ATV Icon: John Bentley

ATV Today celebrate the the career of actor and voice over artist John Bentley.

Today at 2.00pm ATV star John Bentley will make his final public appearance as his funeral takes place at St Mary’s Church, Petworth, Sussex. If you’re in the area today all guests are welcome – in bright colours – no black. Today we pay our respects to a film, theatre, radio and small screen talent who entertained millions over six decades.

John, who had success in Hollywood, as well as many British produced movies of the 1940s and 50s, reached his biggest audiences through the ATV Network soap opera Crossroads throughout the 1960s and 1970s. You’ll also have heard his voice on many television commercials, including Cadbury’s Flake.
In this special ATV Icon we let  John speak for himself as we bring you an interview with the much loved actor from 2006. John Bentley, a Birmingham boy, who reached great heights of fame and mingled with stars such as Errol Flynn, Dirk Bogarde, John Mills and became close friends with icons such as Diana Dors will be celebrated by his loyal fans for many years to come.

How did you get into acting? Was it always an ambition?

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.

Of those early years, which roles did you enjoy the most?

I think my first major film will always be a favourite, because of course, it gave me the stepping stone to so many other roles. That was The Hills Of Donegal, way back in 1946. Recording in Africa for the television series, African Patrol was also a high spot. We made nearly 40 episodes, and each one was a pure joy.

How did you get the part of Hugh Mortimer in Crossroads?

Again, this was more fate than anything else. Noele Gordon was at the time a presenter for ATV and she called me up – asking if I’d appear on her series, Midland Profile. I didn’t think I was worthy enough to be interviewed for half an hour. But in the end I did the show. I still doubt there were many viewers interested! (laughs)

Reg Watson, producer of the show seemed to like what I had to say, he was keen to hire people who had some experience of live television and thanks to Midland Profile he later invited me onto Lunchbox as one of the occasional guest singers.

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 the perfect choice.

He first appeared in episode 86, can you recall his reasons for coming to the motel?

He was always planned to be the love interest for Meg Richardson. Hugh had a business interest in the area and stayed at the rival Fairlawns Hotel. He visited Crossroads after Sandy, Meg’s son, had been accused of some sort of vandalism against the other hotel. Hugh knew Sandy wasn’t guilty and helped prove it. And of course Hugh decided to stay at Crossroads there after instead.

In those early episodes I was billed as a ‘motel guest’ and later on Mr Mortimer. It was some weeks before I was given the first name of Hugh.

What were the as-live recordings like? Were their any mishaps you recall?

When I first came into Crossroads I’d already been in the business quite a number of years and I’d been in quite a few tight spots in my time. I shall however, never forget my first rehearsal for Crossroads.

It was October, it was snowing in Birmingham and I had tonsillitis, in fact, I felt dreadful. I took one look at the schedule – the workload was staggering. To put no finer point on it, I felt like going home!

Many cast and crew who worked on Crossroads will talk about door handles coming off, or the door being a pain by not opening or closing! I remember doing an entire scene leaning against the office door because it wouldn’t close! Jane Rossington was wonderful on set. If anything went wrong she would simply carry on as if nothing had happened. If a door handle came off in her hand, she’d just pop it into her handbag. (laughs)

But the sets didn’t really wobble, with the hectic schedule and limited recording time everyone did very well to get though it all. And most episodes had no mistakes in them at all.

John Scholes, who played Don Westbury, recalls there was often much laughter on set. One reason was due to your comment “The Balloon’s going up?” He was, and we are now too, wondering what that meant?

I believe the term comes from the old observation balloons used during the first World War. The sight of these balloons in the sky often lead to a barrage of enemy attacks. And again during WWII the barrage balloons being hoisted were part of the air raid preparations.

It’s a phrase used to imply trouble is coming. I would say it, to much amusement of the cast and crew, to suggest that the recording of Crossroads was falling apart, or at the least, going very – very – wrong!

Do you have a favourite storyline?

Over the years there were so many enjoyable ones. I think more than stories the domestic scenes were a joy. We often could add to a scene with a little light comedy thrown in.

