On this day in 1996, Michael Bentine died at the age of 74 from prostate cancer at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.
The obituaries over the next few days painted a remarkable picture of a man with so many interests and talents it’s no wonder he was labelled a genius by so many people.
As we know, he met his soon-to-be fellow Goons at the Windmill Theatre and the Grafton Arms, from where the quartet launched their bid to revolutionise British comedy. While he was only with the Goons for two series – and only three episodes from this era have survived – his friendship with the others lasted for the rest of their lives.
The Stage – the trade magazine for performers of all kinds – carried a glowing tribute from writer James Green on 5 December 1996, in which he described meeting Bentine at home some years previously.
When my curtain time arrives I would like the words ‘I’ll be seeing you’ on my tombstone. That’s all. I believe that life is a state and continues. Time doesn’t exist. We invented it. Don’t grieve too long. It becomes destructive. Rather, remember those no longer with us through their last moments and their laughter. The children that I loved who died are still with me.
(Michael Bentine, quoted in James Green's obituary, The Stage, 5 December 1996)
Of his five children, two daughters, Elaine and Marylla, died of cancer – leading Bentine to refuse chemotherapy due to having experienced their suffering – while his son Stuart was killed in a plane crash. The latter tragedy led Bentine to investigate the rules around private airfields and prompted change to air regulations in the UK.
In his professional career, he pioneered remote controlled puppets in his 1950s children’s series The Bumblies, and his other influential series included Round the Bend in 30 Minutes on radio and After Hours and It’s A Square World on television.
He was also a prolific writer, took part in the first hovercraft expedition on the Amazon river, worked as an RAF intelligence officer during the Second World War, and was one of the first Allied soldiers to liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Many years before the invention of the Ted talk, in 1989, Bentine gave this address to the Wrekin Trust.
He even helped start the SAS’s counter-terrorist arm, according to this BBC article from 2000. He was awarded a CBE in 1995 for services to entertainment.
Bentine was a remarkably talented man and a great influence on many people in many different fields – including Prince Charles, a big fan of the Goons. Charles even visited him shortly before his death, which Bentine’s son Richard described as having “revitalised, almost recharged” his father.
I’ll leave you with his final interview, fittingly with one Sir Harry Secombe.
Further reading: Origins: Michael Bentine