Mark Benton: Village Idiot is “one of the maddest things I’ve done”

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He’s one of the most recognisable faces on television, appearing in the comedies Shakespeare and Hathaway and Early Doors as well as strutting his stuff on Strictly Come Dancing.

Now Mark Benton is returning to Nottingham in a new play which he describes as “one of the maddest things I’ve ever done”. He says some of the things he has to do in Village Idiot, which will have its première at the Playhouse, are “bonkers”. And he’s hoping audiences find it as funny as the cast have during rehearsals.

The play is set in a village in north Northamptonshire which is about to be transformed by the high-speed railway HS2.

“That’s the basic plot but it’s much more than that,” says Mark during a break in rehearsals. “It’s a completely mad night out at the theatre.”

Village Idiot, written by Samson Hawkins, is the first original play staged by Ramps on the Moon, an organisation which puts deaf and disabled artists at the centre of their work.

Maximilian Fairley (Harry), Mark Benton (Kevin) and Eileen Nicholas (Barbara) in rehearsals for Village Idiot [images: Marc Brenner]

The cast features Faye Wiggan who has Down’s syndrome and Maximillian Fairley who has autism and is hard of hearing.

Mark thinks it’s “wonderful” that Ramps on the Moon employs deaf and disabled people.

“It adds a whole different layer to the rehearsal period. There’s a whole different atmosphere. As an actor it makes you look at yourself and go ‘am I taking care of my fellow actors? Am I looking after everybody?’ I’ve really enjoyed the experience.”

Mark describes his role in Village Idiot: “I play Kevin. My character has sold up to HS2 and wants to go to Thailand with his Thai bride. He wants to take his daughter but she wants to stay with her boyfriend. There’s a bit of a Romeo and Juliet thing going on.

“The stuff I have to do is bonkers. The most important thing hopefully is that it’s going to be hilarious.”

“There’s some nice stuff about parents letting go. It’s hard to describe the play because it’s almost two plays within a play. You’ve got the linear story of what happens to them but you’ve got this kind of village fete too. It’s a very odd and interesting play.

“The stuff I have to do is bonkers. The most important thing hopefully is that it’s going to be hilarious. We’ve been laughing from day one.”

Mark will be reunited with director Nadia Fall. They worked together on Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice at the open-air theatre in London’s Regent’s Park in 2014.

“She’s just wonderful. I read Village Idiot and I thought ‘what is this?’ I love the fact that you’re doing a play and you’ve no idea what it’s going to end up like. It’s one of the maddest things I’ve ever done, that’s for sure.”

Mark initially came to Nottingham in the early 1990s to play Charlie Hardiman in nine episodes of the ITV drama Boon which featured Michael Elphick.

Mark Benton as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray [image: Tristram Kenton]

He appeared at the Playhouse in 2010 in Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and has been in touring productions at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal including Hairspray in 2013 and Glengarry Glen Ross six years later.

“I like to do theatre. I’d do a show every year if I could. It’s where most of us started as actors and you keep going back to it. Sometimes I find myself going ‘why on earth have I put myself through this hell?’ But I think it’s a muscle that as an actor it’s important to exercise.”

Mark Benton was born on 16 November 1965 in Guisborough, Yorkshire. He trained at RADA and since then has hardly been out of work. That’s probably because he’s one of the most amiable people I’ve ever come across who’s warm, accessible and clearly wants to help others.

Does the fact that he has a recognisable face help? Mark isn’t sure and says that’s not for him to answer.

“I’ve been an actor for 32 years. I’ve made some really dear friends over that period of time, directors and people I work with again and again.

“I’ve always maintained it’s as much about getting on with people and having a good time.”

Why does he think he’s had such a varied career?

“I think you hit the nail on the head when you said varied. I’ve always tried to do different things, maybe surprising things or things to stretch myself.

“I’m proud to be a character actor. For me, that’s what acting is. I’ve done comedy, drama, theatre, reality telly with Strictly. I’ve tried to keep things going and be nice to people.”

A story that Mark tells is that his stint on Strictly Come Dancing came about following discussions in Nottingham.

“I’d always said I didn’t want to do any reality telly. I was on tour in Nottingham with Hairspray. They (people from Strictly) said they wanted to meet me so they came up on the train and I met them in the Pumpkin café on the platform at Nottingham station for a cup of tea and a chat.

“Then I went back to work and they went back on the train to London. So Nottingham is where it all happened.”

As usual, Mark just wanted to have fun while on Strictly. He was partnered with world dancing champion Iveta Lukosiute and got to week 10 before being eliminated.

“I’d hurt my knees so it was a bit of a struggle physically. But it was a wonderful experience and I really had a sense of achievement.”

“Shakespeare & Hathaway is like an old friend. You can sit down with a cup of tea and know you can have a good time for 45 minutes.”

For the past five years Mark has played Frank Hathaway in four series of the daytime television series Shakespeare & Hathaway: Private Investigators alongside Jo Joyner who plays Luella Shakespeare. Will there be a fifth series?

“Who knows? We want to do one. I think the BBC love it. It’s all a question of funding, to be honest.”

Why does he think it’s been such a success?

“You get a good whodunnit but you also have the fun of those characters. On telly at the moment there are a lot of brilliant dramas but there’s a lot of dark drama, really serious, heavy stuff. Shakespeare & Hathaway is like an old friend. You can sit down with a cup of tea and know you can have a good time for 45 minutes.”

Fans have been campaigning for further episodes while more than 10,000 devotees of another series featuring Mark, Early Doors, are clamouring for it to return.

Maximilian Fairley (Harry) and Mark Benton (Kevin) in rehearsals for Village Idiot

The sitcom written by Craig Cash and Phil Mealey is set in The Grapes, a small pub in Stockport where daily life revolves around comical issues of love, loneliness and blocked urinals.

“I don’t know why the BBC don’t do it again because there’s certainly an audience for it and I know that all the members of the cast would do it again like a shot. It was such good fun and we made friends for life out of that show.”

Mark who has been married for more than 20 years and has three children is a Middlesbrough fan and hopes to see his team back in the Premier League.

He has a few films lined up after Village Idiot. One will be for comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, another will be about a classic car show and he will also have a part in a horror film. That should take him to July or August. After that he has no idea what he’ll be doing.

Is there anything Mark would really like to do? He’s worked with Robson Green on a couple of occasions, first in the ITV film Christmas Lights and recently in a BBC Two Weekend Escapes series, and he’d like to repeat that.

“I’d like to work with Robson again, I’d like to do more Early Doors. I just like to work and do good stuff and enjoy my life.”

You don’t need to be much of a detective to realise that Mark Benton is really enjoying life and wants others to share the pleasure he gets from appearing in productions like Village Idiot.

Village Idiot will be at Nottingham Playhouse from Saturday 11 until Saturday 25 March.

* This article originally appeared in Country Images magazine

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