Mr Benn was created by David McKee and first appeared on television in 1970. Each episode of the series, beautifully narrated by Ray Brooks, sees Mr Benn visiting a little costume shop.
As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared...
Assisted by a shopkeeper who appears out of nowhere, he chooses an outfit to try on (it always fits), and walks through 'the door which could lead to an adventure'. It invariably does, and that adventure always relates to the costume he has chosen (which is lucky, really: I'm not sure what good a wet-suit and diving gear would have been in befriending an unhappy dragon...).
In re-watching the entire series on DVD - strictly for research purposes, of course - I've realised with a touch of sadness how cynical we can become in today's society. At the opening of the series, Mr Benn has been invited to a fancy dress party, hence his visit to the costume shop. We are told:
'Mr Benn wasn't really very fond of parties, but he did like fancy dress...'
Hmm. An asocial loner, then, with a penchant for dressing up. He also spends time watching the children in his street playing and queueing at the ice cream van. So, through today's eyes, perhaps not the sort of man you'd want hanging around your children...
But of course he is! That's just it. This series sparkles with a touching, innocent magic. One of the delicious things about watching these episodes now is that they remind us about the eyes through which we used to see as children, which is enormously refreshing for the soul.
So. Who is Mr Benn, and what are the features which make this little series so captivating?
Mr Benn lives at 52 Festive Road, a charming (Edwardian?) terrace, where everyone seems to be happy. We know little about Mr Benn's life. He wears a dark suit, smart tie and bowler hat, and has a handkerchief in his breast pocket - even on a Saturday. He looks as though he works in the City. But he never goes to work. Ever.
Festive Road - the Postman brings Mr Benn's invitation to the party.
That doesn't mean he isn't useful to his community, though. Far from it. Mr Benn's adventures generally lead to his helping people, righting wrongs or offering suggestions for ways to make things better. He helps to reconcile the King with his exiled pet dragon; he cheers up a princess who is so lonely that she refuses to eat; and he encourages the townspeople to build bigger cages for the unhappy animals in the zoo.
In short, Mr Benn is gentle, compassionate, practical and diplomatic. He helps to make a difference.
One of the joys of the series is the beauty of its illustration. Each scene is vividly set in colourful watercolours, whether it be a castle, a jungle, a park or an underwater seascape. And the people are lovely too: they have gentle, rounded features and rosy cheeks.
The animation is executed simply but effectively. When characters are walking or running, we often see them only from the waist up, their legs concealed behind hedges, rocks or jungle scenery, depending on the story. This would have saved the animator a great deal of time and effort - having to produce all those legs moving would be very time-consuming.
The elephants walk through the jungle, legs concealed by foliage.
I'm not sure I felt like this when I was a five-year-old, but now I find there is something unbearably poignant about the moment the shop-keeper reappears, signalling that Mr Benn's latest adventure is over. Without argument, Mr Benn steps through the door which takes him away from his adventure forever, and back to the fitting room. He changes back into his suit and tie. He goes home.
This bit reminds me of a scene in the film 'Field of Dreams', where Dr Graham walks over the threshold of the baseball field to save Ray's daughter, knowing that he can never rejoin his team-mates and continue to live his baseball dream. I find it heart-breaking.
Still, Mr Benn never seems to mind - he is always smiling when he's changed out of his costume and into his own clothes - so perhaps I should stop taking it so seriously and not worry too much.
At the end of each episode, Mr Benn is always left with some small memento of his adventure - a parrot's feather, a seashell, a box of matches with a picture of a dragon on it... and we feel all's right with the world.
'How nice... I'll keep them carefully, just to remind me.'
There is an informative Wikipedia page, which includes a brief synopsis of each episode, and a website devoted to the series - As If By Magic - which has some lovely images. And the DVD contains the whole series, a true nostalgia-fest if ever there was one.
In Mr Benn's own words, to the shopkeeper at the end of an adventure, 'I look forward to seeing you again. Goodbye!'
Mr Benn is copyright 1970 David McKee.