Why David Archer nearly failed his arr-dition! How Timothy Bentnick almost missed out on his role on Radio 4 soap opera
His voice is familiar to millions of listeners.
But The Archers’ Timothy Bentinck – who plays David Archer – won the role on the Radio 4 soap opera only after a mishap in the audition.
In an exclusive excerpt of his autobiography in Event magazine, Bentinck revealed how he played another character, Eddie Grundy, in the tryout.
He asked what Grundy should sound like, and was told, ‘all-purpose rural – you know, put a lot of arr’s into it’.
‘I honestly thought he said, “Put a lot of ar*e into it”, so I made Eddie Grundy a bit bolshie, and by complete chance landed on a pretty close impression of Trevor Harrison’s inimitable Eddie. So, I got the part.’
‘Being David Archer: And Other Unusual Ways Of Earning A Living’ by Timothy Bentinck is published by Constable on October 5, priced £20
NOT so everyday tales of country folk by the earl who’s been David Archer for 35 years.
For the past 35 years, Timothy Bentinck has been the voice of David Archer, son of the eponymous household in the world’s longest-running radio series, ‘The Archers’. In that time he has locked horns with his Brookfield Farm family, endured wife Ruth’s near affair with herdsman Sam and, most famously, was the only one who knew what really happened to hapless aristocrat Nigel Pargetter on the roof of Lower Loxley (he insists he didn’t push him!) for the soap’s 60th anniversary in 2011.
Bentinck is also a lord – the 12th Earl of Portland, thanks to a family tree that dates back to 1354.
For the past 35 years, Timothy Bentinck has been the voice of David Archer, son of the eponymous household in the world’s longest-running radio series, ‘The Archers’
In his long career, he’s been thrown overboard by Roger Moore in a pirate movie, voiced James Bond for a computer game and Mind The Gap on the London Tube. He’s even taught supermodel Claudia Schiffer how to brush up on her German for a movie.
He’s been happily married to Judy, a hat designer, since 1979.
Here, in this extract from his hilarious new autobiography, Bentinck reveals the secrets of his Ambridge adventures...
My agent rang. ‘Do you want to be in The Archers?’
‘I’ve never heard it, what’s it like?’
‘It’s about farming.’
‘I know a bit about farming.’Timothy
‘Not required, it’s a radio soap.’
‘Oh blimey. All right, then.’
We were what you might call a ‘dum-di-dum-di-click’ family – the moment my mother heard The Archers theme tune she switched off the radio, so I had never heard an episode before I auditioned for it.
At the BBC studios in Birmingham, I met a charming man called Peter Windows, one of the producers, and a more enigmatic one, William Smethurst, the editor. The scene I was reading for the audition was a dialogue between David and Eddie Grundy. Trevor Harrison (Eddie) couldn’t make it that day so I was asked to play both parts.
‘OK,’ I said, ‘what does Eddie Grundy sound like?’ A pause.
‘Have you ever heard the programme?’
Gulp. ‘Oh yeah, lots of times but I sometimes get confused which character’s which...’ ‘Sure,’ said Peter. ‘Well, just do all-purpose rural. You know, put a lot of arrs into it.’
Well, I honestly thought he said, ‘Put a lot of ar*e into it’, so I made Eddie rural and a bit bolshie, and by complete chance landed on a pretty close impression of Trevor’s inimitable Eddie. I hardly even thought about the voice for David, so I guess he must have sounded a lot like me, which in many ways he still does!
So, I got the part. Paddy Greene, who has played my mother Jill all these years, said I had the girls all a flutter, but all I remember is the terror of my first episode. A friend told me that she – and all of her friends – listened to The Archers omnibus in the bath on Sundays (although presumably not the same bath). There were five million Archers listeners. So even if half the women were bone dry, that still made 1.25 million wet, naked women listening to my first words as David Archer, transmitted on August 12, 1982.
Shaking script? Thank God I didn’t have to turn a page...
