Part Seven: As If By Magic

By TJ Worthington

First published May 2006

David McKee, creator of the longest-running Watch With Mother show of all, started selling cartoons and illustrations to such periodicals as Private Eye, Reader’s Digest and The Times Educational Supplement while still studying at Plymouth College of Art. Although these were largely topical and humorous in nature, he also developed an interest in both illustrating and writing stories for children, and on completing his studies began to pitch some ideas to publishers. In 1964, Two Can Toucan became the first of over 100 children’s storybooks to feature his distinctive artwork.

For one such tome, due to be published in 1967, McKee was keen to involve a knight in red armour. Rather than approach this from the obvious route of writing a story set in the middle ages, he instead developed the idea of a modern-day man who was transported into that period of history. Mr Benn, whose first name was never revealed, was a smartly-dressed suburban gent who lived at number 52 Festive Road. This was in fact based on McKee’s real-life place of residence, Festing Road in Putney. Although the name was amended to make it sound more palatable, but in all other respects the vividly-rendered street was closely modelled on its physical counterpart, and McKee even drew in himself peering from a neighbouring window. This was not the only source of inspiration – he based Mr Benn on a combination of Magritte’s “Everyman” figures and the visual style adopted by silent comedians like Buster Keaton.

Receiving an invitation to a fancy-dress party, Mr Benn set off to the nearby high street, and after some searching, chanced upon a mysterious costume shop attended by an equally mysterious man in a fez who appeared “as if by magic” (McKee based this shopkeeper on an antiques dealer he had encountered in Plymouth, who seemed curiously reluctant to actually sell anything). Asking to try on a suit of red armour, Mr Benn discovered the changing room had a second door leading in the opposite direction. Venturing through, he found himself in the Middle Ages, where he befriended a downtrodden dragon who had been driven out of a small kingdom thanks to the machinations of a crooked match-seller. After helping to restore the creature to his rightful position as the king’s official fire-lighter, Mr Benn returned to the costume shop and back to his home, where he discovered he still had a box of matches in his pocket and decided to keep it, “just to help me remember”.

Although some sources suggest it originally appeared as a newspaper strip, Mr Benn: Red Knight arrived in book form in November 1967. It was praised by reviewers and became one of the best-selling children’s titles of the following year. McKee’s commitments with other projects meant it wouldn’t be until the summer of 1970 before Mr Benn made a return visit to the shop. 123456789Benn saw him don a stripy convict’s outfit and visit a prison, where he befriended convict Smasher Lagru and resolved to brighten up the inmates’ drab days by replacing the dull grey decor with something a little more colourful.

By the time that 123456789Benn saw publication, McKee was already in talks with the BBC about transferring the character to television. Mr Benn: Red Knight had been used in storytelling segments on a couple of children’s programmes, and sensing potential in the character, the Children’s Department were keen to commission a series for Watch With Mother. By this time, the majority of new programmes intended for the strand were effectively being made under the auspices of independent production companies, albeit with purchase and transmission by the BBC as a specific prior arrangement. To this end, McKee joined forces with director Pat Kirby and production company Zephyr Films Ltd, all of whom were new to the world of independently produced animation. However, this lack of experience was to end up working very much in their favour. Unfamiliar with the “rules” of animation, McKee (who, aside from some editing work undertaken by Martin Freeth, was responsible with assistant Ian Lawless for most of the hands-on production duties) simply used whatever technique he felt best suited the scene in question.

It is not unusual to see a single episode of Mr Benn leap wildly between straightforward two dimensional animation, camera pans across still images, and even on occasion paper “puppets” moved around a three dimensional background live as the camera rolled. This lent the finished series a distinctive visual style that set it apart from virtually all of its Watch With Mother contemporaries.

The narration for Mr Benn was provided by Ray Brooks, a popular actor who had come to prominence in the mid-1960s with starring roles in the The Knack … and How to Get It and the infamously hard-hitting BBC Wednesday Play Cathy Come Home, as well as appearing in the big screen Doctor Who adaptation Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD. He was perfectly suited to the tone of the series but it does appear that – presumably for reasons of convenience – his narrations were patched together from a number of different recordings, some of them better than others. Whilst this would scarcely have been noticeable to viewers in 1971, the recent DVD release of the series reveals some alarming jumps in sound quality from one line to the next.

