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Happy birthday Michael Bentine

Updated: Mar 15, 2022

Goon Show co-founder Michael Bentine was born on this day in 1922, exactly a century ago.

I think it’s fair to say Bentine is something of an unsung hero of 20th century British comedy. A co-founder of the Goon Show and advocate of the new type of comedy that emerged after the Second World War, he also saw success with the radio series Round The Bend and his TV shows Potty Time, It’s a Square World and The Bumblies.

His war experiences are a remarkable set of stories on their own – I summarised them in a blog post back in July. Like Harry Secombe, upon demob he began auditioning at various London venues and eventually got his break at the Windmill Theatre as part of a duo, Sherwood and Forrest.

In his autobiography, The Reluctant Jester, Bentine tells of playing chess with Tony Sherwood, his comedy partner, and Alfred Marks – who later became one of the Goon gang at Graftons. The theatre’s choreographer, Keith Lester, had been annoying them with unwarranted advice on their games, so between them they took two cheap chess sets and created their own game of uber-chess (“Pshessh”) and made up the rules to confuse their “kibitzer”.

The group kept this up for a week, with the game keeping Lester quiet as he tried to work it out – all the while listening to the made-up terminology Bentine, Sherwood and Marks were improvising.

By Friday, Keith thought he had grasped the essentials of the new game. He moved closer… and remarked languidly, ‘Watch his archbishop, you headstrong boy. It could be mate in three.’ […] When [Tony Sherwood] laughed, he always closed his eyes and banged on the nearest objects. This happened to be the Psessh board. The pieces flew everywhere. Alfred and I collapsed in hysterics. We laughed so much we nearly missed our cue.

(from The Reluctant Jester by Michael Bentine, published by Corgi Books, 1992)

Among his early solo acts were the chairback routine and lectures in a made-up language he dubbed “Slobodian”. As well as the Windmill, he also appeared regularly at the Nuffield Centre, where the audience was made up of mainly members or former members of the armed forces. Secombe, Sellers, Milligan and many other comedians and entertainers of the time tested out new material here.

Bentine began writing material for Harry Secombe who was appearing on Variety Bandbox, alongside another comedian, Derek Roy. Roy’s writer was a certain Jimmy Grafton.

I was working with Harry doing Variety Bandbox, and I was writing him weird things. And the star of the show was Derek Roy, for whom Jimmy Grafton was writing. So he wrote us a letter and said, ‘Our styles clashing. Would you like to come down and talk it over with me?’ So we thought, great. Then we saw the address: Grafton Arms, Victoria Street. We thought: “It’s a pub! He owns a pub!”

(Michael Bentine interviewed for At Last The Go On Show radio documentary)

From there, the stage was set for the meeting of the Goons.

Bentine’s time with the Goons was brief – his final show came just 14 months after the first Crazy People episode aired – but he helped pave the way for the comedy gold that came later.

(This isn’t strictly true. Boxing Day 1953 saw Bentine return for The Giant Bombardon, the 13th episode of series four.)

While precious little of Bentine’s contributions to the Goons’ oeuvre survives, there’s plenty of his solo stuff available online.

The marvellous RadioEchoes archive has 13 episodes of The Michael Bentine Show from 1984 available to download for free. This YouTube channel has more than two dozen episodes of Potty Time available, and there’s also this video I’ve found of The Bumblies.

Bentine created the Bumblies puppets himself – and attracted some curious attention. A man from the Ministry of Defence visited to enquire about how they were manipulated (by remote control), which baffled their creator.

I burst out laughing. I had a marvellous mental picture of Bumbly Three sitting in the nose-cone of an intercontinental ballistic missile with that idiotic smile on his genial face, saying, ‘OK, fellars, here we go!’

(from The Reluctant Jester by Michael Bentine, published by Corgi Books, 1992)

Beyond comedy

Bentine’s work goes far beyond the Goons and his comedy. He was a fascinating man, obviously naturally intelligent and inquisitive, but also highly driven.

The Bentines (originally ‘Bentin’, his father’s Peruvian family name) experienced several terrible tragedies. Three of Michael’s five children predeceased him, his two eldest daughters from cancer and his eldest son in a plane crash.

This latter incident drove Bentine to conduct a lengthy and detailed solo investigation of private airfields and his resulting report shed light on severe safety issues and the widespread use of light aircraft in smuggling.

He wrote several books about spiritualism and the supernatural, toured the Amazon river on a hovercraft, received an honour from the Peruvian government for his help raising funds after a devastating earthquake, and was given a CBE by the UK for services to entertainment. All in all, a life well lived.

I’ve written plenty more on Bentine, and have linked to several interviews and programmes in previous blogs, on the anniversary of his death (26 November) and way back in July.

Larry Stephens and Maurice Wiltshire

In a strange coincidence, Larry Stephens (right) and Maurice Wiltshire (left) – Goon Show scriptwriters alongside Spike Milligan, John Antrobus and Eric Sykes – both died on 26 January, 32 years apart.

Larry Stephens’ story is a sad one, as I wrote about in July. The last Goon Show script he was credited with was ‘The Man Who Never Was’ (Series 8, Episode 21). His niece Julie Warren published a book in 2020, It’s All In The Mind, chronicling his life and work.

Maurice Wiltshire died in 1991. His Goon Show scriptwriting credits include several in partnership with Stephens, including The Seagoon Memoirs (Series 9, Episode 7), from which this blog takes its name.

Wiltshire also edited scripts for television for the Telegoons – but that’s a story for another day.

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