Frankie and Benny: A remembrance

Frankie Howerd. Frankie Howerd. Copyright: BBC
Benny Hill

Comedy historian Robert Ross celebrates the lives and memories of comedy superstars Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill, who died on the same weekend in April 1992.

I have a feeling I was in Huddersfield in the final years of the last century when I first stumbled upon a Frankie & Benny's restaurant, and smiled.

It was immediately clear that this haven for reasonably priced American-Italian food had absolutely nothing to do with the beloved comedians who had been born Francis Alick Howard in York in 1917, and Alfred Hawthorne Hill in Southampton in 1924, but the names of Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill were now forever linked. In my mind, as well as everybody else's mind in this country.

Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill had been contemporaries and chums, but hardly ever colleagues. Their paths had criss-crossed through radio's Variety Band Box and television junkets, but they had always been too big a names as headlining attractions individually to ever share the same comedic space.

The zeppelin-sized eyebrows and furrowed features of Howerd, and the moon-faced, mischievous-eyes of Hill: the undisputed behemoths of English saucy humour. William Hogarth sketches, and Donald McGill postcards made flesh. Like two Shakespearean fools, Frankie and Benny frolicked through the post-war years, merrily plonking the British public repeatedly over the head with their pig bladders on a stick. And, oh, how we loved it.

Frankie and Benny's fortunes in their homeland during their final years could not have been more contrasting. After a roller-coaster career that had encompassed That Was The Week That Was and an off-kilter embrace of the satire movement, the Carry Ons, and various dalliances in a Roman toga, Frankie Howerd had reinvented himself as the darling of the Britpop generation. So old he was new, he had triumphed in an address at the Oxford Student Union, and held court at sell-out performances at the Lyric Hammersmith, and the Garrick Theatre.

I know 'cos I was there.

Frankie Howerd. Frankie Howerd. Copyright: BBC

At the time of his death, Frank had recorded four of six editions of Frankie's On..., a new stand-up comedy series for television, and was poised to tackle the supporting role of the King of Spain in the franchise-reviving Carry On Columbus.

Benny Hill, on the other hand, hadn't had his own show on British television in three years, having been unceremoniously dropped by Thames Television in 1989. He had starred in The Benny Hill Show, in one form or another, since 1955. His shows were still being screened in almost every country in the world, just not this one. With time on his hands, he embarked on something of an enforced tour of Europe, being feted in France and lauded by Charlie Chaplin's son in Switzerland.

Back at Teddington Studios, Ben and his equally out-of-favour director Dennis Kirkland made a programme especially for the American market. Originally entitled Benny Hill's World Tour and the first of a proposed series of shows for international consumption, the programme would only emerge in Britain two years after Benny's death, then re-titled Benny Hill Unseen.

At the start of 1992, both Frankie and Benny had been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Although Benny was preparing to return to British screens with a new series for Central Television (coincidentally also the broadcaster behind Frankie's On), meetings for the new programmes were interrupted by frequent visits to hospital. Typically, Benny would emerge from the ward on the arm of a pretty young nurse but it was clear he was far from a well man. Frankie too had returned from an ill-advised trip to South America at the end of 1991 and by April was fighting for his life in a Harley Street clinic.

Benny was last seen in public at a performance of Me & My Girl at London's Adelphi Theatre, on the evening of Thursday, 16th April. The production starred Les Dennis and Benny's beloved Hill's Angel, Louise English. That evening Benny sent Frankie a telegram: "Stop stealing my act - I do the heart attack jokes".

Benny Hill

Frankie died on Easter Sunday, 19th April. As one of Benny's closest friends and colleagues, Dennis Kirkland was approached for a tribute. He tried to contact Hill and, failing, quickly concocted a quote on Benny's behalf. Unbeknown to anyone at the time, Benny hadn't even heard the news. He had died, alone the previous day, in front of his bank of television sets tuned to stations around the world, still cheerfully "stealing all his own material" for the series he would never make. The contract for his Central Television series was among his unopened post.

Unsurprisingly, tributes poured in for these two veritable giants of British comedy who, against all the odds, had managed to go out on top. The out-pouring of lost for Benny, in particular, galled some who had been closest to him and witnessed first hand the hurt that some comments in the British press had caused him. Thames Television even hastily cobbled together a tribute compilation ending with the legend 'Benny Hill 1924-1992. Thank you'. The irony was lost on no one.

Frankie's final, incomplete television series, including the very last edition recorded, Frankie's On Call!, filmed at the Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham, was screened in the summer of 1992. The proffered Carry On role having already been re-cast before his death, his mournful titters were replaced by the disgruntled charm of Leslie Phillips when the film was released in the October.

Over the last twenty odd years, great swathes of Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill material has been released and reassessed on DVD, and their lives have been excavated through scandal-obsessed dramas and documentaries, but, suitably enough, they still have the last laugh. The bewigged one in the ill-fitting suit, and the cherubic one with the lustful leer continue to make millions of us happy. It's all they ever really wanted to do.

Robert Ross (@RobertWRossEsq) is the author of Benny Hill - The Complete Companion and The Complete Frankie Howerd, available through his website:

His latest project, Forgotten Heroes of Comedy, is currently being funded at

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