The Archers: The man behind David Archer . . . and that fatal roof fall
PUBLISHED: 10:45 06 June 2011
There's much more to Tim Bentinck than his three decades in The Archers and some ill-advised clambering-about on a roof halfway through a New Year party. Steven Russell finds out more - and gets a taste of what a Suffolk audience can expect
HIS fictional alter-ego in The Archers would by 11am have milked the cows, checked the herd of Herefords and probably had a run-in with his headstrong teenage daughter, but, in real life, actor Tim Bentinck is still in bed. Mind you, he has a valid excuse. The previous evening found him in Southampton, entertaining with his one-man show, so it was a while before he was back home in London. The night before that he was wide awake, fretting about reviving his show after a break of seven or eight months.
He did four last year, but the long interval meant it was like starting again. “I was so wound I just didn’t sleep the night before – went through the whole night with literally not a wink.”
Then, on the day itself, “I was running on empty. The body was all right and I wasn’t particularly nervous going on stage, but those synapses weren’t quite working. But it was all right, and that’s hugely relieving. I’ve got six more and the prospect is much more fun. I certainly feel a hell of a lot better this morning!”
His show is called Love Your Chocolates – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact people hear his name and think “Bendicks Bittermints”. It’s a bit galling for an actor whose CV is as long as your arm and has been in programmes such as Casualty, The Bill and Doctors. Even people familiar with BBC Radio 4’s The Archers (the “contemporary drama in a rural setting” in which he’s played farmer David Archer since 1982) are rarely aware of his intriguing life.
Try this for starters:
• Tim was born on a sheep station in Tasmania
• He’s the 12th Earl of Portland and has sat in the House of Lords
• He once found himself doing a radio commercial for dishwasher tablets in the morning and inspecting the ship’s company of HMS Portland in the afternoon
• He’s the voice of “Mind the Gap” on the Piccadilly Line
• He re-voiced the part played by Gerard Depardieu in the film Nouvelle France, explaining “It seems the Americans couldn’t understand his French accent, so I was briefed to tone it down a bit”
• In Kenya, to shoot an ice-cream commercial, armed guards were on duty to stop elephants trampling his tent at night
• Tim is a bit of a computer whiz and wrote software used by two voiceover agencies
• He also designed a device called The Hippo that allowed a child to be supported on an adult’s hip. It very nearly got picked up and made by a well-known company
Love Your Chocolates aims to unmask the man – using projected clips of TV and film work he’s done, anecdotes about funny incidents, examples of the comedy songs he’s been writing all this life and a lot more. Expect him to be armed with his guitar and trusty Apple Mac computer.
There will also be live radio-style lambing onstage . . . “It’s all done with yoghurt, basically! And quarter-inch tape and wet towels.” The show is structured in such a way that you don’t need to be an Archers fan to enjoy it.
Lately, of course, it is The Archers that everyone’s been talking about. It started with the controversial episode on January 2, when David Archer and brother-in-law Nigel Pargetter inadvisably clambered onto the roof of Lower Loxley Hall on an icy and windy evening.
Leaning a touch too far in order to remove a New Year banner, Nigel fell to his death with a bloodcurdling scream.
David has been in torment ever since, trying to assuage his guilt by helping widowed sister Elizabeth run Lower Loxley.
Emotions came to a head at the end of last week when Lizzie, full of gratitude, organises a lovely picnic lunch. David can no longer live with the secret knowledge that going up to the roof was his idea, however, and confesses all. Cue big blow-up. As we speak, the siblings are estranged.
The plot, which marked The Archers’ 60th anniversary, caused a storm, with many listeners calling for the head of Archers editor Vanessa Whitburn. Tim can see all the arguments, and he’s not going to criticise the BBC. “In a way, it shows the programme is fantastically successful and a powerful story. People really care about it.”
Killing off a popular character was brave, but listening figures have gone up, he says. He sympathises with those who miss Nigel, played by Graham Seed, “but, in a way, you’ve got to go ‘Well, that’s life.’ Life isn’t always a bunch of roses; life is an epic journey; life isn’t safe.
“Some people want The Archers to always be safe; that’s why they like it. I absolutely understand that, and I totally accept the fact that if you’ve got your own life which is unhappy or difficult, you’ve got this wonderful place to go to, which is Ambridge.
“If you upset that, they’re going to be upset, and that’s because they (the listeners) believe in it.
“I think it toughens the audience up. I think it makes you go ‘God, I really believe in it. I’m sitting here with real sadness.’ If it was all sweet and nice and lovely, maybe it would be a bit weak and anodyne.”
Nigel’s demise was the most tightly-guarded secret Tim had known since first stepping on Ambridge soil. He didn’t learn what was going to happen until receiving the script about four days before recording. “Graham knew three weeks before and he was in a difficult position: he knew, but couldn’t tell us. We knew somebody was going to die and were going ‘Who is it? Is it me? . . . ha ha ha’ And he was sitting there with us, knowing it was him.”
Tim, like everyone else, had speculated. There were a number of candidates, but he didn’t even consider Nigel to be at risk.