More seriously, Hugh’s first heart attack was a good story. It was one of the social issues we would cover in the show from time to time. The producers wanted to show how someone like Hugh could suddenly become ill.

We wanted to show that having a heart attack can with simple steps be avoided. The changes to Hugh’s lifestyle and taking active action to help prevent another attack did a lot of good in the real world raising awareness. A lot of people take notice of soap plots, more so when it happens to a character they like.

Of course the healthy Hugh didn’t last very long, and he later suffered another two..

Jeremy Sinden talked about how he was forever in your debt for helping him through the heavy workload of Crossroads. How did people cope with such a gruelling schedule, what was your advice?

The advice was very basic: To only learn the script during ‘working hours’ never at weekends nor evenings. Simply work hard at learning the script in the time given, and then forget about it after 6pm, otherwise it would take over your life.

Judy Matheson, who played Hugh’s secretary – Vicky Lambert, spoke of how professional most of the cast and crew were on the series. Did you enjoy your time at ATV’s studios?

You had to be professional on any television programme. Those who didn’t take the role seriously didn’t last very long and that kind of behaviour didn’t go down too well with the other cast members. Nolly would be quite direct if there was anyone not pulling their weight, she would let them know it wasn’t acceptable.

There were also some very acclaimed actors who just couldn’t cope with the schedule for Crossroads and quit their part after only one or two episodes. It was very stressful for newcomers to the format.

Was there anything you’d have liked Hugh to do, which he didn’t get round to doing – kill Meg for example? (as most TV critics would have liked)

It would have been nice for Hugh to have a decent ending rather than his demise being discussed over a telephone! I don’t believe ATV would have been brave enough to kill off Meg. She was adored. Anyone who murdered her would never have been able to walk the streets again. The public would have lynched them.

How alike are you and Hugh?

I think Hugh was very different. I’m not very much a gambler and I have no flair for business. Hugh was very much a tough, uncompromising personality to start with. Over the years I think some of the rough edges were rubbed away and I was able to bring more of myself into the role.

New scriptwriters were always a problem. One may have seen Hugh as a university graduate, who sparkled with wit and was clearly well educated. Another may write him as a naive gentleman with ambitions, and once the script even had Hugh as a north country “trouble at mill” type, with a Yorkshire accent! (laughs)

The public are such sticklers for detail. They noticed everything. I remember reading a script that said, ‘Hugh lights a cigar’ – well of course, most people knew that Hugh Mortimer never smoked, so you had to spot these things and suggest changes.

Hugh did have many sides, he was never a cardboard character, and Lord knows I should know, I’ve played plenty of those! (laughs) But no, we were never really very alike at all. Apart from the humour, we both had a great sense of humour.

Hugh being an international businessman had to dress the part. Did ATV help fund his fashionable wardrobe?

No, not at first. We had to use our own clothes. Luckily I did have some smart suits that looked the part. We were only given clothes if something unfortunate was going to happen to them. Later on ATV would give us a small amount towards costume costs, but it really didn’t cover the cost of the kind of clothes suited to Hugh.

Which actors did you enjoy working with?

Roger, Roger Tonge was an absolute pleasure to work with. So different from Sandy. A great joy and laugh to be around. Jeremy Sinden, we worked well together, and he was also such a gentleman and delight to be in the company of. I treated them both like sons, frankly.

Ronnie Allen, Nolly Gordon and Jane Rossington were all very talented and professional, but we did often enjoy moments of humour on set. We were a happy company. The majority of actors who came into the show were a pleasure to be involved with.

Originally the idea was for Hugh and Meg to marry in Australia – do you know why they didn’t?

ATV refused to give Crossroads the production money to visit Australia! I also don’t like to fly, so that was another issue to take into account.

What are your memories of the wedding day when virtually the whole of the West Midlands gathered outside Birmingham Cathedral?

It was lovely to play a tough, ruthless and gritty businessman. Yet the other side of the coin was this warm gentleman who had moments of pleasure and affection. I think the viewers warmed to the Meg and Hugh relationship almost instantly.

