Looking Back At MR BENN - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At MR BENN

Tony would like a hat like that.
You can tell people who were Mr Benn fans as children.

There is, you should understand, absolutely no evidence to support that theory, but here’s a test.

Go up to all the coolest people you know who are in the forties and fifties – and ask them.

Guaranteed, the cooler they are, the more engaged, the more ecologically concerned, the more supportive of the poor and the oppressed – the more likely they are to have watched Mr Benn in the 1970s.

On what, precisely, are we basing this theory?

On the fact that Mr Benn, a single series of 13 stories (one more was eventually filmed several decades later), each around a quarter of an hour long, tells the story of an individual who has regular adventures in different times and places, and always – but always – seeks a kind of justice, and kindness, and sometimes a significant upheaval so that the world can be better for the oppressed.

Don’t believe us? We’ll get you there in a minute.

For anyone who has no idea what we’re talking about, Mr Benn was a children’s TV show, first launched between 1971-72. It was based on an initial series of four books by David McKee, and it featured a central character, Mr Benn, of number 52, Festive Road – a perfectly ordinary street.
The look of Mr Benn himself was based on an artwork entitled “The Businessman” by Michaela Mitchell, and apart from the fact that he never seems to do any business, that’s exactly how Mr Benn appears throughout the series – in a suit, with a black jacket, a tie, and a smart hat, evoking perfectly proper British business respectability to one and all.


But Mr Benn has a secret that opens up a full-on fantasy world as vivid as anything CS Lewis ever came up with, and with its roots in fundamentally escapist fantasy. In the first episode, Mr Benn, who is not really one for parties, is invited to a fancy dress party and so goes off in search of a really good costume. After hunting high and low, he wanders down an odd little alleyway, and into a nameless costume shop. He is met by a shopkeeper who appears “as if by magic,” and tries on a red suit of armour. While in the fitting room, he notices a second door, and like children at the back of a wardrobe, he investigates it…

…only to find himself alongside a dragon who, to borrow briefly from Douglas Adams, thinks he ought to know he’s feeling very depressed.
A knight in armour and a depressed dragon? Surely the power of narrative dictates that Mr Benn slays the dragon, wins the favour of the local king, and is carried shoulder high by the previously dragon-oppressed people. Right?


This is what we mean about groovy older people. In Mr Benn’s world, the dragon had been beloved of all the people, including the king, until the arrival of a venal, capitalist match-maker. Finding the match business hard to sustain when the whole kingdom had a dragon on tap, the match-maker burned down barns and spread ‘fake news’ that the dragon had done it. The dragon had been banished, and the minute he had the market to himself, the match-maker had jacked up his prices, which the miserable populace then had to pay because they had no alternative.

Far from slaying the dragon, Mr Benn acts as its ambassador to the king, revealing the truth of things. The match-maker is flung into the deepest dungeon in the kingdom, the dragon returns, and while the dragon will be the king’s personal firelighter, the people of the land will still get their matches – because the evil capitalist will be forced to make them for free from now on!

That’s episode 1! The messages of not jumping to conclusions, judging people by the content of their character not by their looks, and frank, unvarnished anti-capitalism are gloriously clear and unambiguous – and this is all within 15 minutes of structured fantasy television for children.


Oh hell, no. Deliberate as all get out.

Episode 2 sees Mr Benn return to the shop and try on a Big Game Hunter’s outfit. You tense a little, because ick, hunting.
Relax. Mr Benn has you covered. Meeting up with a real hunter through the second fitting room door, he spends much of the episode distracting and dissuading the hunter from shooting everything they encounter, then arranges a plan with the animals. The elephants are terrified that the hunter will shoot them, because they’re a big target, supposedly ‘worthy’ of his interest. Mr Benn tells them to jump up and down, shaking the ground – with the result that all the hunter’s shots go awry. Clearly, Benn says, the hunter has lost his skills with firearms. Best put down the gun and pick up the camera, he advises – and the hunter agrees. Enviro-activism, in a 15-minute fantasy vignette, aimed at children in the early Seventies.

It’s a theme that continues. Episode 6 sees Mr Benn try on a zookeeper’s outfit, and again you clench, because eesh, zoos.

