From episode 86 in 1965 through to 1977 actor John Bentley became a housewives favourite as Crossroads’ Hugh Mortimer. He also helped the soap reach its biggest-ever ratings in 1975 when he married Meg Richardson, the matriarch of the Crossroads Motel since episode one in 1964.
John Bentley, centre, with Crossroads co-stars the late Roger Tonge, left, and Jane Rossington, right.
John also had a successful movie, theatre and television career outside of soap which included his own series, African Patrol.
In Crossroads, as businessman Hugh Mortimer, he became the lead male opposite, as Terry Lloyd – reporting for ITN on her death commented, The Queen of British Soaps Noele Gordon. Noele as Meg had won every soap award possible in her reign as the owner of a small motel in the fictional Midland village of Kings Oak. With her popularity, John’s increased too. However, not always to his advantage.
Speaking to the Crossroads Fan Club in 2006 he commented: “I recall one point Hugh was very popular with the fans and a certain gentleman engaged me for a couple of nights cabaret work in Birmingham. He didn’t seem interested whether I could actually sing or do a turn, he simply hired me because Hugh was popular and would fill the club. It was all going well, with further bookings. Until one day the phone rang, the promoter said he’d have to cancel my cabaret bookings. It seems in the series Hugh had “done the dirty” on Meg and the audience were furious with him. I persuaded the promoter that the event was still worth doing, as people would know the difference between Hugh Mortimer and John Bentley.
Come the night of the cabaret, the greeting to yours truly was incredible – for all the wrong reasons! I stepped out onto the stage to be greeted with jeers and very loud booing. It was petrifying at the time, but it does show the power of Crossroads. I won the audience over in the end, although how I don’t know.”
Noele Gordon as Meg with John as Hugh Mortimer, the couple married on-screen in 1975 bringing Birmingham City Centre to a stand-still.
John was also greatly proud of the ‘social awareness’ Crossroads brought to its viewers. In the storylines, he suffered numerous heart-attacks; which won praise from Medical bodies for the portrayal of how to deal promptly and correctly with an attack, and also how to improve lifestyle afterwards. In 1975 18 million watched the on-screen wedding of Hugh and Meg, while fans of the show brought Birmingham city centre to a halt to watch the recording at the city’s Cathedral.
He was also a strong defender of the programme, again commenting in 2006: “The press may have disliked us because Crossroads was not very British in production style or values. ATV originally boasted that we were using an American idea and format. The press, I think, didn’t like that at all. But of course, the things they mocked happened in every other programme of the era too. Every “as live” programme had the same problems and mistakes. I don’t know why we were singled out from the rest.”
Outside of the soap opera world, he had a long and varied career. From acting in movies alongside many stars of the day to heading the cast in the police drama African Patrol back in the 1950s. He also had a successful film and TV career in the USA, including a spell in Hollywood.
John first got his big break by singing; as he recalled to the Crossroads Fan Club: “Apart from the odd school play, I had very little interest in the theatrical world until I was sixteen and that was quite by accident. I got into the business through radio producer Martyn C. Webster. On one of his radio broadcasts, he offered listeners to come to his studio and audition. Those who were good enough would be offered work at the station. I actually decided that I would be quite a good singer, so armed with a 78 record to accompany my performance, I sang for Martyn. He liked what he heard and offered me a part in a radio musical. And that is where the singing evolved into acting. Other radio dramas soon followed thankfully.”
Early days, an ATV publicity photograph for Crossroads in 1965 with Noele Gordon as Meg Richardson and John as businessman Hugh Mortimer.
In the 1950s as well as being a busy actor, notably in the Paul Temple films, of which he was the lead character, he began featuring on ATV programming. He made numerous appearances on the popular daytime live chat show, Lunch Box, where he was one of the guest singers. This show just happened to be produced by Reg Watson; who later went on to co-create Crossroads and was hosted by Midland icon, Noele Gordon. “When a few years later they were casting the part of Hugh Mortimer, Noele Gordon suggested me for the role to Reg, and they both agreed I was a perfect choice.“
In 2008 episode 126 of Crossroads was rediscovered, you can watch this edition – which features John as Hugh – by visiting ITV.com’s Crossroads page
John Bentley was born in Birmingham on 2 December 1916, died 13 August 2009 in Petworth, Sussex. He had been suffering from a long illness.