A friend was trying to remember what the Benny Hill music was called. “Yakety Sax,” I told him, with my head in my hands. Sorry: it’s in your head now, isn’t it? Whether you dislike it or hate it, that music is in your head and you’re thinking how painful it is that Benny Hill comedies were always about him chasing women in speeded-up videos. I know you think that because everyone thinks it, except perhaps for Anglophiles in America who for some reason see Benny Hill as archetypal British humour.
The thing is, he was. I don’t mean for those Yakety Sax videos and I am not trying to be revisionist and claim there was a lot more to Benny HIll – but there was a bit. I used to write a television history column in Radio Times magazine which meant spending a gorgeous lot of time in archives and finding unexpected things. Such as Benny Hill before the speeded-up videos.
Those were always written archives like Radio Times’s own issues but at some point, once I knew Hill had done more, I remember finding footage of him somewhere. And it was funny. Just a very short sketch where a reporter and an IRA informant are in a TV studio: the informant is supposed to be in darkness to protect his identity but instead the reporter is.
That’s all. Must’ve lasted only moments and the overt comedy was in the IRA guy’s reactions, his realisation. I remember it being a nice piece of acting, actually, a comedic double take that was laced with a bit of fear. Very nicely, that acting was from the guest actor playing the informant: Benny Hill himself kept a straight face. That’s pretty good: the star and possibly also the writer of the sketch giving the laugh to the guest.
I remember, too, that the comedy was really Benny Hill mocking television conventions, maybe even taking a poke at the media’s coverage of serious events. It wasn’t The Day Today but it was clever enough stuff and I believe Benny Hill did a lot of this. I can’t be sure because so little of his work is easily available but then that’s for a reason.
At some point in his career, Benny Hill found this Yakety Sax format and that was that. It’s our fault, really: we must’ve responded so much and liked it so much that he kept doing it.
We should all do things that get into everyone’s heads, we should all create work that lasts, though it would be nice if it were work that people liked remembering. I think Benny HIll effectively erased his comedy career by these speeded-up videos.
I wonder if he knew.
I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression will survive of us. I don’t expect to be remembered after the end of this sentence but equally, I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression we give people now.
I keep thinking about how Benny Hill is never repeated in Britain, I keep thinking about how I’m mostly fine with that, yet I also keep hearing how popular he is outside the UK. True, I hear that less and less – he died in 1992 so over 25 years since his last work – but I hear it.
I’m not claiming some statistically valid example here but it seems to me that the people who mention Benny Hill are all outside the UK and they are all either fond of him or at least not wincing.
I keep thinking of this outside opinion and particularly of how things are seen from other countries. How in one place or in one group of people you can be so caught up in opinions or issues that the rest of the world sees completely differently.
Yes, I keep thinking of this because of the idea of Britain leaving the European Union. My niece, working in Luxembourg, tells me that people keep asking her why David Cameron is campaigning to leave the EU. He isn’t, he’s publicly on the side of staying in, but that’s how he’s seen overseas.
Then people who are in favour of leaving the EU act like anyone else gives a damn. I bet most Americans are completely unaware it’s going on at all – why would they? – and I understand that across Europe the attitude is like, whatever, stay or go, Gallic shrug, get on with it.
You’re thinking I’ve taken a left turn since Benny Hill and you’re sure that I’ve done it to argue that the UK should stay in the EU. Actually, I do very much believe that and I am very much angered by the Brexit arguments and not just because I loathe that new word.
But my point really is a writing one: you can’t control what other countries think of your work, you can’t control what other people think of you – and you shouldn’t try.
I think it’s a shame that Benny Hill erased his reputation here and maybe he didn’t have to do that Yakety Sax thing so very often but he did it and he made an impact. We should all have people trying to remember the name of our theme tune a quarter of a century after our death.