Archive for the ‘West End’ Category

The GLC and how they Nearly Destroyed Covent Garden

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012
Covent Garden in 1974. By Clive Boursnell

Covent Garden in 1974. By Clive Boursnell

The London premiere for the film of My Fair Lady took place at the Warner cinema in Leicester Square on 21 January 1965. It couldn’t have been anything less than a glamorous occasion – Audrey Hepburn, Cecil Beaton, Rex Harrison (who came with Vivien Leigh) and even Jack Warner himself attended the show. The cinema was only a few hundred yards from Covent Garden, a location featured in the film (albeit a Hollywood studio-version) and which in the mid-sixties was still a functioning wholesale fruit, vegetable and flower market. A market that had been trading officially for almost 300 years ever since the Duke of Bedford in 1670 acquired from Charles II a charter allowing a fruit and vegetable market to take place every day except Sundays and Christmas day.

The ‘greatest ever musical’, as Pathé described the film, and of course Shaw’s original Pygmalion from which it derived, purposely used an Edwardian Covent Garden to show the contrast of rich and poor Londoners rubbing shoulders in what was then a very poor area of inner-city London. Over half a century later in the sixties and seventies Covent Garden, as a place to live and work, was still a very run-down and shabby part of the West End, difficult as it is to imagine these days.

33 Neal Street in 1969. Ellen Keeley’s family emigrated from Ireland during the potato famine and had been making and renting out barrows for the Covent Garden traders since 1830. The firm also ran a florist and a boxing gym.

Covent Garden’s flower market from around 1970

Presumably most of the councillors of the recently-formed Greater London Council, which had replaced the smaller London County Council the previous year, went to see My Fair Lady – after all it was a very popular film. Just two months after the film’s premiere, however, the new Labour-run GLC published the Greater London Development Plan part of which proposed, astonishingly, but as was the wont in those days, that over two-thirds of the historic Covent Garden area should be razed to the ground.

Covent Garden in Edwardian times.

In his book The Changing Life of London, the late George Gardiner, a former journalist and Tory MP who with Norman Tebbit and Airey Neave would end up playing an important role in the election of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative Party leader (not that she could have thought much of Gardiner as he was offered not one ministerial or front-bench position while she was leader of the Conservative party), put across his view of the Covent Garden Development Scheme:

Any loss of nerve on this by the GLC in face of protest from a small section of London’s populace… when the opportunity has presented itself, will do down as a black day in London’s history. If the drift of population away from the centre is combined with a retreat from a policy of comprehensive redevelopment in favour of mere site development it is the next generation of Londoners who will be the losers and who will look back on our timid age with scorn.

Covent Garden market had essentially been nationalised in 1961 by the Conservative government when they created the Covent Garden Market Authority. Soon after there was a plan to move the overflowing market to Nine Elms in Battersea. In 1965/6, mindful that the fruit and vegetable market would soon be gone from the West End, three councils, the Labour-controlled GLC, the Tory-run City of Westminster and the Labour-run Borough of Camden, together with Bovis, the Prudential Assurance company and Taylor Woodrow worked together on the Covent Garden scheme. All of the parties were interested in just one thing – a totally comprehensive redevelopment of the 96 acres that made up the historic Covent Garden area.

Gardiner wrote that when the initial draft plans was presented to the public “more than 3,500 people attended, and in fact, most of their comments wore favourable”. The suggestions from the public that weren’t so favourable, however,  were taken on board and a revised plan was approved by the GLC in 1970. What had changed, however, was that the three London councils, the GLC, Westminster and even Camden were now all Tory-controlled.

An A to Z map of Covent Garden from the 1960s. The GLC plan would mean that two thirds of the area between Shaftesbury Avenue, Holborn, Kingsway and the Strand would be demolished.

The Covent Garden redevelopment plan in 1968.

Covent Garden in 1955

The Covent Garden redevelopment scheme covered 96 acres in an area bounded by the Strand, Aldwych, High Holborn, Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road and it proposed the large-scale demolition of the great majority of the 18th and 19th century buildings around the historic old market.

