Derek Benfield: Character actor whose career encompassed 'The Brothers' and 'Hetty Wainthrop Investigates'

Friday 21 February 2014 02:31

A veteran character actor whose face, moustache and constantly receding hairline were familiar on television in dozens of programmes over more than 40 years, Derek Benfield enjoyed his greatest recognition in three popular series each made a decade apart.

In The Brothers (1972-6), which followed the back-stabbing exploits of three sons who inherited their father's business, he played haulage company foreman Bill Riley. Hammond Transport Services was also left to the entrepreneur's company secretary, Jennifer Kingsley (Jennifer Wilson), who harboured the secret that she had borne the boss's love-child and was soon locking horns with his formidable widow, Mary (Jean Anderson). Jennifer then set her sights on Mary's eldest son, Edward. Benfield recalled: "A lot of people complained about the fact that there was too much smoking and drinking in The Brothers, but at least we weren't all getting our kit off and pretending to be having sex."

A decade later, the actor was able to bring his authentic Yorkshire tones to First of the Summer Wine (1988-9), a prequel to the popular comedy about three pensioners ambling around the countryside, causing chaos. Set in the months leading up to the Second World War, it included Benfield as Mr Scrimshaw, owner of the shop where Seymour Utterthwaite (Paul McLain) worked.

Then, in Hetty Wainthropp Investigates (1996-98), he played the Lancashire amateur sleuth's long-suffering husband, Robert, alongside Patricia Routledge. Robert was keen for his wife to take the easiest, most lucrative cases, and his refusal to buy her a car meant she was forced to travel around on a scooter. But Robert – wittily played by Benfield – was sometimes seen lending a hand, such as when he went undercover as a wealthy, wheelchair-bound South African.

Born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, in 1926, the son of a journalist, Benfield attended Bingley grammar school and acted at the Bradford Civic Theatre during holidays. In 1944 he was called up by the Army, joining the Green Howards and, the following year, the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. Then, in 1946, he was an announcer with the British Forces broadcasting service in Jerusalem.

On demobilisation, Benfield trained at Rada, where he won the Gertrude Lawrence Award for his performance in French Without Tears. He made his professional debut with the actor-manager Brian Rix's company at the King's Hall, Ilkley, and subsequently worked with Rix in Bridlington (1948-49), before gaining further repertory theatre experience across the country.

Benfield made his first television appearance as Professor Bergman in the BBC children's serial Return to the Lost Planet (1955), but it was a few years before he returned to screen. Following his uncredited film role as a man in a bar in Room at the Top (1959), one of the first "kitchen sink" dramas, he returned to television. He played Higgenbottom, an inept television repairmen, in the sitcom Three Live Wires (1961) and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play The Apple Cart (1962), and had one-off character roles in series such as Detective (1964) and The Expert (1968).

Benfield's talent for jumping from one part to another was demonstrated by the fact that he took nine roles in Z Cars (1963-78) and six in Dixon of Dock Green (1964-75), as well as three in Coronation Street – Jim Baker and a credit salesman (both 1963) and Walter Greenhalgh (1967), who threw out his wife, Dot, one of Elsie Tanner's fellow good-time girls, on discovering her affair with a Canadian GI.

In a longer-running role, in the sophisticated children's fantasy series Timeslip (1970-71), he played Frank Skinner, father of Liz, who with her friend Simon is transported forwards and backwards in time. All of the characters were also depicted in a cartoon strip of the programme featured in the magazine Look-In. "Is there any hope for our Liz and young Simon?" Frank is seen asking in one frame.

Benfield was also seen in Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-80) and Rumpole's Return (1980) as Albert Handyside, the original clerk of chambers, who was sacked but continued passing on occasional cases to the sardonic defence barrister from his new employers.

Although most of his roles were brief, Benfield made them count. In Peak Practice (1996), he played a decrepit pensioner who accidentally ran the GP practice nurse's vehicle off the road. When he later visited the surgery complaining of back pains, he was gently persuaded that he should no longer be behind the wheel.

Alongside his acting career, Benfield had success as a writer. Following his first stage play, The Young in Heart (1953), he scripted more than 30 comedies and farces, including Beyond a Joke (1979, featuring Arthur Lowe), Bedside Manners (1986) and Touch and Go (1982), which later ran for a year in Paris. Many of Benfield's plays are still performed around the world. He also wrote four episodes of Dixon of Dock Green (1966-69).

Anthony Hayward

Derek Benfield, actor and writer: born Bradford, West Yorkshire 11 March 1926; married 1953 Susan Lyall Grant (one son, one daughter); died Esher, Surrey 10 March 2009.

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