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