Gardiner, after rather excitedly describing the Covent Garden scheme as Central London’s biggest and most exciting redevelopment project since the Great Fire, wrote of the first phase of the plans which were originally intended to be built by 1975:

There would be three new schools in place of the two old ones, open recreational spaces and new shopping facilities, new hotels, and something London at present does not possess at all – an international conference centre. It would also include a new covered road, running roughly along the line of Maiden Lane, parallel with the Strand, carrying eastbound traffic while the Strand is made one-way westwards.

Horrifically, the international conference centre was designed to completely enclose Covent Garden’s famous Piazza – the Italian-style arcaded square built by Inigo Jones in the 1630s and which was commissioned by the fourth Earl of Bedford to encourage wealthy Londoners to move, to what was then, a semi-rural area. It has been said that Inigo Jones’ new and exciting designs for Covent Garden made it, as far as London was concerned, the birthplace of modern town planning.

The Covent Garden redevelopment model. 1970.

North Spine of the redevelopment, circa 1970.

The solid line are new roads or widened roads. The dotted lines would have been major underground roads while the shaded area was planned to be an open space that would have waved goodbye to Long Acre. Just the road network planned for Covent Garden would have destroyed so much of the Covent Garden we know today.

Meanwhile the second phase, planned for completion by 1980, involved the areas from Maiden Lane down to the Strand. The main feature of which was a new upper level pedestrian street that would link Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square with the Conference Centre. Beneath the raised walkway a brand new main road would run from Charing Cross Road to the Aldwych.

The third phase involved the area north of the piazza, sorry I mean the International Conference Centre, and would consist mostly of new housing, much of it built above smaller offices, the new schools, and other community facilities. In the same area, and as was the fad in those days, another concrete upper-level pedestrian street would run from east to west beneath which an internal service road linked to car parks was planned. At Cambridge Circus there would be a new recreation centre, with a swimming pool and squash courts and an office building one and a half times the size of Centre Point (infamously empty at the time with the developer, Harry Hyams, reported to be happy making money from the rising value of the property rather than letting it out).

Covered pedestrian areas would lead to shops, existing theatres, restaurants and pubs, and over at the northern end of Drury Lane there would be a group of pedestrian squares at different levels, surrounded by shops and flats. This third phase of developments were were conceived to be completed by 1985.

Protest organised by the Covent Garden Community Association in 1972.

In April 1971 a Covent Garden Community Association was formed to provide a unified protest from the local residents and small businesses affected by the radical redevelopment plans. By the time of the local inquiry into the plan in July 1971, Camden Borough Council, which by now had changed from Conservative to Labour control also became formal objectors to the plan it had helped work up three and five years previously.

On the 26th June Anthony Crosland, MP for Grimsby, and the shadow Environment minister made a passionate and influential speech in the commons attacking the damage to London made by the post-war developers:

I believe with passion that it is now time to call a halt. It is time to stop this piecemeal hacking away at our city. It is time to say to the GLC, to Westminster City Council, to Land Securities Investment Trust, to Town and City Properties, to the lot of them, “Gentlemen, we’ve had enough. We, the people of London, now propose to decide for ourselves what sort of city we want to live in.

He added:

If the minister takes the opposite view and allows these plans to go ahead, a very dangerous mood will develop amongst Londoners. There already is a mood of helpless resentment at the inability to stop these damned developments, and this may develop into a mood of active resentment. People will not have London continuously mutilated in this way for the sake of property development and the private motorist. They will not have an endless number of Centre Points and an endless number of uniform, monolithic, comprehensive redevelopments which break up communities and destroy the historic character of the city.

1970. Lady Dartmouth, later Raine Spencer and step mother of Princess Diana, with her son Rupert Legge, at a polling station during the 1970 general election. She would later say about the Covent Garden plans: “I have felt  increasingly that our proposals are out of date and out of tune with public opinion.”

