THE INTERVIEW: “It got dark, very dark indeed,” says television presenter reported dead

HOR 110510 Dave Benson Phillips. photo by derek martin
HOR 110510 Dave Benson Phillips. photo by derek martin

Death. We know we cannot escape it. Most of us just ignore its impending approach.

But Dave Benson Philips has had to confront it head on, and bizarrely insist to the world he’s still alive.

The children’s television star, who presented the BBC hit Get Your Own Back for 14 years, was widely accepted to be dead in 2009 after a malicious rumour was started online that he had died in a car crash.

“The distress it caused was unparalleled,” said Dave, a West Sussex resident known in Horsham as the face of town centre events, including the Rotary Club’s Pancake Races, Children In Need and Kidz Stuff festival.

“I remember my sisters calling up and they didn’t get off the phone until they could hear my voice.

“My mum heard about it second hand - she was at work at the hospital, and someone said they were sorry her son had been killed in a car crash.”

The malicious falsehood caused shows to be cancelled, and while Dave’s wife received flowers and condolences a local radio station was minutes away from broadcasting an obituary.

“It was taken very seriously and it got dark, very dark indeed,” said Dave.

I had heard rumours of the internet slanders perpetrated against the enthusiastic entertainer, but it was not until Dave revealed more that I realised the true extent of the horrible experience.

Targeted at a genuinely lovely man who has dedicated a lifetime to making children laugh, the unfortunate episode brought the vagaries and danger of the internet age into sharp relief.

Just a few well placed and well timed untruths turned a dream career into a living nightmare.

Born in London, with a flair for flamboyancy, but bullied at school, Dave is a humble person when not in character.

“I am still surprised it happened,” he said, reflecting on his time dominating the children’s TV schedule with gunge and fun.

“Maybe one day I will wake up from a very long and elaborately lucid dream that I have been having for the past 48 years?”

But too many people have enjoyed the laughter of Dave’s dream career to pinch it from him – it is very real, as millions of children who grew up in the 90s will testify.

And as a children’s entertainer with Pontyns and Haven, he broke new ground.

“I was the first black blue coat they had ever had,” he said, going on to recollect a frosty reception he received in north Wales in the late 1980s.

“If you’ve ever seen the film Blazing Saddles you’ll know the arrival of the black sheriff, well, it was all of that.

“I remember people asking who are you, and I said ‘I’m the new children’s entertainer’ - and it was like, no you’re not!”

In spite of some of the adults’ attitudes 20 years ago, the children loved Dave’s more manic approach to entertainment, and he was idolised by a generation of holiday campers, as demonstrated by his best letter of complaint.

“A father came home and was horrified to see their son covered in shoe polish or something brown pretending to be me!” said Dave with an infectious incredulity followed by a hearty guffaw.

“This man has to go, they said. I laugh at it now but at the time it was quite harsh.

“But I won them over and made some fantastic friends there.”

Nevertheless, go Dave did, but only because holiday makers wrote a letter to the BBC recommending the colourful character for television.

Soon, Dave was the star presenter of Get Your Own Back - a programme that caught the imagination of children nationwide.

“It was an extraordinary show with a very simple premise.

“If you are a child with a grown-up who gets on your nerves, get them on the show, and we’ll humiliate them and cover them in gunge,” said Dave.

The hit show ran for an incredible 14 years from 1991 to 2003, and Dave still takes the show on the road with his own gunge tank.

“It will drop 90 odd litres of nasty gunge onto your head in a 30 to 40 second fall.

“It’s great - if you want it, we’ll come round and whip it up for you.”

A whole generation that watched Dave on the telly still feels a certain affinity for gunge and the whole concept of Get Your Own Back.

But the perpetrators of his online misfortune are also most likely to be found amongst this age group.

Are they getting their own back? I mused to myself.

Have you got your own back? I asked instead.

“No,” replied Dave. “All I wanted to know was how to deal with it.”

At the time the presenter of much of the internet and social media, but with a baptism of fire he soon managed to quell the original slander that he was dead.

But, new rumours persisted, known as drive-bys, where verbal assailants fabricate falsehoods on sites like the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia.

Dave believes he lost a job with a new children’s channel due to his online record presence wrongly stating he worked for Babestation, the late night Freeview channel featuring topless women.

More recently it was put about he had a mental break down at a children’s party and was seen running through the streets throwing gunge at people.

He has even been banned from social media site MySpace after someone pretending to be him claimed he was the imposter!

Is it dealt with now I asked?

“Let’s put it this way - I do enough to let people know that I am alive,” he said, before bursting into laughter, realising what a crazy thing that is to have to say.

But does he still feel exposed? “We all are,” he warned. “If some people don’t like you and have a bit of time on their hands with an axe to grind they can make your life hell, and you wouldn’t know who they are.”

Dave is now preparing for his Mad March promotion that sees him take a series of shows and performances on the road for crazy prices.

He is also making a welcome return to CBBC with a voiceover role, and more locally looking forward to working with the Rotary Club of Horsham again in 2013.

Dave is also loving fatherhood, with his son due to celebrate his third birthday in March.

But how does entertaining children with hype and mayhem differ to caring for one?

“I get it now,” admitted Dave. “I get why parents used to look at me with nasty eyes and go ‘you don’t know what it’s like taking home an excited child.’

“Thanks Dave for a great show, they would say through gritted teeth!”

And with that Dave burst into laughter for the umpteenth time of the interview.

THE INTERVIEW by Theo Cronin

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