As Radio 4's The Archers celebrates 70 years on air, Tim Bentinck reveals his own farming heritage – and why recording relies on yogurt, towels, buckets and Barbours.
As David Archer on The Archers, he boasts one of the most familiar voices in the country, but Tim Bentinck enjoys his anonymity. “What’s lovely about it is that you don’t get recognised. I was talking to this solicitor at a dinner the other day. She was perfectly polite, but acted as if she was ‘high status’ and I was this little actory person. Then someone said, ‘Did you know that Tim plays David Archer in The Archers?” Tim mimes a seesaw manically switching position. “She went, ‘Argh!’ Those little moments make up for the terrible insecurity of life.”
At most, Tim spends eight days a month recording The Archers, and yet, without this role, he might be just another jobbing actor. He’s paid per episode and there’s no guarantee of work, although fans might have something to say if David disappeared. “I hope they don’t kill off David Archer,” Tim says. “I would be sad. Most of the cast are doing it until their last.” June Spencer (Peggy Woolley) is 101. Tim, who is a mere 67, has been on the programme for 38 years, joining soon after leaving the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School: “It was slightly weird because I had never heard an episode. The joke is that we were a ‘dum-de-dum-de-click’ family.” His mum would turn off the radio as soon as she heard the theme tune.
This year, The Archers turns 70, first airing on 1st January 1951 after a smattering of pilots. Like other soaps, its storylines often refer to events in its own history, remembered by listeners and actors as if they had experienced them themselves. “I remember the birth of all my children,” says Tim, bypassing his real ones, “particularly Pip. I still have the pillow downstairs.” The pillow? “It’s a pillow with a little drawing of a baby on it. That was Pip… Everything that you do physically helps to make it sound right.”
Some actors take this especially seriously. “I was recording this scene when Pip was a baby with Paddy [Patricia Greene], who plays my mum, and there I was holding the pillow,” Tim says. “At the end, I went, ‘That’s enough of that’ and drop-kicked it into the corner. Paddy cried out because she was totally involved: she had persuaded herself the pillow was a baby.” If a pillow sounds unconvincing, fans might be relieved to hear that the prop has been upgraded. “There’s now this strange doll, which subs for all the babies. It’s got those doll eyes that move when you tilt it. It’s deeply disturbing.”
When Ambridge is flooded, as it was in 2015, snatching away Scruff the dog, the cast stand in buckets wearing wellies and Barbours. “We do look absurd sometimes, but it’s important to get it right,” Tim says. “Anything that’s true sounds better than if it’s false.” Except, that is, for lambing. “Sometimes the thing that isn’t real can sound even more real... If you’re helping a ewe give birth, there’s a lot of squelching and that’s yogurt, the lamb is a wet towel and the straw it lands on is old recording tape.” Many episodes are the first take. “It all happens in real time; there’s a weird magic about it.”
A farmer's boy
Magic – and professionalism. These actors know what they’re doing. For Tim, that’s not just from 40 years of acting. Growing up in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, his first job, as a boy, was on a farm in nearby Nettleden. Here, he learned to drive a tractor, muck out a pigsty and build a barbed-wire fence (he still has scars). In Tim’s imagination, this is the yard at Brookfield.
In his early twenties, Tim also helped his father create an organic smallholding in Devon. Tim reminisces with wonder. “We had an old grey Ferguson tractor with the most dangerous circular saw, which we used to cut logs. How we never chopped our limbs off, I’ve got no idea… A few years ago, I went to The Museum of Rural Life and saw their tools from the 19th century – half of them were the same as the ones we used.”
Like his father, Tim loves manual work, although his projects tend to be house makeovers. Tim and his wife Judy, a milliner, completely renovated their house in north London when they bought it in 1982. He’s also just bought an old wood lathe, which he has been setting up in the family cottage in Norfolk, another revamp. “If I’ve been making something all day and my limbs are aching, I feel a huge sense of satisfaction. I love creating things with my hands and that gives me almost more satisfaction than acting. In another life, I’d have been doing something physical.”
It’s a trait he shares with David. “When he comes into the kitchen from the wind and rain after a day’s work and throws his jacket off and sits down and has a cup of tea with Ruth, that is not me pretending. I’ve done that many times, particularly with my father. I know what that’s like.” Tim’s and David’s lives have run alongside each other as their families have grown up. “That’s the weird thing: I’ve got my own life and then there’s David Archer. They’re parallel lives.”
An actor's life
Tim traces his passion for acting back to his mum, who took her own life when he was 13. “She was very theatrical and adored the theatre… The only tape I have of her is of us mucking about doing Peter Cook and Dudley Moore voices.” His father was unsurprised by his career choice. “He just said, ‘I think you’re very brave being freelance.’ I didn’t understand what he meant at the time – this was a man who’d been in a prisoner-of-war camp – but I do now. Becoming an actor is brave, it’s foolish, it’s silly, it’s daft, it’s not a job for grown-ups.”
Tim might describe his output as “pretty lightweight” and “self-indulgent”, but he has been in a raft of plays, TV shows and films, narrated dozens of audiobooks and voiced characters in shelves of video games (some of his favourite work). Working on The Archers, with its five million listeners, is also not insignificant. He was “immensely proud, but baffled” when, in 2018, he was appointed MBE for services to drama: “MBEs should go to people who have done charity work. I got it for being on the radio.”
As someone who relies on his vocal cords, Tim admits he should be better at looking after them. “If I’ve been putting on certain voices for hours during the week, I’m completely screwed for the weekend… There have been times when David Archer sounds very throaty and that’s because I’ve been beating people up all day [working on a video game].”
Tim takes “a wonderful Chinese syrup” before doing intense work. Actors, he says, call this natural remedy “Paper Cow” (its real name is ‘Pei Pa Koa’).
Tim’s latest project is The Nevers, a sci-fi series for HBO created by Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame). He has also recently auditioned to play an American senator in a big new series. “I put on my Clint Eastwood voice and you never know… if I get that, it pays really well.” That, however, will be “the luck of the draw”. In his downtime, he is developing a film about time travel, bringing Chaucer’s scribe into the modern day.
Support in uncertain times, he says, is key. “I’ve got my wife, my two sons [Will, 36, and Jasper, 32] and my two sisters, and I’ve got some very good friends. It makes a huge difference to have people who can give you a hug.” And then there’s his Archers’ family. “We’re really close,” Tim says fondly. “Sometimes I think about my schoolmates who went into banking or accountancy. Yes, I envy them their security and their bank statements, but it’s a trade-off… You can have great adventures as a creative, even though you never know where your next pound is coming from. It’s all a bit of a game.”
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