Origins: Michael Bentine
Updated: Oct 13, 2021
Michael Bentine was a fascinating character. Born in 1922, his father was Peruvian while his mother was British. He grew up in Folkestone in Kent, and speaks about his childhood as being wonderfully idyllic in his autobiography The Reluctant Jester.
He claims that his parents’ skills at bridge paid for him to go to Eton College. However he got there, he proved to be particularly intelligent, being fluent in several languages. Several accounts from his entertainment peers tell how he would thrill them with tales of his exploits in various outlandish careers. When they challenged him over the veracity of these tales, he would invariably be able to demonstrate remarkable skills to back these stories up.
Bentine’s father Adam (whose surname was spelt Bentin) was an influential aeronautical engineer. Also fascinated by flight, Michael Bentine volunteered during the Second World War with the dream of becoming a pilot. As we have covered previously, his attempts were thwarted almost fatally by a faulty inoculation.
Instead, he ended up working in RAF intelligence, helping plan bombing raids over enemy occupied territories, as well as coaching aircraft teams on how to survive and escape if shot down. He was part of the first Allied troops to liberate the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen.
The reaction of humour is a defence mechanism against some of the appalling sides of life.
(Michael Bentine talks to Bishop Richard Holloway for an episode of When I Get To Heaven)
After the war, similarly to Harry Secombe, he moved to London with hopes of becoming a comedian. He auditioned at the Windmill Theatre, just like Secombe, and got in. He teamed up with another comedian, Tony Sherwood, with whom he formed a double act, Sherwood and Forrest. (Guess who was who?)
Bentine’s first big success as a solo act came about almost by accident. As he recalls in The Reluctant Jester, he was having dinner with his brother when an overly exuberant action tore the back off a rather nice dining chair. Rather than be annoyed, the Bentine brothers amused themselves by coming up with different uses for the broken back of the chair. This quickly became an act, and even saw him appear on television.
This clip comes from Down Among the Z Men, the Goons' 1952 film in which Bentine played the bumbling Professor Osric Pureheart. This performance, part of a cabaret to entertain the soldiers of Z Reserve, doesn't really fit the flow of the film or the plot, but it at least ensures that the chairback routine is preserved.
Other examples of his off-the-wall comedy stylings included giving lectures in an Eastern European-style invented language that he called Slobodian. His crazy hair and ability to cross his eyes for long periods of time while performing just added to his apparent craziness.
He also enjoyed pranks: irritated by one person with whom he shared the bill for a while who insisted on giving useless advice during chess matches, he and two others built a double sized chess board and invented a new game. They played it on and off for several days before the person in question could no longer resist and tried to give advice. Apparently, he took it quite well when they pointed out what they had done.
It was at the Windmill Theatre that Bentine met Secombe, and they went on from there to take up a semi-residency at the famous Grafton Arms pub, later meeting Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan.
Bentine’s involvement with the Goon Show only lasted for the first two series. There are many differing accounts as to why he left, and we will get to them soon.
After the Goons, Bentine created several successful comedy series for radio and television including It’s A Square World and Michael Bentine’s Potty Time.
Quite aside from his comedy career, Michael Bentine was also fascinated by mediums, spiritualism and the supernatural. In The Reluctant Jester he recounts many events, often experienced with his parents who were equally fascinated, that he puts down to proof of supernatural forces. It is something that Peter Sellers also developed an interest in later in his life.
We will come back to Michael Bentine’s later career another time. For now, though, I will leave you with him in conversation with Sir Harry Secombe for Songs of Praise shortly before his death in 1996. It’s very heartfelt, and he speaks openly and honestly about the grief he felt on losing three of his five children.