Ben Elton made a headline-grabbing allegation…that The Benny Hill Show incited crimes and misdemeanours. "We know in Britain; women can't even walk safe in a park anymore. That, for me, is worrying." A writer in The Independent newspaper, though, opined that Elton's assault was "like watching an elderly uncle being kicked to death by young thugs". GQ magazine stated, "pompous and portentous as this is, blaming Hill for rape statistics is like pointing a finger at concert pianists for causing elephant poaching".
I think Elton kind of apologised for this ill-judged comment when he later parodied himself in Harry Enfield & Chums as Benny Elton, a politically correct spoilsport, in which Elton ends up being chased by angry women, accompanied by the "Yakety Sax" theme, after trying to force them to be more feminist. But does he have a point?
Here’s a quote from some blog about the popular comedy Up Pompeii starring the great Frankie Howerd: ‘It's fun, frothy, undemanding, and funny. It is also a classic example of the 1970s tits-and-bum farce model of comedy: sexist jokes, heaving bosoms, short skirts, tacit approval of male promiscuity whilst disapproving of the same behaviours in women and everything moderated purely towards the male gaze.’ This is also true of The Benny Hill Show, and it is hard to disagree with.
Here's the Pompeii plot:
‘The series is set in ancient, pre-eruption Pompeii, with the players bearing Latinised names suggestive of their character. Howerd is the slave Lurcio (pronounced Lurk-io); his bumbling old master Ludicrus Sextus (Max Adrian), the promiscuous wife is Ammonia (Elizabeth Larner), their daughter Erotica (Georgina Moon) and their virginal son Nausius (Kerry Gardner). Nausius is the odd one out, or maybe just the odd one: a nice, sensitive person. He’s always falling in love and composing ridiculous odes read aloud by Howerd which should end with some cheap vulgar last rhyme (‘here it comes’ says Howerd) which the innocent Nausius cannot articulate. But we can. Other regulars are Senna the Soothsayer (Jeanne Mockford) who constantly warns of impending death and destruction – ‘I had a visitation during the night’. ‘Yea, I thought you looked a bit washed out today’ replies Howerd, and, early on in series one, Plautus (Willie Rushton) a semi-godlike figure, making pithy comments from a location somewhere between the clouds and Mount Olympus. Guest stars included several actresses from the Carry-On film series, including Barbara Windsor, Wendy Richard, and Valerie Leon”. We’ll come on to this later.
The format was an exotic backdrop for an endless series of double entendres and risqué gags from Frankie who is invariably interrupted by the doom-laden warnings of Senna, or the demands of his master or mistress.
Sexist portrayal of women in revealing dresses prominent heaving bosoms, sure, but certainly not victims. Ammonia and Erotica are comfortable in their flirtatious roles, they are confident, strong women who desire as well as being desired. Whereas Lurcio and the aptly named Ludicrus Sextus are utterly sexually inept. They are shown to fail constantly, which is the point of farce. Ironically, Frankie Howerd and Max Adrian were gay, which means that we have a series anchored by two homosexual men acting out the worst stereotypes of heterosexual men for laughs. I’m not sure that this subversion contributes to the argument as we the audience probably wouldn’t have known this. Just thought I’d mention it.
What is significant is that Howerd constantly breaks the fourth wall with asides to the live studio audience which go unheard by the other characters (a device harking back to classical theatre). He is also repeatedly criticising the script. This adds not just another level of entertainment, it adds distance.
Two links to the ‘national treasure’ of the tits-and-bums approach to comedy, the Carry On films. In an episode called Nymphia, the Sextus family is horrified when Nausius brings home his prospective bride, a woman Ludicrus recognizes from his visits to Pompeii's strip clubs. The woman is a larger than life, bosom-heaving, crude working class cockney, the one and only… Barbara Windsor. No victim she. The second is script writer Talbot Rothwell who also wrote the lion's share of the Carry On series. In these films we have much of the above and with the stereotypical gender character roles, but, inverted. The women invariably are the dominant sex and invariably end up on top. Oo er missus.
And now to The Benny Hill Show.
‘The Benny Hill Show features Benny Hill in various short comedy sketches and occasional, extravagant musical performances by artists of the time. Hill appears in many different costumes and portrays a vast array of characters. Slapstick, burlesque, and double entendres are his hallmarks. Critics accused the show of sexism and objectification of women, but Hill argued that the female characters kept their dignity while the men who chase them were portrayed as buffoons (due to silly predicaments that the men themselves caused to the women (probably because the male characters find them "attractive" to them)).
The show is a rerun of the familiar, we know the format, characters, and outcomes, but it was also innovative. It often uses undercranking (- involves filming at a slower frame rate so that the action is sped up when played back, as in car chases, for example) and sight gags to create what Hill called "live animation", employing comedic techniques such as mime and parody. The show typically closes with a sped-up chase scene involving Hill and often a crew of scantily clad women (usually with Hill being the one chased, due to silly predicaments that he himself caused), accompanied by the instrumental Yakety Sax (written by Boots Randolph), in a homage to the (utterly unfunny) Keystone Cops.’
I think the same critique of Up Pompeii and Carry On films apply to Benny Hill and the Benny Hill Show. Women in revealing, low-cut dresses, sexual objects, voyeuristic images. All true, obviously. But like the other examples the men are always inadequate and, at the end, an image of ridicule.
There is also context: The Benny Hill Show, Up Pompeii and the Carry On franchise were of their time. A time which included The Black and White Minstrel Show for God’s sake. For certain, the audience that these comedies are aimed at must be male, surely, but I think that these shows would have been watched by ordinary (mainly) working class couples together on their tv’s. But even as I write this, I am feeling less sure, less confident. But I do honestly believe that these shows have the character of the naughty seaside saucy holiday postcard humour made manifest, come to life. They do embrace farce, an innocence, a sense of daftness and fun.
But I am also aware that the 'portrayal of women in revealing dresses prominent heaving bosoms' cannot be just slapstick humour. These images are by necessity viewed through the male lens. It really isn't that big a leap to the Page Three topless women, Playboy and Men Only crap. The sexualised image of women as marketable commodities. After all, we live in a capitalist society and one which was then, and still is, male dominated.
Anyway, back to the prologue… The Benny Hill Show. I am going to close by inviting you to watch a clip from the show called ‘Fun in the kitchen’ with Hill & Bob Todd playing Fanny and Johnny Craddock (December 1971). As with Howerd’s narrative, Hill’s delivery is intended for the audience, us, the viewer. Hill embraces the femininity of the character superbly. This is not Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot. He is wearing a sober black dress and jewellery. His countenance is one of dignity which contrasts absolutely with the uncontrollable alcoholic persona of Johnny. Whenever Fanny leaves a bottle of wine unattended a hand snatches it off the table. Some of the jokes are made funny eg Fanny declares she is making ‘Chicken a la Freud’ otherwise known as ‘Freud Chicken’. The joke has no legs (got it?), it isn’t funny, but knows it’s not funny and so do we, and that is funny. Maybe. The comedic timing of Hill is sublime ‘Don’t do that Johnny’ as he passes behind to put the chicken in the oven. Anyhow, as the short sketch progresses, Johnny gets more and more pissed until we get Bob Todd’s utterly hilarious monologue after delivering a jug of cream. How on earth could the sketch continue, how could it follow that. The return of Fanny Craddock to the kitchen table, an egg, and the comic genius of Benny Hill. That’s how.
‘Fun in the kitchen’ starring Benny Hill and Bob Todd (you might have to turn the volume on…).