AS IF BY MAGIC…

Mr BennKyiv, Paris or London – any would suffice as a suitable location in which to set this post, as all three are currently monopolising the headlines. I’ll opt for the latter city, though not 11 Downing Street as an address (or non-address). After all, the official residence of a politician who was oddly just as wealthy back when he was dishing out ‘Rishi’ll Fix It’ badges to a furloughed workforce as he is now (when he isn’t quite so popular) is not the subject to catch my eye, nor is his other half who (again) was just as sly at evading taxes this time two years ago as she was until caught out today. No, when it comes to the capital I think I’ll instead head for 52 Festive Road. Anyone between the ages of roughly 30-60 will recognise the street; it was the home of a certain Mr Benn. His Christian name was not Tony, though his Christian name was never actually revealed; in that wonderfully old-school British tradition, his chosen gender pronoun was always the name everyone knew him by.

Along with Gordon Murray’s ‘Trumptonshire’ trilogy, ‘The Herbs’ and ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, ‘Mr Benn’ was one of the new wave of BBC TV’s ‘Watch with Mother’ programmes at the turn-of-the-70s that capitalised on the innovation of colour television and propelled the early afternoon pre-school slot into the fresh decade and beyond; by producing these shows in colour at a time when the majority of households remained rooted in monochrome, the makers of the said programmes were looking to the future, safe in the knowledge that their productions would survive repeat runs for the next ten or twenty years whilst established mainstays such as ‘The Flowerpot Men’ and ‘The Woodentops’ would bite the black & white dust as the Beeb sought to sell their 625-line baby to the masses for the imminent era. ‘Mr Benn’ debuted in the same month Britain went decimal and was to stay a fixture of the post-lunchtime landscape until the early 1990s.

It’s a testament to the changing nature of children’s television that – although appearing in glorious full colour – ‘Mr Benn’ largely consisted of a series of static illustrations that the rostrum camera panned along during each episode; animation was kept to a strict minimum, yet the audience’s disbelief was nevertheless able to be suspended throughout. There was no need for the constant prodding of the attention span back then, unlike the iPad earworm that the child opposite me on a train journey the other day required in order to keep her sedated; that the rest of the passengers within her immediate radius had to endure what sounded like a succession of Munchkin nursery rhymes set to high-speed Ibiza b.p.m.s highlighted the difference between the cherished, private experience of ‘Watch with Mother’ in the front room womb half-a-century ago and today’s cynical corporate equivalent that is imposed upon external environments, regardless of the general public’s irritation.

‘Mr Benn’ was created by the writer and illustrator David McKee, whose character had originally surfaced on the printed page four years before his TV debut in 1971. McKee passed away at the grand old age of 87 last week and his legacy to successive generations of children seems secure. His evergreen 1968 book ‘Elmer the Patchwork Elephant’ was written as a response to racist abuse aimed in the direction of his Anglo-Indian wife and mixed-race daughter in a less-enlightened age; after years as a consistent best-seller, a series of sequels appeared, and the character is particularly popular in the present day, cited as an embryonic example of the ‘diversity’ factor so beloved by publishers of children’s literature in the 21st century. Regardless of whichever Identity Politics demographic has claimed it now, the original book celebrates difference in a way that has a timeless relevance to kids without the need for an accompanying lecture on behalf of any contemporary ‘inclusivity’ agenda. Mr Benn as a character, by contrast with Elmer, is very much an ‘everyman’ representing the anonymity of the era in which he appeared.

Dressed in a suit and bowler hat, Mr Benn was in tune with the antiquated idea of what an everyman represented at the time of his conception, though the fact that few men dress that way today means his conventional uniform has subsequently become his own unique look as distinctive as any superhero costume. Mr Benn’s profession is never specified or referenced, yet by wearing the classic ensemble of the City Gent, one assumes he works in some dreary stockbroker’s office that necessitates a daily commute. What we instead dip into is Mr Benn’s home life; the fact he doesn’t seem to be a married man suggests he has little time for romancing and relies upon his imagination to sustain him in the absence of a spouse. It is with this in mind that we routinely join him on a trip to an obscure fancy dress shop hidden down a side-street, one he is drawn to as an escape from the banal, humdrum life surrounding him on the terraced normality of Festive Road.

Precisely how the fancy dress shop in question ever makes a profit is another unanswered conundrum, as no other customers are ever seen on the premises. Indeed, the man forever known simply as ‘the shopkeeper’ is himself somewhat invisible until he appears ‘as if by magic’ whenever Mr Benn takes a shine to a particular outfit and requests a visit to the changing room. Dressed rather eccentrically in a purple waistcoat, bow-tie, John Lennon ‘granny glasses’ and fez, the shopkeeper is both the facilitator of Mr Benn’s imaginative escapades and the man who curtails them. Where he can be found during the lengthy period between the shop’s sole customer slipping into his fancy dress and then deciding he won’t buy or hire the bloody thing after all is one of life’s great mysteries that it’s probably wise to not explore any further. Suffice to say, the shopkeeper magically reappearing whenever Mr Benn’s latest adventure is nearing its end is as much of a guarantee as night following day.

