A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In the latest of our occasional series ‘In Conversation With’, we are delighted to welcome actor, author, songwriter, website designer and the voice of “Mind the Gap” on the Piccadilly Line – Tim Bentinck.
Although probably best known as David Archer in the BBC’s ultra-long-running radio series The Archers Tim has many other strings to his bow (and I promise that’s the one and only lame archery pun you’re going to get).
(For the benefit of our non-UK readership, The Archers – originally billed as ‘An Everyday Story of Country Folk’ – has been running on BBC Radio 4 for 60 years. It celebrated (if that’s quite the right word) its 60th Anniversary by killing off one of its most popular characters, that of Nigel Pargetter, played by Graham Seed. The plot twist was so controversial it was trending at Number 1 world-wide on Twitter.)
VL: Welcome to Vulpes, Tim – and thank you very much for finding the time to answer our questions. Since we’re nominally a book review site, we’d better start with a few book-related questions. Which book or books made the biggest impression on you when you were growing up?
TB: Thank you VL and hello! What an interesting question. Okay…
Winnie the Pooh and A.A. Milne’s poems.
The Adventure series of books by Enid Blyton.
Swallows and Amazons and all Arthur Ransome’s other books.
Hmmm, there’s a theme here isn’t there? I lived in the country and spent my playtime on my bike on the local common building camps out of branches and bracken and shooting at my friends with cap guns. Came in handy when I recently played the lead in a British Western – The Pride of Wade Ellison – My draw was lightnin’ quick!
VL: Pursuing that line of thought – the books, not the western, tempting though it is – have you ever, at any age, read a book that’s had such a profound effect on you that it’s actually changed the course of your life, even if only in a small way?
TB: In my twenties, The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler really turned me on to the incipient Information Age and The Worm Forgives The Plough by John Stewart Collis made me look at the work I’d done as a farm hand (and did again when my father started a smallholding in Devon in his fifties) in a different way. It’s a sort of philosophy of manual labour, the spirituality of the farmer’s relationship with the animals and the land.
As a child though, it was Dan Dare and the Mekon. This led to an infatuation with Star Trek, which in turn led to Science Fiction. I remember being bowled over by the concept of the Riverworld trilogy by Philip José Farmer. H.G. Wells started my fascination with the idea of time travel which I have indulged with many books since.
VL: What do you read for pleasure? And what, if anything, are you reading at the moment?
TB: At the moment I’m re-reading, in chronological order, the Sherlock Holmes stories. On my iPhone! It’s completely brilliant. The person who programmed the page-turning code for iBooks is a genius. It’s even better on my wife’s iPad, it behaves exactly like paper! You see I used to write computer programs, and there’s the same kind of artistic satisfaction in writing beautiful vs. ugly code as there is in any other form of expression. Writing lines of code that can create something as organic as that simulated paper is an artform I think.
Holmes is great, and as I was on Conan Doyle I read The Lost World – from which stems every dinosaur movie we’ve ever seen. I tried to imagine reading it as if I were a young boy when it was first published. It would have been terrifying! A Pterodactyl in the Albert Hall?
I’m also glued to the Haynes manuals for the Spitfire and Apollo 11. Techno-porn at its deepest.
Otherwise I tend to have two books on at once, one fact and one fiction. For a long time I was addicted to the age of sail and read all of Patrick O’Brian, Forrester, Pope, Kent and the rest. I’d read all the Sharpe novels before having the joy of being sliced by a French cavalryman and dying in Sharpe’s arms in episode 1 of the TV version.
I’m a sucker for popular science too. At the moment I’m in the middle of Brian Cox’s explanation of E=mc² and he hasn’t lost me yet!
VL: Have you ever read a mega-bestseller that everyone was raving about and found yourself thoroughly underwhelmed by it?
TB: Oh yes often. I cannot get into Vikram Seth at all.
VL: Moving on to acting – and The Archers. You’ve played David Archer for nearly 30 years now. How do you play one character for that long and keep it interesting – for yourself as well as for everyone else?
TB: Phew. Good question. For myself it’s a constant striving to do the job better. For everyone else, I’m constrained by the lines that are written on the script in my hand, but I want the listener to know what I’m thinking, not just what I’m saying. And I want it to sound like I just thought of it.
VL: To what extent – if at all – has David Archer become like Tim Bentinck over the years? Or vice versa?
TB: If you mean, do I have a nagging urge to get up at 5.30 in the morning and go and milk a cow, in Holloway? No. Not in the slightest.
On the other hand there is a lot in the way David says things that are the way I would say them, but that’s always been the case really. I don’t think he’s got any more like me. We’re very different people!
VL: One of the series’ most memorable cliff-hangers was the immortal line: “I’ve got a hole in my welly!”. How do you account for the phenomenal popularity of The Archers in an increasingly high speed, digitized world?
TB: $64,000! It’s a myth-creator and therefore susceptible to the very human need to create meaning from myth.
Different people get different things out of it. It can be their yearning for the English countryside where the grass is greener; or for an ordered, generally happy society that contrasts comfortingly with their own shitty life; it can be recognition of themselves and their friends and family in the village characters who are themselves all archetypes. Most probable though, is that the Archers simply sucks you in and hooks you like a drug, with its powerful storytelling and realistic production, and, of course, sensational acting!
