Remembering Benny Hill 30 years after his death

Legendary comedian Benny Hill passed away nearly 30 years ago. Born in Hampshire, the comic was renown for his slapstick comedy, mimes and saucy humour. The Southampton comedian remains hugely popular around the world, despite some of his jokes not surviving the test of time.

He is mostly remembered for his television programme ‘The Benny Hill Show’, a collection of slapstick skits that included both live and filmed segments. Born in 1924 as Alfred Hawthorne, he grew up in Southampton and was son to a manager of a surgical appliance shop. Both his father and grandfather had been circus clowns, so it’s safe to say comedy was in his blood.

: The controversial Hampshire Greta Thunberg statue one year after unveiling that left Winchester students ‘mortified’ After leaving school, Benny worked in Woolworths, as a milkman, a bridge operator, a driver and a drummer. In 1942 he trained as a mechanic for the British Army, and in Normandy he served as a mechanic, truck driver, and search light operator.

Following the end of the Second World War, Benny took on another job as a performer on radio, making his debut in 1947. Three years later he would appear on television for the first time. No longer going by his birth name Alfred, he used Benny in homage to his favourite comedian, Jack Benny.

In 1955, the iconic ‘The Benny Hill Show’ aired for the first time, cementing the Southampton comic in history. At its peak show was among the most-watched programmes in the UK, with the audience reaching more than 21 million viewers in 1971. ‘The Benny Hill Show’ aired for more than 30 years, with Benny playing the protagonist in most sketches.

Over the years, he created well known fictional characters, such as Fred Scuttle, and spoofed real TV personalities from the era including Charlie’s Angels and Starsky and Hutch. Benny also starred in films, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and he played Nick Bottom in an all-star TV film production of William Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream. However, he is mostly remembered for his television sketches.

In 1989, having moved from the BBC to Thames Television in 1969, Benny announced the end of his popular sketch show, saying he needed time off. The end came after a number of criticisms that the programme was increasingly sexist, with the 60-year-old comic writing himself into sketches alongside young, attractive women. John Howard Davies, former head of Light Entertainment at Thames Television, told The Guardian newspaper: “Benny was all right when he was young, but when you’re in your 60s, it’s a slightly different matter to leer at a pretty girl.” The last episode attracted over nine million viewers.

During the late 1980s, the comedian’s health started to deteriorate and in February 1992 he suffered a heart attack. Doctors recommended a heart bypass, but Benny declined and a week later he was diagnosed with kidney failure. The comic was found dead in his Southampton home on April 20, 1992.

He was buried near his birthplace at Hollybrook Cemetery a week later. Over the years, repeats of his show have aired as 30 minutes edits in the UK and across the world. During Christmas 2021, an episode of ‘The Benny Hill Show’ aired on That’s TV, Freeview Channel 91, which meant that for the first time in nearly 20 years a full episode aired on national television.

While Benny Hill’s jokes may seem outdated to many now, it’s undeniable that the Southampton comedian had unprecedented success with his programme that aired for more than 30 years.

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