Could The Archers be set in Norfolk?
- Credit: supplied
Tim Bentinck, aka David Archer of radio's most famous fictional farming family, talks about his Norfolk roots
The voice at the other end of the phone is so familiar I have to check I'm in Norfolk, not Borsetshire.
I'm talking to Tim Bentinck. He's an inventor, computer programmer and the Earl of Portland. He's been an HGV driver, the 'Mind the gap' voice on the Tube and, for the past 35 years, he has played David Archer on Radio 4's The Archers.
It turns out that David Archer, or at least the actor who plays him, also spends a lot of time in Norfolk.
Tim has a house near Burnham Market, enjoyed holidays in Brancaster as a child and was a student at the University of East Anglia.
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But his connections with the Fens go back much further. The Bentinck family arrived from Holland in the 17th century, bought and drained land, and are still commemorated today in place names around King's Lynn.
More recently Tim's father, Henry, grew up in Heacham and Tim still loves north west Norfolk, especially in winter. 'Holkham is one of the 10 greatest beaches in the world. I love it when you have got horizontal hail, and getting back to a pub after a long, long walk,' said Tim. 'I once watched a man pay for his pint with a pheasant in a Norfolk pub, as if it was 1885!'
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Although Tim is an earl, and can trace his family back centuries, he was not born into the landed gentry. In fact he was born on a sheep station in Tasmania, moving back to Britain as a toddler.
'I'm not the kind of earl that you expect,' he said. 'I'm a jobbing actor and wake up in the middle of the night, worrying where the next job is coming from.
'I have a tiny garden, not an estate. My father inherited the title from a sixth cousin twice removed in 1990. But there was no estate or money. The only thing he got, at the time, was the opportunity to sit in the House of Lords. He wanted to stand up and warn the county about the impending ecological disaster. He was a great environmentalist and everything he was talking about in the 90s is coming true. At the time I thought it was just my Pa, but it turns out he was right. He was the cleverest man I have ever met.' Henry Bentinck also worked in advertising and coined the phrase 'Mr Kipling makes exceedingly good cakes.'
Tim's first book was a biography of his father (online at HenryBentinck.com.) His latest is Being David Archer, and other unusual ways of earning a living. The autobiography ranges from celebrity friends to his mother's suicide when he was just 13. 'It is something you bury away, but I had to revisit it. It was very, very cathartic,' said Tim.
And, of course, he also writes about his fictional family in The Archers.
'I love the way that the audience engages with it so much,' said Tim. 'They care, and are passionate about the people.'
Before landing the part of the 23-year-old farmer while himself still in his 20s, Tim had never heard of Radio 4's The Archers, but now often finds himself one of the five million people who tune into the everyday tale of country folk.
'I really like David; he's honest, he's got enormous integrity. I am like him in as much as I'm very practical. I have worked on farms.
But he's not at all like me. He wouldn't go to the theatre or read a book on philosophy.'
Tim began acting at the University of East Anglia. 'I chose UEA because they had had a sit-in the year before and that seemed so radical and so unlike anything I had ever know at public school,' he said. He studied history of art – but spent most of his time with the drama society and graduated, determined to be an actor.
Alongside his 35 years in Ambridge, Tim has also worked in television, film, and a huge range of other jobs.
As a young dad (he and his wife Judy have two grown-up sons) he invented a baby carrier called the hippo, to carry toddlers on the hip
His first film role was as Roger Moore's lieutenant in North Sea Hijack and he was the voice of James Bond for the video game The World Is Not Enough. One of his favourite television parts was playing the Minister For Social Affairs in Armando Iannucci's Thick of It. 'I'm the first person you see for the first 15 minutes of The Thick of It and then I'm sacked by Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker. That death stare is terrifying!'
When an autobiography was suggested, one of the reasons he agreed was because an algorithm on a major film website listed jobs in order of how much money the film had made. 'I had done some additional dialogue for a film called Gnomeo and Juliet and for a while my entry began with 'conjoined-gnome left,' so I thought I'm not having that!'
Tim is as much at home in the flatlands and marshes of East Anglia as the rolling farmland of Borsetshire, but a master of the speech of both. He is fascinated by differences in accent, vowels which are flat or rolling, and wants to research the similarities of Norfolk and Australian accents. 'They do spend a long time on the vowels, and that do goo up at the end,' he said in Norfolk, continuing in Australian, 'Screw your eyes up against the sun and shut your mouth against the dust…'
We finish chatting just before 7pm. 'Bye-eee,' says Tim, sounding just like David Archer. Of course he has to go, it's time he was in Ambridge. The Archers begins in a couple of minutes.
Although The Archers claims to be a fictional tale of country folk it has a surprising number of links with Norfolk.
Pig farmer, bell-ringer, church-warden and dependable family man Neil Carter is played by Brian Hewlett, who lives in a village near Bungay with its own cider club and Millennium wood.
Former Ambridge milkman Mike Tucker is played by Terry Molloy of Bawburgh, near Norwich, and Terry's son, Philip, has been playing Will Grundy since he was just eight years old.
Great Yarmouth gets an occasional mention too Whenever long-suffering wife and mother Clarrie Grundy needs a holiday from life with the Grundy clan she heads for her sister Rosie's home in Yarmouth.
Delaval Astley is another Norfolk aristocrat with Ambridge links. The 23rd Baron Hastings and the 13th Baronet Astley runs the Back to the Garden farm shop and café at Letheringsett, near Holt. His family has lived in Norfolk for eight centuries but he spend just two years in Borsetshire, as the baddie Cameron Fraser.
Being David Archer and Other Unusual Ways of Earning a Living, is published by Constable for £20.
Tim Bentinck will be chatting with Henry Layte, of Norwich's Book Hive, at Aylsham Town Hall, on Sunday, November 19. He will also be a speaker at the Jarrold literary lunch in Norwich on Friday, October 27.