Desmond Plummer, the Conservative leader of the GLC, being shown the Covent Garden plans in 1972. The GLC would become Labour controlled the following year. It’s said because of their opposition to the new roads planned in the West End and all over London.

To the horror of many people who lived and worked in Covent Garden it initially looked like the GLC had won the redevelopment war when in July 1972 the plans were completely upheld by the inquiry inspector in his recommendation to the Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment Geoffrey Rippon.

Within a few weeks, however, the conservationist-minded Lady Dartmouth (who would later marry the Earl of Spencer and become the step-mother of Princess Diana) resigned from her post as chairwoman of the joint local authority committee who had been over-seeing the redevelopment plans. She had been affected by angry protesters who had at one point besieged her house and in her resignation letter she explained:

The theory of organising the sites so that offices, hotels and shops pay for housing, a park and a leisure centre is well-meaning; but no individual or bodies who represent the general public have supported us, and I have felt  increasingly that our proposals are out of date and out of tune with public opinion, which fears that the area will become a faceless, concrete jungle…I am unable to work for a project in which I no longer believe, and which could do unnecessary  and irreparable damage to an historic part of London.

The post-war consensus of modernising cities like London with the bull-dozer approach to redevelopment and traffic circulation was starting to fall apart. In January 1973, nearly eight years after the Covent Garden Redevelopment plan was originally made public and six months after the inquiry inspector had recommended the latest version, Geoffrey Rippon, while ostensibly approving the plan, effectively killed it. He had added 250 buildings to the list of those already protected because of historical and architectural merit which made comprehensive redevelopment in the Covent Garden area almost impossible.

A porter using his head to help carry flowers at Covent Garden market, London around 1970.

In 1961 number 23 Cecil Court was the scene of a murder when the body of part time shop assistant Mrs. Elsie May Batten was found in the rear of the antique shop. An eighteen-inch antique dagger was protruding from her chest.The shop’s owner, Louis Meier, remembered a young man who had shown an interest in a particular dress sword and some daggers in his shop the previous day. The sword was now missing.It turned up in a gun shop on the opposite side of the court, where the son of the owner told police that a man had brought it into his shop that morning. Using these witness’s descriptions the police complied England’s first Identikit picture and released it to the media.On 8th March 1961 PC Cole, who was on duty in Old Compton Street, recognised 21 year old Edwin Bush as being the face on the picture and arrested him. Bush was subsequently hanged for the murder.

Covent Garden in 1974. Photograph by Dave Flett.

Covent Garden in 1955.

Covent Garden in 1974. Photograph by Sean Hickin.

In 1973 the GLC was recaptured by Labour and the new council told the developers and planners that they had to completely start again. Eventually the Covent Garden Community Association would have most of its demands met and nine out of ten of the key sites marked for demolition were saved in the final plans published in 1976.

Anthony Crosland, formerly the shadow Environment secretary, with his wife Susan in 1977. Five days before he died.

Anthony Crosland MP who had made such a fine speech about London post-war development back in 1972 had written a book called ‘The Conservative Enemy’ ten years previously. In it he presciently summed up what had happened, and would happen, to so many city centres around the country:

Excited by speculative gain, the property developers furiously rebuild the urban centres with unplanned and æsthetically tawdry office blocks; so our cities become the just objects of world-wide pity and ridicule for their architectural mediocrity, commercial vulgarity, and lack of civic or historic pride.

In 1974 the Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market moved to Nine Elms in Battersea two years later than planned.

11th November 1974: The old Covent Garden fruit, vegetable and flower market lies deserted at its Covent Garden site

The 1938 version of Pygmalion

The Nags Head, Covent Garden in the early 70s

The picture above comes from a book called Old Covent Garden by Clive Boursnell. You can buy it here.

Brian Protheroe – Pinball

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Benny Hill and the Windmill Theatre in Great Windmill Street, Soho

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

Benny Hill in his sixties heyday.

