The Personality of Benny Hill

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The famous English TV comedian Benny Hill died in 1992, aged 68, in noteworthy circumstances. On the one hand, he left an estate worth over "7 million. On the other hand, he died alone watching TV in a modest rented flat and his death was not discovered for several days; he died of a heart attack, having recently left hospital after a previous one.

Contributors to a 2002 Channel 4 documentary somewhat misleadingly called Who Got Benny's Millions? tried to make sense of these two circumstances and failed. For they were thinking in terms of today's ideology, the market model of reality.

Miser or geek

According to the market model, a rich celebrity ought to spend freely: that way, the wheels of commerce are kept turning and a good example is provided for the populace. A rich celebrity who does not fit the model is inevitably going to be represented as some kind of reprehensible economic deviant.

Lonely and unhappy miser is one obvious stereotype: the programme applies this one to Benny Hill. Another possible stereotype is geek: this one is used if the facts can't be stretched to lonely and unhappy, if the person is undeniably happily married, say.

This article offers an alternative understanding of Benny Hill. It suggests that he was what we can call an overrider, one of those individuals who conform with the prevailing values of their society only up to a certain point, beyond which an overriding instinct forces them to look at life their own way.

Let's consider in turn the comic's relationship to money, to other people and to his work.

Victim of childhood poverty?

One of the Millions programme's contributors, a less successful comedian of the same vintage, Bob Monkhouse, labels Benny Hill a skinflint. He offers an explanation of Hill's attitude to money in terms of early poverty: his unwillingness to spend more money than absolutely necessary was a habit learned in a childhood during the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s.

This kind of argument is commonplace in discussions about comedians of earlier generations. It corresponds to one of the standard gag types of old: We were so poor ..., as in Billy Connolly's tale of wearing hand-knitted woollen swimming trunks in the sea at Aberdeen and Woody Allen's classic of being given an ant as a pet by his parents and told that it was a dog. But we cannot suppose that, just because comics told jokes about abject poverty in childhood, it was in real life an entrance qualification for the profession.

TV sleight of hand

The makers of the programme support the contributor's argument with footage of children in a slum street. But this is merely TV sleight of hand. You jump to the conclusion that Benny Hill is one of the slum children in the picture, when in fact you are looking at stock historical footage that could have come from anywhere.

Other evidence in the programme flatly contradicts the idea of Hill's childhood poverty. A class photo from Hill's schooldays is shown: none of boys look particularly poverty-stricken, as if the school is in a slum area. A school friend is interviewed, obviously middle class himself; he says that the comedian's father kept a shop. So it seems most likely that the family was lower middle class.[1a]

Again, we are shown a portrait studio photo of the Hill family: not something that the poverty-stricken would have afforded. The whole family is wearing middle class clothing, the father in his three piece suit, complete with watch chain, obviously trying to convey businessman status.

In any case, explanations of miserliness in terms of childhood poverty are always worthless when considered in isolation. The week of the Benny Hill programme was also the week of the 25th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. British ITV1 showed a film biography of Elvis and BBC1 showed a documentary, featuring members of his former entourage. Now there was a person who genuinely did grow up in poverty. But he did not turn to miserliness: the entourage testified rather to his great generosity.

Again, vast numbers of people in Britain suffered poverty during the Depression, but that did not turn the generation born at that time into a generation of misers. Quite the reverse: the general attitude of such people probably involved a determination to ensure that their own children had better lives materially than they had had themselves. This was no doubt a significant factor in the rise of consumerism in the 1950s and 1960s.

Disregard for money

In terms of the evidence provided by the programme, there seems to be no justification for the view that Benny Hill was a miser. Instead, it is clear that, quite simply, he was not interested in money. Another of the contributors had been a regular member of his TV cast of nubile young women and after that a long-standing friend of his. She says that when visiting him at home one day she saw a cheque for "500,000 just lying around: it could easily have blown away through an open window. This is testimony not of obsession with money, but of its opposite: disregard.

If, in spite of the evidence, this conclusion was not drawn in the programme, it is because the market model of human personality understands only two ways with money: spending it or saving it. If you spend it, you are a good guy, if you don't, you are a bad guy. The possibility of a person genuinely not being interested in money the one way or the other is utterly inconceivable.

