Why Benny Should Be Back On The BBC

I first discovered Jack Benny about seven years ago, after researching the radio work of Mel Blanc. Over the next few years, I would eventually become a huge fan of the radio exploits of Jackson and his crew; hearing most of the episodes available on the Internet. It may surprise my American readers to know, that Benny is a forgotten name in Britain. Occasionally mentioned in passing on comedy documentaries, his work has not had a proper airing for at least two decades. This, in this writer’s opinion, is a real disservice to the man who inspired generations of comedians after him.

The Jack Benny Program was first brought to the UK via transcription disc and broadcast on a BBC Forces station in 1941, shortly before America joined the war. Other American shows broadcast on this network included Bob HopeCommand Performance, and Fred Allen. So popular were these broadcasts, that it wasn’t long before Jack made his way to the BBC Home Service. An imported show might be a normal concept now, but it was unusual in the period. Ceasing broadcast of Jack Benny recordings in the mid to late 40s, it would take some time before they hit the BBC airwaves again. In 1994, BBC Radio 2 aired a documentary about Jack Benny called The Jack Benny Story. They also broadcast a classic Christmas episode in 1996 as part of their Vintage Christmas season. There were also episodes made available on BBC cassette, a rare find on Ebay.

I had consigned myself to the idea that Jack Benny’s comedy lacked relevance to a modern British audience, but something happened that changed my mind. BBC Radio 4 Extra recently broadcast a special on Old Time Radio called The Golden Age Of American Radio; including a 1950 episode of The Jack Benny Program. Although I had heard this show a few times, Jack was going out on British airwaves, and it left me mesmerised. The hit rate with the gags was exceptional, and the show had a certain energy and vibrancy scarcely found in British shows of the period. I searched press to find reviews of the 4 Extra Benny offering and found nothing but positive about it. This convinced me that a regular airing of Jack’s shows would be a welcome addition to a tired schedule. Also, it makes logical sense in our current climate.

During an era of immense budget cuts at the BBC, it makes sense for them to seek cheaper options for the programming. As a regular listener to archive station Radio 4 Extra, I have observed that more programs from outside the BBC are making their way into the schedules; predominantly syndicated public service shows. Sourcing shows from elsewhere is undeniably a good idea for a cost-saving exercise, as I’d imagine they would only pay for the broadcast of the product, and not the production. A negative angle is that the non-local aspect to syndicated programs means that outside production and procedure can make a show feel out of place next to homegrown shows in the schedule.

Putting that thinking into this context, it seems like a logical step to have regular episodes of Jack Benny on BBC Radio 4 Extra because of two defining factors: material and influence. There are literally hundreds of episodes in existence, possibly more than all of 4 Extra’s classic comedy output put together, and they have been incredibly influential. The station has broadcast the likes of Hancock’s Half Hour and Round The Horne for years. These two shows, in particular, owe a little debt to Benny.

While we could perceive some characterisations as archetypal or stereotypical to modern audiences, interested listeners understand that these recordings come from another era. Rochester, for example, could be just as intelligent as those around him, sometimes more so; despite negative connotations associated with his character. There are several references that pop up early in the surviving run that would not be acceptable today, but they can edit these out if deemed too offensive. The aforementioned cassette from the BBC contained episodes from around 1945, a time when the show really began to take shape; an airing of these episodes would be welcome.

Some people might say that these episodes are freely accessible to anyone interested, and so need not be aired on the BBC, but they are only available to those who know they are there. I am a big believer in preserving the past, and future generations sometimes only discover things brought to their attention. There are many people of my age group (late 20s, early 30s) who heard Hancock and Horne because their parents introduced them.

So why do I want Benny back on the Beeb? His show is an example of a high watermark in 20th-century comedy and has influenced many greats after him. The radio show, more so than the 50s and 60s TV effort, is a mostly timeless piece of entertainment. Benny surrounded himself with an amazing cast of performers including Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Dennis Day and Don Wilson; most who had the last laugh on Jack. Jack was a popular performer in Britain for many years, performing, among other places, at the London Palladium. He also performed at the Royal Variety Performance on a few occasions. The broadcasting of his radio show would not be out of place amongst 4 Extra’s current crop of classic comedy, and deserves to be heard.

Jamie Dyer

Jamie Dyer is an experienced writer, broadcaster, musician and social media marketer. He enjoys Old Time Radio, vintage TV, collecting vinyl and supporting the New York Knicks.

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