Vet­eran stage and screen ac­tor who played Bernie Scripps in the ITV se­ries Heart­beat

The Guardian - Journal - - Obituaries - An­thony Hay­ward

The ac­tor Peter Ben­son, who has died aged 75, had a screen and stage ca­reer en­com­pass­ing ev­ery­thing from Shake­speare to mu­si­cals and worked with the film di­rec­tors Michael Crich­ton and Ro­man Polan­ski. How­ever, he will be best re­mem­bered as the gaunt and melan­choly Bernie Scripps in Heart­beat, the pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion po­lice drama set in 1960s ru­ral North York­shire.

As well as own­ing Ai­dens­field garage, Bernie was the fic­tional vil­lage’s fu­neral di­rec­tor, adept at switch­ing to a smart suit, wear­ing a bowler hat and comb­ing his trade­mark mous­tache when the oc­ca­sion de­manded.

He was usu­ally seen get­ting roped into hare-brained mon­ey­mak­ing schemes de­vised by Claude Green­grass (played by Bill May­nard) and, later, his own half- brother, Ver­non Scripps (Ge­of­frey Hughes) – and was of­ten left to pick up the pieces. How­ever, Bernie was level-headed and kind, and a father fig­ure to David Stock­well (David Lons­dale), who worked for him at the garage and ran a taxi ser­vice.

Ben­son, a highly in­tel­li­gent man who had a fine bari­tone singing voice and a tal­ent for lan­guages, joined the cast of Heart­beat dur­ing the fifth se­ries of the ITV drama in 1995, and stayed un­til it fi­nally went off screen 15 years later.

The ac­tor’s abil­ity to play weak char­ac­ters was only one string to his bow – and he demon­strated his re­mark­able ver­sa­til­ity on tak­ing the ti­tle role in all three parts of the BBC TV Shake­speare pro­duc­tion of Henry VI in 1983. It was one of the best in the cor­po­ra­tion’s seven-year an­thol­ogy of Shake­speare’s canon, with one critic prais­ing Ben­son for mak­ing the char­ac­ter “both pa­thet­i­cally in­ef­fec­tual and truly saintly”.

He bore a phys­i­cal resemblance to por­traits of the thin, self-dis­ci­plined monarch, and touched a raw nerve with the grief he por­trayed at the Duke of Som­er­set’s death. He reprised the role in The Tragedy of Richard the Third (also 1983).

In the same year, he dis­played his tal­ents for per­form­ing the clas­sics in a dif­fer­ent way when he played Henry Tu­dor – rewrit­ing his­tory so that he be­came the mur­derer of Richard III (Peter Cook) in­stead of tak­ing the throne as Henry VII – in the first episode of the Richard

Cur­tis and Rowan Atkin­son-cre­ated sit­com The Black Ad­der.

Ben­son was born in Wal­lasey, Cheshire, the son of Her­bert, a teacher, and Ma­bel (nee Lord). He at­tended Wal­lasey gram­mar school, showed a tal­ent for singing and danc­ing, and learned the pi­ano.

Choos­ing act­ing as a ca­reer, he trained at Birm­ing­ham repertory the­atre’s drama school be­fore join­ing the com­pa­nies there and in West­cliff-on-Sea, Es­sex, and Ex­eter, earn­ing plau­dits for his per­for­mances as a pan­tomime dame.

He made his film de­but in the racial satire Put­ney Swope (1969), writ­ten and di­rected by Robert Downey Sr, and fol­lowed it with ap­pear­ances in the hor­ror movie

Cry of the Ban­shee (1970), with Vin­cent Price, The Great Train Rob­bery (1978), with Sean Con­nery and Don­ald Suther­land, di­rected by Crich­ton, and Tess (1979), with Nas­tassja Kin­ski, di­rected by Polan­ski, then played the Black Wizard in Hawk the Slayer (1980).

Ben­son took many one-off roles on tele­vi­sion in be­tween more meaty parts in­clud­ing Reuben, the Birm­ing­ham pub­li­can pre­vented from tak­ing his own life by York­shire rugby league sup­port­ers whom he joins on their trip to a cup fi­nal in Lon­don, in Trin­ity Tales (1975), Alan Plater’s mod­ern take on The Can­ter­bury Tales, which also fea­tured Ben­son’s fu­ture Heart­beat col­league May­nard as Stan the Fryer.

He also played Blon­del, Richard

I’s min­strel, in The Devil’s Crown (1978), a drama­ti­sa­tion of the reigns of the early Plan­ta­genet kings; The Dauphin in Saint Joan (1979); Jack Corder in the writer Dou­glas Liv­ing­stone’s 19th-cen­tury melo­drama Maria Marten, or Mur­der in the Red Barn (1980); the vil­lage church clerk Mr Wop­sle in Great Ex­pec­ta­tions (1981); Gas­pare Pato in The Bor­gias (1981); Bor, guardian of a leper colony, in the Doc­tor Who story Ter­mi­nus (1983); and Larry Rigg, one of the stall­hold­ers, in the soap opera Al­bion Mar­ket (1985

86). He also took his Heart­beat char­ac­ter to a 2003 episode of the pro­gramme’s spin-off The Royal.

On stage, Ben­son reprised his TV role from Trin­ity Tales at Birm­ing­ham Rep (1977) and played Charles Guiteau, mur­derer of the US pres­i­dent James Garfield, in a 1993 pro­duc­tion of Stephen Sond­heim’s mu­si­cal As­sas­sins, at the Li­brary the­atre, Manch­ester.

Ad­vanc­ing years meant that Ben­son de­clined to ap­pear in a 2016 stage tour of Heart­beat.

He was praised for mak­ing the char­ac­ter of Henry VI ‘both pa­thet­i­cally in­ef­fec­tual and truly saintly’


Ben­son, right, with Ge­of­frey Hughes, cen­tre, and David Lons­dale in Heart­beat, 2006

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