As if by magic, Mr Benn first appeared on our screens 50 years ago – and he's still as popular as ever
Author and illustrator David McKee describes his most famous creation as "a good, correct gentleman", but as to what exactly Mr Benn did for a living, he's keeping it under his hat.
Who doesn't love Mr Benn? The sharp suit, a kind word and a smile for everyone he meets, the hyperactive legs, and more diplomacy than a UN negotiator.
When he first opened the front door of his home at 52 Festive Road a whole half-century ago, a delivery by the postman led to a world of colourful adventures.
Today his fame is undiminished: Mr Benn is the best-performing animation on streaming platform BritBox, and its third most-popular classic kids show – after Grange Hill and Worzel Gummidge. There's also a new edition of the DVD and imminent book reissues to tie in with the programme's 50th anniversary.
To me and my primary-school friends, Mr Benn was the ultimate adventurer, in a show whose fantastical format was perfection: our hero would choose a costume in his local fancy-dress shop, put it on in the changing room, then go through a magic door that transported him to a time and place relevant to his new clothes – the Wild West one week, a spaceship in a distant galaxy the next, and so on.
The deceptively straightforward title character was the brainchild of David McKee (who used to live in Festing Road in Putney, south-west London). On the series' golden anniversary, I was keen to ask McKee about my childhood hero.
"Mr Benn was created from a lot of elements of my life that came together," explains McKee, now 86, from his home in France. "I wanted to write a book about a Red Knight in his armour, and the bits with Mr Benn and the fancy-dress shop at the beginning and the end came after that.
"When I took it to a publisher they asked, ‘What will he wear next time?’ So the idea of a series started from there. And from those books the programmes came later."
But who exactly was Mr Benn? "He was a Mr Everyman for me – anyone could associate with him, so I didn’t want to define him too much. Mr Benn is a good, correct gentleman, but I had no idea what job he’d have and I wanted to keep it that way.
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"I wanted the feeling he could be someone you knew, or indeed could be you. I never try and define him. The less you give him, the more the audience can associate with him."
It's no wonder Mr Benn has spanned the decades. For me as a child, Mr Benn was a comfort zone. Everything about the show was good-natured: McKee's lovely line drawings and happy protagonist; the harm-no-one philosophy; the warm and friendly narration by Ray Brooks; and the theme tune and incidentals of composer Don Warren (real name Duncan Lamont), which were the very definition of jaunty.
McKee is keen to give credit where it's due: "Making the films, we were a very small team: me, Ian Lawless, Clive Juster who edited the programmes, and Zephyr Films following my instructions, but Ray and Duncan were the front of the films, and noticeable for everyone. It wouldn’t be the same without them."
Kindness abounded in this classic children's series, and our bowler-hatted explorer sought peaceable solutions in far-away lands and long-ago times. He restored a vilified dragon to royal favour, urged circus folk to work together to repair a broken bridge, and suggested that a princess invite the poor children of the land to her palace for a banquet.
The hunter was a staple of adventure stories in the 1970s, but in McKee's jungle-set tale, the hunter is persuaded by Mr Benn to sell his gun, buy a camera and become a wildlife photographer instead.
Did McKee set out with any particular aims for the show? "The idea was for it to be a good, traditional story, which would be part of the Watch with Mother strand on the BBC," he tells RadioTimes.com. "So we knew an adult and a child would be watching together, which affected the writing – but I like writing for that dual audience, with an added sense of innocence. You have that audience with a picture book so I know it well. If they are comforting that’s really terrific, but that was a happy accident of the elements all coming together."
Brought up in Devon, McKee received a degree from Plymouth College of Art and a second degree from Hornsey College of Art. He became a freelance painter and illustrator, and drew cartoons for newspapers and the satirical magazine Punch.
After Mr Benn, McKee and his colleague Clive Juster set up the animation studio King Rollo Films in 1978. They went on to make many animated series and one-off films for children's television including King Rollo, The Adventures of Spot, and Maisy.
King Rollo (1980), based on McKee's books, reunited McKee with narrator Ray Brooks and composer Duncan Lamont. "King Rollo was part of a series of stories I wanted to make films of, called Melric the Magician," explains McKee, "but a Scandinavian publisher said they weren’t interested in kings and magic, they wanted stories about children facing problems.
"I wanted to meet them in the middle, so this new king, Rollo, had problems that children face – tying your shoelaces, climbing a tree – and would get frustrated tackling them, but he always does them in the end!"
Another hit creation for McKee has been Elmer the patchwork elephant, in a series of 40 picture books that have been translated into 50 different languages. "I was drawing a lot of elephants in my cartoons at the time in the 60s, but I was also painting, inspired by Paul Klee, with lots of colours, grids and squares. One day I married them together and there Elmer was on the page. His name came easily, the alliteration of Elmer and elephant, and then the stories appeared – it was all very simple. I didn’t think I’d still be writing Elmer all these years later, but just yesterday I had a strong idea, which I’ll try and jot down…"
And how many books has he written in total? "Far too many to count! Lots of my stories are short, they were maybe in magazines or comics many years ago, and then there are hundreds of books, in my name and others, plus all the films I’ve done – I’ve been lucky enough to illustrate my own books but also others, books like Paddington and Super Gran. A lot of that luck is from starting so long ago when the children’s book shelves were empty in book shops. Plus I’ve worked a lot!"
But back to the birthday boy, Mr Benn. Over the years, the cosplaying everyman has fared impressively in countdowns of favourite children's programmes. The series came sixth in Channel 4's 100 Greatest Kids' TV Shows in 2001, and 13th in Channel 5's 50 Greatest Kids' TV Shows in 2013. He's also featured in Radio Times polls – even making the cover in 2018.
Does McKee have any theories about MB's popularity? "Mr Benn endures, I think, because people like the idea of being able to escape to another life. And at their heart they’re old-fashioned stories which last. The elements that make up the episodes – the voice, the music, the story – are all simple elements that endure.
"I find it interesting that a lot of adults have introduced it to their children, and they’ve been surprised to find children putting the DVD on themselves. They don’t need all the crash-bang of more modern shows.
"It just shows, in the end, it’s the storytelling that works without too much animation going on."
And if Mr Benn came back, where could he go now? "That’s a question that’s been asked a lot recently by people who are interested in making a new film of Mr Benn. There are one or two stories which I thought I might do, but never did – I wanted to do a Robin Hood one, where Robin Hood doesn’t just rob from the rich and give to the poor, he changes the system... I’d like to see that!"
The Mr Benn: 50th Anniversary Edition DVD, featuring behind-the-scenes footage, is out now. All episodes are streaming on Amazon Prime Video and BritBox. The books Mr Benn: Red Knight and Mr Benn: Big Game are re-published on 4 March by Andersen Press.
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