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BENNY HILL: THE COMPLETE MEGASET

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: 2900 Minutes, 18 discs
Release Date: October 30, 2007

“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….”

Show ***1/2

It is almost inevitable that as each season of a television show is sporadically released, there will eventually be a boxed set of the whole run, sometimes with some more extras thrown in to entice the serious fans who may have already bought all of the previous releases.  This particular set as far as I can tell is simply the already released seasons combined into one tidy box that fits nicely on your shelf.  There is a different  set, “The Complete Collection,” which as far as I can tell is the same thing but with each season in a separate box as originally released, so it takes up far more room on your shelf without any differing material.  That collection costs more than this one and while I do not have both sets in front of me to compare, they are otherwise the same.  A&E has merely given the shopper two different options of packaging. 

There are 58 full length episodes, 585 classic sketches, and 18 discs in all.   There does not appear to be a featurette here that was not previously released, so serious fans do not have to buy this set and all of the previous releases also.  Thank you to A&E who as usual continues to offer good releases of good material.

Some reviewers claim that these DVD releases have been heavily edited from the television versions shown in America but the label description claims that they are complete and unedited.  Since the unedited versions have never been shown on American television naturally I cannot swear that this is true, but as lengthy as these shows are, I cannot imagine that the original British versions were longer.  It is true that by 2007 standards, these shows are not risqué at all.  Actually by 1970’s standards they were not either, but naturally television censors were inconsistent about what was allowable and what was not, and television lagged far behind movies in the movement toward skin on the screen.  So it is a shallow criticism to say that the unedited versions cannot be correct just because they are chaste by modern standards. 

In any case, The Benny Hill Show was always good for a dry, witty, smarter-than-it-seems laugh, especially in the earlier years.  By the late 1970’s he was tired of being censored because of the often scantily clad ladies he featured in his skits, so (according to featurettes included in the discs) he incorporated them into more skits so that censors would have had to ax the entire show.  Unfortunately this artificial ploy led to sketches that were silly rather than funny, and fed fuel to the fire that Benny was exploiting women.  He always respected them but inserting them into the sketches as window dressing rather than part of the “plot” lessened their quality even as video production values increased over the years.  As with so many shows, rock bands, and relationships, the early years are the most enjoyable. 

Benny Hill successfully combined burlesque with pages and pages of new songs and skits (he wrote all scripts and songs himself) into a modern comedy juggernaut.  While it may seem low-key or dry by modern standards, it will take you back to a different era and has aged much better than bigger hits like Love American Style or The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its nauseating spinoffs.  I am a huge fan of MASH, but honestly after a long day I’d rather see pretty girls make fun of Benny than listening to Hawkeye and BJ repeating themselves and whining like children.

Video **1/2

Naturally the footage from 1969 is poor compared with later years but actually none of it is bad considering the age of the analog tapes.  It is comparable to American television standards of contemporaneous years.

Audio **

Only Dolby Stereo, and sometimes poorly recorded by modern standards. This is a shame since the myriad of British accents used is 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.  It is serviceable and does improve slightly toward the end of the show’s run. 

Features ***

All of the “Cheeky Challenges” are here now (I flunked the first few and did not try the others.  Perhaps I was….distracted when watching the episodes).  The best feature and the one I recommend to watch first is the “Laughter and Controversy” episode of A&E’s award-winning series Biography.   There are other less interesting features such as “Eddie in August;”  “I Was A Hill’s Angel” Featurette; “Hill’s Angels: Off the Record Featurette;” “Hill s Angels: In Conversation Featurette.”  There is also a bonus documentary: “The World s Favorite Clown.”

We learn from these features that Hill was a lifelong bachelor who spoke several languages and is still thought of fondly by “his” angels.

Summary:

American television has often taken British or European game shows and comedies and reworked them into slicker, funnier products, but we have yet to produce someone whose talents in comedy, music, and writing have been so productive for so many years.  Hopefully these discs will preserve his wide-ranging talents before burlesque television went the way of the 8-track tape.

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