Once upon a time there were only three TV channels. BBC 1. BBC 2. And ITV, which was split up into local stations – STV was ours. Back then, TV finished at around 11 o’clock or midnight, depending on the day of the week, after the announcer reminded viewers to turn off their sets and unplug them from the wall (in case of fires). Then ‘God Save the Queen’ played out over a rippling Union Jack and colour snap of HMQ, and the picture shrunk to a tiny dot.
There might not have been much choice, but there were plenty of shows I’d rush home from school to watch. One was ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set‘ starring the embryonic Python team and the unforgettable, toe-tapping Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Another was ‘Michael Bentine’s Potty Time‘.
There always seemed something likable about Bentine. He smiled a lot, and had a wheezy asthmatic laugh. He looked like a well-to-do relative, back from a jaunt, in Cavalry Twills and an RAF blazer, with a look in his eye that suggested great adventures to be had.
Bentine was legendary by then. Born in Watford to a Peruvian father and an English mother, he had been party to his parents interest in seances and table turning, and developed his own psychic talents, which was to inspire his life-long interest in mysticism and the occult.
During the Second World War Bentine served in the air force, and in his autobiography, ‘The Long Banana Skin‘, he wrote how his psychic abilities meant he was able to see who would return from a flying mission and who would die. The actor David Lodge once told me how Bentine said he saw a skull instead of the face of those who were doomed.
At the end of the war, Bentine took part in the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It had such a traumatic affect on him he was never able to describe what he had seen, other than to call it “the ultimate blasphemy”.
After the war he started his career as a comedian at the Windmill Theatre, home to nude tableaux, dirty macs and a generation of great unparalleled comedians – Tony Hancock, Morecambe and Wise, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Tommy Cooper and Jimmy Edwards. It was through the Windmill that Bentine met Secombe and Sellers and later Spike Milligan, with whom he formed The Goons.
He left ‘The Goon Show‘ after 38 episodes, and before fame struck, and followed his own route to success, travelling to Australia, before returning to present his first great children’s TV series ‘The Bumblies’.
During the sixties Bentine achieved international fame with the BBC comedy series ‘It’s a Square World‘ and made a superb but sadly neglected film ‘The Sandwich Man‘. But for all this incredible and brilliant work, to a generation of young things, ‘Potty Time‘ is what Bentine is remembered for best.
‘Michael Bentine’s Potty Time‘ (1973-80) followed the comic’s investigations into the funny and surreal world of cuddly, chubby, big-nosed puppets that reenacted their way through classic novels and historical events – Sherlock Holmes, Hadrian’s Wall, the Northwest Frontier, Vikings and Pirate Buses amongst others. The show was recorded live and with Bentine performing to his own taped voice, avoiding all of the explosions and with the puppeteers hitting their marks perfectly – timing, like the show’s viewing, was essential.
The show was simply genius because it allowed the young audience in on the joke, and encouraged them to let their imagination soar.