He's the voice of David Archer, has been sworn at by Peter Capaldi in The Thick of It and had a second career as a lorry driver. Actor Tim Bentinck on a lifetime mucking about with Volkswagens and his camper van-themed children's book (yes we will be plugging it. The man gave us a lot of his time)


He smeared an aged Wolseley up the side of two other parked cars. “An old hippy came out of his flat and said, ‘Brilliant! I can get the insurance on that

To say that Tim Bentinck likes Volkswagens is rather like saying he’s an actor who appears in a radio soap opera – it’s a bit of an understatement.

Bentinck is the voice of David Archer, which makes him a perma-presence in the national institution that is Radio 4’s ‘The Archers’, a slice of British popular culture to which you are either addicted or allergic, rather like the air-cooled VWs that the actor (whose varied CV includes everything from ‘The Thick of It’ to a Western) grew up with and loved.

He currently drives a modern BlueMotion Passat diesel estate. “It’s my first automatic and my first luxury car. It’s fast and I get 50mpg but,” he adds darkly, “I have a grumpy story about it.” This concerns a recent £750 bill after a driveshaft let go at 50,000 miles, just out of warranty. However, if he could prove his ‘loyalty’ to the VW brand, the dealer reckoned Volkswagen might cough up a goodwill payment. This meant meeting the criteria of an online form, including a complete set of main dealer service stamps, which Bentinck’s car didn’t have. “A case of ‘computer says no,” he shrugs. “I’ve since been composing a very polite, illustrated letter about what brand loyalty actually is.”

Bentinck grew up in rural Hertfordshire. In about 1955, his dad senior bought one of the very first split rear window Beetles to reach Britain, which the family christened ‘Folksie’.

As a tiny child, Bentinck remembers a bed being made up for him in the luggage space behind the back seat, and being lulled to sleep by the low-stressed beat of its air-cooled engine.

“There was a road known as ‘the mad mile’. Dad prided himself on being able to brake at the end of it, but he braked late.” The hedge through which he careered bashed in the VW’s side and tore off its sunroof.

 

Tim Bentinck and his bent Beetle
Tim Bentinck and his bent Beetle

“I came down the next morning, saw it, burst into tears and said, ‘What have you done to Folksie?’” A placatory die-cast model Beetle was procured, which Tim then battered with a hammer “to make it look like dad’s car”. This is now a rather precious keepsake.

At Christmas, the family would set off from Hertfordshire to Scottish relatives “with presents and luggage stuffed into every orifice a VW Beetle had to offer”. The car had six-volt electrics and “lights like candles”. With a 55mph top speed, getting past trucks was a tricky business and Bentinck remembers a snow- and hail-lashed trip with his dad edging past a lorry as his mum leaned through the open sunroof and did her best to stop the windscreen icing up.

“Suddenly she shouted ‘Look out left! Look out left!’ and my dad screeched back in behind the truck. We often played a number plate game and mum had seen the truck’s was ‘LOL’. A row ensued after that.”

Tim Bentinck's VW 1500N. An everyday story of country Volks?
Tim Bentinck’s VW 1500N. An everyday story of country Volks?

 

Bentinck enjoyed taking cars to bits, and aged about 14 his dad bought an engine from a scrapyard and the pair stripped it together. By the time he was at college, he was driving and fixing a Beetle convertible, and later owned a rare 1500N saloon. There was also a Citroën Ami Super, whose 1015cc flat-four engine gave it a 100mph top speed, and rampant chassis rot which caused it to snap in half when loaded onto a scrap lorry – plus a “pretty, sexy” Peugeot 304 convertible which he sometimes went for hippyish drives because he like it so much. He even camped in it, and has a vivid memory of waking in a Welsh forest and hearing on the Peugeot’s radio that the Falkland Islands had been invaded.

It did 100mph then snapped in two
It did 100mph then snapped in two
The actor was floored by his Peugeot 304 Cabrio’s good looks

As a young actor, Bentinck led a double life driving big trucks, after his pragmatic dad paid for lessons so he wouldn’t starve. Bentinck also credits having a Class 2 HGV licence, which he still keeps up to date, as the reason he secured London County Council funding to train for the stage, since the panel reckoned he could support himself during lean periods.

His HGV driving anecdotes include the time he smeared an aged Wolseley up the side of two other parked cars in Bristol. “I felt this slight impedance. Then an old hippy came out of his flat and said, ‘Brilliant! I can get the insurance on that!’” And then there was the time he was negotiating a hilly section of the M4 with a load of yeast containers. Bentinck heard a rumble and a bang, as the containers exited through the roller shutter and covered the motorway in yeast.

It’s traditional for well-known people in slots like this to promote something, and we’re delighted to say Mr. Bentinck has a children’s book out called Colin The Campervan. He wrote it for his sons about 20 years ago, when the family had a Type 2 VW camper van, which they loved and his wife hated because it got so cold inside. Colin, apparently, is a money-no-object, Porsche-engined super camper, “complete with a house on the side instead of a tent”. Plot-wise, “everything gets as bad as possible, before it gets better”.

As for the vehicle that inspired this literary flourish, Bentinck used to save on hotel bills by staying in it when recording The Archers.

“I loved that tortoise thing, of driving around in your house.”

Eat your heart out, Ernest Hemmingway
Eat your heart out, Ernest Hemmingway

Colin The Campervan is published by FBS Publishing.
Priced £5.99 ISBN: 978-0-9932043-1-9. For Tim Bentinck’s website click here:

Special thanks to Gillian Reynolds.