Thursday, 1 September 2011

David Benson: "I am heir to the Benson and Hedges smoking fortune"

From The Nazad Conspiracy's drunken lout General Warlock, to camp Satanist Aleister Crowley in The Devil of Denge Marsh, to the reanimated head of Oliver Cromwell in For King and Country, to egomaniac American billionaire DD Denham in The Curse of the Black Comet, David Benson has played twenty-four parts in The Scarifyers. And those are just the ones we can remember. When he's not appearing in The Scarifyers, which is most of the time, he's performing one-man shows as Kenneth Williams, popping up on TV as Noel Coward in Goodnight Sweetheart, and can be currently spotted at the National Theatre opposite James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors. What a show-off.

How did you get involved with The Scarifyers?

I can’t remember. I didn’t audition. I have never had any work as the result of an audition, until recently. It’s always because someone asks me. I think this one came about because Simon Barnard, then producing audio documentaries for BBC Radio 1, remembered me. I had done a couple of taxing voice-over sessions for him, one about the decline of the British film industry, in which I played both Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams, having an argument. Then I did another one in which I played Superman, so he must have reckoned I could turn my voice to anything.

What’s been your favourite Scarifyers role?

Oh, undoubtedly Alistair Crowley. Did you know he was known as The Wickedest Man in the World? You did? Oh sorry. You are obviously much better educated than you look. Anyway, I like that part very much; it appealed to me at once. I had to dig deep to find my inner anti-Semitic, drug-obsessed bisexual Satanist but when I did, I was able to unleash it and allow it to go way over the top in several Scarifyers episodes. When I read the first Crowley script I heard Ernest Thesinger’s voice, so that’s how I play it. He played Dr. Pretorious in Bride of Frankenstein you know. And in The Old Dark House he played a man called Horace Femm. I hear he is coming back for a much-delayed return to The Scarifyers, this time in a central role.

I also enjoyed General Warlock very much, all the Policemen, which means only one Policeman since they all have the same voice; and I adore Arthur Nesbitt. I have always enjoyed playing elderly men, and have felt since childhood that there was an old man, scratching to get out – and every year he gets a bit closer to the surface. Now that could be an excellent Scarifyers plotline!

David Benson isn’t even your real name, is it? Why did you change it to Benson?

I am heir to the Benson and Hedges smoking fortune and had to change my name in order to collect the money. No, really, in truth, I was wanted for murder on three continents and thought that changing my name to Benson would be the best way of eluding Interpol. No, really, the actual, actual truth is that when I was getting my last passport, the officer said ‘Are you bent, son?’ and I said ‘Yes,’ and the name kinda stuck. No, really, REALLY truthfully, the truth is that Equity already had a David Hodgson and you can’t have two Equity members with the same name so I renounced Hodgson, a ludicrous Cumbrian appellation that no-one can spell or hear properly over the phone, to Benson, a family name on my father’s side. Apparently we are related to Archbishop Benson, a Victorian God-botherer who fathered eight children all of whom turned out to be what we would now call ‘gay’ and whose wife ran off with the wife of the previous Archbish. What a family!

You had your first big success with Think No Evil of Us: My Life with Kenneth Williams at Edinburgh in 1996, aged 34... what on earth were you doing before then?

I spent a lot of time idling, noodling, day-dreaming and wondering how to get into show business. Acting is the only thing I have ever been able to do well and I have always felt it was my calling but it took me years to get to it. I went to Uni, left and was lost, went to Edinburgh in late 1985 to ‘find myself’ and eventually did. I lived there for fourteen years, mostly washing dishes and working in a bookshop. In 1990 I began working, through a chance encounter, with a radical theatre director named Jeremy Weller who had just started the Grassmarket Theatre Company. The first show we did was about the homeless world of Edinburgh and the company consisted of me, two other actors and a teeming cast of homeless men, old and young, who played themselves – brilliantly and unforgettably. I played the Warden of the hostel they lived in. It was called GLAD and it won awards and toured in Europe, with the same cast. It was an incredible experience, and one I will always be grateful to Mr. Weller for. I did four more shows with him and then decided, at 34, that the time had come to create my own work.

You’ve performed one-man shows as Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howerd, and Noel Coward. You also do the voices of the entire cast of Dad’s Army. Is there anything, or anyone, you can’t do?

Yes, you. Actually I find it almost impossible to impersonate someone to their face. It’s generally easier when they are dead, as most of them are. Last year I wrote a show in which I played a living person, Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was on Pan Am 103 which was bombed over Lockerbie in 1988 – a great man, he should live forever. The gift for impersonation is a shallow but tantalizing one, as I discovered at school where playground evocations of teachers and television favourites like Dick Emery, Ronnie Barker and Leonard Rossiter won me favour. The first impression I remember doing was of Charlie Chaplin when I was eight. They used to show his early shorts on telly and I loved them and him immediately. There was a lot of impersonation back then, Mike Yarwood having cornered the market: everyone impersonated Mike Yarwood’s impersonations of celebrities, including many professionals like Lenny Henry and, probably, Rory Bremner, though I doubt he’d admit it. When I was ten I discovered The Goon Show and became totally obsessed with the voices, especially Peter Sellers. Kenneth Williams too was an obvious vocal hero. I loved anyone who could do things with their voice.

You also do a bit of work on the side for some company called Big Finish. Any favourite plays you’d like to mention?

Well, of course I love doing the Iris Wildthyme series with dear Katy Manning, who has become a great friend of mine. I play a stuffed Panda and Gerard Hoffnung was the role-model for the voice. The first thing I did for them was at the invitation of an old friend, Mark Gatiss who wanted an Orson Welles for his production Invaders from Mars. I was working in an office at the time and was deeply grateful for the work. There were all sorts on that job: Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, Mark Benton, someone else… I had never heard of any of them and was embarrassed to be told that Pegg was a huge star. Even bigger now, of course!

Last year you got rave reviews and sell-out audiences for your Edinburgh play Lockerbie: Unfinished Business, which on the face of it might not have seemed a sure-fire hit. Were you surprised?

Yes, very. It was a risk, to take on such a serious subject after a string of frivolities; though I should say that all of my shows have some depth to them I hope, a bit of emotional texture. When it comes to choosing an idea to develop into a show, I just take whatever is on my mind at the time and Lockerbie came unexpectedly to the surface as a possible project. I have long known about Jim Swire and his heroic and dogged pursuit of justice for his daughter and the other 269 people murdered. What I find excruciating about the story is how nakedly and cynically successive governments have lied about who did the bombing and done all they could to cover up the truth. I find it shocking beyond belief and I hate these politicians for continuing this massive injustice. So it was a natural thing for me to write a show about it and I put a lot of my own anger into the performance. However, I did not think it would be of interest to many people, so I was delighted and amazed by the reception it got – and still gets on tour.

What’s Nicholas Lyndhurst like?

Very nice, professional. Knows his job and gets on with it. He was charming to me, a newcomer entering the frightening new world of mainstream telly comedy.

What’s James Corden like?

Amazing. Wonderful to work with because he has intelligence, excellent taste and judgment in performance and a great combination of professionalism and pleasure in his work. I feel extremely lucky to be up there doing my one scene in One Man, Two Guvnors with him. We play to a packed house every night, 940 people, which is amazing for me, so used to schlepping around the country on my own playing small theatres and relatively small audiences – all of whom I adore of course and look forward to seeing again soon!

Tell us something we don’t know about you...

I’m gay.

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