Cult cartoon star Mr Benn on brink of film stardom as he turns 50
Source:theguardian Author: Mark Brown Arts correspondent Date: 2017-08-11 Size:
He was a very ordinary man who could do extraordinary things, whether flying into space ……

Mr Benn, left, with a kindly shopkeeper at a local fancy dress shop. The bowler hat-wearing TV character will be celebrated in an exhibition at a London gallery this month.Photograph: David McKee

He was a very ordinary man who could do extraordinary things, whether flying into space, taming a pirate, defending a dragon or, in a story rejected by the BBC, playing his part in postwar prison reform by helping to wallpaper dreary jail cells. And now, at 50, he may even be on the cusp of movie stardom.

Mr Benn reaches his half century this year and will be celebrated in an exhibition showing, for the first time, original film cells from the fondly remembered BBC children’s series. Coming after that will be a range of upmarket pocket handkerchiefs and the possibility of a Mr Benn opera and a live action movie.

“He just quietly keeps on going on,” his creator, David McKee, said. “Perhaps people do associate with him in the way that I hoped.”

David McKee, creator of Mr Benn. Photograph: David McKee

Mr Benn is best remembered from the 13-episode BBC TV children’s series. Each programme followed the bowler-hatted character as he set off from his terrace house for a wander before stopping at a local fancy dress shop.

Inside, a kindly fez-wearing shopkeeper would appear, as if by magic, and encourage Mr Benn to choose a costume. In the changing room he goes through a second door and finds himself in the world of his costume, whether a clown at a circus or a hunter on an African savannah. The adventure always sees Mr Benn brightening someone’s life.

The series also had a memorable Don Warren theme tune and Ray Brooks’ reassuring narration, which made the endlessly repeated programmes essential viewing for generations of children not yet ready for the giddy, confusing heights of Blue Peter or, for true rebels, Magpie.

The continued interest in all things Mr Benn is testament to its charm and simple premise. “I wanted to write a story about Mr Everybody,” McKee said. “Everyone is trapped in a situation … we all have that routine and the adventures were an escape from routine.

“Of course, in some ways we don’t want to escape. There is the security of routine but to escape and have a little adventure every now and again might be quite nice.”

McKee, 82, said he wanted the adventures to feel as if they had really happened. “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!”

Silk pocket square by David McKee, commissioned by Turnbull and Asser, shirtmaker for the 007 franchise. Photograph: David McKee

The BBC commissioned only 13 episodes in the early 70s and turned down two of McKee’s suggestions. One was a Father Christmas Mr Benn – because it could only then be repeated at one time of year – and the other a prisoner Mr Benn.

That story subsequently became the book 123456789 Benn, in which a convict, Smasher Lagru, complains all the prisoners are sad because of their drab surroundings. Mr Benn comes up with a plan to cheer up the cells with vibrant wallpaper.

The exhibition this month at London’s Illustrationcupboard gallery will display concept work, sketches and published illustrations. The highlight, according to the gallery owner, John Huddy, will be animation cells from the original films which have never been seen before.

The nostalgia for Mr Benn has meant he has never really gone away. The books were reissued in 2010 and the series is still bought on DVD by parents keen to see if their children respond in the way they did.

A project to make a film – with John Hannah as Mr Benn and Sir Ben Kingsley as the shopkeeper – fell through several years ago but a new, separate project is back on the cards. As is the idea of a Mr Benn opera with the libretto all written, McKee says.

Bond-inspired silk pocket square. Photograph: David McKee

More immediately, the neighbours of the Illustrationcupboard gallery, the Jermyn Street shirtmakers Turnbull & Asser, commissioned McKee to make some Mr Benn pocket squares, which he has done in the manner of James Bond, a wearer of the shirts.

Huddy said the Benn stories touched everyone. “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.”

Questions remain about the character. Was there ever a Mrs or Mr Benn? Did he ever go to work? The answers will not be coming from McKee. “The more mystery and the less he is defined, the easier it is for people to associate with him. He should represent anybody who wants to escape.”

• Fifty Years of Mr Benn with David McKee is at the Illustrationcupboard Gallery in London from 16 August to 16 September.

Mr Benn tries on a gladiator costume and is transported to ancient Rome. Photograph: King Rollo Films/Nickelodeon/PA

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