Dreaming up the fancy dress shop as a gateway to said adventures was one of David McKee’s genius strokes when it comes to this particular character; Mr Benn ventures into the changing room, dons the costume of the week and then wanders from changing room to outdoor location in Narnia-fashion. The location always fits the chosen costume, so if Mr Benn tries on a suit of armour he finds himself in a medieval kingdom; if he slips into an astronaut’s uniform he finds himself in outer space; if he’s dressed as a clown he finds himself in a circus ring and so on. Every child’s imagination takes them to such places whenever they wear the appropriate garb, and Mr Benn lives out their fantasies every episode. The clever twist to blur the lines between fantasy and reality is that Mr Benn never fails to find a souvenir of his adventure once he returns home, planting the exciting idea in the viewers’ heads that he may well just have experienced the adventure for real after all.

‘Mr Benn’, as with all the other ‘Watch with Mother’ shows that had a remarkable longevity, only consisted of 13 initial episodes that forever felt like so much more because they were repeated on a loop for years. Indeed, the enduring popularity of the series eventually resulted in David McKee producing a brand new episode in 2004 for the Nickelodeon network in which his hero emulated the success of ‘Gladiator’ by returning to the fancy dress shop and finding himself in a Roman arena. Every effort was made to slot this new instalment into the narrative of the classic series by recreating the nostalgic ambience of the original, none more so than the revival of the memorable theme tune and incidental music by the jazz musician and composer Duncan Lamont. Happily – unlike rock band reunions – it worked.

‘Mr Benn’ retains a charm characteristic of all the programmes presented under the ‘Watch with Mother’ banner, exuding an innocence emblematic of better days; whether those better days were real or imagined is irrelevant. Like the souvenir Mr Benn always locates in his pocket after the adventure is over, what matters is whether we believe or not. Thanks to the imagination of David McKee – and the golden vocal chords of narrator Ray Brooks – we can believe whenever we revisit an episode. RIP.

© The Editor

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6 thoughts on “AS IF BY MAGIC…

  1. Having achieved 20 years of age and working for peanuts by the time Mr Benn first appeared, he never crossed my path, indeed I have no recollection of ever seeing a single episode, so must rely upon relative youngsters such as yourself to convey the experience.

    It was indeed creatively smart of David McKee to use a fancy-dress shop as a device to instigate a range of fantasy scenarios, but perhaps even that approach now seems quaintly dated. In a time when one may apparently self-define as any other life-form, for example a different gender, then who needs a matching costume now? A 21st century Mr Benn would simply need to say that he identified himself as a knight in shining armour, an astronaut or even a woman and the rest of the world would be compelled to go along with such an infantile farce. Life imitates art again.

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    1. Indeed. As you say, the fancy dress shop of 2022 is one that no longer physically exists, but its myriad contents must be acknowledged by all and sundry, lest the Thought Police kick down the door and issue a Hate Crime warrant. Mr Benn today identifies as an astronaut and tomorrow identifies as a middle-aged Avon Lady.

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  2. I’d actually watched The Hunter & Red Knight episodes on Sunday, and had no idea of David McKee’s passing. Mr. Benn is one of my favourites from that era, it brings up many happy associations with my own childhood. As you mention, the overly busy nature of much TV and film content aimed at children is in sharp contrast to the shows that were standard fare to 1970s kids.

    Perhaps because television wasn’t ubiquitous meant that even children growing up in urban areas were, more than we might have been aware, closer in mindset to the pre-tv culture and mindset of our parents and grandparents. In that culture, storytelling was valued, and Mr. Benn tapped into that. Oh, and the music was just right, struck the right tone.

    With his bowler-hatted attire and flights of imagination to escape the humdrum, I once heard Mr. Benn compared to Reggie Perrin. A good comparison, I’d say.

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    1. Funnily enough, as I was writing this post I almost referenced Reggie Perrin in relation to Mr Benn’s workplace! That’s a valid point, though, about the strong storytelling tradition that probably fed into those programmes, both on the part of the programme-makers and the viewers. In a way, I also see parallels in the once-thriving UK comic culture. I was in a supermarket the other day and whilst waiting to be served I glanced across at the comic racks – virtually every comic seemed to be a tie-in with a movie or TV franchise and came in a shrink-wrapped cover containing half-a-dozen free gifts. It was impossible to pull one off the shelf and actually examine the contents, but I wouldn’t imagine them to be overflowing with the kind of unique imagination that once leapt out from such pages.

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  3. Thankyou. I too had not known of David McKee’s death.
    I watched with my own children these wonderful little gems..
    The joy of childrens’ programmes of that era was that they entertained adults as well as children.
    Bagpuss, Roobarb and Custard, Captain Pugwash, Noggin the Nog, The Clangers, The Magic Roundabout, Hector’s House, Ivor The Engine. Every one a little work of genius.
    Plots far superior to Eastenders, Casualty and other dross.
    Who would ever have thought that an audience would be thrilled and scream with excitement at the sight of a ball dropping. The Wall.

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    1. There’s no doubt all the series you mentioned do come with a ready-made nostalgic glow for those of us raised on them, yet returning to them as an adult you realise simply how superb they are in terms of characterisation and storylines. When my niece was the right age, I too would do my best to introduce her to them, and their ability to exert their magic onto another generation was intact. I don’t think they’ll ever be surpassed now.

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