Caroline Bishop chats to the latest actor to jump aboard The Railway Children, Mark Benton, and finds a man quite happy to point the signals away from himself.
As commutes go, Mark Benton’s is pretty nifty. The actor, who lives in East Sussex, gets on the train at Ashford and steps off right at the door of his new workplace: Waterloo Station.
When we meet, in a shabby office attached to the temporary theatre in the former Eurostar terminal, trains rumble overhead. Benton is not only travelling in by rail, he’s performing on rails too, as Station Master Perks in the theatrical adaption of E Nesbit’s The Railway Children.
Mike Kenny’s stage version of the 1906 novel, much loved for the 1970 film, found the perfect home when it pulled into Waterloo 18 months ago. The story of three children who must adapt to country life after their mother decamps the family from London to Yorkshire, The Railway Children is played out over the tracks and platforms of Eurostar’s original home, breathing new life into the previously disused space. The show – which won an Olivier Award earlier this year – even features a real steam train to wow audiences sitting each side of the tracks.
It’s not surprising that the show has captured the hearts of youngsters – and oldsters for that matter – much like the film and the novel before it. It’s one of the reasons that Benton took the job. After he went to see the show, “my middle daughter, who’s 10, just went ‘daddy you are doing it’,” he laughs.
But he didn’t need much persuasion. “The thing I loved about this show is the adaptation’s really faithful to the book and the film which is great. There’s never any thought that it cheapens itself to make it more of a glitzy show; it sticks to the original which I loved about it.”
Benton intends to stick to the original, too. “Perks is Perks,” he says. “I’d like to think I do some of my own little things but actually you can’t mess with it much.” He knows Bernard Cribbins, who played the role of the local railway porter in the film, and feels “it’s got to be a bit of a tribute to Bernard because he was so wonderful.”
It’s the first time that Benton has taken over a role rather than created it. He’s come into the show to round it off (it finishes on 8 January, a real loss to the station, whatever development plans it may have for the terminal) and had just a few days to get to grips with Perks before his first performance last Saturday.
“Sometimes that celebrity thing impinges on your private life, which I’ve never wanted… that’s not part of what I do”
But flying by the seat of his pants is what Benton loves about theatre, especially after spending half a year filming BBC school-set drama Waterloo Road (maybe he was destined for London’s Waterloo). “It’s really great, having just come off Waterloo Road for six months, to then go on stage and do this, because it’s a totally different thing and it gets you going again, because if you mess your lines up you have to carry on.”
He’s had longer stints away from the stage – when he appeared in Comedians at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2009 it had been more than six years – but he always goes back for that adrenaline rush. “When you don’t do theatre for a while you get scared, you think ‘I can’t do it, I can’t learn all my lines’,” he says of that extended gap. “But actually in the end I just thought I need to do some theatre, I need to s**t myself again!”
Benton may not be a household name – rather, he’s one of those faces you recognise, but you can’t think why – but he’s been a presence on stage, film and television for 20 years. His stint as English teacher Daniel Chalky in Waterloo Road comes after numerous parts in television dramas including Inspector George Gently, Land Girls, The Fixer, Hustle, Britannia High, Personal Affairs and Doctor Who, as well as big screen outings in major films Redemption Road and The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus. He’s also an experienced stage performer who has worked at the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company and Donmar Warehouse, among others.
But he has never been one to court the limelight, preferring to keep his head down and get on with the work. So he’s not likely to follow his Waterloo Road co-star Chelsee Healey into celebrity dance contest Strictly Come Dancing, much as he’s cheering her on. “I’ve been asked to do a couple [of reality shows] but I feel quite shy of doing them,” he says. “It’s a difficult one. I think sometimes it’s do you want to be an actor or do you want to be a celebrity? I was tempted to do celebrity Mastermind but I couldn’t think of a specialist subject.” Trains, I suggest? “No, I know nothing about trains, as if you saw me in the show you’d probably realise!”
In person Benton is friendly and chatty, his North Yorkshire accent helping to convey a warm, personable manner. Despite this, he says “I’ve never been that comfortable with any of this really”, the accompanying sweep of his arm indicating the necessary press interviews that come with the job. Though he is philosophical about the publicity and public recognition that certain jobs bring – “when you sign on to do these things you know it’s going to happen” he says referring to the series of Nationwide ads he appeared in – it’s not a side of the profession he relishes. “Some people think because you’re an actor you have to be this kind of massive extrovert person and I’m not necessarily that in real life you know, I’m quite private. Sometimes that celebrity thing impinges on your private life, which I’ve never wanted… that’s not part of what I do. So that’s been a difficulty for me.”
For Benton, it’s always been about the work. Growing up in a working class family in Middlesbrough, he was inspired to act by his uncle, fellow actor Michael Gunn. “I used to see my uncle come back from drama school and think I wanted to be like him.”
When the time came, Benton’s parents gave him the money for two auditions. He chose Central School, his uncle’s alma mater, and RADA. “I thought, to hell with it, someone’s got to get in.” In the event, he was rejected by Central but got into RADA, which he describes as a “life affirming” moment. “For me, it was ‘oh God, I can act’.”
“I used to see my uncle come back from drama school and think I wanted to be like him”
But the confidence boost didn’t last. Despite having “such a wonderful time at RADA”, he says “one of the biggest things I learnt was humility. You get into drama school and you think that’s it, I’m a star now. And of course suddenly you’ve got all these guys around you who are better than you and you go oh God, I’m not so good. And then you really have to work. I think that’s why I realised I really loved the work and the doing of it; that’s the pleasure of it.”
It’s his love of the work that has helped him build a solid, if not flashy, career as a character actor, working with some of the best names in the business. His big screen debut, for example, came courtesy of Mike Leigh’s Career Girls in 1997. “Mike Leigh is a genius,” he says. “What working with Mike taught me was as long as you start from the truth you can go anywhere, be any character. That job was brilliant.”
He went back to work with the multi-award-winning director on Topsy-Turvy two years later. “It’s funny because I know that if I was free and he said come and work again, I’d jump like a shot,” he adds, almost wistfully.
But he’s not likely to be free in the near future. After his short run in The Railway Children he’ll have just three weeks off before rehearsals begin for Filter’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Lyric Hammersmith, in which Benton previously appeared at the Latitude Festival. Then it’s back into Waterloo Road so “I’m basically working til next Christmas,” he smiles. No mean feat in this tricky economic climate.
But if it the work did dry up, would he find inspiration for an alternative career in his current roles? “I would be a terrible teacher, absolutely terrible,” he laughs. “Luckily I play a terrible teacher on Waterloo Road as well so that’s alright!”
“I could maybe be a train porter,” he adds, with a smile. “That might be quite nice, on a little platform somewhere.” Somehow, that seems to suit his limelight-shirking personality down to the ground.