The episode tackles that head-on – all the animals are miserable because their cages are too small. A particularly eloquent parrot becomes Mr Benn’s acolyte in an amial revolution! Mr Benn sets the animals free and tells them to hide in the trees at the zoo – then he legs it into town, yelling that the animals have broken out of the zoo. The only place the people will be safe is in the zoo, he tells everyone. When they’re all in the zoo, the animals pop out of hiding, and Mr Benn directs the ensuing panic, claiming the only place people will be safe is in the cages!
The animals walk around, watching the humans huddled together in the inadequate living space, and with a little prompting from Mr Benn, the humans finally understand the need the animals have for space, and vow to build them bigger, better, more comfortable cages. Sure, still cages, but the message of seeing a situation from the other side of the bars rings out clearly.

Episode 8, and Benn dons a wizard’s costume, ending up in a land with a happy and much-beloved king, and an irritated queen. “He’s fine, but he just…sits there,” she says. “Make him jump about a bit.” Mr Benn, as instructed, turns the king into a regal frog, hopping about the place. “Make him big and strong” says the queen – only to recant her words after he’s nearly clobbered half the guards with a friendly pat on the shoulder and started demolishing the palace just by leaning on it. On and on it goes until Mr Benn turns the king into a good-looking statue at the queen’s command. She’s upset by the change but he holds her to ransom, saying he’ll only turn the king back to his good old smiling self if she acknowledges that it’s what’s on the inside of a person that matters, not the outside.

There were similar morals in most episodes of Mr Benn, and it establishes very simply the notion of a single person in a highly fantastical situation, able to effect change for the betterment of the poor, the oppressed, the animal kingdom and the planet. Other episodes saw him feed the poor and bedraggled children of a kingdom while a princess refused food, or meet a mermaid and protect a sea monster from busybodies in submarines, or defeat a cheating aristocrat with a superiority complex and a hot air balloon…and so on. Wherever you look, there is one man – Mr Benn, standing up for fairness, decency, and the poor.

You can argue all you like about the naivety of Mr Been being a typical British businessman, and trusting such a person to make a positive difference. In a way, the show challenged all of us who watched is as children to be at least as good, as inventive, and as compassionate as Mr Benn. To talk to people before we judged them. To help people who seemed to need it. To be kind to animals and people poorer than ourselves. Vignette by vignette, Mr Benn taught us lessons in how to be the kind of person we’d hope might be there to help us if we needed it.
The stories by David McKee were simple, but well structured – there would often be a precursor sequence on Festive Road, showing what was on Mr Benn’s mind that day. The world of Festive Road would often be subtly changed when he returned from his adventures. And he was always given a token of remembrance – never money, never anything venal, just a little something that would immediately connect him back to the power of his past experiences.

And of course, because it was a children’s TV programme, people frequently overlooked the magical fantasy elements. A costume shop that was connected through a second door to an environment appropriate to the costume of the week. A shopkeeper who always “appeared, as if by magic” to help Mr Benn select the right costume (since the Matt Smith era of Doctor Who, it has become rather an in-joke that the shopkeeper had a shop that was bigger on the inside, and that he wore not only a bow tie, but a fez as well). And the same shopkeeper would always equally appear in the adventure environment as if by magic, allowing Mr Benn to make an equally Doctor Who discreet exit when his work there was done.
On top of the simple structuring, the art and animation that illustrated the show, by McKee and Ian Lawless, was simple but never especially childish, and there were distinct musical themes by Don Warren, often using woodwind and xylophone – there was a ‘people hurrying from place to place’ theme, a ‘disappointment or dejection’ theme, a ‘working hard to solve a problem’ theme, and they all helped to slip the story along, meaning each episode felt like you got a lot more story out of it than 15 minutes should have allowed. And between the storytelling, the musical themes, and the hugely engaging narration by actor Ray Brooks (nailing his name to pop culture for one of several times in his long career), Mr Benn became a watchword for fantastical adventure, fun, and the right way to behave for a generation.

Seriously – ask your coolest older relatives if they watched it as kids. Pound to a penny they’ll be Benn-fans.

There’s huge mileage in the idea of translating Mr Benn onto a bigger screen, or a live-action show. Seeing what the original TV version managed in just 15 minutes per episode, there’s no doubt a full-length movie in the 21st century could build its own fantastical franchise. In fact, there was talk of a live action movie in 1999, starring John Hannah as Mr Benn, and (ironically) Ben Kingsley as the shopkeeper – which is the sort of information for which the line “Shut up and take my money!” was invented. While at present, that project is thought to be dead, the time for a big-screen Benn has surely come. Connecting young people with the simple power of individual, non-violent direct action for the betterment of society? For all he’s at least originally white, and British, and a businessman, and the kind of person to sit at home in a collar and tie, in the lessons he taught the children of the Seventies, and the lessons he could teach again today, there can surely be no better role model than Mr Benn.

Watch Mr Benn today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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