It’s quite rare these days that I can say that a TV series or film was ‘before my time’. As I increase in years, and the internet increases its vast archive of content, instant familiarity is a click away. However, I can honestly say I’ve never seen Michael Bentine’s ‘Potty Time’ before – and I’ve really been missing out.
Bentine was a founding member of The Goons and a man with a most incredible life. To our modern eyes, his backstory (as we would rather dampeningly call such a rich catalogue of experiences) reads like a Hollywood ‘against all odds’ biopic of some forgotten hero. Born in London to a Peruvian father and English mother, Bentine attended Eton College and overcame a stammer at a young age. His father was an aeronautical engineer, and Bentine joined the RAF as World War II broke out. Undergoing a routine typhoid vaccination, he was accidentally given a pure form of typhoid culture and fell into a coma for six weeks. Upon waking, his eyesight was damaged beyond repair and he could fly no more. Instead, he joined RAF Intelligence and supported resistance movements and escape attempts. After the war, he entered comedy and met Harry Seacombe, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. This part of his life is richly catalogued online, and without The Goons, the work of artists as varied as Monty Python, John Lennon and Benny Hill would have been considerably different.
In addition to this, Bentine retained interests in many other areas -he travelled up the Amazon River by hovercraft, appeared on The Sky at Night with Arthur C. Clarke, helped to start a counter-terrorism unit in the SAS and raised money for the Peruvian Earthquake appeal. It’s the exhausting CV of a true polymath, the like of which we rarely see anymore.
And somewhere in the middle of this, he created Potty Time, an absurd, fantastical show for children based around little bearded puppets (the ‘potties’ of the title) having madcap adventures or re-enacting scenes from history, helped by the venerable Professor Potsworthy.
I stumbled across Potty Time when I was researching Bentine’s life. Badger had mentioned to me that he had read about Bentine’s interest in the paranormal and experiences with what, for want of a better word, we would call ghosts. Bentine wrote two books on his otherworldly experiences – ‘The Door Marked Summer’ and ‘The Doors of the Mind’ and his father was a psychical researcher. A blog post I came across by a self-proclaimed psychic, who declares that she had a spiritual encounter with Bentine, shares a little of the story behind his beliefs – after his typhoid near death experience, he became convinced that he could see the mark of death upon others in the form of a superimposed skull. This included his own son, who died in a plane crash, and his friend, the politician Airey Neave, who was murdered in an IRA bombing.
Michael was an Intelligence Officer at Wickenby. One of his friends was Flight Lieutenant Arthur Walker (Navigator), affectionately known as “Pop” because he was 31 and considered to be senior aircrew. Having just finished his tour of 30 operations, he was to become an instructor.
On Thursday 16th Dec 1943, Michael was granted a 48 hour pass. He spoke to his friend before leaving and wished him well. On his return late at night, Michael cried out “Hi Pop” as he made his way to his Nissen hut. Pop gave a sign of acknowledgement from a distance of about 35 feet or so as he made his way to his own hut.
It was not till the next morning that Michael heard Pop had been killed on returning from a raid on Berlin in which he volunteered to help a new bomber crew. 12 Squadron’s Lancaster JB715 PH-U had crashed at 23.45 hours at Hainton 9 miles WSW of Louth Lincolnshire on that Thursday 16th Dec 1943. All on board perished.
Bentine has many more stories to tell in ‘The Door Marked Summer’. If you can track down a copy, it’s a great read for a winter’s night. And if you hear a little giggle as you’re reading, or the patter of tiny toes, it’s probably only a Potty. Probably.