However, it seems that one of the characteristics of overriders is their lack of interest in money. This can be understood as follows. Override is about imperviousness to certain aspects of culture to which the vast majority of the population conform instinctively. Having an intimate relationship of one kind or another with money is one of those aspects. Most people experience such a relationship as entirely natural, but overriders do not: a relationship with money is not really natural at all, but belongs to an area of culture that overriders just do not internalise.

Benny Hill and people

If we say that Benny Hill showed a lack of interest in money, are we also going to say that he showed a similar lack of interest in people? Well, to provide an adequate answer to this one, we again have to think in terms of override.

The argument here is that an overrider is a person who is perfectly capable of forming and maintaining healthy relationships, but who will not do so if certain culture specific requirements are involved. This is because an overrider is incapable of instinctively internalising and conforming to certain cultural messages.

Let's explore this particular aspect of override further, then apply the understanding gained to the case of Benny Hill.

Proximal and distal relationships

Central to the notion of override is the distinction between natural and cultural. As applied to personal relationships, it may be expressed as the distinction between proximal and distal relationships. [1]

Proximal relationships

When we look at human evolution, we can see that the relatively very recent steps towards civilisation involved a radical innovation in the way that people might relate to each other at a personal level. To primeval relationships based on ongoing physical proximity was added the possibility of relationships maintained from a distance with the help of various forms of mediation.

Primordial people cannot have had relationships maintained at a distance the way that people do today . Living out on the plains of Africa or wherever in tiny, largely isolated bands, people simply had kin and maybe a few others with whom they shared their entire existence.

In fact, up until almost the present day, the overwhelming majority of human beings have known only relationships based on ongoing physical proximity and existential interaction. Thus till well after World War II, working class people in Britain basically had relationships of this kind: with siblings, neighbours and workmates. These relationships were enduring because the population was not mobile. What is more, they were not qualitatively much different from the relationships of peasant forebears of the previous several thousand years and before that of the hunter gatherers.

It is possible to see that distal personal relationships came only very gradually into the picture as primeval hunter gather bands gave way to more and more sophisticated forms of social organisation, involving geographic and social mobility. Itinerant traders and craftsman and professional warriors would have been the sort of people involved.

Distal relationships

Distal mediation might have started with the exchange of gifts and symbolic tokens and later also included fraternal organisations of which masonry is a last vestige. Eventually, with civilisation, people could maintain relationships at a distance with the help of writing.

In fact, up until almost today it has been only the modern descendants of the early mobile groups, the middle and upper classes, that have conducted distal relationships.

The last 30 years

We can understand the social revolution that has taken place in Britain over the last 30 years in terms of the distal relationships spreading downwards in society to replace proximal relationships: as working class communities have been broken up and the mobility of the work force has been enforced in accordance with the market model of reality.

We may furthermore understand the present day social problems of Britain as the failure of distal relationships to substitute adequately for proximal relationships in most people's lives. This failure is not surprising. Proximal relationships are natural, the product of the whole of human evolution; distal relations are cultural: they need to be seen as substitutes for the real thing. E-mailing somebody every week, texting them every day even, are not the same as making eye contact with them every hour. [2]

Psychologists

Of course, psychologists are not going to see things this way. But then they are by definition middle class and view the world through middle class eyes, today in conformity with the market model of reality. They assume that what they take to be good for them, i.e. a life conducted largely in terms of distal relationships, must be good for the whole of society: just like Marie-Antoinette (or whoever) with her let them eat cake.

The implications of distinguishing between the natural and the cultural in human relations are enormous. For example, it is commonplace today to accuse men of being not as good at relationships as women. This translates as them not being as good at distal relationships in a consumer society: they don't remember to buy gifts etc.

But let's now apply this sort of understanding to Benny Hill.

Benny Hill and his Family

Another contributor to the Millions programme comments that the comedian's family showed no appreciation for his professional success in the early days of mass television. But no explanation is offered as to why that might be. However, override can make sense of the matter.

If Benny Hill was an overrider, one of the areas of cultural conformity that he was oblivious to at an instinctual level would probably have been distal relationships. He was doubtless a loving son and brother while he was at home, his family relationships proximal. But once he left home to do military service and pursue his career, and distal mediation was required, when letters, cards, gifts needed sending, phone calls needed making, things may well have fallen apart.

