Following on the success of our programme on Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, in 1991 the BBC arts series then commissioned Saffron Productions to do a documentary on a somewhat different personality. I had long been a fan of Benny Hill. To me he represented the very best in the good old style of Music Hall comedian. When I was young I saw him as a small time act on the bill at my local Finsbury Park Empire, and, like his contemporaries Peter Sellers, Tommy Cooper, and Terry-Thomas, he brought the house down with his mischievous impersonations of his fellow human beings. Yes, that really is the right word for Benny’s humour – mischievous, just like those bawdy seaside postcards we used to buy when we went on our annual holidays. There had never been anything smutty about Benny’s shows; he was first and foremost a family act, and, as it turned out, a hard act to follow.
When I first approached Benny to let us do a documentary about his life, he was very apprehensive; too many misinformed people, including one particular individual in his own profession, had accused him of being offensive to women, which hurt him considerably because it simply wasn’t true. Their remarks, it seemed, were based mainly on that final few moments behind the end titles of every one of his TV shows, in which, Benny, wearing his usual tatty old raincoat, was chased by a horde of scantily-dressed girls.
The gag, misunderstood by his critics, was that he was the one being chased, not the girls, and he always got the worst of any situation, whether it was walking into a lamppost whilst staring in hope at a couple of girls on the other side of the road, or waving with a wide cheeky grin at a girl at a top floor window whilst he plunged down through a manhole in the pavement. How I loved that cheeky grin. It was like a naughty schoolboy. So how did we finally persuade Benny to do the programme? Well, it’s a long story, one that you may like to hear about if you email me. But this much I will tell you. Benny and I soon discovered that we shared a real love: the Music Hall.
When we made the programme, we had no idea just how popular Benny was throughout, dare I say it, the entire world. Benny’s television shows had been shown in every country, and in practically every conceivable language. To see him with voice dubbed into Mongolian or Chinese or Latvian or Brazilian was something David and I were treated to during hours of research and editing. In the film itself, we even had Benny in hilarious conversation with the little man who dubbed his voice into French, despite the fact that Benny himself was a fluent French linguist! Can you imagine trying to impersonate those vocal expressions!
But somehow – it worked, and the French public adored Benny, so much so that the French television channel, FR3 came into a co-production with us, the BBC, and Thames Television to make the programme. Oh what jolly larks! Needless to say it was an expensive film to make, taking us to such hallowed locations as Hollywood, France, Switzerland, and Teddington-on-Thames! In Vevey, Switzerland, Benny was awarded their most prestigious comedy award, quite something for a town where Charlie Chaplin had lived for a great deal of his life. In fact Charlie’s son, Eugene told us that his father had always thought that Benny was the one person who could follow in the footsteps of the legendary film comic.
When we had finally completed filming, Benny looked at the rough cut and asked me why David hadn’t included an interview with his friends Frank and Michael. ‘Who?’ I asked, indignantly. ‘Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson,’ replied Bennie, quite matter-of-fact. ‘Why didn’t you mention them to me?’ I returned. ‘Cos you didn’t ask me,’ replied Benny! In fact, we had a queue of great names from the world of international show business who wanted to pay tribute to Benny, but we just didn’t have room for them all. However, we did manage to squeeze in Burt Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, and Michael Caine – amongst others!
Soon after the film, "BENNY HILL - CLOWN IMPERIAL", was shown for the first time, Benny died very suddenly. Like everyone else who knew him on and off the screen, we were all devastated. Benny was a very special person, who enjoyed the simple things of life, and appreciated nature in all its many manifestations. He was a clown with a heart.
I still miss that cheeky, mischievous grin.