|Benny Hill (1924-92) was a cheeky comedian who conquered Britain, then the world, but infamously despite being a multimillionaire thanks to his success, never spent his massive profits and preferred to live in a rented flat in London, his favourite pastime being watching television there, usually alone. Eccentric or miser? It's difficult to say, but you can lay the blame at his frugality at his father, who was similarly spendthrift in his ways and taught Benny much of what he knew about life, from showbusiness to his accounts. He would not take a taxi when he could walk, and his meals were the cheapest he could buy from local supermarkets; when he died - on the same day as fellow comedian Frankie Howerd - he was sat in front of the TV, reading Teletext on it.
At the time he was one of the richest Brits in the industry, though his reputation had taken a knock thanks to changing tastes, leaving him looking like a dirty old man rather than the cheeky chappie image he had cultivated for decades. That has haunted his legacy, with lurid tabloid tales emerging about what he expected of the young ladies he would have on his show for decorative purposes, though as he never married he was also the subject of gay rumours which would appear to be erroneous. But he was, and remains, an enigma, an intensely private man who would live his life as anonymously as he could, despite being one of television's most well-known personalities, rarely, if ever, giving interviews, and never writing so much as a few pages of autobiography.
With that in mind, going back to his first flush of success is very interesting indeed. He first hit big on television, his main home for entertainment, in the early nineteen-fifties, where he was one of the talents to truly capitalise on the possibilities of the small screen, much like the man his stage name was inspired by in America, superstar comedian Jack Benny. The obvious move from there would be to the cinema, and Ealing came a-calling for a vehicle entitled Who Done It? which was scripted by the studio's ace writer T.E.B. Clarke who had concocted such classics as Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob for them. The results? Well, audiences decided they preferred to see Benny on television, a curse of many a talent who made their name there trying to make the leap to film.
But Who Done It? was by no means a dead loss, indeed there's a lot of fun to be had in its less than ninety minutes which breeze by thanks to a professional cast and surprisingly, enough action for a straightforward thriller. Hill played a would-be private detective who wins a crime magazine contest and with the money (and a bloodhound) sets up his agency, only to luck into discovering a nest of foreign spies in London. He had a leading lady who acted as his sidekick, and she was intriguing in herself: Belinda Lee, the tragically shortlived star who at this point was being cast as foils to comedians, to a degree of her chagrin, for she would have preferred to have been essaying dramatic roles. She would be dead not long after in a car crash, her career having gone to the Continent.
It's a pity she had misgivings about her comedies, because she was highly adept at them, but one supposes she did not wish to be typecast. Hill had no such qualms, and was perfectly content to be the funnyman, as he was here, Clarke evidently penning something that would play to his strengths which meant lots of dressing up. There are certain comedians, ranging from anyone from Dick Emery to Eddie Murphy, who relished getting into costume and makeup for whatever reason, and Hill was one of those, so here he was able to play a corrupt scientist and a dowdy housewife on a TV show (one of the funniest bits in the movie) as he exasperated the police and wound up in a high speed chase out of a science exhibition (there was a curious science fiction bent to the story).
Who Done It? has been released on Blu-ray by Network, and among the extra features is a half hour short from 1969 entitled The Waiters, one of two such projects Hill made within two years (the other, the more poignant Eddie in August, showed up on television). It was an extended, silent sketch that had him and David Battley playing the title characters, recruited to Margaret Dumont-alike Pamela Cundell's posh dinner party and proceeding to wreak no small amount of havoc thanks to being wholly unsuited to this work. It had some of Hill's trademarks, thematically (a touch of leering bawdiness) to physical (slapping people on the head like he used to do to Jackie Wright on his TV programme), and was amusing enough, aside from an ending that was a bit too cruel.
Hill liked to sing, and his comedy songs are severely underrated, with their smart wordplay and sense of fun, all employing the double entendres like they were going out of fashion. He actually sang the theme tune to Who Done It? as a spoof of a fifties crooner, but his biggest song was Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West, which reigned as the Christmas Number One in Britain in 1971. He also brought out an album with it on the same year, and this is more Benny as his fans would remember him, Side 1 being a collection of his songs with their excellent lyrics, and Side 2 a few sketches and monologues. If you want to know why he was as popular as he was, and how good he could be, listen to Benny Hill Sings Ernie, which does not have the distraction of his at times smutty visuals and allows you to concentrate on his ability with the language: he is seriously impressive, and can still raise a laugh even with this material. Who Done It? too, is a lot better than some British comedians' vehicles from this time - maybe Benny is due a revival?
[Who Done It? is released on Blu-ray by Network in their The British Film line, and as well as The Waiters, there is a trailer and an image gallery as extra features. Click here to buy from the Network website.]