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The Archers star Tim Bentinck: ‘I want my memoirs to show my grandchildren I’ve done more than voice-acting a gnome’

Tim Bentinck during a recording for The Archers Tim Bentinck during a recording for The Archers

Pirate King, Conjoined Gnome Left and, in real life, the Earl of Portland: Tim Bentinck has had many roles, but he’s known to millions for his part in The Archers. He tells Nick Smurthwaite about his book of memoirs

Why do actors write memoirs? Vanity? Money? Something to do while awaiting that life-changing call from their agent? All of the above, no doubt, but in Tim Bentinck’s case the impetus to write it all down started with a gnome.

“For a long time I was listed on IMDb for my voice-over role in the animated film Gnomeo and Juliet – Conjoined Gnome Left – because it was the highest-grossing thing I’d ever done, and that’s how they determine your listing,” says the veteran actor. “So I decided I wanted to put the record straight for my grandchildren and show them I’d done other things besides voice-acting a gnome.”

playing the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1982

The resulting book, Being David Archer: And Other Unusual Ways of Earning a Living, is a rollercoaster ride through an acting career that has encompassed West End musicals, Ribena commercials, voice-overs for computer games, a film role alongside Roger Moore, and 35 years of playing David Archer in the long-running radio soap, The Archers.

At the time he landed the role of David Archer, in 1982, Bentinck was happily playing the swaggering Pirate King in an acclaimed production of The Pirates of Penzance at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

“I turned up for my first Archers broadcast in a leather jacket and jeans, with long blond hair, leg warmers and an earring,” he recalls. “Some of the older members of the cast were from genuine farming stock, and they wore tweed suits with ties and smoked pipes, even while standing at the microphone. God only knows what they made of this flashy youngster from the West End.

“I’d never heard The Archers, so I wasn’t especially nervous about the job. It was only when someone said it had five million listeners that I started to get the jitters.”

Bentinck’s father was a former producer of TV commercials – hence the Ribena commercial in which he appeared as a boy – so he wasn’t intimidated by TV or broadcasting studios. He went straight from training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the 1970s, where his flatmate was Daniel Day-Lewis, to the BBC Drama Repertory Company.

“So much has changed,” he writes. “The recording studios were in the basement and the Tube trains on the Bakerloo line beneath shook the building. Quiet scenes had to be recorded between train departures. The production team was almost exclusively male, and the directors had a tendency to be hugely intolerant if not downright rude. Lateness was inexcusable, fluffing a capital offence and smoking almost compulsory.

“The older actors would be formally dressed in suit and tie and the place was run with an almost military strictness. There was a feeling of doing it like a stage performance then, as though it were live.”

It took Bentinck a few years to feel at home with his alternative Archers family, mostly because of the strict segregation of old and new guard. “Woe betide a newcomer or guest actor who sat in one of the old hands’ chairs,” he writes.

Luckily he was taken under the wing of his “radio mum”, Patricia ‘Paddy’ Green, aka Jill Archer. She was one of the old guard but happily embraced the new.

One of the threads running through Bentinck’s book – and his career – is his respect for, and love of, the company of actors.

Playing first officer in Trevor Nun’s Twelfth Night

“We come from all walks of life,” he says. “Education, accent, family or income all count for nothing when everything about you is exposed on stage and you are utterly dependent on your fellow actor saying the right words at the right time. That trust and shared terror is the unspoken link that binds us all together.

“In The Archers we always go out of our way to make guest actors welcome, as we all know what it’s like guesting on something where you don’t know anyone.”

By a strange quirk of fate, it turns out that Bentinck is actually the Earl of Portland, a life peerage inherited from a distant cousin. He sat as a crossbencher in the House of Lords for three years. He explains: “My dad inherited the title but he had no money to go with it. He lived off the land in Devon in his later years. As an actor, having a title gets in the way because people get preconceived ideas of what you’re like. Stephen Fry summed it up when he said to me, ‘Your problem is you have a title but you’re not entitled to anything’.”

The resourceful Bentinck has turned his hand to many skills over the years, from travel journalism to website construction, but he has never given up on acting, even when it sometimes appeared to have given up on him.

“I like the fact that you never stop learning as an actor,” he says. “I enjoy living on my wits and what talent I have.

“I think I’m a much better actor now than I was in the early days. Back then I thought acting was about pretending, and strutting your stuff and having a good voice. I’ve learned that it is all about reacting, firstly to what’s being said to you and, more importantly, to your own thought processes.”

What are his top tips for survival and growth? “Work at it, go to classes, keep learning. Watch everything Mark Rylance does because he does so brilliantly what we’re all trying to do.”

He continues: “Keep in mind that the variety of the work you can do as an actor can be invigorating, challenging, different. There are so many jobs you can do as an actor without being in the public eye. Research all the available outlets, especially in the voice-work arena.”

Being David Archer: And Other Unusual Ways of Earning a Living is published by Constable in hardback and eBook

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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