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Bentine, Michael (1922-1996)

Actor, Writer, Presenter

Main image of Bentine, Michael (1922-1996)

"I can honestly claim that I am the only Peruvian to have been born in Watford". Educated at Eton ("mother claimed, rightly that she paid our fees mainly from her bridge winnings"), the world never seemed straightforward to Michael Bentine. Square, potty maybe, but never straight. His offbeat humour entertained children of all ages "from 1 to 93" for 50 years.

After serving in the RAF, he made his television debut live from the Alexandra Palace on Starlights (BBC, tx. 25/12/1946) as one half of Sherwood and Forrest. Touring solo as 'The Professor', his career then took off with the legendary radio comedy The Goon Show. He departed the Goons amicably after two series and a television newsreel, Goonreel (BBC, tx. 2/7/1952).

The Bumblies (BBC, 1954), written, produced and directed by Bentine - originally in an attic and then in his garage - launched his television career. In this inventive children's series, Bentine's Professor interacted with three egg-shaped alien puppets that slept on the ceiling. The series proved costly and brought him close to bankruptcy. Re-teaming with former goon Peter Sellers, he created Yes, It's the Cathode Ray Tube Show (ITV, 1957), with the novel idea of dropping one word each week from the title until the last one was just called 'Yes!'

The Bentine comedy machine rolled on with After Hours (ITV, 1959), co-written with series director Richard Lester. It blended news sketches and animation with celebrity guests from the world of comedy and sport. He followed this with It's a Square World (BBC, 1960-64), a groundbreaking mixture of slapstick, satire and animation which set no bounds for Bentine's surrealistic humour. Laden with special effects, including a flea circus, Bentine and his team continuously laid siege to the BBC television centre; cowboy and Indian attacks, tunnelling and sending it into orbit all incurred the BBC's wrath. Bentine had the last laugh when he received a BAFTA in 1962 and the series won the Grand Prix de la Presse at Montreux in 1963. With production costs escalating, he moved to commercial television. All Square (ITV, 1966-67), shown on Saturdays at peak time, achieved huge audiences, but without Jack Kine's special effects he was unable to match his previous triumph.

A riotous concert at the Albert Hall, accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, continued his television mayhem. Mike, Phil and Albert (ITV, tx 22/8/1971) was dedicated to his son Stuart, who had died tragically in an aeroplane crash, which Bentine investigated with the Special Branch. His love of silent film comedy produced the compilation series Golden Silents (BBC, 1973).

Unfortunately, cinema couldn't find suitable vehicles for his brand of humour. The one notable exception was the star-studded, predominately silent comedy The Sandwich Man (d. Robert Hartford-Davis, 1966). He discovered a whole new audience with the delightfully anarchic Michael Bentine's Potty Time (ITV, 1974-80). The faceless potty puppets inhabited a variety of classic stories (Treasure Island, Sherlock Holmes) and historical events (Hadrian's Wall, the Seventh Cavalry). The series was popular with children of all ages. "Cor!"

An accomplished pilot, yachtsman and archer, during his later years he turned to writing fiction and parapsychology. His vocal talents were put to good use on the animatronics puppet series The Great Bong (ITV, 1993) and a variety of commercials. The quintessential crazy comedian received a CBE in 1995 for services to Entertainment to go with his Peruvian Order of Merit. Bentine died of cancer on 26 November 1996.

Graham Rinaldi

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Thumbnail image of It's a Square World (1960-64)It's a Square World (1960-64)

Madcap sketch comedy from ex-Goon Michael Bentine

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