His stardom will have made matters worse. It is typical for stars to lavish gifts on their families once they have made good. But this will have been lost on Benny Hill, with his disregard both for distal relationships and for money. He will not have experienced any culturally mediated impulse [3] to share his success with his family, nor realised that they looked at life differently from him.

It is doubtless important to emphasise that while I am making a distinction here between natural and cultural in family relationships, the comedian's family will not have done so. Their presumably unrealised expectations of some kind of share in his success will have seemed perfectly natural to them from their conforming perspective.

And there is another consideration. It is customary for us to think of aristocratic families as being involved in a dynastic enterprise, of individual family members at the very least not bringing shame on the whole family. But the same applies to middle class families. For example, if you are middle class, the status of other members of your family is like the make of your car, a part of your own status, as in my brother, the doctor.

As an overrider, Benny Hill will not have appreciated this cultural nicety and probably failed to support the rest of the Hill family's instinctive efforts at status enhancement. Thus he may not have gone to social events where his family could show him off. It's easy to imagine his parents and siblings trying to explain to their neighbours and friends why their rich and famous family member didn't turn up in a Rolls Royce from time to time, lavishing gifts.

In fact, the programme did not reveal what kind of contact the comedian had with his family over the years. But it seems likely that it would have been fairly minimal. For I would say that while proximal relationships come perfectly naturally to overriders, distal ones feel somewhat mechanical and contrived to them. Consequently, overriders feel no urge to pursue distal relationships.

In the end, Benny Hill outlived the whole of his immediate family. His wealth went to his nephews and nieces, so you might say his family did benefit in the long run from his success.

Benny Hill and friendship

It is noteworthy that the contributors to the Millions programme were almost all collaborators, people who had worked on Benny Hill's shows. On the programme's evidence, he did not have any other sorts of personal friends, such as other celebrities. Indeed, it is inconceivable that anybody with his lifestyle, at any rate that of his last years, could have had celebrity friends.

Alcohol and sport

It is a very reasonable approximation to say that in our culture today, male friendships, meaning distal personal relationships outside the workplace, are mediated by alcohol and sport. Of course, there are exceptions, where some other activity substitutes for sport. Thus, sitting by me on a train recently, a trio of elderly men, retired teachers probably, talked loudly about their steam railway preservation activities, with accounts of associated drinking coming into the discussion.

The generalisation holds at all levels of society, with merely the details changing. There's no essential difference between the distal personal relationships of lager swigging football hooligans at one end of the social spectrum, of boozy celebrity golfers at the other and of all the gradations in between. In our culture, male friendships are about drinking together while talking about some shared interest, usually sport. [4]

Get a life

It is in this light that we can understand the putdowns, Get a life and You should get out more. What they actually mean is People who don't drink socially are not normal. See also the page on Human Time Today.

Cultural rather than natural

In fact, the generalisation that distal male friendships are mediated by drink and sport probably holds good for almost all cultures since the rise of civilisation. However, this is not to say that such relationships are natural rather than cultural. After all, civilisation arose so recently in human evolution that none of its manifestations can be considered natural rather than cultural. [5]

It is in this perspective that we must understand Benny Hill's lack of friends. A male overrider simply does not internalise the cultural signals that tell him that in our society a normal man drinks and is interested in sport, that anybody who doesn't is a nerd, geek or anorak.

Consuming interest

It seems instead that, typically, male overriders throughout their adult lives focus their attention on something that probably first engaged their interest during childhood. Any significant friendships that male overriders form in adult life are going to be with people who share their particular interest.

In the light of these considerations, we can conclude that, if Benny Hill was to whatever extent unhappy in his last years, it would not have been because he didn't have friends. It would have been essentially because his show had been axed, depriving him of what for him his life was all about.

Benny Hill's work

Another of contributors to the Millions programme, a long-time collaborator and in fact the person who had gone round to Benny Hill's flat and found he was dead, is keen to emphasise the positive side of the comic's work. He points to the innovatory aspects of Benny Hill's use of the medium of TV, ideas that were to become commonplace in TV comedy originated with him: such as the idea of the comedian himself playing all the characters in a sketch.