“The notion that Benny was a lonely man is so depressing and wrong. He just liked his own company. He was very happy walking alone, living alone, eating alone, taking holidays alone and going to see shows alone. I often wonder whether he needed anybody else in his life at all…except perhaps a cameraman”. – Bob Monkhouse

On Easter Sunday morning in 1992, and just two hours after he had been speaking to a television producer about yet another come-back, 75 year-old Frankie Howerd collapsed and died of heart failure.

Benny Hill, seven years younger than Howerd, was quoted in the press as being “very upset” and saying, “We were great, great friends”. Indeed they had been friends, but Hill hadn’t given a quote about his fellow comedian, he hadn’t even been asked for one – he couldn’t have been – because he was already dead.

The quote about Howerd had come from Hill’s friend, former producer and unofficial press-agent Dennis Kirkland who had not been able to get in contact with Hill for a couple of days and was starting to worry.

It wasn’t until the 20th, the day after Howerd had died, that a neighbour noticed an unpleasant smell coming from Flat 7 of Fairwater House on the Twickenham Road in Teddington.

Benny Hill at home in 1991. Exactly where he was found a year later slumped on the sofa watching TV

Fairwater House on the Twickenham Road in Teddington

The neighbour contacted Kirkland, who was a regular visitor to the Teddington apartment block, and it wasn’t long before the television producer was climbing a ladder and peering through the window of Hill’s second floor flat. Inside he saw his friend surrounded by dirty plates, glasses, video-tapes and piles of papers slumped on the sofa in front of the TV. He was blue, the body had bloated and distended, and blood had seeped from the ears. Hill had been dead for two days.

Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill had both been part of a big wave of ex-servicemen comedians that came to prominence after the second world war. This amazing generation of performers, in some form or other, would eventually almost take over light-entertainment, initially on the radio and subsequently television, in the fifties, sixties and seventies.

Benny Hill,  although he was still known by his original name Alfie Hill, had first come to London during the war. He arrived at Waterloo station on the Southampton train in the summer of 1941 having given up his milk-round and sold his drum kit for £8 to fund this next stage of his life. He had no other plan in his head but to succeed as a comic performer on the London stage and had three addresses of variety theatres in his pocket. He was just seventeen.

Young Benny Hill

More by luck than judgement and after a week or two of sleeping rough in a Streatham bomb shelter, the naive Hampshire boy managed to get a dogsbody job from a kindly agent. Hill remembered this in 1955:

At the Chiswick Empire they did not want to know about Alf Hill. I had much the same reception at the “Met”, but at the Chelsea Palace I was lucky enough to arrange to see Harry Benet at his office the next morning.

Harry Benet offered Hill £3 per week to be an Assistant Stage Manager (with small parts) for a new revue called Follow the Fan. Years later Hill would often joke that although he was no longer an ASM he still had small parts.

12 months or so later Hill, now eighteen, had become eligible for conscription. He was having the time of his life and he naively thought that by travelling around the country (he was now with Send Them Victorious, another revue) he could pretend he had never received the OHMS manila envelope ordering him to enlist.

The ruse worked until November 1942 when the revue was at the New Theatre in Cardiff for the last engagement before the pantomime season. Two military policeman presented themselves at the theatre stage door and Hill was ‘advised’ to ‘give himself up’. Within a month Hill found himself a private in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as a driver/mechanic.

He couldn’t drive and knew nothing about engines and Alfie Hill played no useful part in the war. After VE day, and when he was in London on leave, he applied to be part of the services’ touring revue called Stars in Battledress.

Benny Hill in the army

There was one problem, Hill didn’t have ‘an act’ and he had 24 hours to create one. For inspiration he walked to the Windmill Theatre in Soho as it was the only place in London where you could see comedians during the day.

He noticed one Windmill comic in particular, a man called Peter Waring whose scripts were written by Frank Muir, at that time still attached to the RAF. Hill would later say:

Waring was the biggest influence on my life. He was delicate, highly strung and sensitive…when I saw him I thought, ‘My God, it’s so easy. You don’t have to come on shouting, “Ere, ‘ere, missus! Got the music ‘Arry? Now missus, don’t get your knickers in a twist!” You can come on like Waring and say, “Not many in tonight. There’s enough room at the back to play rugby. My God, they are playing rugby.

