Fitness fanatic actor who walked from Kendal to Blackpool to perform at the Opera House

By Barry Band

Monday, 12th July 2021, 3:45 pm
Actor Frank Benson
Actor Frank Benson

As the years pass there are fewer mentions of performers who were once household names.

“You remember him. He was always on the telly.”

Memory Lane often moves the finger of time back to refresh the memory but this week we’re probably off the clock.

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An old cuttings book of a series I wrote for the Gazette in April, 1996, opened at such a page.

The featured artist was Sir Frank Benson and to remember seeing him in Blackpool you would need to be well over 90 years old.

The remarkable thing about this classical actor was that he was a keep fit fanatic and at the age of 71 he walked from Kendal on a Sunday in September, 1930, to appear for a week at the Opera House.

He was accompanied by one member of his Shakespearean company while the other members took the train. Sir Frank had first appeared at the original Opera House in 1891, two years after it opened.

He was apparently a poor businessman and the tours with his company, known as the Bensonians, were supported by family money.

His early billing line was FR Benson’s Shakespearean and Old English Comedy Company.

Several famous actors gained experience in the company including Robert Donat, who won the Oscar for best actor in 1940 for Goodbye Mr Chips.

In taking the classics round the provinces, Benson led his actors in a keep-fit regime of swimming, cricket, football and rugby and challenged local teams.

But the London critics thought he was too athletic.

Benson was long associated with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and was given the Freedom of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1910.

In the First World War he was too old to enlist but went to France as a Red Cross ambulance driver and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery.

He was knighted by King George V in 1916 during the interval of a Shakespeare tercentenary performance of Julius Caesar, in which he had the title role.

After the war his career depended on touring for business backers. His career came to a cruel end in 1933, when he was knocked over by a cyclist and was unable to act again. He died in sad circumstances.

In a tribute after his death in December, 1939, the Gazette recalled his last visit to the resort, making a 13-hour hike from Kendal in company with a colleague, Mona Macardle.

* There’s still time to enter Barry’s competition to win a copy of his book Blackpool’s Comedy Greats to win. In a showbiz town like Blackpool many people had unexpected encounters with the famous and have a picture to prove it. People working in hospitality, in retail and in theatres are the most likely to have a personal star story. To enter, email [email protected]