Chapter, Gareth John Bale, Owen Thomas
Seligman Studio, Chapter, Cardiff
Unusually for a small-scale show in the studio space at Cardiff’s Chapter, Benny, about once-greatly-loved comedian Benny Hill, received rather a lot of unplanned publicity some weeks prior to its première performance.
When the company put out a call on social media for people to take part in the filming of a video insert/trailer for the piece, taking the form of a re-staging of the famous outdoor chases which traditionally ended his TV shows, objections were raised, the suggestion being that having scantily clad young ladies running around a public park in the name of entertainment might be inappropriately retrogressive (in a bad way).
By the time the play’s producers clarified their intentions—participants of any age, gender, and sartorial preference were being sought—the row had reached the broader local media, and the shoot was postponed. The furore did, however, highlight the extent to which the apparent sexism of The Benny Hill Show has lingered in the memories of those who grew up with it during his 1970s heyday, despite the fact that (a film compilation aside) it has never been repeated on re-run-happy UK television.
And it ensured a near full house for the first night performance with, I would venture, a slightly higher than average audience age for this venue.
Ruth Hall’s delightful set evokes a television—a square box in which Benny’s modest living-room has been recreated, complete with ugly wallpaper, armchair and small rented TV with video cassettes strewn beneath it. Studio lighting rigs stand nearby and above the stage “On Air” and “Applause” signs light up (although, sadly, not nearly often enough).
We are introduced to Liam Tobin’s Benny via some cheeky sight-gags and a biographical song—a rewritten version of Hill’s huge hit “Ernie”, with which the audience needed little prompting to sing along. The play is ostensibly set during the two days between his death of a heart attack and the discovery of his body, although little of the drama hinges upon this.
Writer Owen Thomas was responsible for the award-winning Grav, a biographical play about highly popular Welsh rugby star and media personality Ray Gravell, and his text for Benny takes a similar form—a non-linear narrative walk through an eventful life. In the post-show question-and-answer session, Thomas spoke about seizing the challenge of writing about a character whose reputation is more “Marmite” than that of Gravell—difficult, since Hill seldom gave interviews as himself.
So, what he, Tobin, and director Gareth John Bale give us is, inevitably, less “the real Benny Hill” than a scrupulously researched illustrated lecture, which happens to be in the first person. Given these constraints, and the fact that even with the help of a wig and a false belly Tobin bears no resemblance to Hill, his performance is a comic treat in which he displays an easy rapport with the audience and a facility with impressions (Bob Monkhouse, Eric Morecambe, Jack Benny etc).
We learn much about Hill’s life—his WWI veteran father who abandoned the music hall to run a “surgical appliances” shop; the long, dispiriting struggle to build a career on the variety stage; and a trip, whilst on the verge of giving up, to see Danny Kaye’s Wonder Man on the big screen, which inspired him to incorporate cinematic tricks into his act. This led, eventually, to his revolutionising TV comedy and becoming one of the most famous and highly paid performers in the world.
Benny shows us a perfectionist who is in love with the craft of comedy and whose largely solitary personal life is the result of being happy with his own company rather than a symptom of sexual guilt or a predilection for non-consensual shenanigans (cf. many of his contemporaries).
Following two decades of well-managed success (at his peak, he only made three shows a year), Hill’s shows were cancelled by his ITV bosses, having become embarrassingly dated in the “alternative comedy” era (Ben Elton gets something of a kicking here). His supporters argued in vain that, in his seaside postcard world, men were reductively stereotyped to the same extent as women.
Reports suggest that this rejection took a toll on his health. Benny does not belabour this point, however, focusing on the fact that he remained wealthy, content in his “miserliness”, and well-loved outside the UK, with Michael Jackson amongst his most high-profile fans; there’s also a lovely story about a visit to Charlie Chaplin’s family home.
There are a few minor technical quibbles—the pre-recorded audio and video elements don’t always sit well with a constantly laughing audience and surely a larger television screen is needed in order that the re-creations of his comedy retain their impact.
On the whole, though, this is a slick, affectionate and sympathetic portrait of a not-quite-forgotten man.
Reviewer: Othniel Smith