Festive Road is an ordinary, terraced street. Neighbours chat over fences and children and dogs play on the pavement. Mr Benn lives at number 52 – we know very little about him except he’s always smartly dressed in a black suit and bowler hat. Is he a businessman? Or does he simply enjoy dressing formally for fun? In the very first episode (‘Mr Benn – Red Knight’) the gentle tone of narrator Ray Brooks tells us that he’s been invited to a fancy dress party and needs something to wear. After some fruitless searching in the town Mr Benn starts to head home, only to happen upon a small costume shop up a back lane. Once he steps through the door, ‘as if by magic the Shopkeeper appears’, and the two make each other’s acquaintance. Wearing a bow tie and fez, and sporting a small moustache, the Shopkeeper comes to be a quietly reassuring presence both before and after Mr Benn’s outings.
Once his fancy dress outfit has been chosen, Mr Benn transforms into it in the changing room, only to then discover another door that leads him out to an unknown land. Without blinking an eye he immerses himself in his new role of ‘adventurer’, a far cry from his real-life suburban suited existence. His escapades will come in many forms, and he always calmly takes a very pro-active role in helping the people he meets on them. In the first story he restores justice to a dragon who’s been unfairly blamed for a fire; in the next he manages to change the attitude of a hunter so that he ends up snapping animals with a camera rather than shooting them with a gun. There’s a common thread of solving real issues running through the storylines (loneliness, animal welfare, valuing who somebody is, rather than what they look like etc.) with an emphasis on people working together to achieve a common goal. Despite this, the programme never preached; children watching could understand the message that each episode delivered whilst simply enjoying the story and without feeling they were being lectured.
Once the inhabitants of each new world Mr Benn encounters have been helped/placated/ rescued etc., the Shopkeeper mysteriously appears again, to guide Mr Benn back to the changing room. On every occasion Mr Benn is always the only customer in the shop. That obviously makes it easy for Mr Benn’s browsing purposes, but it does make you wonder if that was the real reason for only 13 episodes being made in the original run; did the shop face bankruptcy after that through lack of business?
There is great speculation as to whether Mr Benn actually does travel through space and time or whether he is simply imagining these extraordinary places as an antidote to his sedate and rather ordinary existence. On returning from each adventure however, he always finds a small memento of his trip (a clown’s red nose, a parrot’s feather, a stone hammer etc.) that he has retained, which implies he really was there. Often the street scene on his way to and from the shop will also reflect an aspect of his experience as well, so in the episode where Mr Benn becomes a frogman and dives under the sea to help King Neptune, the children playing near his house are holding shells to their ears to listen for the sound of waves.
Mr Benn started life as a series of books, written and drawn by the author and artist David McKee in the late 1960s. With beautifully drawn and vividly coloured, detailed scenes it is no wonder it was spotted by the BBC who then commissioned a television series. In its original outing between 1971 and 1972 it went out in the children’s See-Saw slot on BBC2, and since then it has been repeated over sixty times. A further book, ‘Mr Benn – Gladiator’ was written by McKee in 2001, which was then brought to the television in 2005, and Mr Benn’s 40th birthday in 2011 has sparked a multitude of new projects for him. It was also voted sixth in Channel 4’s ‘100 Greatest Kids’ TV Show’s poll in 2001 – and no wonder. With beautiful illustrations, a heart-warming central character and meaningful, imaginative storylines, Mr Benn is a programme that will appeal to every new generation of children.