In an interview with Crash magazine in November 1986, coder Don Priestley, when asked to discuss his back catalogue of Spectrum titles slapped an embargo on one in particular, declaring “I don’t want to talk about that. The less said about Benny Hill the better”. Pushing his luck, critic Bill Scolding probed, “Why not? Do you think it fails as a game or as a TV spin-off?” Not giving an inch, Don grumpily retorts, “yes”. Case closed.
Totally disregarding the former teacher’s wishes to let the painful memories rest in peace I thought today we could take a look at one of the fondly remembered system’s most obscure licensed tie-ins, and probably Don’s most regrettable.
Published by DK’Tronics in collaboration with Thames TV in 1985, the £6.95 title invites you to assume the role of ‘Fred Scuttle’, a half-witted recurring character from ‘The Benny Hill Show’, a British comedy sketch TV programme starring the late Benny Hill, believe it or not. We liked to call a spade a spade back then.
Airing between 1969 and 1994, the subtlety of the title carried through to the cheekily lascivious slapstick skits, chocker-block with pantomime parody, double entendres and arguably sexist and racist banter. Think ‘Carry On’ with the same gurning goofball playing the lead in every scene. Benny’s saucy postcard mentality was certainly of its time, yet there’s no doubting he had his finger firmly on the pulse of the British audience; at the height of his popularity in 1971 surveys reveal he held 21m viewers entranced by his farcical nonsense.
That said, only three TV channels were available at the time, and the internet hadn’t been invented. Looking back now it’s so cringeworthy you wonder how anyone ever found it funny. Knowing too Benny’s proclivity for visiting prostitutes and having them realise his bizarre fetishes does nothing to endear us to the lovable rogue persona he nurtured on screen. Although, perhaps knowing should be in inverted commas there because some of his closest friends and colleagues say he was the perfect gentleman, and a doting surrogate uncle (he never had a family of his own). It’s hard to tell how many of the accusations were tabloid trash extracted from unreliable ‘witnesses’.
Regardless he was an oddball enigma in all manner of ways, not least because he died with £7.5m in the bank, yet lived like a starving student, never having purchased his own home, and refused to pay for his mother’s leaky roof to be repaired because he considered the bill to be extortionate. It would be ironic if the rumours that he was gay turned out to be true given he dedicated so much of his life to leering at women. Even his death was strange; he died from a heart attack thought to have been brought on by comfort eating and booze. Losing a kidney to appetite-suppressing amphetamine abuse wouldn’t have done him any favours either. He was later dug up by thieves who’d heard a rumour that Benny had been buried with a treasure trove of gold and jewellery.
Inspired by Keystone Kops chase scenes, the show was perhaps most famous for closing with a live-action, stop-motion-ish, accelerated escape from a baying mob of scantily clad women who Benny had offended in a multitude of blundering ways in the lead up to the running gag. Filmed using the ‘under-cranking’ camera technique, the sequence would play out to the accompanying soundtrack of Boots Randolph’s ‘Yakety Sax’, which soon became synonymous with Benny despite few people being able to name the artist or tune.
Centred around this core component of the TV show, the game has you attempting to help a selection of locals by performing various fetch quests. Unfortunately, busy-bodies with too much time on their hands misconstrue your altruistic intentions and attempt to apprehend you. A ‘Madcap Chase’ ensues, followed by a thorough pummeling should they catch up with you. Cerrrr-razy it is too, so hang onto your berets!
In level one your challenge is to aid Mrs Harras in collecting the washing from her clothesline (inexplicably set up in the middle of the street), and deposit it in a laundry basket positioned five flip screens away. As she’s gone shopping she’s not around to explain to the locals that you’re not stealing her smalls for letchy kicks, as appropriate as that might be. In effect, one in particular – possibly Bob Todd in drag – hounds you every step of the way back towards the drop off point.
En route you must navigate around street furniture obstacles such as lampposts, street signs, phone boxes and fences, craftily plotted across three planes of depth. You push up to move further into the screen, and pull down to bring Fred closer towards you, the real challenge being to rapidly decide whether or not you’re in alignment with something that will knock you flat on your back should you run into it. There’s little point in memorising their positions in the assault course because the council switches them while you’re not watching.
