Benny Hill: Prophet Without Honor?
a few thoughts from across the pond

by Erik Larsen

A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country and in his own house.
Matthew 13:57

Twenty years after Benny Hill's death, he does seem to be a prophet without honor in his own country. Although The Benny Hill Show has been broadcast, at one time or another, in one hundred and forty countries worldwide, and is still broadcast in the US, Canada, and several other countries even today, his reception in Britain today seems decidedly mixed. A search through the archives of the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the (London) Times shows that his name is used as a byword for a brand of hopelessly old-fashioned entertainment, full of sexism and other outdated attitudes.

However, it's only the "chattering classes" of Great Britain – those who are paid to make their opinions known in print, online, or over the airwaves – who seem to have a problem with Benny and his work. I've had the pleasure of making six trips to Great Britain: without exception, everyone I've spoken to about Benny has remembered him, and his show, warmly and with affection.

A 2006 documentary, Is Benny Hill Still Funny?, showed clips of his show to young people unfamiliar with it. They found his humor to be not only inoffensive, but also funny. The approval ratings given by this test audience were high enough that, if Benny were to have come along as a new comic at that time, a series of his work would have been commissioned.

Benny is commemorated with a Heritage Foundation blue plaque at his old home in Kensington, as well as a painting at the former studios of Thames Television. In addition, the campaign for a life-sized statue of him, led by journalist Garry Bushell and supported by Sue Upton, Barbara Windsor and rapper Snoop Dogg, among others, seems to have gained new life and momentum in recent months.

It's undeniably true that tastes change in entertainment, just as they do in fashion, food, visual art, and all other aspects of human culture. Sixty years ago, one of the most popular programs on American radio was Amos 'n Andy, in which two white actors played two stereotypical African-American characters. As recently as thirty years ago, The Black and White Minstrel Show, in which white performers donned blackface and sang Stephen Foster songs, was popular on British television. Changes in social attitudes since then have made it very unlikely that these programs will be revived anytime in the foreseeable future.

But artists who have been forgotten or fallen into disfavor can come to be re-appreciated. At the time of Johann Sebastian Bach's death in 1750, his music was seen as fusty and old-fashioned. Not until a century later, through the efforts of composer Felix Mendelssohn, was Bach's music rediscovered and freshly appreciated. And now, J.S. Bach is rightly considered one of the greatest composers in the Western art-music tradition.

Perhaps Benny Hill only awaits his Mendelssohn: someone who can convince the opinion-makers of Great Britain that yes, it's all right once again to laugh at the comedy of this man, whose greatest wish in life was only to make people laugh. But even if Benny never finds his Mendelssohn, he'll always have a place in the memories, and funnybones, of comedy lovers worldwide for whom the strains of "Yakety Sax" will always evoke a madcap, undercranked chase off into the distance.

The cornerstones of Benny Hill's comedy are thwarted desire and sexual frustration. As long as these continue to be part of the human condition (in other words, as long as we continue to be human beings) Benny's comedy will continue to be relevant – and funny.

– April 27, 2012