Reviews in Brief: Funny, Peculiar: The True Story of Benny Hill (Mark Lewisohn)

Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn brings the same pop culture awareness and spry writing style he lavishes on the Boys to Alfred Hawthorne “Benny” Hill, one of England’s most watched and — in public, at least — least admired comedians. You’ll quickly find that Lewisohn’s surtitle — Funny, Peculiar — is entirely appropriate, for what an odd, complicated, and interesting life it is, full of conflict, sadness, success, unrequited love, stage fright, a little luck, and quite a bit of genius.

You’ll get Benny’s early life, from growing up in a tightfisted family that made its money selling condoms to his brief military service and the odd jobs that would serve as the inspiration for later sketches. A lover of the stage — though terrified of audiences — Benny works his way through the seaside circuit (often as a straight man!) before finding his true calling, and talent, as a television comedian.

Those of us who know Benny only from The Benny Hill Show episodes that aired in the United States actually got to know Benny toward the tail end of his career, when clever comedy gave way to more suggestive sketches that had American audiences howling with laughter, but British critics and self-appointed purveyors of Good Taste groaning. Early in his TV career, Benny was admired for his quick-change ability (playing all the parts, for example, on a live version of “What’s My Line?”), his ability to mimic almost any accent, and his genuine charm. Even as Benny nipped the material of other comedians and (admittedly) raided old American joke books for materials, British audiences adored him, regularly voting him their favorite television personality well into the 1960s.

But as Benny’s fame soared internationally — his agent brilliantly marketed select shows for the new syndication markets in the early 1970s — his interest in even his own material waned, and Hill became a parody of himself, relying on bawdier material and deliberately pushing the censors to their limit.

Yet, those who knew Benny by his material would be surprised to learn that, privately, Benny was a very different man. Rather than a leering, dirty old man, he was haunted by fears of unrequited love — and love lost to an unworthy rival — yet once he was in a relationship, his standoffishness and apparent disinterest (which was most likely shyness) kept him from finding true love. And while he would never marry, he carried on extremely close — and secret — friendships with two disabled women for decades.

Even with his enormous fame and fortune, Benny was one of England’s famous tightwads, living happily in his parents’ unheated flat or in his own sparsely furnished apartment, eating great gobs of cheap food, walking everywhere, and generally baffling friends who would find uncashed checks for enormous sums tucked away in the back of a drawer.

Whether you’re a fan of Benny’s or not (and I am), you’ll be genuinely touched and saddened by Benny’s final years, watching his reputation decline at home, his sad rompings with the children and families of women he could have married, and his often fractuous relationship with his family. When Benny died in his flat in Teddington in 1992, his body sat for days, slumped in front of the television, before finally being discovered by police.

All told, a remarkable story, told in a typically wonderful, readable manner by Lewisohn.

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