Friday 23 October 2015


At the end of the excellent book, 'Beyond Coincidence' by Brian King and Martin Plimmer, the authors, having throughout asked the question, 'Is there more to coincidence than mere chance?' and examined many theories, including Jung's seminal 'Synchronicity' - which suggests there is, conclude that amazing coincidences are just that - coincidences. Your chances of getting all six numbers in the Lottery are exactly 1 in 13,983,816. A hell of a coincidence, but it happens to people all the time.

Over the last two months I've had a series of coincidences that others might think suggests a hidden meaning. I don't think so, but there is definitely something in the air...

Coincidences happen to everyone all the time, but a few years before this latest sequence of strangely connected happenings I did have one that blew me away. In 2009 I played the Michael Caine part in 'Educating Rita' at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury. I hadn't been on stage before that for eight years, the previous production being 'Night Must Fall' by Emlyn Williams at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. The day that you move from the rehearsal room to the stage is a special one, as it's the first time you get to walk around the set you're going to be inhabiting for the next six weeks. The walls were covered in the Professor's books - hundreds of them that had been gleaned by the art director from charity shops, friends and god knows where. There was a ladder to reach the upper shelves, and my character had to use it during the show, so I climbed it to get the feel of the steps and at random reached out and pulled a book from the top shelf. It was 'Night Must Fall' by Emlyn Williams. Spooky huh?

So, cut to the last few months: Coincidences 1-9.

1. In August I was asked to do something I'd never done before - interview someone. His name is King Errisson, he's a drummer and was playing the O2 with Neil Diamond. He became famous as a result of a scene in 'Thunderball' when Bond is in a club in Jamaica and the Voodoo drumming behind him covers the sound of his gun as he shoots the bad guy. The interview was about the origins of the Blues, Leadbelly and the rest, and was filmed in the Rosewood Hotel in Holborn.
A few days later I was recording The Archers in Birmingham, and my radio wife Ruth - aka Felicity Finch - who is not only an actress but a radio journalist too, told me about a fascinating person she had just been interviewing - 'you won't have heard of him, he's called King Errisson' !!

2. In the summer I had my first leading part in a full-length movie. Called 'Us and Them' it's about class war. I'm the rich banker and my home gets invaded by class warrior Danny, played brilliantly by the lovely Jack Roth, son of Tim. The very next job I get is playing Frederick Forsyth in a BBC film about a man called Reg Keys, played by - Tim Roth.

3. In the same film, the part of Martin Bell is played by David Yelland. Three days after taking a picture of David in his classic Martin Bell white linen suit, I walk into the green room of the Henley Literary Festival and see a man wearing a white linen suit - it's Martin Bell. So now I've got pictures of them both!

4. Back to filming 'Reg' in Liverpool and I'm in makeup listening to The Archers on the headphones. I don't listen regularly but it was 'the death of Heather' where my character's mother-in-law dies of a heart attack in a motorway service station, and I wanted to hear how it had come out. As 'Heather' died, into the makeup van walks Margaret Jackman who was a last minute casting for the seminal part of 'Voter 2'. She was also the voice of 'Heather', and still very much alive.

5. Two weeks ago I had another first - jobbing actors like me usually end up having experience of every type of medium that requires a performer. One that I had never done before was role play, where actors get hired to play characters in scenarios to train a company's staff. In this case I spent a day with my old chum Albert Welling, both being Ukrainian oligarchs in litigation for billions of dollars, training the new intake of lawyers at a prestigious firm in the City called Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. To give my oligarch the due gravitas I dressed appropriately, wore a massive bracelet of polished stones that had belonged to my father, had my hair cut in short oligarch style and borrowed a classy leather document case from my son Will that I given him years before as a birthday present. He lives about 20 minutes away so I'd driven over to fetch it. When I opened it up to insert the relevant papers, I noticed that it was entirely empty save for one thing, a heavy and expensive looking blue biro, with an inscription on the side - 'Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer' - the company I would be working for the next day!

6. Last week I was driving from Birmingham to London, listening to Radio 4, and on came an episode of The Food Programme which was all about Bitter - the taste. It was explaining how modern taste has gradually gone more and more towards sweet things and away from bitter tastes, which was worrying because basically bitter is good for you and sweet is bad. When I got home, Judy had heard it too, so we talked about it, what bitter taste is, and how it's different from sour. As we were eating a delicious Judy-cooked meal, we tried to identify the bitter and sweeter flavours therein. Later, as I was going to bed, having finished the book that I was reading, I wandered into my son Jasper's room (he's away teaching in Tokyo) and randomly picked up a silly loo-read type book called 'Do Elephants Forget'. The dust cover was folded into the book, marking the place Jasper had got up to. I opened the book at that spot. The chapter heading was, 'Bitter - a Dying Taste?' - all about the taste of bitter things, and how it was dying out.

7. The next day helping Judy do the get-in for her millinery stand at 'Handmade at Kew' - as we drove in, the guy directing the traffic was ex-Pirate of Penzance (1981) Simon Howe.