The Windmill Theatre on Great Windmill Street in 1940

Archer Street, which is on one side of the Windmill Theatre, in the late-forties. Musicians and performers looking for work would meet up with small-time agents here.

Windmill Theatre

The Windmill Theatre on the corner of Great Windmill street and Archer Street, just off Shaftesbury Avenue, was a magnet to many of the new wave ex-servicemen comedians, of which there were many. The theatre was infamous for its risque dancing girls and nude tableaux but it was a tough crowd for comedians who would make up part of the show. Not too many patrons were there for the jokes.

The theatre had been bought in 1930 by a 70 year old ‘white haired, bright eyed little woman in mink’ called Mrs Laura Henderson whose late husband “had been something in Jute”. At the time it was a run-down old cinema called the Palais de Luxe (actually one of the first in London) but she had the building extensively rebuilt, glamourously faced with glazed white terracotta and renamed it the Windmill Theatre.

Under the careful guidance of her manager Vivian Van Damme, a small neat man who more often than not would be smoking a cigar, the theatre slowly became a success. The ‘Mill’, as it became known in its heyday, started to present a non-stop type of revue that was a winning combination of brand-new comedians, a small resident ballet, a singer or two and, of course the infamous static nude tableaux. The terrible title of the show assimilated the word ‘nude’ and ‘revue’ and was called Revudeville.

Revudeville cover

Vivian Van Damm

The elderly Vivian Van Damm showing Benny Hill how its done.

Van Damme, amusingly known as V.D. to everyone backstage, had an astute judgement of both English sexual taste and of what the Lord Chamberlain – the national theatre censor – would allow. “It’s all right to be nude, but if it moves, it’s rude,” said Rowland Thomas Baring, 2nd Earl of Cromer who was the Lord Chamberlain at the time.

On the Sunday night before a new show opened Van Damme would invite the Earl of Cromer to a special performance. To make the Lord Chamberlain’s mood amenable to what he was about to see V.D. made sure there was generous hospitality before the curtain was raised. It was said that the Lord Chamberlain never delegated his responsibilities on these occasions.

During the war the Windmill Theatre became one of the first theatres to re-open after the Government initially ordered compulsory closure of all the theatres in the West End (4-16 September 1939). It stayed open throughout the rest of the war with five or six performances a day and open from 11am to 10.35 at night.

Windmill Girls

Windmill Girls

Windmill Girls

Once the audience arrived in the morning some of them would stay and watch all the six shows throughout the evening and night. Des O’Connor, just one of the comedians who got an early break at the Windmill, was on his fifth show of the day when he completely dried up. Somebody, who had been at all the previous shows that day, shouted out: “You do the one about the parrot next!”

During the latter performances the audience that were sitting in the back of the stalls would wait for those in the front rows to get up and leave. When they did the men at the back would quickly leap over the seats to get to the front. This was known as the ‘Windmill Steeplechase’.

During the worst of the Blitz it was sometimes too dangerous to expect people to get home and the stagehands and performers often sheltered in the lower two floors underground. Around 1943 the theatre created its famous motto – “We never closed” – although this quickly became “we never Clothed”.

Life magazine featured the Windmill Theatre and its girls during the war.

Windmill Girls sleeping in the basement of the theatre during the Blitz

Windmill girls in the dressing room

In fact the ‘Mill’ became internationally famous for staying open for business despite the constant threat of the German bombers. Extraordinarily, this reputation of defiance, together with Van Damme’s tasteful’ girl-next-door version of English femininity, made the Windmill theatre a major symbol for London’s ‘Blitz Spirit’ all around the world.

This indestructible gesture of defiance was summed up at the theatre when one naked young woman broke the ‘no moving’ rule by brazenly raising her hand to thumb her nose at a V1 bomb that had exploded nearby. She earned herself a standing ovation.

