This interview with David is taken from a recent interview conducted for the first Goodnight Sweetheart Forum with contributions from the forum members.
What was life like for the young David Benson - what was Oxford like growing up, are your memories of school fond ones, and how do you feel your childhood helped shape what you wanted to do for a living?
Though I was born in Oxford, I actually grew up in a suburb of Birmingham called Castle Bromwich, famous as the place where Spitfires where made during WW2, though I never saw one. I went to a comprehensive school where I learned about the gulf between my inner life and the world around me. As soon as I reached an age where I was able to make my own cultural choices, I found I was drawn to music, films and artistes of an earlier era: Spike Milligan and the Goon Show, the Marx Brothers, Fred Astaire in particular. This made me feel like a freak and an outsider but it was an identity I came to relish - it made me feel like an individual. This was essential in making me into the kind of performer and member of society I am today.
What was your first paid job and what are your memories of it?
I had a Saturday job in a sex shop in the Bull Ring Shopping Centre when I was 18. I did it partly for the £10 and partly so I could see people’s jaws drop when I told them about it. It was a horrible, dingy little shop, called Love Scene; it and everything in it reeked of cooking fat from the chip shop next door. I was at that time totally unacquainted with sex and had not a clue what most of the items I was selling were for.
Do you enjoy improvised acting more or less than scripted acting?
I enjoy both. Improvising is thrilling and surprising but to me, even in scripted acting there should always be a hint of improv. The aim should be to make scripted acting look as vivid and immediate as improv.
Tell us about your time spent at the Grassmarket Project Theatre Company...?
That was my true beginning as an actor, aged 28. I had been working in a bookshop, longing to get into acting, the only thing I had ever wanted to do with my life, but not having a clue how to. This was in Edinburgh, by the way, where I moved a few years before, with no possessions or friends, in order to start again and see who I turned out to be. One day a man called Jeremy Weller came into the shop, started talking to me and soon invited me to take part in his first play which he was devising and directing with a large group of homeless men who he had gathered from the streets, hostels and soup kitchens of the city. The play, Glad (1990) was a smash hit at the Edinburgh Fringe that year and went on to tour in Europe, with the same cast. I worked with Weller until 1996 when I did my own first solo show. I consider my time working with him to my ‘unofficial’ training as an actor.
You won a Scotsman Fringe First Award for Think No Evil of Us as well as it being well-received by audiences and friends of Williams alike. Where does your work on this show rank amongst your credits to date on a personal level?
Think No Evil of Us was my first show that I created myself and the one that took me from total obscurity to at least the possibility of a career. It is also very personal, dealing not only with Williams’ character but with my own growing up in Castle Bromwich – and of course, I talk about the story I wrote for the Jackanory Story Writing Competition when I was 13, and which Williams performed on the programme. The show has opened countless doors for me and brought so many wonderful people into my life. I still perform it regularly.
What were your overall impressions of your time working on the show, and did you derive as much fun from playing Noel Coward as, say, playing Kenneth Williams?
Overall it was a wonderful and unexpected pleasure to work on GS and I treasure the memories I have of the people I met and the great experience of working with real television professionals. Playing Coward was just as much fun as playing Williams – indeed I have gone on the play Coward again, in a 2003 show I wrote called Star Struck. I also have a touring show called David Benson Sings Noel Coward, in which I belt out nearly two-hours of his best songs!