Image – Britbox/Factory
Today I heard that David McKee, the British author and illustrator had passed away, at the age of 87. No doubt there will be many tributes to the man. I’m not going to go over the same ground as everyone else, instead I wanted to say what his work meant to me.
David McKee will only ever really mean one thing to me – Mr Benn, the character he created in 1971 for the famous BBC TV children’s series of the same name. I know McKee did loads of other work, but it is the character in the suit and bowler hat that, to me, was his greatest creation. I was born in 1969, just two years before Mr Benn was shown on television. It was one of several kids TV shows that have stayed with me, throughout my life and create warm childhood memories. Others include John Ryan’s ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, and the ‘Trumptonshire’ trilogy by Gordon Murray. They all sum up a more innocent time, not just because they are from my childhood, but because of their content. These were joyful, colourful, (colour television in Britain was a relatively new thing), and positive shows. They represented the ideals of community, co-operation and good manners. From time to time, when I feel the World is too much , and when people are cruel and nasty, I will sometimes think back to these programmes, just because they fostered warmth, and joy.
Mr Benn was such a treat to watch. The production company that made it, Zephyr Films, only produced fourteen episodes, but to most people it always seemed like more. Often repeated, part of the fun was to guess which adventure Mr Benn would have that day. My favourite was ‘Spaceman’, which was originally transmitted on April Fools’ Day, 1971. Of course there was one thing that David McKee didn’t create, and that was the voice of the programme, provided by the wonderful Ray Brooks.
So, what was the appeal of Mr Benn? Well, for me it was the detail that was put into each presentation. David McKee put so much effort into each scene. Sure, it was naïve illustration, but that doesn’t matter to a child. I used to enjoy seeing all the things going on, something that would be enhanced when looking at the books that accompanied the series.
It is the charm of McKee’s work that makes Mr Benn. I became totally engaged in the worlds he created within these short films. I loved all the bright colours, and the humorous characters. Look at the image above. It is of Festive Road, the street that Mr Benn lived in. It’s a work of art!
Moving past the surface of the presentation, there is the text of each story. Mr Benn is a traveller in time and space, much like the other great BBC hero, ‘Doctor Who’, except our chap uses a fancy dress shop to step into other worlds. He is enabled by the enigmatic ‘Shopkeeper’, another great character. Each story sees Mr Benn visit different times and situations, from the Wild West, to medieval times. Invariably his task, self-subscribed, is to help solve a problem, and to leave quietly back into his own dimension, with only a small souvenir as a memory of his efforts . It really is wonderful, and what better moral message could you send out to a small child – work with one another, help out selflessly, and don’t expect reward.
No words really can convey how special Mr Benn is to me. Just to hear the theme music sends me straight back to the early 1970s, watching on my parents’ new National Panasonic Colour TV, bought just a year after Mr Benn was first shown.
So, dear Mr McKee, thank you. Thank you for Mr Benn, and rest in peace.