The upbeat, jazzy soundtrack was credited on the finished films to one “Don Warren”, but this was in fact a pseudonym, adopted for contractual reasons, for the prolific session musician Duncan Lamont. Not to be confused with the actor who played Caroon in the original television version of The Quatermass Experiment, saxophonist Lamont’s distinguished career has seen him play with the likes of Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Paul McCartney, and have his songs recorded by such notable jazz figures as Cleo Laine, Blossom Dearie and Natalie Cole. Throughout all of this, he maintained a sideline in composing library and soundtrack music to order, and the music from Mr Benn was just one of a vast number of professional engagements during the early 1970s. In addition to the rambunctious theme, he also provided several additional pieces were used a considerable number of times in the shows. Notable heavily recurring items include the tune that accompanied Mr Benn’s initial stroll to the costume shop, that which followed him back along Festive Road at the end, some dramatic chase music, and a number of evocative and atmospheric trumpet fanfares. However, some pieces that only ever appeared in single episodes were just as memorable, particularly a gentle drifting piece that accompanied a hot air balloon ride.

Lamont was joined for the recording sessions by a team of top session musicians that included bass guitarist Ken Baldock, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and organist Harry Stoneham (whose other television credits include arranging the original theme for A Bit of Fry and Laurie and writing the long-serving opening music for Parkinson). Although recorded “as live” in a single session and probably written under much the same circumstances, the tracks have an impressively full sound, reminiscent of the jazzy film scores that were in vogue at the time. Yet while the music from Mr Benn remains one of the most appealing elements of the series, to the extent that the theme tune has reportedly been used as a rehearsal piece by the Royal Opera House Orchestra, it has not enjoyed the same sort of commercial exploitation as that of most other Watch With Mother shows. Although there are unconfirmed rumours Lamont re-used some of the musical motifs in other works, and that a Mr Benn story record was prepared for release at some point, it would appear none of the music has ever been given an official release.

For the animated series, David McKee was required to expand Mr Benn’s catalogue of adventures from two to 13, but in fact he actually came up with a total of 15 storylines of which two were never filmed. 123456789Benn was rejected by the BBC as unsuitable for the timeslot, while they also discouraged McKee from going ahead with another planned script that would have seen the character don a Father Christmas outfit and assist with the distribution of presents, on the basis they would be limited to showing it at one time of year. Instead, the original Red Knight adventure was joined by 12 completely new stories, depicting Mr Benn in the assorted guises of a chef, an astronaut, a clown, a diver, a cowboy, a wizard, a caveman, a big game hunter, a zookeeper, a balloonist, a pirate and an Arabian knight.

The format of each episode was much the same as the one that had been sketched out in the two books. At the start, Mr Benn’s imagination would be fired by something he had seen on television or read in a book, or by the activities of the residents of Festive Road. This would lead to him wondering what it would be like to adopt some historically or culturally exotic lifestyle, and visiting the costume shop in search of appropriate apparel and “the door that could lead to adventure”.

After crossing through said door into an environment more suited to his choice of clothes, he would interact with the locals and invariably end up righting some wrong before being ushered back through the portal by a thinly-disguised shopkeeper. Back in Festive Road, he would of course discover an item from his adventure that had remained on his person, and fondly decide to add it to his collection of mementos.

Interestingly, despite this rigid structure, the storylines that unfolded once Mr Benn stepped through that door were anything but formulaic, and his involvement with the scenarios he found himself in would take many differing forms. Sometimes his suggestions are straightforward and practical, such as encouraging the staff of a circus to build a bridge to enable them to cross a river, or instructing primitive man in how to avoid a stampede of charging dinosaurs. Other times he ensures everyone plays fair and is allowed to have fun, meaning the cowboys are able to enjoy a rare victory over the Indians in their regular game of hide and seek, and preventing top-hatted cad Baron Bartrum from cheating in a balloon race. The most intriguing storylines, however, are those in which he engages with an unhappy or dissatisfied individual – the bored and isolated princess, the lonely zoo animals, or the undersea creature plagued by photographers – and helps them overcome their problems to see the brighter side of life. Sometimes there is even a “message” of sorts. The journey into space only stops off at planets with some sort of inadequacy (a complete lack of colour, or an abundance of precious stones that become ordinary rock once they leave the atmosphere) that suggest that for all its failings Earth isn’t so bad after all. Slightly more contentiously, in one episode a hunter is talked out of shooting animals through constant appeals to his vanity.

