In the early 80s, a regular family viewing favourite was the sitcom ‘Shelley’ on ITV. The eponymous main character, played by Hywel Bennett, spent each programme basically trying to avoid doing any work. It was a massive programme at the time, regularly gaining audience figures of over 15 million. Over the next few years, the face of Bennett would be one that became very familiar to me, through his new roles, but also via the amount of work he did in the 1960s, and there was plenty of it.
He was born Hywel Thomas Bennett into a Welsh speaking family in the Amman Valley, Garnant, Carmanthenshire in April 1944. The family, mum Sarah, dad Gorden (hats off to his parents) and brother Alun – later to be an actor himself, best known for his work in ‘Emmerdale’ – then moved to South London in the late 1940s. A grammar school boy, Hywel had an early love of acting and took on parts at the Queens Theatre company, debuting in 1959, and then worked in repertory theatre based in Leatherhead, before picking up a scholarship to study at RADA, where he graduated in 1964.
He soon began to appear on TV, in programmes like ‘Dr. Who’ and the Wednesday play ‘Where the Buffalo Roam’ written by Dennis Potter, who would go on to cast him regularly in the years to come.
Hywel’s first major film role came in 1966 as the sexually naïve newlywed Arthur, who marries Jenny played Hayley Mills, in ‘The Family Way’ from the Boulting Brothers. The soundtrack being by Paul McCartney . The film made him a star and he was named as ‘The Face of 1967.’
‘My looks are a boon and a curse. It won me quick fame, but I was a serious actor being written up as a pin-up boy and sex symbol, I used to wish for a broken nose’ he said later.
Further films followed ‘ Twisted Nerve’ in 1968, and as Private Brigg ‘The Virgin Soldiers’ in 1969.
‘It’s the story of a young soldier’s love affair with a Chinese prostitute. And his fear in combat. One day he runs the wrong way and accidentally becomes a hero…’
Renowned and esteemed film critic Roger Ebert liked what he saw, naming Hywel ‘one of England’s best young actors’
He became part of a celebrity couple, when he married TV presenter Cathy McGowan of ‘Ready Steady Go’ fame in 1970, and they had a daughter Emma. The marriage however, was dissolved in 1988.
Next up, career wise, was Joe Orton’s ‘Loot’ in 1970 and ‘Percy’ in 1971. He turned down the role of ‘Brian’ in the film ‘Cabaret’ in 1972, wrongly thinking he’d been offered a singing role. Michael York took the part instead. He had also continued to work on stage throughout his film career, with a celebrated appearance in ‘A Midsummers Night’s Dream’ at Edinburgh, plus many roles at the National Theatre, including ‘Mark Anthony’ in ‘Cleopatra.’
But change was in the air.
‘I had come in at the tail end of everything, the studio system and so on. I found myself in the early 1970s with nowhere to go.’
With film work drying up, he became a familiar face on TV, with several ‘Play for Today’ appearances from 1973, and a memorable episode of ‘The Sweeney’ called ‘The Sweet Smell of Succession’ in 1976. He played ‘Ricki Tarr’ in the BBC2 adaptation of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ in 1979, and in the same year appeared in ‘Pennies from Heaven’ by his old friend Dennis Potter.
Then came the aforementioned ‘Shelley which originally ran from 1979 to 1984.
‘The writers had done something pretty amazing. They had created what was almost a monologue and turned it into a popular sitcom.’ It even made a comeback as ‘The Return of Shelley’ from 1988 to 1992.
He checked himself in to The Priory in 1986 suffering from alcoholism and later underwent treatment for an overactive thyroid. Despite all that he continued to act popping up in more work from Dennis Potter in ‘Karaoke’ and ‘Cold Lazarus’ in 1996 and later appeared in ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ in 2002 as well as playing a sex offender in ‘The Bill’ from 2002 to 2005 and
as gangster Jack Dalton in ‘EastEnders’ in 2003.
‘I’ve attempted almost everything in my marathon career but have never tackled a soap before. I consider EastEnders to be the best there is and regard it as another notch on the bedpost.’
Hywel Bennett retired from acting in 2007, after being diagnosed with a heart defect.
He died on 24 July 2017 at the age of 73, survived by his wife Sarah whom he married in 1988.
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