Aidan Smith: Whether wokies like it or not, Benny Hill is our heritage

The phone rang in the newspaper office. The voice on the other end belonged to the man who would come to dominate comedy, the book bestseller charts and musical theatre. But right at that moment Ben Elton was angry. Very angry.

From beyond the grave Benny Hill has returned to our screens. PIC: Contributed.

“You wrote that review, didn’t you?” Er, maybe. “Then I want to see you. Come to the venue now.” This was the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, circa 1982, where Elton was performing stand-up alongside Rik Mayall and Andy De La Tour. Before heading out, I read back my crit. There didn’t seem to be much wrong with it. What was his problem?

The problem was we were at the dawn of alternative comedy and me awarding the show three and a half stars wasn’t quite confirmation of having signed my name in blood to join the revolution. The problem was that in alt-com everyone was equal so I couldn’t be devoting the bulk of my 450 words in our sister paper the Evening News to Mayall, no matter that he was much funnier than the others. This was my moment to tell Elton that I found his motormouth mockney ranting against easy targets like “Thatch” pretty tiresome, though of course I wimped out.

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But the real problem, he continued, not drawing breath as he outlined the mission statement, something which took three times as long as his act, was Benny Hill. Sorry? Old fart comedians clogging up TV with their sexist, racist, everything-ist humour. That joke wasn’t funny anymore.

Now I did bite back. Hill was by no means my favourite funster of that era but Elton seemed to want him obliterated. The alt-com gang were like the punks when they waged war on progessive rock, a provocation which inspired the New Musical Express headline: “The Titanic sails at dawn.” I liked a lot of punk but I’d grown up with prog. Similarly, I thought Mayall was brilliant in The Young Ones but the old farts had been my comedy heritage.

Wasn’t there room in the light entertainment schedules for everyone? Elton sucked in air and shook his head. Didn’t press-ganging Hill, Frankie Howerd, Dick Emery, Bernard Manning and the rest onto a doomed liner to be its cabaret turns contradict the equality dictum? “No, no, no,” was the exasperated reply.

One last try. To some extent I was playing devil’s advocate. But I was also starting to enjoy the wind-up. “Listen, Ben, you were an adolescent boy once. Your hormones must have raged, too. Strange, pleasant must have happened to your body. Didn’t you deliberately seek out a seat on a bus above the wheels, choosing the bumpiest route to school, to make the journey that bit more thrilling? For lads of my generation, watching The Benny Hill Show was like that journey, only without the boring lessons at the end, and it was absolutely crucial to our development … ”

Did he smile at that? A sneer, maybe, and I’ve sometimes wondered Elton left Edinburgh that summer having resolved to crank up the pressure on the old-school comics, wide of lapel and broad of humour, who had fallen foul of the new political correctness. Well, in 1989 The Benny Hill Show was axed. Three years after that Hill was dead, as unloved at the end as Howerd, who at it happened passed away the previous day.

But guess what? Benny’s back on the box. Deep-dive into your planner and down in the corners occupied by Forces TV, Local TV and Court TV, you will find nightly re-runs of a programme which at its peak pulled in moonshot audiences of 21 million. In fact, more watched Hill’s scuttling, speeded-up run than saw the giant leap for mankind.

How has this happened? Alternative comedy has come and gone, but how has Hill - invariably being pursued into woods by young women who would lose their clothing on tree branches - sidestepped the more ferocious forces of wokeness? I think it's precisely because of cancel culture that he's made a comeback from beyond the grave. He's a giant raspberry to the current climate of fear and loathing.

Irony of ironies: on the day The Benny Hill Show was disinterred from Comedy Hell, The Guardian had published a long article about rampant national debt and empty supermarket shelves causing the 2020s to resemble the 1970s. The piece was obviously written before the announcement Hill was returning because the “rampant misogyny” of Hill “chasing bikini-clad girls” had made him “unrepeatable”. How the old fool must have laughed at that from beyond the grave, and at the front-page headline in the Daily Star: “Benny Hill scuttles wokies.”

There’s a joke in there: Fred Scuttle, he of the sideways cap, wire specs and open-palmed salute, was one of Hill’s clown characters. Small point: as I’ve just mentioned, it was the women who ran after Benny. I always reckoned the joke was on him, that whatever his quest - romantic, entrepreneurial, just looking vaguely presentable - he failed every time. But then I was 14.

What would I think of his comedy now? A warning was slapped across the screen: “This programme reflects the standards, language and attitudes of the time. Some viewers may find the content offensive.” Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t aged well. There’s an awful lot of groping. Can I tell you I’m watching for the social history - men wearing cravats, smoking in restaurants, gags about Moira Anderson - or is that a bit like saying I subscribe to Playboy for the articles? Thought so …

But the wokies cannot be allowed to have it all their own way. Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right. And I wonder what Elton thinks about Hill now. After all, many punks secretly loved prog, Johnny Rotten later admitting to being a big fan of Jethro Tull and Van Der Graaf Generator.

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