One day in 1987 I was asked to help audition for David’s new squeeze. I was in the difficult position of choosing a wife from a list that I hadn’t made – like an arranged marriage. Very odd. It came down to a choice between two great actresses who both, for me, had the same disadvantage – they were tiny. I’m 6ft 3in and, to address the microphone at the same level as anyone around the five-foot mark, I have to adopt a less than dignified splayed-leg posture, which I have now been doing with the girl who got the part, Felicity Finch, ever since.
Bentinck (on left) checking his script in the Archers studio
Since Ruth’s arrival, Felicity – Flick – and I have been through some amazing stories, have become enormously fond of each other, and can sometimes be heard bickering like a real husband-and-wife team. For instance, she insists that the meal you eat in the evening at Brookfield is called ‘tea’, whereas for me that’s a mug of builder’s and biccies around four-ish.
The Archers wasn’t what I set out to do – I’ve always been happier with the swordfighting, really (which I’ve done in Pirates Of Penzance on stage and in By The Sword Divided on TV) – but I bless the day I was lucky with that particular audition, and not just because it’s given me a measure of financial security for more than three decades. I am proud to be part of an icon of Britain, a national institution, and a source of excitement, enjoyment, anger and, sometimes, visceral emotional turmoil for some five million people every day.
It hasn’t always gone smoothly. When, fairly early on in my Archers career, I answered the phone at 9.05am on a Monday morning, in bed at home in London, and Jane, the Archers’ PA in Birmingham said, “Tim?” and I realised I wasn’t there for the nine o’clock episode, it did not go down at all well. It was akin to murder. I nearly lost my job.
On another occasion, I broke my contract to take up some lucrative TV work in Australia. Peter Windows, who was directing The Archers that month, then asked me to come into the studio to listen to something that had just been recorded. This had never happened before. Again, I was worried. I stood in the studio with Felicity (Ruth) and Graeme Kirk (Kenton Archer) as they played the following scene over the speakers:
KENTON: Hi Ruth, how’s the honeymoon going?
RUTH (ON PHONE, DISTRESSED): Oh Kenton, something terrible’s happened, we were on the coach travelling to the hotel and it crashed, and... and David... he’s alive, but when it crashed a can of Coke has sort of got stuck in his throat, and the Spanish doctors say that even if he gets his voice back, he may never sound the same again!
KENTON: Oh s***, Ruth, that’s terrible!
Only when Kenton said ‘s***’ – a word that has never been used in The Archers – did it finally dawn on me that it was a wind-up.
Peter finally came on the talkback and said, ‘Just remember, Tim, it’s that easy.’
Point well made.
There are many perks to being in The Archers – you do get invited to some rather special things. We once did a live performance onstage for a show called The Great Event – Forty Years Of Broadcasting for Her Majesty. After the show, we were lined up to shake hands with the Royal Family. The Queen’s grandmother is a Bentinck, so I was prepared for her to say something along the lines of ‘Are we related?’ the answer to which would have been, ‘Yes, ma’am, we’re seventh cousins’, but she said nothing. Then came Philip, irascible as ever.
I was introduced, ‘Timothy Bentinck, sir’.
‘Hmm, that’s a familiar name.’
My cue! ‘Yes, sir, that’s possibly because...’ Then I couldn’t think how to refer to the Queen when you’re talking to Prince Philip. I mean he obviously knew she was the Queen, and I couldn’t really call her Elizabeth, so instead I said, ‘...your wife’s grandmother was a Bentinck.’
YOUR WIFE? What was I thinking?
Anyway, he didn’t bat an eyelid at that but just said grumpily, ‘Oh, Bentinck. I thought you said Bentine.’ He meant Michael Bentine, who among many other things was on The Goon Show – the Duke of Edinburgh, Goon fan.
