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Benny Hill saluted by the south
By Victoria Bartlett
BBC Hampshire & Isle of Wight

ny Hill as Fred Scuttle
Benny Hill as his most famous character, Fred Scuttle, doing the the reverse salute he was well-known for

One of the most famous Hampshire residents, Benny Hill, is being remembered in what would have been his 85th year.

Alfred Hawthorn Hill was born in 1924 in Southampton and grew up in Wilton Road, Upper Shirley, where he and his brother attended Taunton's School.

The comedy icon kept strong connections with the area - living in his mother's house in Westrow Road until he died.

Discussions are on-going to decide where a statue of Benny should be put.

Ernie in Eastleigh

Market Street
Market Street in Eastleigh featured in Benny's song about Ernie the milkman

Eastleigh held many childhood memories for him. When he was a guest on Desert Island Discs in 1959 Benny described his first ever romance, aged 12:

"I spotted a girl on a merry-go-round with a green coat and dark hair during a September carnival week in Eastleigh while staying with my uncle and aunt. And that was it - I fell like mad for this girl.

"My cousin Chris told me she took her father his lunch to his shop in Market Street. So every day in my school holidays I would travel six miles there in all weathers just to watch her do this and it would make my day. I never even spoke to her!"

The young Alfred also started his working life in Eastleigh - firstly in Woolworths in Leigh Road and, famously, as a milkman at Hanns Dairy in Factory Road, now Wells Place.

His exploits on a horse-drawn milk-float gave him the inspiration and material for his hit record, Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) - which reached number one in 1971.

His other jobs included a bridge operator, a driver and a drummer.

Woolworths in Eastleigh
Benny said he 'learned about people' while he worked at this Woolworths

It was at Woolworths that he found out about Ivy Lillywhite, who lived in Dutton Lane in Eastleigh.

She ran a music and dance group and organised light entertainment shows in the town hall.

He went to visit her and, having impressed her, she became his mentor and helped him to make the best of his abilities as an entertainer.

Benny Hill is born

He finally got a foot in the door of the entertainment industry by becoming an assistant stage manager.

Inspired by the 'star comedians' of music hall shows, Benny set out to make his mark in show business.

When he started to perform he changed his first name to 'Benny' in homage to his favourite comedian, Jack Benny.

I'm so thankful to have known him and been a friend of his. He was such a wonderfully talented and marvellous person.
Mary Knight, friend of Benny

The late Dennis Kirkland was director and producer for Thames Television, where Benny filmed his shows. He said:

"Ben wanted to become a comedian because the funny fat comics he saw at the variety theatres in Southampton with his dad were always surrounded by beautiful girls clapping and laughing. He wanted that to be him!"

Mary Knight from Shirley met Benny before he made a name for himself: "The first time I met him was at the Polygon Hotel when Benny was on the first rung of the ladder.

Mary Knight
Mary Knight from Shirley was friends with Benny who she calls "a one-off"

"My husband helped him put his make-up on before a show and he introduced me to Benny. He looked back at my husband and said 'I approve!'"

Benny's first job in professional theatre was as Reg Varney's straight man, beating a then unknown Peter Sellers to the role.

Over the years Benny created countless characters for his television shows. Many of these roles started in Hampshire according to Malcolm Dale - who has researched the comedian's life for the Eastleigh Historical Society:

"I think a lot of them began when he was in Eastleigh - he certainly started organising his ideas and future props there.

"He used to go to his local clothing store and ask for all kinds outfits that wouldn't suit him - much to the manager's amazement because he was unaware of Benny's involvement in the entertainment industry."

It was in television that Benny made his name, starting with his own BBC show in 1955.

Criticism over sexism

He was a God of British comedy. It's a real skill to make the whole world laugh like he did.
Gary Bushell, celebrity TV critic

He then moved over to Thames Television where The Benny Hill Show was a ratings winner until 1989 when a new Head of Light Entertainment, John Howard Davies, came to the company and sacked Benny.

Many critics accused Benny Hill of being sexist and politically incorrect with slapstick, burlesque, and double entendre being his hallmark. Whereas others, such as TV commentator Gary Bushell, feel that this view is unfair:

"If you actually watch one his shows it's the men who were the targets of his humour - they were inadequate and the ones who walked into lamp-posts and got slapped. Women always ended up with the upper hand and chasing the men!

"Women in Benny's shows faired far better than Carol Cleveland did in Monty Python - and women get a much worse deal in comedy today. Everyone loves British seaside postcard humour - it's really very innocent in comparison."

