LONDON—Calling for "a new, more open era in British rule" and citing the need for "a time of healing for past transgressions," prime minister Tony Blair announced Monday that the British government will declassify and release the so-called "unexpurgated" Benny Hill tapes, ending over 15 years of public outcry and government cover-ups concerning their scandalous content.
Banned by Margaret Thatcher in 1982 for being "too cheeky" for public consumption, the controversial tapes allegedly contain over 150 hours of footage of well-known British public figure Alfred Hawthorne "Benny" Hill engaged in a variety of "compromising" situations, including bawdy musical numbers, saucy wordplay, and broad physical slapstick, much of it of a sexual nature.
Hill, formally denounced by Thatcher and Parliament in 1983, died in 1992 when a pair of oversized inflatable novelty bloomers he was wearing exploded upon contact with a haystack.
"Only by being open and honest about our nation's past mistakes can we ensure that they do not repeat themselves in the future," Blair, the first Labor Party member to head Britain after years of Conservative rule, told reporters at a 10 Downing Street press conference. "Releasing these tapes is the first step on the road toward a collective national healing, toward a glorious day when the honking, staccato melody of Boots Randolph's 'Yakety Sax' no longer haunts the collective memory of our nation."
Among the "violations of decency and good taste" captured on the now-declassified tapes: repeated use of oversized artificial prop breasts (see photo); reckless overuse of the "Mahna-Mahna" song; high-speed dubbing of dialogue to create a "quacking" effect; and, most seriously, the willful alteration of nearly two dozen publicly posted signs, including the changing of one reading "Georgie's Tarts and Crumpets" to read "Orgies, Tarts and Strumpets."
"The kind of vandalism in which Hill regularly partakes on these tapes is positively unconscionable," said Sir Fentwick Creighton-Thorpe of the London Commission of Registries.
Particularly disgraceful, Creighton-Thorpe said, is a segment in which a sign reading "Therapist" is manipulated to read "The rapist." "Such misrepresentation," he said, "could severely damage the proprietor of the sign's reputation as a provider of counseling."
Another highly controversial aspect of the tapes is the frequent appearance of the "Hill's Angels," a chorus line of scantily clad dancers whose alleged gyrations sparked a 1994 U.N. petition for full disclosure of the tapes.
The dancers—whose propensity for provocative leg splits and slow, lascivious writhing near poles and ladders can be seen throughout the tapes—have long been regarded by British leaders as "a potentially devastating source of international embarrassment."
"The so-called 'Hill's Angels' parts of the tapes, inasmuch as the models position themselves in reproductively suggestive poses and make flagrant and suggestive eye contact with the camera, appear, in all likelihood, to have been deliberately edited into the footage with clear and demonstrable gratuitous intent," said Archibald Binway of the London Protocol Office. "Such open acknowledgement of the female anatomy by a British national is an unthinkable breach of the public trust."
The tapes' release sparked celebration among the many activists who have fought to have them exposed.
"At last, the truth about Hill is revealed before the entire world," said Sean Wright, whose near-fatal 1987 hunger strike as one of the infamous "Benny 11" helped raise international awareness of the cover-up.
"That bastard slapped me granddad upwards of 1,500 times back in the '70s. And why? Because his short stature made him an easy target? Because his bald, shiny head, God bless it, made a humorous thwacking sound when smacked with an open palm?"
Wright's grandfather, veteran stage performer Jackie Wright, has become an enduring symbol of Hill's legacy of abuse toward the elderly.
But even as the facts of Hill's abuses come to light, there remain some who maintain that Hill was a victim of circumstance. Sympathizer Edwin Fripp, 42, of Leeds, contends that Hill's scandalous behavior was, in many cases, unintended.
"When Mr. Hill grabbed women's chests, it would usually be as the result of an accident: Often, he'd do so unaware of the fact that a mannequin he'd been undressing had been switched with a real woman while his back was turned," Fripp said. "And that time he was caught entering a women's changing room at the beach, he did not do so out of a desire to see women naked. No, it was also an accident, as the letters 'w' and 'o' on a sign labeled 'Women' were covered with a towel."
"In each of these cases, Mr. Hill received vicious, angry slaps from outraged women, even though he did not deserve their attacks, having committed no intentional wrongdoing," Fripp said. "Must we continue to heap blame upon the memory of a man who has already been punished enough?"
Such apologist voices, however, are clearly in the minority.
"In perhaps the most controversial portion of the tapes, the so-called 'chase' scene, there is little doubt that Hill is acting with premeditated malicious intent," said Kyle Dunkirk, one of the leaders in the legal battle for the tapes' release. "Lasciviously chasing a trio of nurses across a tree-lined field, Hill steps up his pursuit as the women become entangled in branches, causing them to lose progressively more and more layers of outerwear until they are clad only in brassieres, stockings, garters, and knickers. As the chase goes on, more and more people join in, including a man with one foot stuck in a bucket, a policeman covered in cake, and, eventually, even the outraged wives of the male pursuants. All the while, Hill remains relentless in his amorous pursuit, oblivious to the protests of all parties."
"These tapes add insult to injury," Dunkirk said, "as fast-motion photography lends a jerky, inhuman quality to the chase participants' motions as they proceed single-file into the sunset."
Whatever the societal ramifications of the scandalous footage's release, one thing is clear: The haunting image of those fast-motion runners will remain etched in the conscience of Britain, and the world, for a long time to come.