Celebrities

50 years on and Bennys Ernie is still the most memorable Christmas Number one

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The song was one of former prime minister David Cameron’s selections when he appeared on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2006.

One of the reasons being, he explained, it was the only lyric he knew by heart, even though he was only five when it was released.

For millions of others it is equally familiar from the moment that Hill’s whimsical West Country burr begins: “You could hear the hoof beats pound as they raced across the ground, and the clatter of the wheels as they spun round and round.

“And he galloped into Market Street, his badge upon his chest, his name was Ernie, and he drove the fastest milk cart in the west.”

For Benny Hill, coming in a year when 21 million viewers already watched his ITV show, it was one of the high points of a career that would ultimately end in a lonely death, not long after that same show was dropped from the schedules and condemnation whipped up against his act, as being outdated and sexist.

Ernie had been recorded the previous year at Abbey Road Studios. It parodied the cowboy songs from the American country and western music genre. But, more pertinently, it harked back to a time when Hill worked for Hann’s Dairies in the Hampshire town of Eastleigh, not far from where he was born in Southampton.

If you go on YouTube, you can find the first time Hill performed Ernie, in a 1970 episode of his show, filmed in black and white because of a technicians’ strike at the time.

Accompanied by The Ladybirds, a female backing group who often appeared alongside him, the comedian performs this version to a much slower tempo than the eventual single. There are other noticeable differences. The lyrics refer to a “fresh meat pie” that caught Ernie in the eye when he bit the dust, instead of a “stale pork pie”.

In the No.1 version, “Ernie was only 52, he didn’t want to die”; in this earlier performance he was 68 – which would eerily turn out to be the age Hill was when he did die.

In the video – rare for the time – Ernie vies for the affections of a widow called Sue, played by actress Jan Butlin, with Two-Ton Ted from Teddington who drove the baker’s van – a performance of dastardly moustache-twirling from one of Hill’s long-time sidekicks, Henry McGee.

As well as topping the charts here for a month (keeping T.Rex from a third consecutive No.1 with Jeepster) it reached the same spot in Australia. Hill even received an Ivor Novello songwriting award for Ernie the following year.

It could be said that Alfred Hill – his real name – was born funny: his grandfather Henry and father, also called Alfred, had both been circus clowns. Yet by the time Alfred junior arrived in 1924, his father was running a surgical appliance shop which, among other future comedy props, sold sex manuals and condoms.

“Alfie’s dad sells Frenchies!” chanted his classmates. He attended Taunton’s School in Southampton, where a contemporary was John Stonehouse, the future Labour MP notorious for a Reginald Perrin-style faked death.

While the young Hill loved going to see the music hall comedians at his home city’s Hippodrome and Palace Theatre, he first worked in a stock room at Woolworth’s in Eastleigh when he left school at 14. But even there, after unloading deliveries and sweeping floors, he joined a local theatrical group and began performing a stand-up routine that won him a local following.

After his brief spell delivering milk, Hill moved to London to try to win acting work.

But war had intervened and he joined up in 1942, serving as a mechanic, truck driver and searchlight operator, before transferring to the Combined Services Entertainment Division to perform for the troops. After the war he briefly formed a double act with Reg Varney (who would later find fame on the sitcom On The Buses), and then appeared on the Light Programme’s Variety Bandbox, a radio show that also helped launch the careers of Frankie Howerd and Peter Sellers.

By this time Hill had changed his first name to Benny, a tribute to his favourite comedian Jack Benny, a 1930s radio favourite who became one of the first television stars in post-war America.

It was on TV too that Hill’s slapstick, mime and general seaside postcard humour found its natural home. His BBC show swiftly transferred to the new ITV, where it ran for more than four decades – instantly recognisable by its Yakety Sax instrumental musical theme – and the scantilyclad women who chased him round in the speeded-up footage of the closing credits.

His childhood idols had been Stan Laurel and, in particular, Chaplin. After the latter’s death in 1977, it emerged that Hill had visited his hero’s home and been taken into his private study by Chaplin’s son Eugene – to show him the Benny Hill videotapes on the shelf.

Eugene confided that his father had hugely enjoyed watching them during his final years and had been a great fan. Hill was moved to tears.

One of Michael Jackson’s biggest revelations when he first toured the UK in the 1970s was: “I just love your Benny Hill.” More recently, the rapper Snoop Dogg said: “The way Benny did it, he was just amazing. Just seeing how he put songs together and comedy and the timing and the sketches. He was way ahead of his time.”

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Yet, despite all the acclaim from fellow stars, Hill lived a frugal and reclusive existence.

He always lived in rented accommodation, within walking distance of the London TV studios where he worked, bought reduced price items while grocery shopping, and never owned a car.

He also never married, though he was said to have proposed twice to different women.

One of his few indulgences were regular trips to France, where he relished his anonymity and spoke French fluently. Yet even then he avoided the palatial hotels he could easily have afforded.

By the late 1980s, however, comedy was changing and Hill’s shows were linked with attacks on women. While Hill pointed out that it was the men in his sketches who were always the buffoons, the writing was on the wall.

His show was cancelled by Thames Television in 1989, despite earning the company more than £100million in foreign sales and still being shown in another 97 countries, including Russia and China. “The show was past its sell-by date,” explained Thames’s head of light entertainment, John Howard Davies. “Benny was all right when he was young, but when you’re in your 60s, it’s a slightly different matter to leer at a pretty girl.”

Three years later Hill died, in April 1992, found in his armchair in front of a TV, where he had been undiscovered for two days. He was buried in the same plot as his parents, near his Southampton birthplace. The £7.5million left in his will was divided between nieces and nephews.

This Christmas, the Freeview channel That’s TV Gold is repeating Benny Hill’s shows – his first time on screen in more than 20 years. But thanks to the laughter Ernie still provokes half a century on, he has never been forgotten, and that would have meant more to him than the many awards he received throughout his career.

After his death, many of those honours were discovered in a large box. Not one was on display.

Meanwhile, in Eastleigh, as well as the Market Street he knew, you can find a more recent road. It is called Benny Hill Drive.

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