If Do Not Adjust Your Set was the catalyst for Monty Python's Flying Circus, then Michael Bentine's It's A Square World was undoubtedly the founding father of the surreal sketch show; combining satire, zany slapstick and animated models to put across a style of TV comedy that pushed the boundaries of the genre to its absolute limit.
Michael Bentine was born in Watford, Hertfordshire, on 26 January 1922, the son of a Peruvian immigrant who had arrived in Britain at the turn of the century. As a child he lost his power of speech for 13 years but recovered in time to attend Eton. Following his education and his period of service for Britain in WWll, Michael decided he wanted to be a comedian and auditioned at London's famous Windmill Theatre. It was here that he met fellow ex-services entertainer Harry Secombe, a fun loving Welshman with an offbeat sense of humour that was very similar to Michael's. Secombe introduced Bentine to his other friends; Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, and the group would often meet up at a pub run by Secombe's writer and agent Jimmy Grafton. From those meetings at the Grafton Arms the quartet developed the idea for The Goon Show, which went on to become the most famous British radio show of all time. However, Bentine left after the second series to continue touring in his own show and in 1954 was offered a TV series by the BBC-a children's puppet series called The Bumblies. Following numerous appearances on other shows and another series, After Hours (1958-59), he made his best remembered series It's A Square World.
Following the pilot show, Bentine was taken seriously ill and unable to work for six months. However, the BBC commissioned a full series of 12 editions and as soon as he was able to return to work again he began shooting the episodes. During its run the series featured many memorable moments including a Chinese Junk sailing up the Thames to sink the Houses of Parliament; discovering that the source of the Thames was a dripping tap; sending BBC Television Centre into orbit around the Earth and planting a 40ft whale outside the Natural History Museum (held up by 25 men hidden inside the model as it tried to get inside the museum building). This stunt threw London's traffic into complete chaos.
Bentine was supported by what was to become a veritable Who's Who of British TV stars, including Dick Emery, Frank Thornton, Clive Dunn, Deryck Guyler, John Bluthal and Ronnie Barker, all of whom would later become stars in their own right. The series led Bentine to a BAFTA award in 1962 for Best Comedy Performance and a compilation show, screened by the BBC in 1963, won that year's Golden Globe of Montreaux award.
In 1966 Bentine's show 'defected' to the ITV as All Square before returning home for a one-off special in 1977 called Michael Bentine's Square World. As ground-breakingly original a series as the resolutely off-centre, quicksilver comedic mind which conceived it, It's A Square World was a literal quantum leap forward for a new wave of British televised comedy, the ripples of which not only spread worldwide, but also reshaped acceptable standards for the genre in the process.
Published on December 23rd, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.