John Bentley: Actor who played Noele Gordon's husband in 'Crossroads'
Wednesday 19 August 2009
The actor John Bentley found some success in B-movies before starring on television as the white hunter Patrol Inspector Paul Derek in ITV's 1950s action-adventure series African Patrol. But he found his greatest fame in the soap opera Crossroads as Hugh Mortimer, third husband of the motel owner and matriarchal figure Meg Richardson, played by Noele Gordon, the Queen of Soap.
Hugh was the millionaire businessman who arrived in 1965 and started romancing the widowed Meg. They were engaged twice, but he eventually married Jane Templeton while she became the wife of Malcolm Ryder – who later tried to murder her.
When Hugh's wife died, he returned to sweep Meg off her feet – and give Crossroads one of its biggest audiences, for 1975's television wedding of the year. Eighteen million were glued to their screens, but there were also thousands lining the streets of Birmingham when the blessing was filmed at Birmingham Cathedral. In line with the serial's reputation for implausibility, the fictional couple were chauffeured by the comedian Larry Grayson.
Although hugely popular with viewers, Crossroads constantly received a mauling from the critics for its wooden acting, wobbly studio sets and outlandish storylines. Bentley eventually bowed out in 1977, when Hugh was kidnapped by a gang of international terrorists and suffered a heart attack.
Crossroads continued for another 11 years before it suffered the axe. Although the serial was later twice revived, it failed to attract new fans and was criticised by the old ones for not matching the warmth of the original, which owed much to the personality – if not acting ability – of Noele Gordon. However, her relationship with Bentley soured after he developed a phobia of flying and refused to shoot scenes in Spain for Meg and Hugh's honeymoon storyline.
Bentley was defensive of the soap, pointing out that for many years it was recorded as if live, with no opportunities for second takes. "The press may have disliked us because Crossroads was not very British in production style or values," he said. "ATV [the original producers] 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."
Born in the Sparkhill district of Birmingham in 1916, Bentley was brought up by his mother after his father, who was in the furniture retail business, died when he was a toddler. While attending King Edward's Grammar School, Birmingham, he showed little interest in performing.
However, at the age of 16, he responded to a broadcast invitation from the radio producer Martyn C. Webster for listeners to audition. As a result of singing for Webster, Bentley landed the joint leading role in a radio musical, backed by the BBC Midland Orchestra and Chorus. He then became an announcer for Radio Luxembourg before the Second World War and made his London stage début in the variety show New Faces (1940) – later repeating his performance in a 1947 television version of the production.
Bentley made his first film appearance in the musical drama The Hills of Donegal (1947). More than 30 other second features – those shown before the main picture – followed, with the actor often playing detectives. He took the title role in the Paul Temple series of films, including Calling Paul Temple (1948), Paul Temple's Triumph (1950) and Paul Temple Returns (1952), as well as playing the novelist John Creasey's gentleman sleuth "The Toff" in Salute The Toff and Hammer The Toff (both 1952).
Rising above B-movie status, Bentley found himself in Hollywood acting a police inspector in Istanbul (1957, alongside Errol Flynn) and a naval officer in Submarine Seahawk (1958). But he hated Hollywood, complaining that everyone was judged by what they earned, not what they could do. So he returned to Britain and starred on television in African Patrol (1958-59), which was filmed on location in a Kenyan game reserve, and had character roles in other television plays and series.
Bentley was also regularly seen as a guest singer in the television magazine show Lunch Box, presented by Noele Gordon and produced by Reg Watson, who later cast him as Gordon's love interest in Crossroads. Over the years, Bentley's sonorous voice was heard in television commercials for products such as Super National Petrol, Timex and Cadbury's Flake.
After leaving Crossroads, Bentley concentrated on stage work, including a starring role as the English literature professor in a tour of Educating Rita, but, by the early 1990s he had retired as a result of suffering from arthritis. He was later diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Bentley's first marriage, to Joyce, with whom he had a son, Roger, ended in divorce in 1955. He subsequently married Patricia Smith, with whom he lived for half a century in Petworth, East Sussex, where she ran a hairdresser's shop that he established. At various times he also owned antiques and card shops there.
John Bentley, actor: born Birmingham 2 December 1916; married twice (one son); died Petworth, East Sussex 13 August 2009.
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