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Funny, Peculiar (Pan Macmillan) by Mark Lewisohn should go a long way to restoring the comedic reputation of Benny Hill. A thorough, fair, and entertaining work, the book shows how, in tv, Benny Hill found his ideal format. Funny, Peculiar also provides a comprehensive history of British comedy. Biographer Mark Lewisohn is the author of several books including The Beatles Day by Day: A Chronology 1962-1989.

Reader’s Voice: Funny, Peculiar is objective, and doesn’t fall into the pro or anti- Benny Hill camps. How did you achieve this?

Mark Lewisohn: I approached the book with an open mind and no axe to grind, so I saw no reason to fall into a particular camp. I just wanted to write an honest biography of a man’s life. As it happens, I discovered that though Benny was a victim of political correctness that debate generally hinged upon misconceptions about his work. People who were pasting him in the press usually uttered statements which indicated, to me at least, that they hadn’t actually watched his show. Conversely, anyone who says that everything Benny Hill did was brilliant (and those involved in the shows tend to) ought to get out more. I believe that too much of his work, especially in the last ten years, was lazy and self-indulgent.

RV: Your book is a great history of British comedy. Was this the main reason you wrote the biography?

ML: The primary reason was simple: having spent six years researching and writing Radio Times Guide To TV Comedy it felt appropriate to approach the subject in a different way. That book, like the others that preceded it, were reference in nature and I wanted to stretch myself and write a biography. As I considered whose life I wanted to write it became clear that Benny Hill would make a smart choice. He was the first British comic since Chaplin and Laurel to attain global popularity. He enjoyed a fifty-year career, which meant that he spanned all the 20th-century media, from Variety to radio to television to legit theatre to movies to video. He was a curious, almost bizarre individual who led a lifestyle that has continued to perplex and fascinate. And, above all, he was ill-served by the books that had been written about him. With the exception of the authorised biography by his brother, published in 1990, the Benny Hill biogs betrayed little or no research and really missed out on the main story. And so, in the fashion of the recent major biographies of the likes of Peter Cook, Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers I felt sure that there was enough great material in the life of Benny Hill to warrant that kind of book.

RV: There is a myth about the typical post-war British comedian, with geniuses like Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan (Irish), Tony Hancock, John Cleese, Benny Hill, being these solitary good-hearted clowns prone to immense depression and loneliness. What do you think about this stereotype?

ML: While it would be foolish to ignore the fact that these traits are common among many comedians I would peg Benny as being different. The Benny Hill who became world famous and exceedingly rich was the same as the young man who started out with nothing in 1941, when at the age of 17 he caught the train from Southampton to London with a tiny suitcase and a big heart. Benny was not a depressive, nor, I would contend, was he a lonely man. He was a loner – solitary, as you say – but I see a crucial difference: all his life he was content with his own company. He required few comforts, and gave to himself little more when wealthy than he did when poor.

RV: A review of one of your other books, The Complete Beatles Chronicle, said it was an enjoyable read, and not a detail-heavy reference tool. How do you make a long list of the details of someone’s life into an enjoyable read?

ML: When people used to ask the Beatles if they knew why they were so successful they would respond, ‘If we knew we’d form another group and be managers.’ I’m tempted to say the same. Primarily, I think it could be because I love my work. If I have talents they are: a passion for research that seems to take me to places where other writers don’t go; an unambiguous writing style; and a sense of what readers will find interesting. My rule of thumb is, if I feel uncomfortable when presenting detail then it’s probably inappropriate for what I’m writing. More than anything, I enjoy making surprising factual connections – they inject vitality and energy into detail.