Actor and writer Mark Carey brings his daring new play What’s Wrong with Benny Hill? to Ilmington next week
Despite still being hugely popular all over the world, in Britain Benny Hill has been cancelled. A new play written by Mark Carey, and co-starring Dani Carbery, puts the comedian back in the spotlight. With the Yakety Sax theme tune tunnelling a whole in her ears, Gill Sutherland meets with the actors ahead of its run at Ilmington Village Hall next week.
Mark you’ve written some amazing plays – reimagining Henry V and a look at the royal Christmas broadcast from Ilmington, among others. So why is Benny Hill the subject of this one?
Mark: I’d been thinking about writing a new play… I was working with a Welsh actress called Mia, I said to her one day, would you ever go and see a apply about Benny Hill? She’s a feminist and an intelligent woman, and she said absolutely not, but she agreed she would go and see a show about Jimmy Savile. I realised after that conversation that I couldn’t do a play that says ‘isn’t Benny Hill great?’. It needed to challenge how unpalatable it became by the end of his career.
There are no plays about him, unlike Hitchcock, Frankie Howerd, Morecambe and Wise, etc. He left £7million, it should have been five times that as he was huge in China and America and the big markets. He left loads of uncashed checks – he didn’t care about money - he lived in a modest flat and wore all the same clothes for years and years.
He was an innovator - Charlie Chaplin thought that Benny Hill was the best comedian, yet no one in the UK really talks about him much. I find that interesting.
For readers who don’t recall, there was lots of slapstick, leering, sexism, childish innuendo and zenophob in his famous TV programme The Benny Hill Show which ran on prime time TV between 1955 and 1989. How are you taking that into account?
Mark: A lot of it is unpalatable now, especially the later stuff when he blacked up, and women are bending over showing off their knickers... There is one particular sketch we reference at the end of the show and it’s horrific, it’s a rape joke essentially. So I thought there’s got to be a way of making a play about this man…
I’ve always very interested in that thing about the art and the artist.
The other thing about Benny Hill, when he started in the 50s, he was the first TV Star that was cutting edge. He was the first person to do panel shows and take the mickey out of commercials. He wrote a sketch where he’s taking a budgie back to a shop because it’s died and he wants his money back (sound familiar, Monty Python?). He did a routine where he does breakfast to music like Mortimer and Wise - he was there right at the start and invented a lot of what comedy became.
Then when alternative comedy came along, he was you know he became a bit like Larry Olivier – who obviously had a long career but when he started he was modern and had the voice and beautiful method-type acting and by the end he was considered an old ham. He hadn’t changed but the times had.
With the whole cancel culture thing I just thought a play, not ‘about’ Benny Hill as such, but why isn’t it acceptable to watch.
The other point I make in the play is loads of other comics still considered great – Monty Python, Spike Milligan, Lenny Henry even, did all sorts of dodgy material back in the day. Milligan did a skit called curry and chips where he was browned up, with a turban, wobbly and was also half Irish and thick - but he’s considered a comedy god and no one has a qualm about him.
Do you answer the title, What’s Wrong With Benny Hill, in the course of the play? is there a resolve?
Dani: Mark’s been very clever with this the writing of it. We hope we don’t steer the audience in any particular direction but that they’ll go out talking about it and probably debating it.
There are different characters throughout it who have different views to Benny and challenge him in different ways or champion him in different ways. So it hopefully it opens debate.
The title also works on different levels – defensive, What’s wrong with Benny Hill?! To an enquiry about his health or a more serious debate.
Are you worried about how it will go down?
Dani: It could be a disaster, but I think it’s going to be really interesting, I can’t wait to hear people reactions, however extreme. It’s really about getting people through the door, and hoping they don’t get put off by the poster, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to see a play about Benny Hill.’
Do you think in some ways he’s unfairly thought of?
Mark: People made a lot of different assumptions about him. In the 70s bottom-pinching was common, but Benny didn’t do any of that. Not one of the women he worked with ever said anything negative about his behaviour. He didn’t behave in the same way he did on screen, there are no dirty secrets. He was never married, and there were slurs about him being gay – as there was nothing concrete to say the tabloids seem to have just made that up.
He’s thought of as the comedian who chases women…
Mark: Interestingly he didn’t – they always chased him. Ben Elton went on Wogan and said women don’t feel safe in the park at night and so it was inappropriate for Benny Hill to be chasing women round the park. And basically he was finished overnight.
Two years later he drank and ate himself into an early grave. He refused a heart bypass. TV and working was his life. Our set is literally 70s wallpaper and lots of TVs.
He lived a frugal life and had all these millions unspent. He didn’t make a will, although when he died – watching telly in his flat - when they found him, after laying dead undiscovered for a few days, they found a note scribbled with a few names, but it wasn’t official enough to be a will. His millions went to distant relatives.
What’s the vibe in the play?
Mark: It is funny. It’s not a musical but it has songs in it. I guess it’s a comedy drama. We’ve kind of decided the whole thing is like a fever dream of his death. It’s set basically in the last few weeks of his life, but full of some surreal memories that go back through the decades until his death in 1992. It’s a bit of everything really.
When Dani said to me the other day I’ve got no idea how the audience are going to respond to this, I 100 per cent agree.
We did get a bit of an when we did a read through at a theatre in Stroud in the autumn. I’ve included his infamous Chow Mein character – who is basically a Chinese immigrant garbling English to supposedly comic effect. It is terrible and unpalatable now but hugely popular back in the day. So I thought to myself, for people to judge they have to see him do his worst sort of stuff and I wasn’t going to black up or do a woman because that was far too much.
One woman did come up to us furiously and say you can’t do that, but another (Chinese) audience member said please leave it in.
There is a reference in the play that comedy isn’t just comedy anymore, it’s also political because it says what we as a society think at any given time, so it’s saying comedy used to be for cheap laughs but it can’t do that anymore – now, to me, if you say something ironically, you can say anything.
People are quite rightly upset to see a woman bend over and show her knickers, I agree that is offensive, but if you compare that to TV show Naked Attraction (a sort of nude Blind Date) that’s tame, but the argument is that the contestants are willing.
The ‘Hill’s Angels’, as they were called, all loved Benny. They said he behaved in an exemplary way and were very keen to be on the show.
Mark plays Benny, Dani what role do you play?
Dani: There are eight parts in total. I suppose I’m the challenger and the champion of Benny. I play all the roles that he interacts with throughout the decades. there are two main roles. First an alternative comedian called Kate McIndle who signals the nail in his coffin for his brand of comedy. Then there’s Janice, who we love, a solicitor who Benny invites round to draw up his will. They strike up a brief kind of friendship I suppose before his death. It seems to be the first kind of interaction with a woman who’s independent, knows her own mind, intelligent and challenges him.
Given the contentious content of the play are you nervous about your reception?
Mark: I am, especially performing in places like Bristol. My argument is if you sit in the theatre and feel uncomfortable, that’s just as justified as feeling jolly or amused. I think theatre should make people feel uncomfortable or provoke a reaction, you don’t just want people getting up and thinking that was nice.
What’s Wrong with Benny Hill? Is on at Ilmington Village Hall from Wednesday, 12th to Saturday, 15th July. 7.30pm each evening with a 4pm matinee on the Saturday. Tickets on eventbrite or ilmington community shop.