8. In July, I attended the funeral of my cousin, Wilhelm von Ilsemann. After WW1 the German Kaiser fled to Holland and sought refuge with a fellow Knight of the Teutonic Order, one Godard Bentinck, a distant cousin who lived in a lovely castle called Amerongen. The Kaiser said he would stay 'just for a week', but actually remained there for two years and virtually bankrupted my cousin who had to pay for the whole of the bloody Kaiser's retinue and staff as well. To compound the insult, Bentinck's daughter fell in love with the Kaiser's adjutant, one Sigurd von Ilsemann, and cousin Wilhelm was the result. He and his lovely wife Ise (daughter of Karl Heinrich von Stulpnagel, hung up on a meat hook by Hitler for being part of one of the bomb plots) were very kind and loving to me when I was sent to them to learn German when I was 18. So I made a point of going over for the funeral that, even though no-one now lives there, was held at Wilhelm's grandfather's castle, Amerongen. When I got back, Judy asked me if I would help the chap who shares her studio, an opera designer called Jean-Marc Puissant, to go through a poem he'd been asked to read at a wedding in Holland, because he was terribly nervous about public speaking. 'How funny', I said, 'I've just got back from Holland, where is the wedding?' 'Oh', said Jean-Marc, 'it's in a beautiful castle called Amerongen.'

9. It was Judy's birthday last week. She'd asked for a loose ladies shirt/smock/dress type thing. Basically shopping torture for a man because I'm guessing at size, colour, style - everything. Anyway I go to our local department store and ask a friendly assistant for help. We go through loads of different tops, in different colours, different styles, different sizes, until I plump for something that I think is her kind of thing, with the assurance that it could always be exchanged. Come Judy's birthday and I'm really hoping she'll like it. She does - so much so that, the week before, she had bought herself THE EXACT SAME DRESS, from the same shop, in the same size. Husband-type brownie points or what?!

So, Karl Jung, if it was all meant, and there is something in the air, and it's causality, then bugger the one in 13,983,816 and can I please win the lottery tomorrow, as work's a bit quiet at the moment, and I've got to buy the missus another dress.

Sunday 25 January 2015

Japan article

This is the original text of the article that appeared in the Mail on Sunday on 25th Jan 2015.

Japan article for Mail on Sunday
Tim Bentinck January 2015

Arriving in the far east for the very first time, it’s soon hard to imagine the very different culture you’ve come from. We were arriving in Tokyo, and the doubly far away location I was having trouble imagining was Ambridge, the fictional village of ‘The Archers’ - home of my farmer character, David Archer. At the same time that David’s namesake Blunkett was giving us outstanding publicity by announcing (yet again) that he had stopped listening (in this case because our Archer family are thinking of moving to Northumberland) I was unwittingly eating chicken sphincter washed down with a soup that tasted of wet Labrador. The chicken was delicious, the soup was an acquired taste.

Everything about Japan appears at first completely different, then, just as you think you’re getting used to it, you realize that it really is completely different. One’s first impression, driving into Tokyo from the airport, is that every building is monumental – huge windowless factory blocks, enormous office buildings that look like Transformers, vast freeways that cross over each other on multiple levels that make spaghetti junction look like a B road. We started and ended our tour at the tops of mighty skyscrapers, first the Ana Intercontinental, where ‘Lost In Translation’ might have been filmed. The view from our room on the 42nd floor of a sultry and humid Tokyo evening was like something out of  ‘Blade Runner’. All we needed was a Ninja to explode out of the wardrobe and the film clich├ęs would have been complete. Our last night was in the 6 star luxury of the Mandarin Oriental, where the turn-down service adjust the feng-shui of the binoculars next to the bed. Between these two earthquake-proof colossi, we found very different kinds of Japanese architecture.

It’s worth looking at some statistics about Japan. The population is around 127 million, roughly twice that of the UK. The land area is 375,000 km2  to the UK’s 247,000, however, only 28% of that area is habitable, the rest is mountainous; so as a rough estimate, you’ve got twice the UK population living in half the area. This is why, as you look out of the Shinkansen bullet train onto the flat plains of the Golden Route from Tokyo to Okinawa, to either side it is mile after mile of back-to-back housing, factories and shops as far as the eye can see. So unless you take to the hills, or like the doughty Australian couple we met who were cycling round the whole country, you’re not really there for the bucolic idyll if you head south - but Japan has a whole lot more than that to offer.

‘Japanese trains run on time’. Yes you can tick that pre-conceived notion, they do. They don’t seem to have problems with track maintenance, leaves on the line, or the wrong kind of snow, and despite the fact that hurling oneself in front of a bullet train is the most popular, and regular, form of suicide, nothing seems to stop all trains arriving and leaving on the dot. For around £150 for an unlimited rail pass for a week, it really is the only way to travel - affordable taxis at the other end making car hire pretty pointless. If you don’t want to lug heavy cases around with you, just have them sent to your next destination with the amazingly cheap and reliable Takkuybin baggage forwarding service.

