“One lifetime is nowhere near enough to do all that there is to do.” So said the actor, comic, psychic, and writer Michael Bentine, and in his case it was probably true.
Born in Watford, to a Peruvian father and an English mother, Bentine was party at an early age to his parents’ interest in seances, clairaudience, “table turning” and the paranormal. Such an introduction inspired his own life-long interest into spiritualism and the Occult.
In his autobiography, The Long Banana Skin, Bentine claimed whilst in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War he had visions through which he was able to tell whether his comrades would live or die. If he saw a skull super-imposed over their faces, he then knew they would not return from their next mission. Not the kind of talent to win friends and influence people, but certainly one to impress others with in later years, as he did when he recounted such tales on chat shows.
If it was all true, then it was most certainly a curse, as Bentine foresaw the death of his son, who was killed in a plane crash; and foresaw the death of his friend, the Tory politician, Airey Neave, who was blown-up by the IRA. Bentine was also a member of a Wiccan coven, and indulged in various rituals. Nothing wrong with that, but when tied to the fact Bentine was very close to the Royal Family it’s enough to give David Icke something to fantasize about.
Bentine was also involved in paranormal investigation, on one occasion he helped a family whose child suffered from recurrent illness. As the child grew weaker, Bentine was convinced evil forces were at work. His hunch proved correct when it was uncovered the family’s neighbors, an elderly couple, were using magical rites to drain the child of its life-force.
Towards the end of his military service, Bentine was involved in the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which had such a traumatic affect on him he was never able to describe what he had seen, other than to call it “the ultimate blasphemy”.
After the war he started his career as a comedian at the Windmill Theatre, home to nude tableaux, dirty old men wanking and a generation of great comedians – Tony Hancock, Morecambe and Wise, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Tommy Cooper and Jimmy Edwards. It was through the Windmill that Bentine met Secombe and Sellers and later Spike Milligan, with whom he formed The Goons.
Amongst the memorable roles he played in The Goons was Professor Osric Pureheart, a mad scientist whose achievements included digging the Channel Tunnel, building the giant Brabagoon aircraft and discovering the East Pole. Bentine left The Goon Show after thirty-eight episodes, just before fame struck. He then chose his own route to success, touring Australia, before returning to make his first great children’s TV series The Bumblies.
The success of The Bumblies was only a taster of what was to come. During the sixties Bentine achieved international fame with the BBC comedy series It’s a Square World (winner of the Golden Rose of Montreaux, amongst others), and made the greatly under-rated gem The Sandwich Man. Yet, for all this original and brilliant work, to a generation of young uns, Michael Bentine’s Potty Time will be perhaps what he is remembered for best.
Potty Time (1973-80) with its mix of Goonish humor, followed the comic’s investigations into the funny and surreal world of cuddly, chubby, big-nosed puppets, which he voiced, as they re-enacted a selection of classic novels and historical events – Sherlock Holmes, Hadrian’s Wall, the Northwest Frontier, Vikings and Pirate Buses amongst others. The show was recorded live with Bentine performing to his own taped voice. Timing was essential as Bentine couldn’t fluff lines and the puppeteers had to hit their mark perfectly.
Watching the series now, it is still quite incredible how they managed to pull it off, but thankfully they did.