Then came Diana, and I suddenly realised what the whole obsession with her was all about. The way she looked at me, I saw that she was immediately madly in love. I was the only one. Her marriage with Charles was a sham and she and I were destined to elope in secret to a desert island and damn the consequences. I was weak at the knees, and then she spoke. The conversation went like this:
KISSING (AND IRONING) IN THE STUDIO
If the episode calls for a kiss it’s done on the back of your hand, as the real thing runs the risk of script clashes.
An ironing board is used for all the metal gates and cattle crushes. A pot of yoghurt dobs in for squelchy farming sounds, like calves and lambs being born.
Recording tape sounds more like straw than real straw – also it doesn’t smell or rot, so is perfect for a recording studio.
Getting down from the tractor? We use a metal bucket filled with a mankypillow to deaden the noise.
‘Gosh, a radio star, how exciting.’
‘Yes, it means you don’t get recognised in the street.’
‘Oh God, I could do with some of that.’
‘Well, your Royal Highness, perhaps you’d like to move to Ambridge and be our radio princess, and never be seen again.’ She smiled, leant towards me slightly, and whispered, ‘Sounds divine.’
I was besotted. Charles was next.
‘I love the way you use a bicycle pump and cork for the champagne-popping sound effect. I was allowed to do that for the Goons once you know.’
I couldn’t believe it, Goon references from both father and son, but I also suddenly felt so sorry for him, the ‘I was allowed to...’ summing up an entire life of never being ‘allowed’ to do anything he really wanted to at all. I got cheeky. ‘Well, your Royal Highness, perhaps you’d like to come up to Ambridge and do our special effects for us?’
He gave me a rather old-fashioned look then came up with this cracker. ‘Sounds intriguing, but I think I’ll stick with this. I get to travel more, do you see?’
We usually receive scripts about four days before recording, but sometimes we only see the lines just before we record. In the case of Ruth’s cancer, though, I’d been off filming, hadn’t got the script and we went straight for a take without a rehearsal. The green light came on and an actress whom we had barely met sat across a table from me and Flick, and nervously told us that Ruth had breast cancer. I hadn’t seen it coming and nor had my character David, so in the words of Robert Mitchum, there was ‘no acting required’ – we were both really struggling to hold back tears.
Once, an Archers script actually helped save a life. Flick received a letter from a woman who, but for the storyline about Ruth’s breast cancer, would not have noticed a lump that then got treated just in the nick of time.
Another script, however, got me into a bit of trouble.
I had huge piles of scripts at home and was about to chuck them all out when I had a thought: for many people these scripts might be gold dust. So I put it about that for a donation of £5 to the NSPCC I would send them an old script, signed by me if required. This went very well and I was soon making decent money for the charity. The only thing I had to be careful of was that the scripts I sent out were of episodes that had already been broadcast.
Timothy in 1997 with his radio wife Felicity Finch, who plays Ruth Archer
One day I got it wrong and sent one off that wasn’t due to be broadcast for another three weeks. This would have been bad enough but it was compounded by a sequence of incredibly bad luck.
First, the people I’d sent it to ran a pub, the Cock Inn at Gamlingay in Cambridgeshire. They were amateur dramatics enthusiasts as well as Archers fans, so they thought it would be a great idea to do a public performance of the episode for charity. As chance would have it, there was a reporter from the local paper in the audience, who ran the story the next day. The episode was top secret and included the massive story of the death of Mark Hebden in a car crash. It was subsequently splashed across the front of a national newspaper, which I happened to be reading, in shock, when the call came from a furious editor, Vanessa Whitburn. Thankfully the papers didn’t reveal the storyline but, knuckles duly rapped, my stupidity unfortunately put an end to that charitable fundraising exercise.
The listener might imagine that The Archers cast is up in Birmingham the whole time, and that we don’t do anything else. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The programme is recorded over eight days per month, each episode takes two-and-a-quarter hours and we do four episodes per day. How much we’re up there depends on how many episodes we’re in, and we only get paid per episode, there is no retainer fee. We are also not paid per line – we could be in every scene or only one. Ted Kelsey holds the record for fewest lines spoken – he got a full fee for Joe Grundy’s only line of an episode – the final one – which was...