That said, “There’s a phrase somebody told me, which comes from the soaps: ‘Too dull to die’. You don’t kill off characters that people don’t care about. If you’re going to kill off a character, it’s going to be somebody whose loss is going to upset people, and in this way you make a stir.”
After all – and as with books, theatre and other branches of art – story-telling is about creating tales that pluck at our emotions.
For Tim, the consequences have been dramatic. Literally.
“We were all of us saddened to lose a mate – old Graham Seed. It feels very odd not having him around. But once that’s happened you’ve got to get on with it.” For Tim it meant months of “fantastic scenes” with Alison Dowling, who plays Elizabeth.
“It’s been very moving stuff.” David is “quite a simple soul; an honest grafter. As an actor, it’s a joy to play somebody on the edge of a nervous breakdown.”
Does it leave him feeling wrung out? The only time it’s affected him, he says, was when “radio wife” Ruth came within an inch of having an affair with a herdsman in 2006.
“There was a very weird crossover because, somehow or other, even the idea of your ‘wife’ having an affair with somebody else I found really upsetting. It wasn’t that I’m in love with Felicity Finch (who plays Ruth) – we’re terribly good friends and that’s it, and it’s fiction! – but there was this bloke who came in and was playing the part of my wife’s putative lover, and it felt weird!
“The other time it felt weird was when Ruth was told she had breast cancer. You kind of imagine it, and it’s a really, really horrible thing to imagine, whereas with this it’s been a great acting experience and I haven’t been affected.
“Actually, that’s not true. When it happened, I did get very upset. I got upset for Graham and also there was the thing about the birth and the little boy called Henry. (A concurrent storyline involved the premature son born to Helen Archer.) My father’s name was Henry, and my Pa died in 1997, so it was birth and death and it was all mixed up. But since then it’s all settled down, really.”
On the lighter side, the Lower Loxley tragedy has proved useful. He’d planned to start his Southampton show from the wings, having worked out how to trigger a recording of Nigel’s scream via an iPhone, while he stood out of sight. Then he’d emerge, holding a ripped banner. It would have been a memorable entrance.
“The damn thing didn’t work! So I had to come on stage and say ‘Sorry, I’m not really here’, press the button, run off stage and then come back. I will fix that glitch by next time!”
He himself hopes to remain a resident of Ambridge for years to come.
“I really enjoy it. I’m very lucky. We’re blessed to have a part that goes on, hopefully, for the rest of your life . . . unless you fall off a roof!”
• Born on a sheep station in Tasmania on June 1, 1953
• His father had swapped the lot of a producer at the BBC for a life of adventure as a jackaroo (a novice farmhand)
• Tim came to England aged two and lived in Hertfordshire until 1974
• He was in a commercial for Ribena in 1962!
• Went to Harrow School from 1966-1971
• Went to the University of East Anglia in Norwich, 1972 to 1975
• Gained a degree in history of art
• Went to Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, 1976 to 1978
• Then joined the BBC Radio Rep
• Married Judith Emerson in 1979
• Moved to London in 1982
• They bought a crumbling Victorian semi-detached house in Islington and pretty much did it up themselves
• Sons William and Jasper born in the 1980s
• Theatre work includes the Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance
• TV includes Lead Balloon and Silent Witness
• Films include Vanity Fair, Enigma, Twelfth Night (directed by Trevor Nunn) and North Sea Hijack (he was Roger Moore’s right-hand man)
• Tim started doing voiceovers as a child when his father was a producer at J.Walter Thompson in London
He’s done thousands of TV and radio commercials, corporate voice work, talking books and computer games
• He’s also done lots of automated dialogue replacement – post-production work such as lip-synching and dubbing – on films such as The English Patient and Chicken Run, and TV shows like Spooks and Hustle
• Tim’s website: www.bentinck.net
WHEN William of Orange took over the English throne in 1689, his most trusted advisor was one of Tim Bentinck’s ancestors. Hans Willem Bentinck effectively ruled a principality in what is now northern Germany. William made Bentinck the Earl of Portland.
“In 1990, the dukedom of Portland died out and my father Henry, as the late Duke’s half-sixth cousin, succeeded to the earldom . . . I became Viscount Woodstock, about the coolest title a man of my generation can have, but soon discovered that without money a title doesn’t really get you anywhere.
“When my father died in 1997 I inherited the earldom and a seat in the House of Lords, but no estates or riches.”
He attended the Lords quite regularly, but never spoke in debates. He knew hereditary peers were doomed under reform plans, and also explained: “Acting is a meritocracy and any fellow thesp who thought I was a rich nob who was just mucking about at acting wouldn’t take me seriously and, more importantly, no-one would employ me.”
Tim’s happy enough if the title can be used in a positive way, such as helping a charity, but otherwise it’s something that stays in the background.
Time with Tim
Love Your Chocolates, an evening with Tim Bentinck (alias David Archer), is at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds at 7.30pm on Friday, June 10. Tickets are £8-£15. There’s also a post-show reception – with drinks, Archers gossip and tales of his life – at 9.30pm (costs £10). Box office: 01284 769505, email firstname.lastname@example.org and web http://secure.theatreroyal.org