Acklam Hall’s grandeur is a far cry from Mark Benton’s Grangetown upbringing but the actor is relaxed enough to look quite at home as he lounges in the luxury of one of the magnificent hall’s meetings rooms.
But, as he explains, Teesside remains home for the actor fully three decades after he left it behind for the bright lights of London in search of his fame and fortune.
He found both but he has never forgotten his roots. You can take the man out of Teesside, but you can’t take Teesside out of the man.
“BBC Tees – proud of where we live,” he smiles, repeating his own catchphrase that’s played out endlessly on the local radio station.
But Mark, who lives near Hastings with wife Sarah and their three children, is sincere when asked if he really does feel pride in the place where he was born and raised. “Very proud, yeah,” he replies. “I love coming back up here. Although my home is with my wife and kids on the south coast, there is always a sense of this being where I’m from.
“I know I’m back when I’m on the Parkway at night and I see the Blade Runner lights of the chemical works. That’s always a sort of ‘I’m home’ feeling.”
Mark is back on Teesside visiting his family during a short break from filming in Manchester where he is working on Rat Burger, an adaption of a David Walliams book that will be screened on Sky next Christmas.
The role has helped put behind him the disappointment of discovering that The Halcyon, the ITV show in which he played a war-time hotel porter, has been axed after only one series.
He doesn’t try to hide his regret at the decision. “I was really disappointed but we were all gutted about it,” he says. “It’s a real shame because it was a lovely job and the plan was for it to last for five years.”
Mark has become a familiar face on British TV over the past 20 years. He has starred alongside Vic Reeves and his fellow Teessider Bob Mortimer on both off-beat sitcom Catterick and their remake of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), for eight years he played alongside another Teessider and long-term friend, Liz Carling in sitcom Barbara, and he’s played memorable roles in TV shows such as Waterloo Road and Early Doors.
But perhaps his fame reached new levels when breaking out of acting for a series of quirky Nationwide TV adverts (where he coined a phrase “Brand new customers only”) and then showed off his best moves when competing in Strictly Come Dancing.
While he had to leave Teesside to break into the acting world, his heart remains on Teesside. And he returns to join it whenever he can. His mother has passed away but his father, sister Dawn and brother Ian remain on Teesside, as do several friends.
The son of an ICI tanker driver, Mark was born in Guisborough but he is a Grangetown lad through and through, explaining: “The only reason I was born in Guisborough is because there was no room at Middlesbrough General. We actually lived in South Bank till I was about two or three but Grangetown is where I grew up until Mam and Dad moved to Eston when I was about 15.
“I loved growing up in Grangetown. Even back then it was regarded as a rough area, but when it’s all you know it doesn’t necessarily feel rough. I knew who the hard lads were, I knew who to avoid – they didn’t bother me because I didn’t bother them.
“I had a great childhood. Mum and Dad were brilliant parents. Weekends and holidays I’d be up in the morning, out on my bike, back for dinner, out on my back again, back for tea and out again on my bike, come back about ten o’clock and go to bed.
“We climbed Roseberry Topping, went up the hills to Eston Nab and I used to cycle to Redcar with my mate, Shaun.”
And he reveals a strong pang of nostalgia when he admits to occasionally visiting his former home on Argyle Road. “I drive back past our house sometimes. The house is still there though there’s not an awful lot else left. It’s been flattened. It’s really sad because that’s my childhood gone.”
After leaving school, Mark dreamed of becoming an actor, inspired by his uncle, actor Michael Gunn. He attended summer schools with Middlesbrough Youth Theatre and took roles in Grease and Hair with Stockton Youth Theatre but almost gave up on an acting career after being rejected after auditions with RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) when he was a teenager.
He recalls: “A lot of people I’d studied with at Billingham Technical College got into lesser-known London drama schools and would mock me a little that I was still on Teesside. I was on the dole a few years but when I was 20 I thought ‘I’ve got to try again, one last time’. I’d been for auditions and I remember getting this letter stamped with RADA’s name. I opened it and only got as far as the words ‘We are pleased…’ and started crying my eyes out. A lot of people had lost hope in me, so it was one of those defining moments.”
Along with Liz Carling, another celebrity Teessider he was friends with was Marcus Bentley (now better known as the voice of Big Brother). Marcus even introduced him to Middlesbrough Football Club.
He admits: “I can’t claim to be a lifelong Boro fan because I was always into drama and music. But when I was about 26 Marcus – who I’d known from our youth theatre days – said ‘I’m going to take you to a football match’. I think it was Sheffield Wednesday at home on New Year’s Day. We got beat but I just fell in love with it.
“I later got a season ticket at the Riverside, and it broke my heart giving it up, but I’m balancing work with the family whilst living on the south coast so it’s hard. I would have a season ticket if I was up here, no two ways about it.”
When he does get back he always tries to see a Boro game, revealing: “I’ve been in hospitality, which is a real treat, but I equally love to just sit in the crowd.”
Whether he is recognised often depends on whether he’s wearing his cunning disguise of a hat! But he adds: “Luckily, most people at the Boro are nice to me, so it’s all right. Up here I always get the feeling that they’re proud of you because you’re from round here.”
Proud of where we live – and proud of our high-achieving sons. Teesside should be rightly proud of Mark Benton.
Mark Benton Q&A
If a visitor had only one day on Teesside where would you recommend they visit?
I would say walk along Redcar beach, got to go the Transporter and have a go on it – if the wind’s not too strong. Visit Stewart Park and have a walk on the hills. Saltburn’s nice, too.
Have you ever been mistaken for someone else famous?
I was once at a Boro match and somebody behind me was shouting to everyone that I was Danny Baker. I just laughed and wished he’d shut up, which he didn’t for quite a long time!
If you hadn’t been an actor what would you have done?
I’d have been in a rock band, if I’d had it my way, playing guitar.
What makes you laugh?
My kids, my wife, my friends, good comedy on telly, of which there isn’t much. I love Inside Number 9. Whatever the League of Gentleman do is fantastic. I love Vic and Bob. I think they are the funniest, and nicest, people there are.
What scares you?
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
I don’t watch an awful lot of TV. I tend to watch serials on Netflix. I’ve just finished one called Goliath with Billy Bob Thornton which was brilliant. I’m a big fan of House of Cards. I never saw the original so I’m going to go back and watch it. I worked with Ian Richardson before he sadly died.