Robust theatre should not only entertain but also make its audience think and by think I don’t mean simply reaffirm existing attitudes, accepted realities and, worst of all, prejudice.
Now that can be a dangerous world. If the theatre is tackling, say, one type of audience or audience member’s unfashionable (for want of a better word) attitude to say homophobia, race, religion, politics it had praise heaped on it. If, however, it dares to ask us to think a little deeper about why we may have those views or, in the case of Benny Hill, why one person has been cast out and his undoubted global appeal and success airbrushed from cultural history the presenters are more likely to be targets for vilification.
The latter was manifested in a particularly frightening way when a re-enactment of the Benny Hill chase (a cross between Keystone Cops, Punch and Judy and Carry On sauciness) for a video scene in the play, had to be abandoned after a small but angry social media outburst of anger.
Now that play is on at Chapter and, as I suggested at the time of the social media hoo-ha, it is of course not an endorsement, a celebration, even an excuse, for the obvious sexism (and rarely mentioned racism) in the character/s created by Benny Hill. Rather it takes a look at the life and death of a performer who did indeed create characters for TV shows that had incredible appeal, who was lauded by such giants as Charlie Chaplin, had vast armies of fans and viewers in more than 200 countries.
It follows his wartime childhood, his slow and uneven struggle to achieve what the play says was his goal, to make people laugh and be successful clown, his unconventional for a showbiz superstar dislike for attention, dislike of excessive (some might say even normal) spending, money and semi reclusive lifestyle. His frugality which the press hounded him when they had turned on him is put down to the war time experiences. Yes, rather extreme but then I remember my 89-year-old mother crippled with weak wrists would not buy tins with a ring pull as they were a couple of pennies dearer, she had plenty of money but would chide me about her childhood in 1920 and 30s working class Edinburgh, with “You haven’t had your furniture taken away by the tallyman”.
However, these are all Benny Hill – or should we really say Alfred Hawthorne Hill – the man. He gave very, very few interviews, did not join in the celebrity world, was an astute business person who remained special by making a limited number of programmes (have realised TV and not the club/theatre circuit was the future) but maintaining profile in other ways, and concentrating more on developing the new medium of television comedy and inventing all manner of now commonplace comic genres and methods used subsequently by the likes of the Two Ronnies, for example.
There lies the problem for the man as all most of us know is the characters and not the man. It is as if we judged Christopher Lee on the traits of the character he is always associated with, Dracula.
Add to that a shift in cultural sensibilities against vampirism and poor old Christopher Lee wouldn’t have needed a stake through the heart – garlic would be everywhere.
The flaw in that analogy is that Benny Hill (the character) fell foul not so much of the public – his shows carried on being watched by millions across the globe long after his death and there are plenty of people who in private would agree he is a bit of a guilty pleasure but I wouldn’t dare say that of course. Rather, he was hounded by the media and dropped by the TV companies as the socio-political climate changed.
Oddly all manner of much more directly sexist and sexual comedy from that era was deemed, and is still deemed, suitable for broadcast and many of the sexist (and racist) stars are national treasures (Frankie Howerd, Sid James, Eric and Ernie, to name but a famous few and can I even suggest a fee soap stars still raking in millions.
Was he sacrificed by TV on its altar of washing its hands of its own guilt in commissioning such content? Of curse and dare we say plus ca change.
Does the play say all of this? Yes, but I think it could be said much more forcibly. There is clearly nervousness about how the play will be received and no wonder after the misjudged social media comments.
As a piece of theatre it takes the form of a monologue with some recorded voices for the character to react to as it takes a biographical journey through Alfred’s life. I am sure anyone interested will know he died alone in 1992 aged 68 and his body was not discovered for two days and it is the dead Alfred talking to us. The room he died in realised by designer Ruth Hall, an austere and basic period living room, and video clips are shown both on a TV in that room and then on the walls of the room Paul Whitaker has done a final job and the final chase is great. This works except on a few occasions when the chronology gets a little confusing (always the danger with flashbacks and then back to the now and back to a flashback). It also requires a certain knowledge of people from the period and their own careers (Reg Varney for example whose TV series On the Buses was far, far more offensive yet I am sure I saw the film that grew from the TV series broadcast not long ago).
Also, as he did not give many interviews, a journalist who interviewed him told the q&a after the show she had once been allowed to spend the day at the studio when he was filming and interview him in between the filming and tha as an astute businessman he agreed to do because oshe ran a syndication agency and it helped overseas sales.
He wrote no memoirs (that other great way of cashing in on success nowadays) and I assume few letters, initially making you wonder about the veracity of what is coming out of the actor Liam Tobin’s mouth as he gives a sensitive and transfixing performance of the man. Again, the sources of the presentation are revealed in the post show q&a.
The production is well crafted by director Gareth John Bale and there is a clear professional, creative affinity between actor director and the play’s writer Owen Thomas.
It was Thomas who wrote Grav which starred Gareth John Bale and it does not go unmentioned in the q&a that the author has moved from the life of a person no-one had a bad word to say about to someone no-one dares say a good word about. Thus the nervousness about the first night, whether there could even be protest or disruption, but in the event it was a large and intelligent audience who noticeably shared the uncertainty of whether to applaud at times but burst into applause at the end of Tobin singing one of Benny Hill’s cheeky word pay sings where at the end of rhyming couplets a “naughty” word is swapped with another safe word. Was the song sufficiently innocent to be applauded rather than some of the banter and direct jokes? Ironically if you actually think what at least one of the words that is swapped then it is was actually far more shocking (well, nothing as actually shocking at the time but was deemed as such with shifting cultural sensibilities}.
The create team stressed this is a work in progress and the refreshingly thoughtful post show discussion raised areas that they said they would indeed take on board I for one they also maintain their confidence in the project and perhaps just switch off social media and listen to people who actual turn up and give their reaction and feedback.
I would strongly urge you to go and see what you think of the show and perhaps be stimulated to consider both the undoubted comic genius that was Alfred Hill and perhaps even look in the mirror.
Chapter. 8pm tonight (Thursday September 7, Friday, September 8 and 3pm and 8pm on Saturday, September 9.
Images: Kirsten McTernan
Benny’s writer Owen Thomas writes about Benny:
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