Obituary: Hywel Bennett

Hywel Bennett in the 1970s

Hailed by the News of the World as “the face of 1967” and favourably likened to his compatriot Richard Burton, Hywel Bennett found fame in his 20s on stage and screen but the promise of a long and glittering career was cut short by alcoholism.

He became a household name in 1979 as the sardonic “professional freelance layabout” Shelley in Peter Tilbury’s television sitcom, which ran for 39 episodes until 1984 and for 32 episodes of follow-up The Return of Shelley (1988 to 1992).

Born in Garnant, Carmarthenshire and raised in London, Bennett joined the fledgling National Youth Theatre in 1959 and played Ophelia, aged 15, in a production of Hamlet at the Queen’s Theatre in 1959.

After graduating from RADA, he was seen with the Leatherhead and Salisbury rep  companies before appearing as apprentice to Donald Wolfit’s Devil in James Forsyth’s Dear Wormwood in 1965.

The following year, he played Lennie in Alan Plater’s A Smashing Day, produced by the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, at the New Arts Theatre. More successful the same year were his delinquent cowboy-fixated Swansea adolescent in Dennis Potter’s Where the Buffalo Roam on television and his film breakthrough, the Bill Naughton-scripted The Family Way.

Potter would also feature in Bennett’s later television career, with appearances in  Pennies from Heaven (1978) and as the squalid ‘Pig’ Mallion in Karaoke and Cold Lazarus  (both 1996).

Justifying the Sunday tabloid’s claim, 1967 saw him in Simon Gray’s Death of a Teddy Bear on television – The Stage noting “a shining talent which he controls with mature restraint” – and as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Frank Dunlop’s Pop Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival. He reunited with Dunlop in Edinburgh in 1990 as Long John Silver in Treasure Island.

Although film stardom beckoned with 1969’s The Virgin Soldiers, as Dennis in  Joe Orton’s Loot (1970) and the 1971 sex-comedy Percy, on stage he was memorable as Prince Hal in both parts of King Henry IV (Mermaid Theatre, 1970), Mark Antony in Julius Caesar (Young Vic Theatre, 1972) and the complex but endearing Bakke in John McGrath’s Bakke’s Night of Fame (Shaw Theatre, 1972).

Other classical roles included Romeo to Kika Markham’s Juliet on television (1967), Hamlet in a 1974 tour of South Africa, Marlow (Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, National Theatre, 1984) and Andrey (Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Albery Theatre, 1987).

Among his other West End appearances were Gray’s Otherwise Engaged (Comedy Theatre, 1977) and Anthony Shaffer’s The Case of the Oily Levantine (Her Majesty’s Theatre, 1979). In 1980, he played the doomed  Antarctic explorer Captain Scott in Ted Tally’s Terra Nova for Chichester Festival Theatre.

With the Welsh Drama Company in 1974 he was seen as Danny in Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall and Konstantin in The Cherry Orchard. For Theatre Wales, he directed Orton’s What the Butler Saw (1981) and was to direct and appear in Ronald Harwood’s  The Dresser in 1982 but disappeared in the first week of rehearsal.

Other directing credits included Tom  Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Leatherhead Theatre, 1975) and Hjalmar Soderberg’s Doctor Glas (Man in the Moon Theatre, 1992).

Bennett’s later small-screen appearances included John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor  Soldier Spy (1979), Paul Milne’s Frankie and Johnnie (1986), Stephen Poliakoff’s Frontiers (1996) and a spell as a gangland boss in  EastEnders (2003)

Hywel Thomas Bennett, born on April 8, 1944, died on July 25, aged 73. He is survived by his first wife, the former television presenter Cathy McGowan, their daughter and his second wife.