Compared to the west, Japan is an astonishingly consensual society, and therefore almost crime-free. Everyone buys into the idea of mutual respect, honour, face, and politeness. The streets are free from litter, chewing gum and cigarette ends; you can carry wads of cash around with you without fear of robbery (indeed for such a technologically advanced society, it is strangely unconnected by modern standards and cash is still the easiest way to pay) and people really do go out of their way to help you; in two cases actually getting off their own train to show us where to go. Almost the only word you need to know in Japanese therefore is ‘thank you’. The wrong way of doing this is to say ‘Orri-gaado’ with a strong US accent. This is the familiar form and unless pronounced correctly, pretty insulting. If you want faces to light up with charm at the effort you have made, and guarantee respect and helpfulness, take a bit of time to master ‘arigato gozaimas’ stretching out the final ‘aaaaas’, smiling and bowing the while. If you add ‘domo’ to the beginning, you really will get people genuinely surprised. Say ‘hai’ for everything else, and ‘sumimasen’ for ‘excuse me’. You’ll hardly need ‘toire-wa dokudeska’ as public toilets appear to be mandatory every hundred yards.

The Japanese take their toilets very seriously, even the most humble loo has a high tech seat that, depending on the model, does everything from simply being heated  to delivering warm jets of water to crucial areas and automatically flushing when you get up. Just be warned, the first time you press the ‘douche’ button you’ll be astonished by the accuracy of the aim, and if the water heating is faulty, you’ll hit the ceiling.

I would really recommend having your trip organised by a company that knows what it’s doing, in our case Inside Japan Tours were amazingly efficient and thorough. One piece of invaluable advice they gave us was to hire a thing called a PuPuRu, which is a WiFi router that’s permanently connected to the 4G system. This means that for £2 a day you can wirelessly connect your laptop, pad or smartphone to it and not pay any data roaming charges. Very useful.

Straight off the plane, jet-lagged and in the rain, our first outing in Tokyo was a wonderful inkling of what the city was like before the post-war westernisation changed the country completely - a visit to the peace and serenity of the Hama-rikyu Gardens, a haven of emptiness and quiet in the teeming metropolis. There we strolled in misty isolation and took tea, in a proper teahouse, with our shoes off. Having explained the proper behaviour for drinking our ground green tea, its bitterness alleviated by the traditional accompanying sweet, our guide amazed us by saying she had another ten years of tea ceremony study to go before she could talk with any authority on the subject. As I’ve now discovered, you don’t begin to understand the Japanese until you’ve read up about tea, temples and tatami mats.

We were visiting our son, Jasper, who had been working in Tokyo for the past six months teaching English. The city is vast and he had only just begun to see what was on offer - we only had two of our twelve days here, so for a comprehensive choice of things to do, I hand you over to . Also, The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Japanese is a remarkably comprehensive and thorough insight to their character, and Jasper’s blog about food is sensational – . With the 2020 Olympics looming, Tokyo is welcoming  tourists more than ever.

Kyoto is all about temples and Geisha. The difference between looking at photos of a Japanese temple and being inside one is the weight of the roof. Even in a Norman Cathedral, the sense of monumentalism is more to do with the space and the walls. In order to support these gigantic temple roofs, the wooden beams and columns are massive, which explains why these are the only buildings to have survived more than a thousand years of earthquake, fire, war and bombing. The simplicity of the humble home by contrast, derived from the spirituality of the tea-house, has always been a temporary structure, but the temples have a feeling of top-heavy gigantism that is unique to the Orient. Inside, the sense of the past is palpable.

The same is true of  attending a Geisha show. Once you have come to terms with the feeling that the three-stringed Sanshin  are completely out of tune, the musicians have never played them before and the singers are ear-gratingly flat, the music slowly  starts to become alluring, and, combined with the grace, discipline, beauty and overwhelming sense of other-ness of the Geisha on stage, this is the closest you’ll get to time travel – nothing has changed. Utterly captivating.

While Kyoto may be about preservation of the past, Hiroshima is the opposite. Many Japanese cities were totally destroyed by incendiary bombing during the war, as all traditional architecture was of wood and paper, but the instant destruction of the two atom bombs is, thankfully, unique. Despite Hiroshima now being a thriving, modern city, to stand next to the Genbaku Dome, the iconic building left as a memorial to the explosion, is chilling, as is visiting the Peace Memorial Museum, which pulls no punches whatsoever. Sitting with a coffee by the river watching two young girls singing and playing guitar was a moving reminder of the healing power of time.

A trip to Japan without a stay in a ryokan, the traditional Japanese inn, would be a sad omission. Our night in the Kai Hakone, nestling in the Swiss Alp-like mountains, was to immerse ourselves in the old culture. Having spent the day touring the hills in a series of funicular and cable railways, followed by a lake cruise in a pirate ship, we dressed in our yakuta and wooden sandals and shuffled down to the onsen, or communal hot spring baths, open on one side to trees and a flowing mountain stream. From there we shuffled further down to dinner, served in our private booth - a series of plates of utter visual and gastronomic beauty. That night, the futons were like clouds, and my dreams were of Japanese Horseback  Archers, but these were bowmen from Kamakura, not displaced dairy farmers from Ambridge.

For a full description of our trip, with photos, have a look at the previous post on this blog.