Mr Benn may have good reason to dress up in costume this year, because 2021 marks 50 years since the bowler-hatted British businessman’s adventures in a fancy-dress shop first aired on TV in 1971.
The now celebrated antics of Mr Benn were first introduced in a series of children’s books in 1967, followed by an animated TV series shown on the BBC from 1971. It was written by David McKee who also did the visuals (with Ian Lawless) and was narrated on TV by Ray Brooks. The animated adventures are sandwiched between an enormously catchy theme tune credited to Don Warren.
Played on the xylophone, the score’s short note sequences perfectly reflect the rather staccato Mr Benn who ditches his sombre pinstripes in favour of some more outlandish costumes in a series of jaunty lunch time adventures.
I fondly remember Mr Benn from my youth, but I am surprised to find out how few episodes were aired. It was shown until the year 2000 following its initial run from 1971 and 1972, and it seemed there were so many episodes. But there were just 13 short episodes repeated over and over again for nearly 30 years. A fourteenth episode was made in 2005.
In 2001, thirty years after first being shown on TV, the original 13 episodes were voted the sixth most popular children’s television programme in the UK.
That’s quite astonishing, although not really surprising.
To those who know nothing about Mr Benn, the story follows the antics of a quiet but clearly fun-loving British gent who resides at number 52 Festive Road and who frequents a nearby fancy-dress shop to go on an adventure, the place and time of which is determined by the costume he picks. The shop is run by a mysterious shopkeeper who, “as if by magic” we are told, appears out of nowhere to greet his customers.
Mr Benn’s home address was inspired by the writer’s own address at 54 Festing Road in Putney where he lived in the 1960s, while his antics were apparently conjured up by the author’s vivid imagination at the time.
Such is the fondness felt for the writer and the character by the current owner of the house that in 2009 he and his neighbours arranged for a commemorative plaque to be set into the pavement near the house. Anyone walking down Festing Road who has never heard of Mr Benn, isn’t unaware of who he is for long.
Not only that, to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first Mr Benn book in 1967, the local council in 2017 renamed a whole street after the fictitious location — well, not exactly a street, more a walkway — Festive Walk.
All it needs now is for someone to open a fancy-dress shop nearby. There is one in Putney, but it’s not much like Mr Benn’s.
I never write commentary on children’s fiction, so what on Earth am I doing writing about Mr Benn?
Firstly, I have often walked down that street before and the pavement will always be like a national monument now.
Secondly, in this 50th anniversary year of the celebrated TV series, I thought it was time to revisit Mr Benn’s only adventure that was truly out of this world, the episode entitled Spaceman. It was first shown on BBC2 exactly 50 years ago today, on 1 April 1971. Here’s a link to the TV episode and the relevant book.
In his Spaceman adventure, Mr Benn flies off on a spaceship to find the perfect planet, undertaking a spot of largely unsuccessful space prospecting along the way, as he searches for his own type of Goldilocks Zone.
But he does manage to sneak a large piece of gold into his pocket — quite fitting for a Golden Anniversary, I thought.
Imagine yourself in a busy park in the leafy London suburb of Putney, right on the banks of the River Thames. Mr Benn has just finished a spot of garden envy and is now watching a kite flying high overhead, wondering how high he could fly too. He decides to visit the shop that he often frequents and, as if by magic, the shopkeeper appears…
Picking out a spacesuit, Mr Benn goes to the changing room and leaves by the customary side door — the door into adventures.
Emerging in the control room of a spaceship, he meets another spaceman who tells him about the gold and jewels on another planet and they fly off to find it.
Landing on the jewel-laden planet, they meet a poor man who says that the armfuls of riches they have just swept up will turn to rock if they leave and there’s nothing to spend it on if they stay. There’s another planet that’s better, where everything is free.
Taking one piece of gold as a souvenir, Mr Benn and the other spaceman fly off to the next planet, only to land on a dull, colourless planet where a solemn waiter informs them that they too will become dull if they stay. There’s another planet that’s better, where everything is bright.
Flying off to the next planet, they arrive at a land filled with bright and colourfully-clad people but are deafened by the noise, so they leave straightaway for another planet.
By now, I am wondering whether Mr Benn will ever find a suitably habitable planet. He may have found golden rocks and the three planets, but the Goldilocks Zone still eludes him.
Next, they land on a swelteringly hot planet, far too hot to stay. Then, as if by magic, the shopkeeper appears. He tells them there’s another planet, which isn’t perfect but isn’t too bad either.
The other spaceman flies off to find it and Mr Benn walks into a cave to shelter from the heat but finds himself back in the changing room. As he leaves, he asks the shopkeeper which planet the other spaceman went to. You guessed it…he went to Earth.
Back in Festive Road, Mr Benn takes the lump of gold out of his pocket, but it’s now just a dull piece of rock. Still, the precious sample of alien rock will remind him of his adventure.
There must always be a moral in the tale and Mr Benn’s journey to find the perfect planet is no different, from believing the grass is always greener on the other side, to realising all that glistens isn’t gold.
Or maybe you agree with the shopkeeper? Much like the show itself that was repeated over and over again for 30 years, I clicked my heels and said, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home—
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