Children of the 1970s will remember the TV programme Mr Benn. The animated stories were all about a ordinary bloke in a bowler hat and his adventures in the local fancy-dress shop all thanks to a mysterious fez-wearing shopkeeper. David McKee is the creator of the tales and we caught up with him to find out his inspiration behind the tales and the question on everybody’s lips…does Mr Benn have a first name?
David, did you always harbour ambitions to invent a classic TV series?
“I went to art college. But if you’re going to paint, you’re going to find it hard to make money. So I started doing cartoons and selling them to the national press. By the time I left college I was supporting myself with my drawings. This meant that part of the week I did my drawings and part of the week I could paint. The BBC got to know of my work and asked me in to see if I would be interested in doing a series. I had an idea but they didn’t like it. Then I mentioned Mr Benn and they liked him. They said to go away and write some stories. So I wrote 13.”
Where did the inspiration for Mr Benn come from?
“I was drawing knights and armour quite a bit, so I wanted to do a story including them. When I went to the publisher with the first Benn book [Mr Benn – Red Knight] somebody there said: “What’s he going to wear next time? Well he’s obviously going to go back!” I hadn’t thought about making the books into a series.”
Why did you draw him in a bowler hat and a suit?
“I wanted a symbol of a Mr Anybody. He’s not a hero, he’s just a catalyst for all the adventures that happen to him.”
Did you ever think about what Mr Benn did for a living in his suit?
“No, I never came up with that”
The name Mr Benn is so formal, did you ever give him a first name?
I’ve always thought of him as being a William. It’s one of our family names. My father was Richard William. His father was William Richard. One of my sons has the second name William. But you can’t shorten it, because that would make it Bill Benn.
Was the mysterious shopkeeper based on anyone you knew?
“The costume shop was based on a costume and antiques shop in Plymouth. We used to go by and things never used to change in the windows. I remember going in and asking the price of something and the shopkeeper appeared as if by magic (just like in Mr Benn). But he just didn’t seem interested in telling me the price. It was like he didn’t really want to sell anything. I remember thinking, ‘this shop must be a front for something’.”
And what about the famous fez he wore, how did you come up with that?
“I liked hats. Somebody had given me a fez and I thought, that’s a nice thing for the shopkeeper to wear.”
And the famous line ‘as if by magic the shopkeeper appeared’, was that down to you?
“Yes, but I’m pretty sure the phrase ‘as if by magic’ had been around for a long time before I used it.”
Do you ever wish you’d made more episodes of the show?
“Well Mr Benn’s never gone away. The merchandising is increasing all the time.The episodes are re-run on Nickleodeon and the DVD sold more than 150,000 copies.”
Why do you think the show is still such a favourite after all these years?
“I’m always meeting parents who say to me that they loved it and they showed it to their children who loved it. I would think that children these days would want programmes with more zap, bang and whizz but I think maybe the show has a nice calming pace that’s just right for storytelling.”
After all these years, do you still have any ambitions for Mr Benn?
Oh yes! There’s a Robin Hood story I’d quite like to use. And later this week I’m meeting up with the guy who did the original music for the show to record an album of the Mr Benn music in jazz. I also have an unpublished Mr Benn novel for older children.
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