Before achieving global fame with his long-running Thames TV show, Benny Hill enjoyed a successful career as a writer and performer of comedy songs.
Benny Hill Sings?,
Pye NPL 18133,
Before the comedy begins, it’s time for a little of yer actual erudition and education. It won’t last long so please try not to fidget and do feel free to take notes if you wish. Now then, in his definition of tragedy, this ancient Greek bloke Aristotle stated that the tragic protagonist should be renowned and prosperous, and that his fall should come about as the result, ‘not of vice, but of some great error or frailty in a character’. The tragic reversal of his fortunes (peripeteia for those of you still taking notes) should be brought about by a fatal flaw in character (hamartia), leading to self-destructive actions taken in blindness and ignorance. Did you get all that? Good, because that 2350 year old snippet of dramatic theory pretty much sums up how Benny Hill’s magnificent 50 year career ended so abruptly and tragically with his death in April 1992. See, now you’ve learnt something.
I’m sure that every comedy fan is well aware of the story that tells the decline and fall of Benny Hill. It is a story told many times, in various books, magazine articles and documentaries. Everyone knows the ending, as well as its pathos, tragedy and poignancy. They know too of the tale of a millionaire comedian feted by the world destined to die alone in front of a television set in an empty flat. But few know of the early days of Benny Hill, the successes that came before his fall from favour and the wonderful work he achieved. By the end of his career he may have been the stereotypical dirty old man relying on the recycling of elderly gags, but in his prime he had been creative, innovative and inventive.
That Benny Hill had been born at all was a matter of chance along with a fair amount of luck. In 1912, his father Alfred Hill had been lured away from a career as a circus performer and itinerant fairground worker to Southampton, tempted by the enticing prospect of a job serving aboard the Titanic. Thankfully for British comedy, that particular job offer fell through, and Alfred instead found employment in a medical supplies shop, Stanley & Co, that specialised in the discreet selling of condoms to the sailors and citizens of Southampton. Alfred Hill certainly didn’t seem to sample any of the wares he sold, as in 1921 a liaison with Benny’s mother Helen resulted in a pregnancy and a very hastily arranged wedding. Benny’s brother Leonard was born not long after, and in 1924, Benny arrived, initially billed as Alfred Hill Junior.
Abandoning a promising career in the milk delivery business, young Alfie moved to London aged just sixteen to pursue a career in variety. That fledgling career was interrupted quite rudely by the Second World War, the long arm of the law eventually catching up with the now renamed Benny as he travelled from theatre to theatre, desperate to avoid the call up papers summoning him to join in the fun in Europe. Unlike so many of his showbiz contemporaries, Benny did not use the war to further his career in comedy, instead spending his time driving lorries very badly through France as the Allies advanced on Germany.
After the war, demobilized and back on the variety circuit looking for work, Benny formed a comedy partnership acting as straight man to the tiny cockney comic Reg Varney. The turning point in Benny’s career came after a disastrous audience reaction in 1951 while appearing at The Sunderland Empire with Varney in the (up until then!) successful revue Sky High. To say Benny’s contribution to the revue went badly would be an understatement. His material was dropped from the show, the double act with Varney was brought to an end and Benny Hill developed a fear of the stage that would last for the rest of his life. Crippled by the live audience’s disdainful and hostile reaction to his talents, Benny instead turned to the medium of television and it was in the safe sterile environment of the TV studio that he would create his most pioneering and enduringly funny work.
Benny Hill also created many gems in the recording studio as well. He had released a steady trickle of novelty songs from 1955’s single I Can’t Tell A Waltz From A Tango onwards. While Benny’s agent had tried to persuade EMI’s novelty specialist George Martin to take his client on, it was a link up with Tony Hatch at Pye that would start a secondary career for Benny as a recording artist. Their 1961 collaboration Pepys’ Diary (b/w Gather In The Mushrooms) saw Benny first enter the charts, with the record peaking at number 12. Another charting single Transistor Radio was released in May 1961, followed by The Piccolo Song in December. After The Harvest Of Love, released in 1963, Benny seemed content to leave his career as a vinyl star to concentrate on his preferred medium of television. Tony Hatch though had other ideas and used his persuasive powers to coax Benny into cutting his debut album for Pye in 1965.
Many of the songs on Benny Hill Sings? follow a fairly simple formula. The framework of the composition exists mainly as a means to air a collection of old music hall gags, polished and burnished with some fresh rhymes and a cheeky delivery by the roguish Benny. Old and corny the jokes may be, but the songs are beautifully arranged by Tony Hatch and deliver some clever pastiches in a range of styles that rival anything George Martin created in his comedy career. On songs such as Golden Days for instance, there is an authentic folk sound reminiscent of contemporary acts such as Peter, Paul and Mary. The song is faithfully realised and suitably wistful, but its sensible chorus comes sandwiched between verses crammed full of a stream of insults and sexism, delivered it has to be said, quite beautifully.
That formula of silly verses, quick-fire gags and sensible choruses held together by Tony Hatch’s carefully arranged music serve Benny well on most of the album’s tracks. The story-telling of his later hit Ernie is not much in evidence. Instead the songs are full of the arch stereotypes and seaside postcard grotesques seen so often in Benny’s television work. Opening track Moving On has a full range of bizarre women described by Benny on an authentic sounding sixties r&b track; landladies, rich widows, and tattooed ladies all earn a mention. The Egg Marketing Board Tango sees Benny assaulted by a girl’s father to the accompaniment of a well realised tango composition. The tracks Wild Women and Rose see more outlandish and monstrous women as former lovers of Benny. Rose offers a choice line, describing someone as being ‘slower than a midget trying to climb a barbed wire fence’. What a wonderfully vivid image!
Occasionally, Benny abandons the strict formula of setting gags to music. On tracks such as My Garden Of Love he allows full reign to his pun creation skills, conjuring up ever increasingly convoluted gardening puns. Gems such as ‘beet-root to me’ and ‘face the fuchsia all alone’ are just the tip of the wordplay iceberg. What A World lists some extreme ironies that put the rather lame efforts of Alanis Morissette to shame. Stories of sorts appear on tracks such The Old Fiddler which sees a decrepit violinist scrape his last, and Jose’s Cantina in which we follow Benny’s attempts at romance before he quite rightly gives up and goes back to his wife.
Benny Hill Sings? is a sophisticated and clever piece of comedy that delivers some superlative examples of comic songs. Sadly for such a well-fashioned piece of work, the album as well the two singles taken from it (My Garden Of Love and What A World) all failed to chart and would cause the productive partnership of Tony Hatch and Benny Hill come to an end. After a switch of record labels to Columbia, Benny would of course enjoy the hit of his life with 1971’s Christmas number one single, Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West), followed by his second LP which this time made the charts.
Long before Ernie arrived on his milk round though, Benny Hill demonstrated an absolute mastery of the art of comedy songs. Here is one of my favourites, The Andalucian Gypsies, an authentically Romany sounding tale of love, intrigue, and a woman so dreadful and shocking it looks like she was won in a raffle. Oh Benny, how we miss you and your tawdry smut.