Any dizzy turns lead to the loss of valuable seconds on the ticking clock, and hands your pursuer on a plate the opportunity to stomp the stuffing out of you while you lie defenceless on the tarmac. If caught, the item of clothing you’re in the process of delivering is returned to the line, leaving you back at square one.
20 points are awarded for each successful journey, and on the contrary, deducted in the event of collisions or apprehensions. With a bit of fancy footwork, upon delivery of the sixth item of clothing you transition into the next level. Which is a carbon copy of the first, except this time you’re escorting apples from a tree to a basket on behalf of farmer, Mr Bramley. As in the type of apple, hoho. Again your actions are misinterpreted as nefarious thievery and a tractor-riding farmhand tears up the turf in hot pursuit.
For the third and final level you’re tasked with gathering up jumble bric-a-brac for Mrs Bargin (who apparently is a sucker for a cheap deal), while we fend off bobbies on the beat, hell-bent on throwing you in the clink. Gameplay is identical to the prior levels, although you’ll need to be much lighter on your toes to outrun the faster coppers.
“True Hill fans will lament the absence of Hill’s Angels and the risky jokes but if you prefer being chased to chaste, this is the one for you, poor soul.”
60% – Your Sinclair (April 1986)
Graphically and in terms of mechanics Madcap Chase is analogous to Don’s Popeye game, released the same year. Sprites are huge to accommodate a more accurate portrayal of the protagonist, whilst colour masking techniques were employed to minimise attribute clash. Impressively effective it is too for such an early effort.
“The licensors, King Features – were at pains to point out that any game had to include fair representations of the central cartoon characters, so I sat down with a large grid and came up with a figure of Popeye which was seven characters high and six wide – 42 characters to move for each frame!”
Don Priestley, Crash magazine issue 34
“This is a strange little game, but it is very playable and addictive. Graphically, Madcap Chase is excellent, each character is large, well animated and has many facial expressions. As with its ‘parent’, Popeye there are very few attribute problems. Sound is well used although I did notice the lack of a tune on the title screen. There’s a little more to this game than just running back and forth from one end of the playing area to the other, as the scenery – telephone boxes, trees, lampposts and the like – changes position when you pick up or drop an object. At first I really enjoyed playing this one but it gets very monotonous after a short time.”
78% – Crash (March 1986)
“Dk’Tronics seem to have got a faster game in Benny Hill, but not as much thought has gone into presenting the whole screen, and the gameplay is a bit unresponsive. When I first played this game I was quite pleased with some nice touches – like the woman jumping onto Benny, and the way he leaps about, but after playing the screens right through (very easy) there was no lasting effect on me and I didn’t want to have another go. The first two levels were easy, but the last one was much too hard.”
78% – Crash (March 1986)
Each level consists of five screens, amounting to fifteen in total, so it’s by no stretch of the imagination a long or complex game… assuming you can reach the end before slipping into an apathy-induced coma.
Saving the best for last, its USP is to be found in the action assigned to the fire button. As it happens nothing remotely helpful such as discharging a gag so hysterically hilarious it would have your assailants ROFLcoptering in gut-busting agony, buying you critical extra seconds to reach your destination unmolested.
A drum-roll please maestro…
Pressing the fire button resets the game! Yes, one slip and all your hard-fought good deeds are for nought. This alone probably explains why there are no copies of the zany title currently listed on eBay; they’ve all been trampled into the bedroom carpet in frustration and disgust, no doubt fast-forwarded in time to Yakety Sax.
Target released in 1989, published by Margate, would be the final entry in Don’s gameology. Bowing out of the industry owing to the worry that development was shifting towards teamwork, whereas Don by his own confession “always was an unsociable old git”, he returned to the teaching profession he abandoned in 1981 to become a programmer. He has since taken “early retirement from teaching and (lives) here in Ireland in rural isolation. You know, pottering about. The old horse turned out to grass.”