John Bennett

Billy Bush in the soap 'Honey Lane'

It was conceived as the story of cockney folk in a bustling London East End street market, made at Elstree Studios and quickly topped the television ratings. Two decades before EastEnders cornered its own market in friction-fiction at the same studios, Market in Honey Lane began as a weekly, one-hour drama in 1967, with each episode focusing on a particular character, before it was turned into a twice-weekly soap the following year under the shortened title Honey Lane.

John David Bennett, actor: born Beckenham, Kent 8 May 1928; married 1953 Patricia Hastings (one son; marriage dissolved 1979), 1979 Caroline Mortimer (one son, and one son deceased); died London 11 April 2005.

It was conceived as the story of cockney folk in a bustling London East End street market, made at Elstree Studios and quickly topped the television ratings. Two decades before EastEnders cornered its own market in friction-fiction at the same studios, Market in Honey Lane began as a weekly, one-hour drama in 1967, with each episode focusing on a particular character, before it was turned into a twice-weekly soap the following year under the shortened title Honey Lane.

One of its stars was John Bennett, who played a fruit-and-veg stallholder called Billy Bush. The actor spent a lifetime taking character roles on screen but found his face, if not his name, widely recognised during the programme's two-year run (1967-69). It was an immediate success, attracting more than 20 million viewers at its peak, but many were lost with the switch to a serial format because it no longer enjoyed a network slot on ITV: some regions screened it during afternoons, others late at night.

Honey Lane became one of many attempts by both ITV and the BBC in the 1960s to emulate the successful formula of Coronation Street. Shops, market stalls and a pub were built on an Elstree Studios back-lot by its producers, ATV, only to be taken down again and rebuilt when the BBC bought the studios and launched EastEnders in 1985.

Born in Beckenham, Kent, in 1928, John Bennett abandoned ambitions of becoming an architect to train as an actor at the Central School of Speech and Drama. After making his stage début alongside Leslie Phillips in The Man from the Ministry (Croydon Hippodrome, 1949) and spending many years in repertory theatre, he made his screen début in the heist film The Challenge (1960), starring Jayne Mansfield.

After his first television role, as Injun Joe in the children's series The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1960), he was also a regular as the editor in Front Page Story (1965), set in the offices of a national newspaper. But, for most of his 45-year screen career, he was a character player in dozens of films and television programmes.

His pictures included Lawrence of Arabia (1962), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), The House That Dripped Blood (as a detective, 1970) and Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972). More recently, he acted Dr Ehrlich, warning of the likely horrors to come when Polish Jews are moved to the Warsaw ghetto, in The Pianist (2002), the director Roman Polanski's shocking Holocaust drama. He also provided the voice of Holly, the rabbit who collapses from exhaustion after escaping the destruction of the Sandleford Warren, in the animated film of Richard Adams's classic book Watership Down (1978).

On television, Bennett was seen as Phillip Bosinney in The Forsyte Saga (1967), Josef Goebbels in Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), Xenophon in I Claudius (1975), Mihailov in Anna Karenina (1977), Abe Hummell in Lillie (1978), Garcia in Return to Treasure Island (1986) and Sigmund Freud in Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1992).

He also took two roles in Doctor Who: General Finch, who imposes martial law in modern-day London, in the "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" story (1974) and the disfigured Li H'Sen Chang, a mysterious Oriental magician who turns out to be a 60th-century tyrant, in "The Talons of Weng- Chiang" (1977).

Anthony Hayward



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