1971 was a real mixed bag of a year for number 1s. There was early glam, reggae, pop, a former Beatle, and bookending the year were novelty songs by two popular TV comedy stars. The Christmas number 1 belonged to Benny Hill, a once much-loved comedian who became incredibly unfashionable before his death in the 80s. But in 1971, people wanted saucy innuendo in their comedy, and Hill was one of the best at that.
Alfred Hawthorne Hill was born 21 January 1924 in Southampton. His father and grandfather had both been circus clowns. After Hill left school he worked at Woolworths, a bridge operator and a milkman. It is unknown whether he drove the fastest milkcart or not.
In 1942 Hill was called up for World War Two, and trained as a mechanic in the British Army. He also served as a mechanic and searchlight operator in Normandy before being transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment division before the war ended. Having decided a career in showbusiness was for him, he changed his name to Benny Hill in honour of his favourite comic, Jack Benny.
Hill struggled on the radio and stage, but found his home on TV, achieving his big break after sending scripts to the BBC in 1952. The Benny Hill Show of the 50s wasn’t that different from its 80s version, a mix of music hall, parody and bawdiness. Bar a few brief spells with ATV between 1957 and 1960 and again in 1967, he remained with the BBC until 1968.
Jackie Wright, the little bald man who Hill liked to slap on the head, joined his troupe in the 60s. I hope his head was insured for all those decades of slaps.
Within that time he also appeared in films, most notably Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and The Italian Job (1969).
The Benny Hill Show became a Thames Television show in 1969 and ran intermittently for 20 years. It is this version he is mostly remembered for, gurning and saluting away next to scantily clad girls, running around to Boots Randolph’s Yakety Sax. This very British show became popular overseas too, with Hill acting as an ambassador for the famous British seaside postcard brand of humour.
Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) began life as a song on a 1970 edition, as you can see here. Most of the double entendres are in place, with only small differences like Ernie’s age being 68 rather than 52. Releasing records was nothing new for Hill, who had been releasing comedy singles sporadically since Who Done It in 1956, and Ernie was just one of the tracks that made up his Words and Music album, released earlier that year. It’s unlikely he had an inkling as to how popular it would become.
Inspired by Hill’s time as a milkman for Hann’s Dairies in Eastleigh, Hampshire, the song is written as a Wild West-style ballad about the adventures of Ernie Price, whose milk cart is pulled by horses, sung by Hill in a comedy Cornish accent and joined by his regular backing group, The Ladybirds. Ernie and bread delivery man ‘Two Ton’ Ted from Teddington are feuding for the heart of Sue, a widow at number 22 Linley Lane. Cue the smut.
I can remember Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) being played to me at school when I was pretty young, and most of the innuendo was lost on me, despite growing up watching Carry On films. Looking at the lyrics now, I can see that’s because it’s not actually very rude at all. Granted, there’s reference to crumpet, and these lines are a bit saucy:
‘He said you wanted pasturised
Coz pasturised is best
She says Ernie I’ll be happy
If it comes up to me chest’
But other than that, Hill manages to skirt anything too risqué. And that might be why it became so big. If anything, it’s more a song for children in the style of 1968 Christmas number 1 Lily the Pink, so timing had a lot to do with it. I can’t imagine adults sat around listening to this and laughing hysterically in 1971… perhaps 1961, but I may well be wrong. And it certainly doesn’t make me laugh in 2020, yet it still has a certain charm… a relic of a bygone age, perhaps helped by the promo film above, co-starring Henry McGee and Jan Butlin.
What doesn’t make me laugh is the fact that one of our worst ever Prime Ministers, David Cameron, has declared this one of his favourite songs ever on more than one occasion. But you can’t blame Benny Hill for Brexit.
Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) held firm for four weeks, even stopping T. Rex from having three number 1s in a row with Jeepster. Hill only released one more single, Fad Eyed Fal in 1972. Meanwhile The Benny Hill Show rattled on, with a film compilation of highlights from 1969-73 called The Best of Benny Hill released in cinemas in 1974. Despite some old-fashioned racism poking fun at the Chinese, this was unbelievably still being shown every now and then until recently.
As the 80s dawned, the show began to feature the ‘Hill’s Angels’, sexy ladies who would dance and appear as comic foils for Hill. But this was the decade in which such ideas looked increasingly outdated as alternative comedy grew ever more popular, and acts like Ben Elton led the way as the media began to disown him.
Looking back, the campaign against him seems too aggressive. Yes, he had enjoyed a good innings and it was high time he made way for more PC, sophisticated comedy by the end of the 80s, but the likes of Elton suggesting he was to blame for people being raped and violence against was unfair. More often than not, Hill was being chased by the girls, not the other way round… ok, all their clothes fell off… but still…
The Benny Hill Show was finally taken off air in 1989. A quiet, private man when the cameras were off, he disappeared from the public eye completely.
It looked like he might be due a comeback in 1992. Thames began airing edited compilations of repeats due to public demand, and he was on the verge of signing with Central Television, but his health failed him. He had a mild heart attack that February, and on 22 April he was found dead in his armchair in front of the TV. Hill had died aged 68, two days previous, and one day after another old-school comedy giant, Frankie Howerd.
Written by: Benny Hill
Producer: Walter J Ridley
Weeks at number 1: 4 (11 December 1971-7 January 1972)
Socialite Tara Palmer-Tomlinson – 23 December
Singer Dido – 25 December
Conservative MP Philip Davies – 5 January
Footballer Torry Gillick – 12 December
Scottish footballer Alan Morton – 12 December
Pilot Charles C Banks – 21 December
29 December: The United Kingdom gave up its military bases in Malta.
30 December 1971: The seventh James Bond film – Diamonds Are Forever – was released. It saw Sean Connery return to the role after George Lazenby declined to come back.
4 January 1972: Rose Heilbron became the first female judge to sit at the Old Bailey.