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Mark Lewisohn continues on Benny Hill and Thames Television...

RV: When Benny Hill was sacked from Thames, would you attribute this more to political correctness and feminism, or to simple numbers, with audiences down and costs of episodes high? Or was it just because tackiness replaced comedy in the latter years?

ML: Overall, I would say it was a combination, however I do believe that Thames would not have ended the show had it still been attracting great ratings. Commercial enterprises do not work like that. But the viewing figures had halved within a relatively short period, while the programme budget had risen dramatically. And Benny was old: he was 65 and had been doing The Benny Hill Show, with much the same format, for 34 years. It was time to stop, or at least change. In my opinion, the show should have ended years earlier, ideally in 1979 or 1980, and had this happened then Benny would never have attracted the hostility that still dogs him today. The PC argument was mostly played out in the media; Thames didn’t seem to have a problem with the content of the show, they were simply comparing costs with ratings.
Incidentally, Thames did not sack Benny Hill – this is a misconception put about by Benny’s defenders. At his own insistence, he worked to a year-by-year contract, and at the end of one of those years Thames simply told him they would not be offering another deal. The word ‘sacked’ was intended to encourage sympathy for Benny and hostility towards Thames. Having said this, I must also say that the way Thames handled the situation left an awful lot to be desired, and Benny was understandably hurt. And all through his life, as the book reveals, he handled rejection very badly. In this case, he contrived to put on weight and not take care of himself. He was dead within three years of that fateful Thames meeting.
RV: Could you give a list of some of the most important books to you that you’ve ever read?

ML: Oh goodness, with a lifetime of reading this is a hard one to answer. It’s probably no coincidence that my two favourite pieces of modern fiction are both spun from real events and written in a detail-packed fashion. I still find Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal an awesome piece of work. The research is incredible and the storytelling masterful. Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up! is, for me, the greatest book I’ve read: a tremendously intricate story that weaves genuine elements of British lifestyle since the late 1950s, embracing popular culture and political dogma and expressing views with which I happen to agree one hundred per cent.

RV: You mentioned The Laughtermakers in Funny, Peculiar. I was wondering if you could recommend any other books on comedy, and biographies of comedians you’ve enjoyed?

ML: I mentioned some of them earlier. Harry Thompson’s biography of Peter Cook was a very readable assessment of a complicated man’s life. Generally, however, I am disappointed by showbiz or comic biographies since the great majority are lacking when it comes to research. Once I begin to doubt an author’s diligence I wonder whether I am reading the full story and that ruins it for me.

RV: There were a great number of people interviewed for Funny, Peculiar. Could you give an idea how long it took to gather all these interviews, and what sort of travel was involved? How did you keep focussed and manage to finish a book on this scale?ML: I am blessed with great energy, primarily because I’m passionate about what I do. From inception to delivery the book took just under three years, the first two of which I was interviewing and gathering information, the third I was writing. I spent about four months in archives and libraries, and visiting places pertinent to Benny’s life: homes, schools, places of work. There wasn’t an excessive amount of travelling because most of the people associated with Benny are in the south of England and I live just outside London.

RV: Benny Hill came across as someone who didn’t really enjoy life so much for himself, but gained pleasure out of making other people happy. Would you say this was the case?

ML: Benny did gain pleasure from bringing happiness to others, but he was a lifelong trader and would usually expect something in return. I would disagree with the suggestion that he didn’t really enjoy life. I believe he did, although his method of doing so was alien to how most people conduct their lives. By the general methods of measurement he appeared not to be happy, but I think he bumped along quite contentedly. The pity is that he never really stretched himself: not only professionally, but personally, too. As an adult, he was locked into immaturity, a factor that controlled all of his relationships too, which never really got beyond the juvenile. The book’s title says it all, really: he was funny and he was peculiar.

Next issue: thriller writer Clinton Smith offers some good advice for writers; and a librarian at a treasure trove of antiquarian books talks about an amazing collection…