School friends

Benny Hill at school
Benny Hill (back row top right) when he was at Taunton's School

Benny had attended Taunton's School, which is now Taunton's College.

Alice Wrighton, now headmistress of the college says: "I was actually a pupil at the girls' grammar school which merged with the Richard Taunton's grammar school, where Benny was.

"But it wasn't until I came here as Principal and saw the Benny Hill garden out of my office window that I realised the link."

Mary Knight's late husband, Norman, was at Taunton's with Benny. Mary says that Norman never imagined that Benny would become the famous person he did. But their friendship was never forgotten by Benny:

Taunton's College
Alice Wrighton on one of the Benny Hill benches at Taunton's College

"We thought he wouldn't want to know us when he became very famous, but in fact he did, and we were very flattered.

"He came to our house and we reminisced about occasions we'd shared and had so much fun. I liked that he felt at ease with us.

"He was so sorry that Norman had multiple sclerosis but he would happily push him around in his wheelchair. He once took us out to the Hilton Hotel to treat us to a meal because we never got out when Norman became ill.

"Three months later I heard on the radio that he'd died. I'm so thankful to have known him and been a friend of his. He was such a wonderfully talented and marvellous person."

Remembering Benny

One of Benny's Southampton homes
One of Benny's Southampton homes

On 18 April 1992 Alfred Hawthorne Hill, aged 68, passed away, alone in his flat.

Just weeks before his death Thames Television had given in to viewer requests to see The Benny Hill Show repeated and showed re-edited versions, which went straight into the TV top twenty.

There was a personal ceremony in the city and also a memorial in London to celebrate his worldwide fame.

He had chosen to be buried next to his parents in Hollybrook cemetery in Southampton - less than 2 miles from his birthplace and family home in Westrow Gardens.

A campaign by private fundraisers is currently underway to get a statue of the comedian erected in Southampton but nothing has been confirmed yet. Discussions have been going on since the late 1990s.

Sculptor, Graham Ibbeson, created statues of Morecambe and Wise, Les Dawson and Tommy Cooper.

He was contacted by TV critic Gary Bushell who stayed in touch with Benny and thinks he hasn't been thanked enough for his work.

He was an absolute genius - I learnt so much from him
Bella Emberg, comedy actress

Gary has held variety shows to help raise funds for a statue. These shows have been attended by Billy Connelly, Wendy Richards and Barbara Windsor among other celebrity fans of Benny. Gary says:

"It amazed me who turned up to these shows. I always though he was a God of British comedy. But it's a real skill to make the whole world laugh like he did."

Graham has now made a 6ft 6in sculpture of Benny as Fred Scuttle saluting in the commissionaire's uniform and round-rimmed glasses. But the figure has no home yet.

Eastleigh and Teddington are other possible locations for the sculpture - Teddington being where Benny had a flat within walking distance of the studios of Thames Television.

Mary Knight says: "There should be somewhere people can remember the person he was and his talent.

A memorial is long overdue. He deserves it and he must not be forgotten. We must remember the pleasure he gave people and the city over the years."

Benny's grave
Benny's grave was desecrated after his burial by thieves wanting his jewellery

In the absence of a statue, there is a plaque on the Eastleigh Swan Centre, which used to be the Hanns Dairy where Benny worked.

Councillor Chris Thomas says: "We're very proud of him and his character and the connection we have with him. Especially the song about milk carts and Market Street!"

British comedy actress, Bella Emberg, worked with Benny on many of his programmes "usually as dragons or ugly ladies!" remembers first meeting him:

"I went to see him at the stage door after a show once - the crowds parted like the Red Sea and he walked through all alone and down the street - I just wanted to run after him and hug him because he looked so lonely and yet he was so loved.

"I never thought, years later, I would be working with him - and I never told him that either or he'd think I was being screwy. But he was an absolute genius and I learnt so much from him.

"I have a caravan in Bracklesham Bay and I'm a great cricket fan so I'm regularly down at the Rosebowl and always go and visit him for a chat."

The South Salutes Benny Hill is broadcast on BBC Radio Solent on Monday 28 December at 1300 GMT.




SEE ALSO
Ernie's journey
26 May 06 |  Magazine
Benny Hill show comic writer dies
01 Apr 05 |  TV and Radio
Archive saves film and TV adverts
29 Nov 04 |  TV and Radio

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