Although it was always planned from the outset that Mr Benn would run for 13 episodes, there appears to have been an unspecified problem with production or scheduling that prevented them from all being given their debut showing in the same run. “The Red Knight” was the first to appear, on 25 February 1971, and was followed by four further episodes before the series disappeared, and did not resurface until the remaining eight were shown from January 1972. The reasons for this are not clear, not least since images from some of the delayed episodes are visible in the opening titles, although there is some suggestion that the first five may have been brought forward while production was still underway, in order to plug an unanticipated gap in the schedules. As it would transpire, this disrupted showing was merely the first of over 60 repeat runs (including some dubbed into Welsh), continuing way beyond the conclusion of Watch With Mother itself and – pretty much uninterrupted – right up to the present day.

It may seem perplexing that Mr Benn alone would endure where most other Watch With Mother shows would long since have been retired and consigned to the archive shelves. Yet the reason for its continued appeal is not hard to comprehend. The original idea may have come to David McKee simply as a method of meeting a publisher’s deadline, but in effect it combined the most successful elements of all of the most popular Watch With Mother shows. The familiar “real world” setting of Mary, Mungo & Midge and Joe rubbed shoulders with the fantasy element of Bizzy Lizzy, the colourful flair of The Herbs and Barnaby, and the storytelling approach of Fingerbobs and Pogle’s Wood, while the incorporation of a framing structure like those used in Gordon Murray’s shows allowed viewers to play a similar guessing game about the episode’s contents (indeed, Mr Benn is almost like an inversion of Camberwick Green, with the character returning to reality at the end rather than going back into a music box).

The 20th anniversary of the first showing in 1991 – something of a milestone for children’s television even at that stage, and one that has still yet to be recognised by The Guinness Book of Records – was marked by the release of a one-off comic compiling some of Mr Benn’s extracurricular adventures that had previously been seen in Pippin two decades earlier. Yet while the series as a whole continued to be enjoyed by viewers and BBC schedulers alike, one episode did not not quite make the distance.

In the late 1980s, the BBC took the decision to drop the “Big Game Hunter” episode from their repeat runs, reasoning a storyline based on the hunting of animals (even if it was thwarted by Mr Benn) was no longer suitable and might prove distressing to young audiences. This did not come to light until a viewer wrote in to Going Live! in 1991 to ask why the episode hadn’t been seen for some time, and a reply was read out by Phillip Schofield. While understandable in the context of the highly political correct sensibilities of the 1980s, it is nonetheless a rather baffling course of action to have taken, and it is worth noting no other broadcaster has ever dropped the episode, and that a video entitled Children’s TV Classics: The 1980s released later that same year included, presumably deliberately, a sizeable chunk of the edition.

David McKee had actually turned a slightly revised version of the “Big Game Hunter” storyline into the third Mr Benn book in 1979. This was joined by Big Top Benn, based on the clown episode and retaining its cameo appearance by Smasher Lagru, in 1980, but two projected new titles, Mr Benn Rides Again and Superbenn were shelved for unknown reasons.

The 20th anniversary saw Spaceman, Caveman and Diver belatedly arrive on the shelves, and 10 years later Mr Benn’s 30th was celebrated with the publication of Gladiator, a brand new storybook also featuring, the Shopkeeper and Smasher Lagru. This was later turned into a brand new television episode at the instigation of the cable television broadcaster Nickelodeon, which had held the rights to broadcast the original Mr Benn for several years. While most of the original production team were brought back on board, including Duncan Lamont finally credited under his own name, the result was somewhat more muted than might have been hoped and the slick digital animation techniques deprived it of much of the charm of the original. Not that “Gladiator” is in any way a poor effort, simply that it does not look “right” when placed next to its more familiar counterparts.

Although accounts vary as to how much he was paid by the BBC over the years, McKee retained an enormous fondness for the original Mr Benn films, and later in the 1970s he formed his own animation company King Rollo Films. This was originally set up to produce King Rollo, a series of cartoons about a child-like monarch devised by McKee which would become a long-serving fixture of the BBC’s midday schedules after the demise of Watch With Mother. Later successes included a number of animations based on popular children’s books, amongst them The Adventures of Spot and, for the ITV network, Victor & Maria, Towser and Maisie.

Speaking to Fred Harris in the 1994 Radio 4 series Trumpton Riots, David McKee remarked that animators do not generally expect long-lasting success for their projects, hoping primarily that they will do well in the first instance and possibly enjoy greater longevity if the audience enjoy them enough. Even so, the enduring appeal and popularity of Mr Benn was and is more than just a freak stroke of good fortune. More by accident than design, it touched on all of the strengths of the various Watch With Mother shows and combined them in a series that, while very much a product of its time, also inhabited a timeless world in more ways than one.

<Part Six