Scuttle’s swan song

The Benny Hill Show

As political correctness gained considerable steam in the early 1980s, television networks on both sides of the Atlantic were forced to make content adjustments. One victim of the growing hyper-sensitivity to gender and ethnic issues was Britain’s king of modern vaudeville, the late Benny Hill. By 1986, The Benny Hill Show had been on the air for 17 years and, in the face of criticism from viewers and even fellow entertainers, its eponymous star was forced to tone down his more overtly sexual characterizations—like the unabashed skirt chasing of Fred Scuttle—in favor of heavier doses of pop-culture satire and innuendo-laden patter songs.

A&E Home Video’s three-DVD set, Benny Hill: Complete and Unadulterated: Set 6-The Hill’s Angels Years 1986-1989, showcases the last eight episodes of the show’s 58-episode run. For serious fans and collectors of Benny’s work, this set is a capstone, but for the casual admirer, these final episodes might disappoint. Content-wise, Benny’s time-tested formula of song, slapstick and pantomime changed little over the years, but some of the key players in Hill’s loyal ensemble are noticeably absent from these final installments, chiefly Jackie Wright, Benny’s diminutive, bald-headed sidekick who departed the show in 1983 due to declining health. The absence of Wright is a comedic black hole—his crumpled brow and jutting chin, grimacing under Hill’s incessant head-slapping, remains one of the show’s most enduring, and endearing, images.

The irony of the “Hill’s Angels years” is that while the most blatant sexual humor was removed to alleviate accusations of sexism, the wit was replaced by leotard-clad dancers. The “Yackety Sax” theme song is still there, as are the Keystone Kops-inspired chase scenes, and Hill’s facial expressions are still as potently hilarious, but, beginning in 1980, the dancer/actresses of the Hill’s Angels were featured more prominently. Their sketches with Hill are perfectly funny, but their dance interludes—in the style of another ’80s television staple Solid Gold—are a stale distraction.