I was very fortunate to get in touch with a former star of the Benny Hill Show, Christine Pilgrim. She appeared only briefly on The Benny Hill Show, but her answers in this first installment of Benny Hill Stars Q&A interviews are very insightful.
Benny Hill Stars Q&A
When did you start on the Benny Hill Show and what was it like working on the Show?
I think it was something like 1986... I only recorded one 'show'. In fact, we didn't record shows; we simply recorded a series of sketches. These were later peppered, or papered together with other sketches to form a series of 'shows'. We had no studio audience. Working on the show was fascinating. Benny was a comic, not an actor. There is a vast difference between the two. I was sitting with him in makeup when two actors were rehearsing a sketch on the studio floor. (It was about a fortune teller with a crystal ball... 'she' was a man in drag... sorry, can't remember the names of the actors.... both very fine...) The tv monitor was just above our heads. Benny watched the two actors rehearse, as actors would, with nuances and subtleties in an actor's rhythm. Benny leapt from his chair and within seconds was on the studio floor saying vehemently, "No, no no! I want it to go Bam Bam Bam... punch line!" The actors' way was more subtle and would have achieved several chuckles; Benny's way got the big laugh at the end with hardly a titter en route. Benny was more the director/comic than the leading actor. There was no question about who was boss! I did one recording only. When the crew guffawed at some line I delivered, Benny said firmly, "I'm the one who gets the laughs!" I never knew whether he was joking or not!
Were you always interested in working in Show Business?
Nope, I wanted to be a princess for a very long time and, indeed, even fancied being queen for a while! I also toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher. It's interesting that these days I write and perform one-woman shows about significant figures in history, art and literature - and one of them is of a Victorian Schoolma'am, Mrs MacPherson. Through her I'm able to 'teach' as I would have liked to had I followed a teaching career.
Did you have other areas you were interested in working?
I actually became a standup comic for several years. Since moving to Canada in 1992 to look after my then recently widowed mother, I moved into the history/museum/historic-site field. I worked extensively at a northern British Columbian gold mining town that boomed in the 1850s and bust in the 1870s, called Barkerville. I actually won an award there for my contribution to historic interpretation. Since then, I've been bitten by the history bug and find a huge amount of pleasure in researching various characters for the one-woman shows I tour round Canadian schools, museums and universities. I still do the standup comic routines occasionally in my 'Knights of British Knonsense', riding in on a penny farthing, reciting Lewis Carroll, telling awful jokes (not unlike Benny Hill's), giving a 3 minute rendition of 'Hamlet' and singing some silly and some sentimental songs.
What kind of work did you do after the Benny Hill Show?
I appeared in the film, "The Fool" directed, very quietly, by Christine Edzard, and in another film called "Count Duello" ... and I can't remember the director's name, to my shame. I performed in lots of British Music Hall for companies like Hiss and Boo, Aba Daba and Mr George Binmore's Celebrated Music Hall, as well as my own Music Hall productions. I worked on cruises to the Canaries and up and down the River Thames, mostly as a comedienne. I did a couple of pantomimes at Stratford East with Philip Hedley. Two that stand out in my memory were "Sleeping Beauty" with Joanne Whalley playing my daughter, the Beauty herself, and "Jack and the Beanstalk" where I played one of two ugly sisters, Pam. Yvonne D'Alpra was my counterpart, Marg. That was enormous fun.
Did you have any close friendships with other stars on the show?
I had huge admiration for Mr McGee, Benny's straight man; his quiet acceptance of the status quo was quite a lesson for me. I also liked the 'head girl' who'd worked with Benny for years and years and whose affection for him was warm and kind. She was happily married and treated Benny a little like a sister might.
Have you been able to keep in touch with the other stars on the show?
No... I only returned to England two years ago - the first time since leaving. When I was there I met up with lots of theatre chums but I think Barry Cryer and Bert Kwok were the only two television stars I reunited with. Neither were on the show when I was. They are friends from other shows I've been involved with. In fact, I worked quite a bit with Barry Cryer (since the Benny Hill show) when he and Willie Rushton (now gone, alas) were doing "Two Old Farts In The Night" at the Edinburgh Festival. Willie always said that I provided the glamour. I used to bristle at that, thinking I was the female comic with the two boys. Colin Sell accompanied us on the pianoforte and actually performed as well. We did two of those shows and had a lot of fun together. Barry was really upset when I left for Canada and we couldn't continue. But no one is indispensible, and he replaced me with his jazz singing daughter who filled my shoes admirably. What fun this is! I remember now: I was doing children's theatre at Wimbledon when I came to Canada. I had to return to finish the show. Then when I came here to Vernon, where I live now, I was asked to come to the rescue of the Vernon Centennial Revue. The director, producer, writer, actors had fallen out and there was no show... script even ... nothing.... with only six weeks to put it on. I mustered a group of researchers, wrote a script outlining the 100 years, decade by decade, of Vernon since its first white settlement, directed and hosted the revue. It was very successful and was instrumental in getting me into Canada. I guess THAT was when I got bitten by the history bug. Just for the record, to show the following Benny still has here in Canada, I tag my "Knights of British Knonsense" shows with the words, "With a hint of Benny Hill, a touch of Monty Python and a lot of Christine Pilgrim!"
All the best,
Special thanks to Christine for taking some time to talk to us so candidly about the Benny Hill Show. You can learn more about Christine at her own official website, Christine Pilgrim, Hands On History. Hopefully more stars will take a few minutes to talk about their time on The Benny Hill Show.