The Rear-View Mirror: Benny Hill (1924)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

1924 was a good year in culture. James Baldwin was born, author of the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), the collection of essays Notes of a Native Son and If Beale Street Could Talk, which Barry Jenkins adapted into a beautiful movie in 2018, and much, much more. So was Marcello Mastroianni, the archetype of the disaffected Italian playboy, and Hollywood icon Lauren Bacall. The composer Gabriel Fauré died (you’ve certainly heard the sublime “In Paradisum” from his Requiem), as did Franz Kafka – and indeed Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. Thomas Mann’s novel Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) was published, as well as E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

In other words, there would be a lot to write about with respect to 1924, so honestly, there is little excuse for… this.

I don’t remember all that much of the earliest TV programmes we got from my uncle, though I do think that my, what shall we call it, obsession with entertainment tech started back then, as we were probably one of the first families in our street to have a VCR – and the wrong one at that. What I do remember is that my mum got lots of British war movies, probably her favourite genre, and we certainly had a tape containing Zulu (1964), one of her favourite films. We also got a recording off of ITV of the original Star Wars, which was the format I first saw the film in, complete with ’80s UK ads for toast bread, tea bags and the like. Imagine that: Star Wars in grainy video with colours bleeding into each other, with an ad break every half an hour or so. Still, it was glorious for seven- or eight-year-old me: Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, lightsabers, X-Wings and TIE Fighters, and John Williams’ pitch-perfect score, even if it did sound rather wobbly on that tape.

Other than that, though, what I most remember of those early years of literal UK imports is hours and hours of Benny Hill sketches. Perhaps I was the perfect age for Hill’s brand of humour in the vein of saucy seaside postcards. I definitely remember all of us sitting in a carcinogenic living room (at the time, both of my parents smoked), playing those video tapes and laughing at Alfred Hawthorne “Benny” Hill’s hijinks. Though I don’t think I’d particularly enjoy The Benny Hill Show these days, I’d be lying if I said that the thought of those hours of doing something as a family didn’t make me feel faintly nostalgic, even if it mainly involved a rotund little man running after buxom blondes. I guess you could say that the soundtrack of my childhood, more than early ’80s pop music, was “Yakety Sax”. Which may just explain a thing or two about me.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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