LORD OF HIS MANOR
As Stephen Fry once said to me, “Your problem, Tim, is that you have a title, but you aren’t entitled to anything”
As well as being Archers aristocracy, Bentinck is a lord – the 12th Earl of Portland, with a family tree that dates back to 1354.
‘Bentinck is a Dutch name. Probably the most famous, or at least important, Bentinck is Hans Willem, later Earl of Portland, who came to England as the most trusted adviser of Prince William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
‘When the last Duke of Portland died in 1990, my pa was theoretically then the Earl of Portland though without estate or income. When Pa died I became the 12th Earl of Portland and I took my seat in the House of Lords in 1997, though I knew that hereditary peers would be thrown out within a few years.
‘Power is sexy. I had no idea that this was true until I entered the Upper House like a new boy on his first day at school only to be immediately treated like a house prefect, called “M’Lord”, respected , taken seriously and listened to. When it was taken away I felt a palpable sense of loss, though I was only there three years and I never gave a speech.
‘As Stephen Fry once said to me, “Your problem, Tim, is that you have a title, but you aren’t entitled to anything.”
‘And that’s it in a nutshell.’
So, one month I might get eight days’ work, and get paid accordingly; the next month nothing at all, and not make a penny. When people say, ‘I saw you moonlighting on EastEnders last week’, I’m not taking time off from the farm: I’m just being a jobbing actor like the rest of my profession.
One of the things people complain about regarding The Archers is that there’s not enough drama. The other thing people complain about is that there’s too much drama. It is an unchanging certainty that pleasing every single listener is an impossibility.
Ahead of the show’s 60th anniversary, we had been told one character was going to die with an event that would ‘shock Ambridge to the core’. For weeks none of us knew which one – except Graham Seed, who played Nigel Pargetter. He had been asked to keep it quiet, so the poor bloke had to sit with all his mates discussing who might be going, all the time knowing it was him.
In the episode, Nigel duly fell to his death from the roof of Lower Loxley (I didn’t push him, honest!) – a difficult and controversial decision that was taken hard by many listeners. We recorded his demise in the ‘dead room’ – a horribly apt description. All the outside scenes are recorded in the dead room, because it’s acoustically ‘dead’ so there’s no reverberation, no matter how loudly you shout.
Graham and I discussed the length of the scream, imagining the height of Lower Loxley and figuring that the scream would be quite short. They lengthened the scream in post-production to make it more dramatic, but the office was then flooded with letters and emails from people who had worked out that given the feet per second rate of acceleration of a human body at sea level, Lower Loxley must be the height of Salisbury Cathedral.
Bentinck is also a lord – the 12th Earl of Portland, thanks to a family tree that dates back to 1354
I may feel a sense of kinship with my fellow actors, but I can’t stand divas. There’s a silly game that is sometimes played in bored moments by actors in the green room called ‘Ar*e or Angel’ (or words to that effect). Someone says the name of an actor and everyone else has to reply immediately with either ‘Ar*e’ or ‘Angel’. The fun is hearing five actors instantly saying ‘Ar*e’ in unison when ****** ***** is suggested.
There’s also something very special when you find yourself working with people who you admire enormously, and find that they’re charming, generous, selfless and interested in others. I was so sad when John Hurt died. I’d worked with him on a Doctor Who audio drama only a few months before. I told him he’d once been to a party at our house in the Sixties. ‘Oh no, did I misbehave?’ he asked wretchedly. I hadn’t the heart to tell him the dampers on the piano he spilled a bottle of wine into still produce what became known as ‘the Hurt octave’.
Now there was a man who would always get an ‘Angel’ from everyone.
‘Being David Archer: And Other Unusual Ways Of Earning A Living’ by Timothy Bentinck is published by Constable on October 5, priced £20. Offer price £16 (including free p&p) until October 1. Order at mailbookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 064
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