Michael Bentine – A Goon gone potty
Despite leaving The Goon Show after just two series, Michael Bentine found many more outlets for his crazy sense of humour and ever active intellect.
It’s A Square World!,
Parlophone PMC 1179,
As anarchic and as offbeat as the ground-breaking The Goon Show was, for the decade it was broadcast it remained very much the creation and cherished troubled child of Spike Milligan. Despite various collaborating writers working on the show over the years, and sometimes despite even the absence of Milligan entirely, it was his anarchic vision, creative imagination and fierce determination that drove the show to succeed, to the detriment of his own mental and physical health.
The other Goons were never idle during this period of success though. Peter Sellers forged the foundations of a stellar movie career and Harry Secombe found his niche as a singer and performer of some note. The only Goon to have been frustrated by constraining his ambition and talents to fit in with the vision of Spike Milligan was Michael Bentine. After a mere two series of The Goon Show, Bentine left amid a fair amount of acrimony and more than a little press speculation about his motives and the possibility of his future career outside of the group. Fans need not have worried though, as over the years the singular talents of Michael Bentine found many unusual and creative outlets.
His background was certainly exotic and unusual. As if having a mother from Westcliff in Essex was not exceptional enough, having a father from Peru certainly was. Michael Bentine’s father Adan Bentin, was the son of a silver miner and former President-elect of Peru. Sent to England to study engineering Adan was refused permission to fight for Britain in the First World War, so instead used his engineering skills to develop aeronautical innovations of his own devising, and rather obliquely, to run a music school where he met his wife and Michael’s future mother Florence. After the war, Adam (as he was now known) was offered the chance to help build a new Peruvian air force. It was back in Peru that Michael was conceived and from where in 1922, his parents returned to England in an effort to make sure that their son would be born British, as is only right and proper.
Afflicted in his early childhood by a severe stammer it was not until Michael Bentine reached Eton that, with the help of a sympathetic master, he was able to start conquering his speaking difficulties. When the Second World War broke out Michael, like his father before him, was refused permission to serve in the RAF due to his Peruvian dual nationality. Jobs as a photo journalist, and a jobbing drummer followed before Bentine decided to capitalise on his new found confidence at public speaking, and try his hand at acting. It was in October 1942, during a production by Robert Atkins of The Merchant Of Venice, that the RAF finally decided it needed Michael’s services, seeing fit to arrest him without warning as a deserter. Despite the potential ignominy, Michael Bentine remained proud to be the only British serviceman to be arrested while wearing doublet and hose for over four hundred years.
After the war, during which he eventually managed to fly in a plane, Bentine like many of his contemporaries found gainful employment at London’s Windmill Theatre. Appearing on bills with Harry Secombe and his novelty shaving act, Bentine’s act was no less bizarre. Lectures were delivered in a non-existent language of his own peculiar devising, and various props such as a walking stick, a rubber chicken, a bow and arrow, and finally the back of a broken chair were all used in Michael’s idiosyncratic and inventive new brand of comedy.
That brand of innovation and love of a good prop remained evident in many of Michael Bentine’s successful TV series over the years. Props, models, outlandish stunts and clever visual effects played a large part in the popularity of the It’s a Square World TV show which ran from 1960-64, and became even more integral to the later Michael Bentine’s Potty Time which starred an army of small puppets (known as Potties) all voiced by the vocal skills of Michael.
Those same ingenious and inventive ideas are also present on the It’s a Square World album which was recorded in 1962. Aided by Parlophone’s resident wizard of sound George Martin, Bentine plays with technology, sound effects and soundscapes as easily as he played with visual imagery on television. Not simply a comedy album of material transferred from one medium to another, the record is a resourceful and innovative exercise in its own right, and one which takes full advantage of the medium. All voices are the creation of Michael Bentine, and other than the extremely valuable input of George Martin’s alchemy, the record is an extraordinary and masterful solo effort.
From the opening introduction, the possibilities of using sound for comedy are explored as Michael Bentine is unchained from his cell and dragged hesitantly before a microphone. The listener is then led on to the opening track of The Horse Show, complete with reverberating public address system and of course all the requisite sound effects of audience appreciation and snorting galloping horses. The plucky Brit who demolishes the course and smashes through the fences is praised while the crafty but highly competent Italian who glides gracefully over the jumps is treated with scorn and contemptible derision. As a piece of satire it is relevant today and still just as funny.
Some of Bentine’s other ideas which were no doubt satirical and highly imaginative back in 1962 sound highly prescient today. Take for instance the Ice Cream Commercial, one of many mock adverts which break up the longer sketches. The premise of having curry-flavoured ice cream was probably quite novel at the time. Nowadays it’s probably the proposed business model for a multitude of potential trendy hipster ice cream parlours. The Holiday Commercial with its proposal that tourists visit a coal mine is now, thanks to the death of the UK’s coal industry, another example of Michael Bentine’s comic yet prophetic prognostications coming true. Even if these days tourists do not have a ton or two of coke dumped on top of them as proposed in Bentine’s sketch.
Elsewhere on the record, there are more satirical masterpieces such as the exploration of the possibilities of Dingleweed as a commercial crop. A crop that is so pointless and purposeless that it is grown only in order to grow ever more dingleweed. There are also sketches that exist solely for amusement, such as Tower Of London in which elderly and confused Beefeaters exchange keys amidst much clanking and creaking of sound effects. The record also sees a Geneva Convention of nations speaking unto nation in various nonsensical Bentine languages, interrupted by a succession of misplaced phone calls all searching for a sultry siren named Gladys.
There are also sketches which play with the medium of broadcasting. Tracks such as The Shrdlu neatly parodies wildlife documentaries with their months devoted to recording pointless animals being attacked and eaten by other pointless animals, in this case the ravenous Prairie Kumquat.
Michael Bentine also collaborates with his TV show writing partner John Law on the quite brilliant Football Results which sees a sports announcer’s excitement rise as the possibility of a pools win appears. He is let down by the dismal efforts of Huddersfield and Barnsley, and soon returns to reality with an audible and gloomy acceptance of the fickle nature of fate. The track earned a deserved release as a single along with The Astronauts as a b-side. Equally inventive, the premise for this space age track sees a Russian lunar mission adopting ever more complicated composers’ names instead of the usual NATO phonetic alphabet. Complete with humming of arias and unsolicited interference from the Americans, Michael Bentine plays each part with gusto and perfect timing.
Michael Bentine is often overlooked when The Goons are discussed. His part in that particular anarchic ground-breaking show may have been small but it was vital. The forty years he spent working outside of the Goons were never idle though and were filled with incident and innovation. Whether Michael Bentine was dabbling in various aeronautical innovations, leading the first hovercraft expedition up the Amazon, investigating the paranormal, or creating fondly remembered TV series, he approached everything with absolute enthusiasm, imagination and passion.
Here then is the last moments of the not particularly missed Desert Shrdlu, a creature exceeded only in worthlessness and irrelevance by the Prairie Kumquat.