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BENNY HILL: THE NAUGHTY YEARS 3

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Benny Hill, Henry McGee, Rita Webb, Jack Wright, Jenny Lee-Wright
Audio:  Dolby 2.0
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  A & E 
Features:  See Review
Length:  500 Minutes, three discs individually packaged
Release Date:  July 26, 2005

“Ted!”

“Elsie!”

“I’m wearing black on account of my dear departed husband…”

“Might I ask when he departed?”

“About ten minutes ago, but he won’t be back ‘til six….”

Film ***

Before comedy became either insultingly stupid, mindless and inane, or caustically cruel, there were shows with skits which harkened back to vaudeville, when comedy was meant to make us laugh and forget our troubles.  Do you remember those?  Benny Hill knew how to do this type of comedy.  As he showed time and time again, comedy was supposed to be fun without insulting the viewer.  He often did this with his slightly sped up sketches with only music and no dialogue, like an old silent film accompanied by a piano or organ.  

Benny was also unusual in that he mostly wrote the entire show himself (and all of the original songs) instead of resorting to a team of writers who acted as a comedy factory.  He rarely appeared on anyone else’s shows, preferring to work with his great cast.  None of these episodes were ever shown in their entirety in the U.S. until now.  They were chopped up into smaller segments to fit American syndication schedules, much as the original U.K. Beatles releases were.   That fact alone makes these discs a special find. 

It is hard to believe that pretty women in bathing suits were once considered risqué when modern shows like NYPD Blue practically required nudity and Howard Stern and Sex in the City pretty much ripped away any other pretensions of modesty.  But unlike any of those shows, Benny Hill’s shows were, and still are, really hilarious without defaming anyone else.  While Hill is mainly thought of as a bawdy old man with pretty girls on his shows, the girls were usually important players in the skits.  While a bit dry in the usual British manner, the naughtiness was always mild and harmless. There is almost a complete lack of mean-spiritedness in his routines, and they usually ridicule the men and only mildly objectify the women.  Russ Meyer always claimed to have the same attitude.  This show reminds me of the Rodney Dangerfield and Johnny Carson 70’s style of wacky humor in which everyone is a clown.  The send-ups of Starsky & Hutch (Husky & Starch) and the skits “Bionic Baby” and “Murder on the Oregon Express” alone were worth the set. 

Season Three has more spunk and fire and definitely moves along at a brisker pace than seasons one and two.  I enjoy the musical numbers largely because they are mostly female, uniformly excellent, and pre-disco 70’s.  I think these were the segments usually cut when shown in America.   There are ten episodes spread over three discs, each episode being 50 minutes.  Apparently only one episode was shown per month in Britain according to the dates on the packaging, but that is not surprising considering how fast the episodes move along compared with American variety shows of the same era.

Benny Hill’s shows are sometimes hard to follow without subtitles since the accents vary widely and the audio is not the best.  His shows also lack the zingers and one-liners which we come to expect from Seinfeld and Raymond.  But one exchange in particular shows that far from objectifying women, Benny understands them and perhaps looks up to them.  This conversation starts when a girl that Benny’s character (Harry) goes off with someone else and Benny is feeling awkward with her less attractive friend (Edie):

“But you must understand, Harry, that even if a woman isn’t much to look at, she needs to be loved, just as much as a pretty girl…more so, because she needs reassuring, can’t you see that, Harry?  Harry, I want you to do something for me.  I want you to ask me to go out with you.  Ask me nicely, as if you really wanted to.   Please, Harry.” 

“Edie, I’d be very proud, really honored, to take you out tomorrow night.”

“Say please, Harry.” 

“Please, Edie, will you come?”

“NO!!!” 

Video **1/2

Remarkably clear for its age, few artifacts but some poor lighting and of course the limitations of British TV production and the tape production are mostly to blame.  I can’t tell if anything was cleaned up or remastered, since it is not bad looking, but just not as sharp as most American programs made in the same era. 

Audio **

Only Dolby Stereo, and sometimes poorly recorded by modern standards.  There is no close-caption as the Amazon page says there is.  This is a shame since the myriad of British accents used are difficult for a “colonist” like me to understand.  I can’t tell if it was cleaned up at all for DVD release.  More than likely this was merely a reflection of normal TV audio at the time and can’t be corrected. 

Features **

I failed the Benny Hill Cheeky Challenge Trivia Quiz #3 miserably, but it was fun to play.   The other feature is the rare silent movie Eddie in August, which honestly was too dry for me, but its rarity makes it a find for TV buffs.   It reminds me of the “lost” South Park “Terrance and Phillip” episode, which I could not really get into but that hard-core fans might appreciate.

Summary :

Benny Hill’s shows had aged gracefully, and are shown here in their entirety for the first time in America.  A valuable find that will remind viewers that old fashioned TV comedy was flourishing in Britain long before Laugh-In and SNL. 

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