to 1989, and aired in just about every country in the world. Since a goodly amount of the humor was both physical and obvious, a working understanding of English was not particularly necessary. You don't even need subtitles to get the old blowing-up-a-woman's-tits-with-a-bicycle-pump gag, after all.

Interestingly, although this collection leads off with it, the immortal "Yackety Sax" theme by Boots Randolph was not introduced until the end of Best Of's era, in 1974. It has since been appropriated by anybody who's ever come to the conclusion that their dumb comedy skit will be even funnier if they sped everything up. Hint: it will not.

There is no context to The Best of Benny Hill, it simply rolls out a bunch of bits, leading off with the tiresome under-cranked camera routine. In this one, Benny runs a whacked-out hospital where the doctors constantly attempt to bed their female patients. Even in 1969, these gags were ancient, and the only interesting thing about the grabby sketches at this point is women in them. Benny managed to snag some startling beauties for his television show, including Cheryl Gilham (Tiffany Jones, Confessions of a Sex Maniac), Jenny Lee Wright (Madhouse), Sue Bond (The Yes Girls, Secrets of Sex), and many other notable 'crumpets' and 'dollybirds' of the day, many of whom, due to Benny's hijinks, ended up in their underwear. Although the saucy bits are a lot tamer than I remember - at least at this early stage in the show's history - hot British chicks in their bloomers works, no matter how lame the comedy is.

Further along, however, we do start to see glimpses of Hill's comedic talents. Some of the sketches are timeless enough that they could appear, verbatim, on Saturday Night Live this weekend, and they'd still be just as valid and funny. In particular, there's a bit where Hill plays a French film director on a pretentious British film-chat show. The stuffy host gushes about Hill's avant-garde films, and Hill explains, in a dead-on French accent, that none of his choices were actually artistic. For example, his latest film was not shot with a handheld camera for the intimacy of the shots, but because the tripod broke. Stuff like that. There's also a series of lightning-fast bits that have Hill directing a movie and dealing with idiotic actors.
"What's that in the road...a head?" Asks a big-eyed blonde in one scene.
"No, dear," Benny-the-director explains. "It's 'What's in the road ahead."

Benny's show often featured popular singers and bands of-the-day, but all the performances in Best Of are by Benny himself. Although he always played these numbers for laughs, in at least one, a pop-psych number called "Garden of Love", he actually reveals himself to be pretty effective warbler. It's definitely a highlight of this collection.

There are also a few bits here that most definitely do not stand the test of time. While the show was clearly influenced by psychedelic music and fashions - there's even a too-brief bit with Benny skulking around a flower-powered disco, wearing an orange afro and peeking up go-go dancers' miniskirts, there's also a host of oddball "mod" sketches like one where Benny and a woman (Charmaine Seal) dance around wearing bizarre masks that would clearly throw anyone in the grips of an LSD trip into a sheer bugfuck panic; even stone-cold sober in 2009, it's a weird and creepy bit.

Ultimately, it's a mixed bag here, although it does contain at least two classics. My Dinner with Charlotte Fudge is a brief-but-uproarious bit where Benny is a guest on a fashion show that happens to take place at a dinner table. The host (Eira Heath) - Miss Fudge, I presume - attempts to update us on this season's racy styles, from micro-minis to see-through blouses, while a drunken Benny offers witty zingers in a blotto slur. Very funny stuff.

Then there's the collection's centerpiece, Tommy Tupper in Tupper Time. When we first meet star-of-stage-and-screen Tommy, he's zooming around in a sports car with a dramatic-looking brunette.

After accidentally mangling his ride and unceremoniously ditching the dame, Tupper walks into the studio and starts his talk show. He almost immediately loses all control of the situation, and things quickly devolve into mayhem. I've got to give it to Mr. Hill, that bit is fuckin' funny.

In summation: sometimes tedious, sometimes hilarious, The Best of Benny Hill is nonetheless an accurate representation of the show's earlier days. As the times became more permissive, so did Mr. Hill's show, and the 80's version offers much more for skin-fans to ogle. Still, the best bits are worth fast-forwarding through the worst bits. Who knows, they could be even funnier that way.

PS: Benny died of a heart attack in 1992. At the time, he had $20,000,000 in the bank, but still didn't own his own car. He was an interesting guy, that Benny.

Availability: Turn on your TV, man. Benny's on their somewhere.

- Ken McIntyre

1 comment:

  1. I used to watch this on Channel 39, the UHF channel out of Houston, when I was a lad. (It was eventually replaced by Monty Python, which screwed my head around all sideways.) I vividly remember a sketch in which there were three young ladies showering in one of those outdoor showers that seem to exist only in old movies. Benny, of course, somehow knocks the wall down, and lo and behold...there were three young ladies, on my late-night black and white TV, standing there completely starkers, with visible nipples, ass-crack and bush. It was only for a second, of course, but it was unmistakable full-frontal nudity on non-cable TV. It shocks me (the fact that it was on TV, not the sight itself) to this day.


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