Classic animated series for small children about Mr Benn of 52 Festive Road, London (where nothing remarkable ever happened), who receives an invitation to a fancy dress party. Donning his bowler hat, he sets off to find a fancy dress shop and does so down a small back lane where he discovers just the establishment he is looking for. He is greeted by the fez-wearing owner who arrives 'as if by magic.' Mr Benn asks to try on a suit of armour that he has spotted. He puts the outfit on in the changing room and walks through another door... and suddenly finds himself transported back to medieval times.
Mr Benn returns to the shop many times after that, always greeted by the shopkeeper and allowed to try on any costume in the changing room from where he would, once again, proceed through 'the door that led to adventure', and emerge in the world that related to whatever outfit he was wearing. As a caveman, an astronaut, a pirate or a cowboy, Mr Benn would always come to the aid of some poor unfortunate before the shopkeeper suddenly re-appeared to escort him back to the shop. Mr Benn is never sure if his adventure was real but after every one he always finds himself holding a memento from his trip…
“I never liked stories that ended up as dreams. I never liked the character having a fantastic adventure and on the last page it was ‘Come along, John, and John realised it had all been a dream.’ What a cheat!” – David McKee (2017).
Mr Benn’s adventures originally began in 1967 with the book Mr Benn – Red Knight, which was written and illustrated by David McKee, who found the inspiration for Mr Benn in Festing Road in Putney, London, where he used to live. McKee lived at 54 Festing Road. "The first book I drew myself looking out of the window, and I thought it would be quite nice to have him next door." In November 2009, residents of Festing Road installed an engraved paving slab in McKee’s honour.
McKee and Ian Lawless animated the adventures for the BBC from 1971 and each adventure, shown early afternoon in the Watch with Mother strand, was narrated by the relaxed and reassuring tones of Ray Brooks. The theme was by Don Warren. Only 13 episodes were ever made, but the series was repeated twice a year for 21 years and from time-to-time the BBC will open up the fancy dress shop once more, so another generation of children can enjoy Mr Benn’s adventures. The most recent repeat was in 2000. Unfortunately, these episodes did not benefit David McKee at all. "I signed a contract where I only got a one-off payment and no repeat fees.”
Thirty years after going on his last adventure, Mr Benn was given one new outing in 2001. Possibly inspired by the Oscar-winning movie Gladiator, McKee wrote a new Mr Benn tale in 2001 with the same title. It was animated and appeared on the cable channel Noggin in 2005. Of all the original tales only one was never animated. 123456789 Benn was published in 1970 and tells the story of Mr Benn as a convict (hence the number) inspiring his jail-mates to brighten up their cells. The BBC thought this inappropriate for children.
There was talk of a movie in 1999 and rumours circulated that John Hannah and Ben Kingsley would star as Benn and the Shopkeeper respectively. However, nothing ever transpired. Mr Benn did appear on stage though. Adapted by Tall Stories Theatre Company, it was first performed at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe and toured until 2013.
David McKee produced several characters as well as Mr Benn, including Elmer the Patchwork Elephant (of which there are 43 books that in total have sold more than 10 million copies) and the highly regarded Not Now, Bernard which has been translated into over 20 languages and has never been out of print. In 1980 McKee created King Rollo, the main character in a series of books and animations which were, once again, narrated by Ray Brooks. This time the thirteen episodes were produced by McKee's own King Rollo Films and were shown under the umbrella title of See-Saw, which was the successor to Watch with Mother. In 2020 he was awarded the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his whole body of work. He passed away on 6 April 2022 after a short illness. He was 87 years of age.
John Huddy, the gallery owner of London’s Illustrationcupboard, who put on an exhibition of McKee’s Mr Benn art in 2017 summed up David McKee perfectly when he said, “David is one of the rare people one meets in life who is a genuine creative, and his stories don’t rely on borrowed themes or ideas from other people. I don’t know where his ideas come from, but they are unique. Mr Benn is unique.”
And that is why he has endured so long.
Published on February 27th, 2023. Written by Malcolm Alexander for Television Heaven.