They followed the on-off romance for actually ten years, so when the wedding finally happened the whole nation seemed to get wrapped up in it all. ATV announced on air that viewers could attend the wedding! I don’t think ATV or Birmingham were quite prepared for every Crossroads viewer decending on the City. (laughs) The streets were full of fans from the registry office down to the Cathedral. An amazing sight, and I don’t believe any other soap has commanded such a large following of dedicated fans.

Some cast simply vanished from Crossroads, however Hugh was written out with a rather bizarre ‘International terrorist plot’ and we didn’t even get to see it! What did you make of all that?

In one word; ridiculous.

Was it your idea to leave the series? How did you feel about leaving?

It wasn’t my choice to leave, I was sent a letter from the Producer Jack Barton who informed me they had taken Hugh as far as they could and he wouldn’t be coming back from Australia. Not even a phone call, it was all done in a bog standard letter. Twelve years commitment to the show was merely worth only that.

Whose decision was it for Hugh to be killed and had he not have been would you ever have gone back?

I had no say in the story lines concerning Hugh’s demise. It would have been nice to have been consulted. If the stories had stayed interesting I would have continued with the series. The Crossroads scripts were usually interesting as week by week we never knew what was going to happen next.

It was very much loved by the public, yet the press knocked it, why do you think the audience loved it yet Crossroads was hated by the industry and press?

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.

The fans liked the show, again in my opinion, because you never as a viewer knew what was going to happen next. We could go from a highly dramatic moment in the motel office to a down to earth family issue on the farm. Also the lovely throw away comedy sequences, viewers liked a little light and shade.

I do feel that combination gave us an edge over our competitors. Crossroads went to air at teatime. I have no doubt at all had it aired at seven o’clock or seven thirty it would have been the number one soap opera. A teatime production reaching prime time evening ratings, the press never reported any of that!

What made Crossroads popular in your eyes?

A number of factors contributed to its success I believe. Firstly, the fact the show aired four or five times a week. This gave us a chance to be welcomed into people’s homes more often. They made us part of their family.

Also the love/hate syndrome. People will support the characters they love to see, but in the same token they will also fiercely hate others. Someone may have watched Crossroads just for one storyline or one individual character. Some even watched just to see what was happening with some one they loathed.

What was Noele Gordon like to work with?

Wonderful, we were great friends for many years and of course it was all thanks to Noele that I got the part on Crossroads. Sadly we did in later years fall out over a very silly argument over nothing really, which is a great shame. She was a lovely lady.

 In 1981 when Noele was sacked, what did you make of the whole situation? Did you ever speak to her after you left the series?

I was surprised, it was clearly done to end Crossroads. There couldn’t possibly be any other reason. She had been ‘the most popular female on television’ in one award or another for over a decade. I didn’t speak to her about it, I did however speak to the press at the time who were in a frenzy over the whole issue. I believe her sacking had more newspaper coverage than the Pope being shot! [It should be noted that John was hounded for interviews in 1981 and gave a small few some comments just to get rid of the tabloids – who he noted in the main then went on and made up nasty comments and stories about Noele, which he wasn’t happy about.]

What sort of reaction did you get from the public about Hugh?

That depended entirely oh how Hugh had treated Meg in the series! People seemed to have a problem of separating fact from the fiction.

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. (laughs)

Crossroads has now found a whole new generation of fans through the DVDs, what do you make of the fact Hugh is now reaching a whole new audience 30 years later?

The DVDs are wonderful. People seem to remember Hugh. Even young people, if I was out in the garden or such, they would know who I was, “Look it’s Hugh!” Amazing really. Of course this even long before the DVDs were released.

How would you sum up your time on Crossroads?

The challenge of “as live” television was immense. Thrilling and very hard work. But a joy and delight, thankfully because we had such a wonderful group of people who formed part of that Crossroads team on and off the screen.

Hugh has become one of the cult characters from the soap, do you have a message for his many new and old fans who still enjoy watching him?

 All my best wishes to the fans for the support they have given us as cast, and for the loyalty they have shown the programme too.



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