As for the high speed, digitised world – did you see the Twitter feed when the half-hour special was on? As you said in your introduction, we were the top trending Twitter subject IN THE WORLD, twice! For me it was a revelation. As an actor, you only get audience feedback when you’re on stage. TV, films and radio are all done without it. Reading the Twitter feed that night whilst listening was amazing. When David suggested that he and Nigel should go up on the roof to get the banner down, the tweets were flashing by so fast you couldn’t read them, “DON’T GO ON THE FUCKING ROOF!!!!!!!!” Hysterical! And very exciting. That’s the new relationship, real-time comment on the broadcast, that hitherto has just been ‘the wireless’.
VL: When Nigel and David went up onto that roof, the listening millions immediately knew that one of them was going to come down the fast way … but when did the cast find out what the 60th Anniversary episode held in store? And were you shocked to be losing such a long-established character, not to mention someone you’d known and worked with so long?
TB: There was more care taken to keep this secret than I’ve known since I’ve been in the programme. It had been planned for nearly a year but Graham was told a few weeks before us, and we only knew about a week before we recorded it. Yes it was a terrible shock, to Graham and to all of us. Since this is a literary magazine, the perfect analogy is “The Killing of Sister George”!
Having got over that shock though, I’ve come to realise that it is great story planning, and the scenes David has now with Ruth and Elizabeth are very meaty indeed – and there’s more to come!
VL: And I have to ask this, because I’ve often wondered : If it had been David who’d died – would you have grieved? I suppose what I’m asking is – has he become a real person to you, if only in a small way?
TB: Seeing Graham Seed lose Nigel, being a good friend of an actor who actually witnesses his 30-year alter ego’s funeral, was distressing to say the least. But acting is a tough game and you don’t get to have survived in it for forty years without taking all the knocks going. Having said that – if David’s foothold had been less secure, I would be distraught.
VL: And it would presumably have created a bit of a void in your life – but I imagine you wouldn’t have had too much trouble filling it. Apart from being a prodigious voiceover artist, you also write – with an award-winning play to your name – ‘The Happiest Days of Your Life’, a clutch of articles and a couple of as yet unpublished books. When did the writing bug first hit you?
TB: When I got an Amstrad PCW and I was able to write a sequence of lines in a play that I could hear in my head, and seconds later it was a properly formatted script in my hand. Magic!
Also, once I’d deleted something, it was no longer there, merely crossed out, to tempt me. I went from being a non-writer to never stopping, for a while.
VL: So if it all collapsed tomorrow? If the scriptwriters decided that David had to go after all, and simultaneously the ‘phone stopped ringing – what would you do?
TB: Oh god you’re depressing me now!
I’d really like to build a house. Our house in London is the house that I re-built, but I do dream of creating a dwelling. All my life I’ve got a real joy out of making things.
I’d settle down to writing too. I’ve written half a novel recently, it wrote itself for a while then became immensely complex and I got stuck. I know I can write fun stuff but I’m hopeless at structure. I don’t identify it and work purely intuitively, despite having been on Robert McKee’s writing course a long time ago.
I’d form a band. I’ve got some really talented musical friends – including the Ambridge vicar, John Telfer, who can sing like Jon Anderson and is a musical genius. I’ve got enough songs to create a YouTube sensation as Ray from Holloway. It’s coming anyway and you heard it here first!
VL: I can’t let you go without mentioning your one-man show, Love Your Chocolates – which apparently includes “Live on-stage lambing”. You wouldn’t care to expand on that at all, would you?
TB: Dillie Keane from “Fascinating Aida” is an old mate, and when I sent her a CD of my comedy songs she loved them and said I should do a one man show. The draw for the show is the “David Archer in the Archers” tag line, because otherwise very few people know who Tim Bentinck is. So the theme of the show is, what do you have to do to get famous? Love Your Chocolates is the title because that’s what people often say – thinking my name is Bendick!
It’s a multi-media fun evening with out-takes, music, anecdotes and live sound effects, all run from my on-stage computer. This year I’m in Portsmouth, Newbury, Bury St. Edmunds, and the Drill Hall in London. Come and see it! Follow my tweets @timbentinck.
VL: And finally, it’s our custom to ask our guests to name their five favourite books or plays – and give reasons:
TB: What a task. I don’t have five favourites, I have loads! Ok how about:
1. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. The idea that by reversing time, you reverse morality.
2. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. I was in it in the West End for nine months and understudied Roger Allam for the lead. Listening to the tannoy in the dressing room when I was off, I heard something new almost every night. A three line computer program can draw a different oak leaf each time you run it, forever, and it’s still an oak leaf, but never the same one! Put that in your philosophical pipe and smoke it, for a long time.
3. Art by Yasmina Reza. I have an honours degree in the History of Art from UEA, and after three years there I still thought a lot of it was bollocks. Art is a wonderfully funny take on what happens when a man buys a painting that is just white, for a lot of money.
4. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. The definitive road trip.
5. The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, because it is the Rosetta Stone of the English language – the just discernable key to everything that went before. I did languages at school and nearly did Linguistics as a degree and I just adore the etymology of words. To me it gives life to the past. It’s something I’m looking forward to reading properly in my old age.
6. Sorry, I know it’s meant to be five, but where would the world be without Astérix and Obélix? The complete works of Goscigny and Uderzo would be my desert island choice.
VL: Since it’s Asterix, we’ll let it through … And thank you very much indeed for answering the questions so fully and thoughtfully. It’s been great fun.
— : oOo : —
Tim maintains an extensive and fascinating WEBSITE with dozens of photos, links to audio clips, extracts from his books, published articles and songs. I’d particularly urge you to listen to the utterly wonderful Speedy Boarding – but possibly not when you have a mouthful of coffee …
(Additional reporting by Rosy Barnes – a closet Archers groupie …).