Piccadilly Circus, about a hundred yards from the Windmill, in the black-out during the Blitz

Benny Hill, who by now had changed his name (Jack Benny was one of his favourite comedians), had two auditions at the Windmill. On both occasions, and after barely finishing his first gag, Hill got a dreaded ‘Thank you, next please’ from Van Damm somewhere in the darkness of the stalls.

He wasn’t the only comedian who would later go on to become a huge star but be rejected by the Windmill theatre. Both Bob Monkhouse and Norman Wisdom also failed to get past the one-man Van Damm judging panel.

The list of comics that did perform at the Windmill, however, is extraordinary, and included Jimmy Edwards, Tony Hancock, Arthur English, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine, Bruce Forsyth, Dave Allen, Alfred Marks, Max Bygrave, Tommy Cooper and Barry Cryer.

There was a comedy revolution taking place. Performers, who in a sense had wasted years of their young adulthood to the war, were desperate to make up for lost time and they had a connection with each other like no generation since.

For Hill, after failing his second audition at the Windmill, it was back to the working men’s clubs in places like Dagenham, Streatham, Tottenham, Harlesden and Stoke Newington. In those days the Soho agents never actually mentioned money and used to show the amount that was to be paid by laying fingers on the lapels of their jackets. One finger, one pound, two fingers meant two pounds – but it was nearly always the former for Benny in those days.

However his act was getting more and more polished and in 1948, in some rehearsal rooms across the road from the Windmill Theatre on Great Windmill Street, he had an audition as Reg Varney’s straight-man in a revue called Gaytime.

There were two people auditioning for the part but after Hill had performed an English calypso (this would have been pretty rare just after the war) which he sang to his own guitar accompaniment:

‘We have two Bev’ns in our Caninet/Aneurin’s the one with the gift of the gab in it/The other Bev’n's the taciturnist/He knows the importance of being Ernest!’

After his act, Hill was told by Hedley Claxton, an impresario who specialised in seaside shows, that he had got the job. The other contender for the role that afternoon in 1948 was a young impressionist from Camden called Peter Sellers. In 1955, Hill astutely told Picturegoer: “Watch Peter Sellers. He’s going to be the biggest funny man in Britain.”

Hill and Reg Varney’s double act was a success and they were signed up for three seasons of Gaytime and subsequently a touring version of a London Palladium revue called Sky High.

Gaytime with Reg Varney and Benny Hill. Twenty years later Varney would be the first person to use the first ever cashpoint machine in Enfield.

Around this time Hill appeared on BBC radio a few times but struggled to make his mark. A damning BBC report on Benny Hill, dated 10 October 1947 says:

Ronald Waldman: The only trouble with him was that he didn’t make me laugh at all – and for a comedian that’s not very good. It’s a mixture of lack of comedy personality and lack of comedy material.

Harry Pepper: I find him without personality and very dully unfunny.

In the early fifties, unlike many performers and agents who either feared it or thought it would be a flash-in-the-pan, Benny realised that television would be massive. He knew, however, that it gobbled up material and could end the career of Variety artists who had successfully performed the same material all their lives. So Hill started to write hundreds and hundreds of sketches and eventually submitted them in person to the same Ronald Waldman who had said just three years before written ‘he didn’t make me laugh at all’.

This time Waldman, now BBC’s head of light entertainment, was actually very impressed and offered Benny Hill his own show right there and then.

‘Hi There’ went out on the 20th August 1951 at 8.15pm. The 45 minute one-off show featured a series of sketches wholly written by Benny Hill and was relatively well-received. It wouldn’t be until four years later that Hill had his own series and in January 1955 the first ever ‘The Benny Hill Show’ was broadcast on the BBC. Hill was always an uncomfortable performer on stage and the new medium of television utterly suited his “conspiratorial glances and anticipatory smirks” to camera and after a shaky first episode the rest of the series was a huge success.

