Mark Benton is one of Britain’s best-loved actors, now he tells Phil Penfold about his hopes for new drama The Halcyon.
In his fifty-one years – with over three decades of them in show-business – Mark Benton has had a go at just about everything. He’s been in straight dramas both on stage and television. He’s done comedies, voice-overs, popped up in long-running series, and hosted a game show. He is, in short, one of our very best character actors and now Benton is now appearing as part of an ensemble piece for ITV. The Halcyon opens just as the Second World War is about to begin and blends political intrigue with personal conflicts.
The (fictional) Halcyon is one of London’s top hotels, a rival to The Savoy, or The Dorchester, and is still owned by a wealthy titled family. Benton’s character, Mr Feldman, is the head concierge.
“The thing that I loved about him, when I first got the scripts”, he says, “is that you don’t get him all at once. There are a lot of layers to peel back. He’s certainly involved in a few shady dealings, on the fringe of the black market, and there isn’t much that he can’t provide for his ‘customers’. Feldman is a mixer and a fixer, and he’ll bend the rules to suit himself.”
In the first episode, there’s a hush-hush meeting going on at the hotel where the country’s future is being discussed, and a pact with Hitler is on the table. “We know that that happened,” says Mark. “There was a very strong movement for appeasement, and Churchill very nearly missed out in the struggle to become PM. What also appealed to me was the way that Charlotte Jones, our writer, has blended historic truths and events with fiction, and has told the story of this five star establishment, not just through the eyes of the paying guests, but also of the people who work there.”
Born in Guisborough in North Yorkshire, Benton admits to hero-worshipping his uncle, the actor Michael Gunn.
“I definitely think that’s where the acting bug bit,” he says. “He could do no wrong, and he was, if not a ‘glamorous’ figure, then he was a very intriguing one, a lot of fun, and doing a job that seemed to me, at the time, to have a sort of strange magic about it. As soon as I could, I went off to all the local drama groups, and did as many of the school plays as I could. I knew what I wanted to be, even at that age.
“I was lucky enough to win a place at RADA, and I took to that like a duck to water. It was after the days when they tried to knock any accent that that you might have out of you. In fact, I think that having a regional accent has always been a help to me.”
Late last year, Mark was critically applauded as Touchstone in the National Theatre’s revival of As You Like It and he enjoys the mix of stage and screen.
“I’ve been blessed, because I’ve had a very even, very balanced, and very lucky career, going pretty seamlessly from one project to the other. But let me put this on record – I have never ever been cast at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and I’d love to have a crack at the stage there.”
The interior scenes for The Halcyon were filmed in film studios in London, and faithfully re-create the Art Deco style of the day.
Mark admits: “When I first walked on set, my jaw dropped. I could not believe the fantastic period detail. The production team wanted the cameras to travel around almost the complete ground floor of the hotel, so the huge lobby leads into the even bigger ballroom, and then the bar, and so on.
“And the costumes were amazing as well. My own ‘on duty’ uniform is very formal, and really thick tweed. Well cut and it looks just right, but let me tell you, it was flaming hot! And we were filming during some of the warmest days of the year.”
When Mark was a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing a couple of years’ back (he survived, with his professional partner Iveta Lukosiute, until week 10) it was an unlikely move for the actor, but he insists it was just a one-off.
“I always said that I’d never do reality TV, but when Strictly came up, I thought to myself, ‘This is the sort of challenge that I can rise to, and it might well teach me a few more skills’. Which it did. But as for Big Brother and the jungle thing, no way. Never, ever. I mean that. Ever.”
His experience at the BBC Proms this year – he played Bottom in the orchestral version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the Mendelssohn score – was he says “just magic”.
“What an opportunity, and what a role. It was one of those evenings that you want to go on forever. My legs were like jelly when I was backstage at the Royal Albert Hall, but then, as soon as I walked on, there was a tidal wave of affection from the orchestra and the audience, and it all became a complete blast. At one point I was thinking ‘Pinch me, is this really happening?’ It was one of the nicest jobs I’ve ever had.”
He was the ‘face’ of a long-running ad campaign for Nationwide a few years back, and Mark reveals that “I loved doing that because they were written by Armando Iannucci, and they were like doing miniature sketches. They were balanced, they were original, and they were fun. I still get people coming up to me and telling me how much they enjoyed them, which is always a bonus. I am, I will admit, a little bit wary about doing more voice-overs and ads, because perhaps the product that they want you to extol may not be quite the ones that I really want to endorse. But I’m lucky, I’ve been doing so much work in the past year and the ones before that, so ad offers have been respectfully declined.”
He has, he believes, been a “very lucky person. I’ve done all sorts of things that other actors never get offered, and I really don’t know what that is.
“I’ve grabbed just about everything that’s been punted at me. I really do believe that the saddest words in the English language are ‘If only’ and ‘I regret not doing…. whatever’. Because if you don’t rise to the marvellous opportunities to come your way, you are I think being more than a little foolish. No-one ever knows what their potential is until they say ‘Yes, I’m up for that’. My motto has always been ‘Go for it’.”
He and his wife Sarah have three youngsters, Fig, Grace and Archie, and at the moment none of them looks like they are about to follow in their father’s footsteps. “Like most parents we’ve always said they should make their own minds up about what they want to do in life. Neither Sarah nor I are going to put pressure on them. As it stands at the moment, none of them want to get into acting, but if they do, then we’ll be right there for them.”
ITV is expecting big things for The Halcyon, but, as Benton knows predicting what the audience reaction will be is generally futile.
“Of course, we all hope that we can get at least another series out of it. It looks great, the production values are set high, and the writing is spot on. I’m already very proud of it. But I’m already fulfilling another ambition on my list of ‘things that I want to do’, and I’m off to make a zombie movie – in Glasgow. It’s called Anna and the Apocalypse, and yes, I get to fight a few zombies. That’s not a problem – after all, I’ve been to enough open auditions for jobs in the past, so it’s a bit like being on familiar territory. After those, a few zombies will be easy!”