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Hywel Bennett

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2017-08-05 Times.jpg


Among his many impressive performances, Hywel Bennett joked that his finest came not on stage or screen, but one night in a Manchester backstreet.

He was 22 years old and was in the city to film The Family Way, in which he played the newlywed husband of Hayley Mills, unable to consummate their marriage while living under the same roof as his in-laws in a cramped and claustrophobic Lancashire terrace.

Away from the set, he took a walk with his co-star, Murray Head, through Moss Side, where they were accosted at knifepoint by two thugs. Using all his training as an actor, Bennett, who was wearing a pair of sunglasses, talked his way out of being robbed by pretending that he was blind, an act so convincing that his assailants ran off into the night.

Back on set, he put in another fine performance in the film that was to make his name and which drew comparisons with his fellow Welshman Richard Burton. Fair-haired and boyishly good-looking, he went on to star as a murderous psychopath in the thriller Twisted Nerve, opposite Mills again, as an accidental military hero in The Virgin Soldiers and with Richard Attenborough in the film of Loot. For a while he was one of the brightest stars in the firmament. The News of the World called him "the face of '67". He married Cathy McGowan, the "dolly bird" presenter of the iconic TV pop show Ready Steady Go!, and heads turned as he was chauffeured through London in the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud that he bought from Lord Delfont.

Then in the mid-1970s his film career hit the buffers. Television and the stage kept him in work, but his early successes on the big screen had promised much more. He blamed the financial collapse of the British film industry. "I had come in at the tail end of everything," he said. "Although I was under contract to British Lion, it was too late. If I'd joined them five years earlier I would probably have made 40 films."

He also held his good looks partly responsible. "This face has been a boon and a curse," he said. "It won me quick fame, but I was a serious actor being written up as a pin-up boy and sex symbol. Such a young, pretty face. I used to wish for a broken nose."

He failed to make any impression over the Atlantic and said he "hated" America, but he still made an effort to break into the US market. Roger Ebert, the dean of American film critics, recalled attempting to interview Bennett in New York in 1968 when he was on a coast-to-coast tour to promote Twisted Nerve and was clearly enjoying the many pleasures on offer.

They met in a bar, where Bennett got too drunk to conduct the interview. He suggested that Ebert should accompany him to the airport the next day. When Ebert duly turned up at his hotel at 11am, Bennett "produced himself, bleary-eyed, with a bottle of champagne and a bucket of ice" and announced: "Everybody writes about drinking champagne in the limousine on the way to the airport, but nobody ever does anything about it."

Such overexuberance was perhaps forgivable at 25, but it became a longterm problem. He underwent treatment for alcoholism, which wrecked his marriage to McGowan. The couple had a daughter, Emma, who has two children of her own. They separated in the mid-1970s, were then reunited, but divorced in 1988. Ten years later he married Sandra Layne Fulford, who survives him, as does McGowan.

His problems were not helped by an overactive thyroid, which contributed to a changed appearance that included bulging eyes. As he grew older, he looked more like an overweight thug, and one of his last television appearances was as a cigar-chomping gangster in EastEnders.

After announcing his retirement in 2007, he lived in a cottage at Deal in Kent. He was reportedly barred from two of the town's pubs and neighbours complained of being woken in the night by him ringing a bell and shouting: "There's a storm a-coming." It was a far cry from the soothing tones that had once assured the nation — "We're getting there" — when he was the voice of British Rail.

He was born Hywel Thomas Bennett on his grandparents' farm at Garnant, Carmarthenshire, in 1944, the second of three sons. His mother, Sarah, was a nurse, and his father, Gorden, a policeman. They brought him up speaking Welsh, but the family moved to south London when he was five. He learnt to speak English in an accent that he called "London-Welsh".

He was educated at the Henry Thornton Grammar School in Clapham, where he played violin and bassoon and was a talented athlete. When he gave up sport and music to join the National Youth Theatre, it was much to the surprise of his mother, who described him as "a very introverted and shy child" and could not understand his thespian urge.

At 15 he played Ophelia in Hamlet. When the touring production reached Paris, a French critic was unconvinced and suggested that he looked "like a Horseguard". He kept the review, which he quoted with relish years later, and remained an enthusiastic Shakespearean. He played the title role in a South African production of Hamlet, but reckoned Mr Toad in The Wind in the Willows was a more challenging role.

After training at Rada he worked as a "total failure" of a school teacher, before his good looks landed him his first BBC role in Dr Who. He later appeared in John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven and achieved new popularity in the title role of the ITV sitcom Shelley, which ran for ten series between 1979 and 1992 and at its peak had 18 million viewers. In it he played a university-educated "professional freelance layabout" with a sardonic wit, opinions on everything and a pathological dislike of work. He delivered the scripts with a brilliant insouciance.

Even after his success he remained committed to the theatre, and some of his best roles were seen in repertory. As he once said, he was only truly happy when he was working. "I'm a creature of excess," he confessed. "I always go too hard at everything."

Hywel Bennett, actor, was born on April 8, 1944. He died of undisclosed causes on July 25, 2017, aged 73

'I was being written up as a pin-up boy. I used to wish for a broken nose'

CAPTION: Bennett with Hayley Mills in The Family Way and, right, with his first wife, Cathy McGowan, in 1970

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  • APA 6th ed.: (2017-08-05). Hywel Bennett. The Times p. 72.
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Hywel Bennett | url= | work=The Times | pages=72 | date=2017-08-05 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=28 May 2024 }}</ref>
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