Benny enjoying his new found success. He had paid his dues though.

Benny with his dancing girls on the first ever Benny Hill Show on the BBC

Plus ça change...still surrounded by his dancing girls over thirty years later.

Benny Hill never looked back and was a mainstay of British television for the next thirty five years. Initially his shows appeared on the BBC and then subsequently on Thames Television from 1969 when the new London weekday franchise needed some high-profile signings.

The ‘cherub sent by the devil’, as Michael Caine once described Hill, eventually became a huge star all over the world. It seemed at one point, just as many in the UK were starting to find his comedy rather old-fashioned and sexist, that the rest of the world thought Benny Hill was British comedy.

Twenty years after Hill made his first series for Thames Television their new Head of Light Entertainment John Howard Davies invited him into the offices for a chat. Benny assumed that they were meeting to discuss details of a new series – he’d just gone down a storm in Cannes.

Davies thanked him for all his series he had made for Thames and then promptly sacked him. Hill never really recovered from the shock and considering what he had done for the company over the last two decades he was treated badly. It was only three years later that he was found dead in his apartment a stone’s throw from the Thames Television studios in Teddington.

Benny and yet more women. Again.

There is no doubt that Benny Hill had a strange relationship with women. He was very confused about the accusations of sexism in the latter part of his career. He felt that his comedy hadn’t really changed and he’d been doing almost the same thing for decades. This was true, he literally had been telling the same jokes for decades always happy to recycle his own material, but society around him had moved on and an elderly man surrounded or chased by very scantily-clad women made for uncomfortable viewing.

It appears that hill never really had a proper relationship during his lifetime. The closest he got to marriage was with a dancer from the Windmill Theatre called Doris Deal around the mid-fifties. He took her for meals in London, they held hands, and it was assumed they were seeing each other, but when Hill had procrastinated a little too long and told her he wasn’t ready for marriage she promptly left him.

There were other close albeit non-romantic relationships with women through the years including a young Australian actress called Annette André whowould eventually star in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). He may have even proposed to her but if he did she said she pretended not to notice.

It seems that Benny Hill, famous throughout the world by surrounding himself with young women, either was scared of intimate sexual intercourse or, as some un-named sources have implied, that he was impotent. It was probably a combination of the two.

Benny Hill out with friends in 1955, his girlfriend Doris Deal is front left

Benny Hill and Bob Monkhouse. Two people who failed their Windmill Theatre audition.

Mark Lewisohn, in his Benny Hill biography Funny, Peculiar recounts  a conversation Bob Monkhouse once had with Benny Hill in a cafe in Shaftesbury Avenue:
He wanted his women to be more naive than he was, women who would look up to him. He also said it was fellatio he wanted, or masturbation. “But Bob, I get a thrill when they’re kneeling there, between my knees and they’re looking up at me. And I want them to call me Mr Hill, not Benny. ‘Is that all right for you , Mr Hill?’ That’s lovely, that is, I really like that,” I asked him why and he said, “well, it’s respectful.”

Benny Hill and an uncomfortable-looking Jane Leeves (of Frasier fame) once a Hill's Angel.

Clips from BBC Benny Hill shows from the sixties.

An interview with Benny Hill from early in his career.

Benny Hill Entertains

Hmm.

Windmill Theatre today. Is it not possible to get rid of the black cladding?

The Whitehall theatre is now a lap-dancing club. The sign outside says ‘Probably the most exciting men’s club in the world…’ I haven’t been there, but I’m sure it’s safe to say, it almost certainly isn’t.

When I was a lad and crazy to get into showbiz I used to dream of being a comic in a touring revue. They were extraordinary, wonderful shows. There were jugglers and acrobats and singers and comics, and most important of all were the girl dancers. My shows are probably the nearest thing there is on TV to those old revues. – Benny Hill, 1991

Benny Hill – Lonely Boy

Benny Hill – Bamba 3688

Benny Hill – What a World

Buy Benny Hill’s Ultimate Collection here (only £2.49!)

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