Presumably, the reason why the Benny Hill Show was eventually axed by the studio, despite its continuing popularity worldwide, was that it had become embarrassingly old fashioned. Most importantly, it must have been seen as sexist on account of the old seaside postcard humour.

Inability to change with the times

So, overall, we get the picture of a highly talented individual making a mark early in life, but failing to keep up with changing attitudes later. This failure has to be seen as another aspect of the comic's lack of antennae for cultural signals. With only his own logic to guide him, he probably could not see why the kind of material TV executives had been happy to screen 20 years previously should no longer be acceptable.

There seems to be a pattern here, fairly characteristic of talented overriders. They generate innovations themselves in their particular field of interest, but may be unable or unwilling to internalise subsequent innovations from outside themselves.

Innovation and consolidation

I suggest that the phenomenon in general may be explained as follows. In various fields of human endeavour, there are on the one hand moments when innovation is the way forward and on the other hand moments when consolidation is what is required. This means there are times when conventional wisdom needs to be swept away and times when it needs to be build on.

Now overriders characteristically think things out for themselves and are blind to conventional wisdom. So, given the necessary talent, they are going to succeed in their field at moments when innovation is required. But with the same talent, they are going to fail if consolidation is required.

So Benny Hill was successful because he came along when innovation was what the medium of television needed. But he failed in the end because he was incapable of consolidation when that eventually came to be essential.

NOTES

1a Childhood poverty?

19-09-11: In 1990, when Benny Hill was still alive, his older brother, Leonard Hill, published Saucy Boy: The Life Story of Benny Hill, apparently with the comic's approval. This made it clear that the family had been solidly lower middle class: the father was the successful manager of a mail order company selling condoms and owned his own suburban semi-detached house. We learn that from the age of 11 both boys attended a grammar school, a type of institution devoted to middle class education.

Biographies brought out at the time of Benny Hill's death in 1992, Dennis Kirkland: Benny: The True Story and Margaret Forwood: The Real Benny Hill, did not challenge the earlier account of the Hill family background in any way. The definitive biography is Mark Lewisohn: Funny, Peculiar: The True Story of Benny Hill (2002). This is factually exhaustive, though hostile in spirit, as its title suggests. It confirms the brother's claims of lower middle class origins. Now the Lewisohn work may not have been available at the time the programme was produced, but the others certainly were. There were no grounds whatsoever for the TV programme's suggestion of Benny Hill having experienced childhood poverty: other than a preference for a good story over the facts. [Back to Article]

1 Proximal and distal relationships

Compare this distinction with that between primary and secondary socialisation in Berger and Luckmann: The Social Construction of Reality (1966) [pp 149 sqq]. [Back to Article]

2 Mobile phones

We may understand today's obsessive use of mobile phones as people's attempt to recover the experience of proximality our society has thrown away. [Back to Article]

3 Culturally mediated impulse

The impulse is natural, the way it is expressed is shaped by culture. [Back to Article]

4 Alcohol, sport and human time

On the Human Time Today page, I look at the experience of time in relation to both drinking and sport. In both of these, the individual escapes from an assumed normal experience of time. The role of drinking and sport in mediating male friendships means that these friendships involve escape from normal time.

Female drinking

On a Saturday morning shortly after first getting this page on line, I was in a shop. The young woman serving me was simultaneously holding a conversation with a female colleague that went something like this. God, I feel terrible. I shouldn't have had so much to drink last night. - Yeh, but we had a lot of fun. - Yeh, you're right. It was well worth it.

Perhaps we can understand the increase in women's drinking in terms of the distinction between proximal and distal relationships. Part of the shift away from female domestic roles must be a shift of emphasis from proximal relationships to distal ones, which in our culture have always previously involved alcohol. Has women's drinking increased because they need alcohol as much as men in order to conduct distal relationships?

Again, will it sooner or later become apparent that the idea that women are better at relationships than men has arisen because like was not being compared with like, that women's mainly proximal relationships were being compared to men's mainly distal relationships? Will this particular difference between the sexes be eliminated to the extent that the lifestyles of the two converge? [Back to Article]

5 Friendship

Human relationships with kin are natural and friendship with non-kin may be natural, but the way any particular friendship is realised is shaped by culture. [Back to Article]

(c) John Durham, 2003-2006