1 9 6 0 – 1 9 6 6 (UK)
56 x 30 minute episodes
Michael Bentine was born in Watford, Hertfordshire, on 26 January 1922, the son of a Peruvian immigrant who had arrived in Britain at the turn of the century. As a child, he lost his power of speech for 13 years but recovered in time to attend Eton.
Following his education and his period of service for Britain in WWll, Michael decided he wanted to be a comedian and auditioned at London’s famous Windmill Theatre. It was here that he met fellow ex-services entertainer Harry Secombe, a fun-loving Welshman with an offbeat sense of humour that was very similar to Michael’s.
Secombe introduced Bentine to his other friends; Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, and the group would often meet up at a pub run by Secombe’s writer and agent Jimmy Grafton.
From those meetings at the Grafton Arms, the quartet developed the idea for The Goon Show, which became the most famous British radio show of all time.
However, Bentine left after the second series to continue touring in his own show and, in 1954, was offered a TV series by the BBC – a children’s puppet series called The Bumblies. Following numerous appearances on other shows and another series, After Hours (1958-59), he made his best-remembered series, It’s A Square World.
The series was clearly more acceptable to the BBC than the Goons had been. Indeed, a BBC executive once told Bentine that he didn’t care much for ‘The Go On Show’, as he called it.
As well as reports from the four corners of the world, the speciality of It’s A Square World was models that came to life. Famous routines included a flea circus, an expedition that discovers the source of the Thames is a dripping tap, sending the BBC Television Centre into orbit with Patrick Moore, and the reconstruction of the sinking of the Woolwich Ferry.
When asked about the authenticity of the capsizing, Bentine admitted that the Woolwich Ferry had never really sunk but said: “If it ever does, we will be the first with a documentary reconstruction”.
But he once ran into trouble over a sketch showing a Chinese junk attacking the House of Commons and sinking it in the Thames. The BBC banned its screening until after an approaching general election. With commendable logic, Bentine stated, “Apparently, there is a BBC edict that you must show parity to the parties at election time. I would have imagined that if you sank the Commons, you were showing parity to everybody!”.
Assisted by Clive Dunn, Frank Thornton, Benny Lee and Len Lowe, Bentine was always creating brilliant madcap comedy. One sequence had a great white whale going home to his mum in the Natural History Museum. The ‘whale’ was forty feet long and fifteen feet high, with 25 scene hands walking inside it and a man squirting water on its back.
The producer had been notified that because of roadwork, the streets would be clear early in the morning. To the dismay of hundreds of motorists, his information was wrong, and the whale literally caused a tailback.
Bentine regularly caused chaos at the BBC. He says, “we blew it up once, and another time we sent it into orbit. But everyone was used to our behaviour. However, not long after I’d departed to ITV, there was a genuine robbery at Television Centre, and as these men rushed out with stockings over their heads, the commissionaire said ‘Nice to see you back at the BBC, Mr Bentine’ “.
Bentine received a BAFTA award in 1962 for Best Comedy Performance, and a compilation show, screened by the BBC in 1963, won the Golden Globe of Montreux.
In 1966 Bentine defected to ITV, where the show was renamed All Square. He returned to the BBC for a one-off special in 1977 called Michael Bentine’s Square World before concentrating on innovative children’s television with Michael Bentine’s Potty Time from 1973 to 1980.