Mr. Benn Review
The measure, if you'll pardon the pun, of a good tailor is whether they deal with you in the manner of a gentleman, if they treat your partner, should she be one, like a lady and whether they can obtain an inside leg measurement with neither a feeling of embarrassment nor inflicting a small amount of pain. I suspect that the shopkeeper in Mr Benn can do all those things but, better yet, he seems able to ascertain the cut of Mr Benn's jib with little more than a glance in his direction in the moment that he enters the shop.
An odd little figure, the shopkeeper. He alights upon magic, surprise - "As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared!" - and what it takes to make things no more and no less than just right. And this only scratches at the surface of his talents as, underneath that fez, his mind is working across space and time, assuring Mr Benn as he searches for the right outfit for the magical trip taken that is to be taken through the green door that leads out of the changing room. The door, as Mr Benn so memorably puts it, that leads to...to what, as Mr Benn wonders.
Mr Benn is a sweet little animated series that was made for the BBC in 1970 and was narrated by Ray Brooks. Based on a short series of books by David McKee, who was also responsible for Elmer the Patchwork Elephant and King Rollo, Zephyr Films produced thirteen episodes for the BBC from The Red Knight, in which Mr Benn finds the fancy dress shop to The Pirate, the final episode of the series. Along the way, Mr Benn is a cook, a balloonist, a diver, a wizard, a cowboy, the owner of a magic carpet, a spaceman and a pirate. Each story is bookended by events in Festive Road that, at first, hint at the story to come before concluding with an event that provokes a memory in the mind of Mr Benn. The sweetest moment in each episode is the one in which Mr Benn arrives home at 52 Festive Road and in spite of doubts that linger over the most recent adventure, he finds something that proves to him that it was all real, such as a clown's red nose, a sheriff's badge or a piece of space rock. Each adventure is a beautifully plotted little story with a clear moral, a conclusive ending and more than a hint of magic.
There are many reasons why Mr Benn can be considered a success - even some thirty-five years after being produced, they're still an enchanting series of animated shorts. Equally, there's a sense of pleasure to be had from seeing the rather straightlaced Mr Benn gain the upper hand over all manner of ne'erdowells, from a sinister balloonist to an entire town of people who care not about the plight of the animals in their zoo. But above these, it is the confidence of the writing and of the challenge that it sets the show's audience that most impresses.
Of the many reasons that Pixar produce better films than, for example, Dreamworks, one is that they write for several audiences simultaneously - very young children can appreciate the pratfalls and bright colours of Toy Story 2 but adults are being asked whether it is preferable to play with a toy in spite of the damage that that may incur or to store them in, for example, a museum? In a similar vein, Mr Benn is a marvel of storytelling in fifteen minutes - when The Red Knight comes upon a miserable dragon, young children will see Mr Benn come to his rescue and, with the help of the king, restore the dragon to this rightful place as the lighter of fires both for the king and his subjects. However, with a villainous matchmaker to deal with, The Red Knight finds space for a conservative critique of the free market with the matchmaker selling matches at a discount until the dragon, who is his only competition in the business of the lighting of fires, leaves the kingdom, whereupon the matchmaker puts his prices up. Later in the series, The Hunter and The Zoo-Keeper are fables for the better care of animals whilst The Caveman and The Clown are tales of social evolution, with Mr Benn guiding the cavemen into homes and settlements in one whilst, in the other, his lesson to a circus troupe looking to cross a gorge is to work as a team. It's quite disarming the way in which these shows introduce stories of this complexity in such a manner that it almost goes unnoticed.
This DVD, then, is a charming addition to the children's shows of yesteryear that are being issued at quite a measured pace. Like Oliver Postgate's Noggin The Nog and Ivor The Engine, which, through being issued on DVD, allow their original audience to finally realise what dark little stories they were, Mr Benn gave this child of the seventies the opportunity of seeing McKee's intelligent and witty stories in a new light. That said, though, they work just as well as I remember watching them in the early-to-mid-seventies, during which time it was a tradition in our house to guess the outfit that was to be selected by Mr Benn that week with a cheer reserved for the one who chose most wisely. Whilst the animation is remarkably simple, it is, like the recent series of Roobarb, neither unattractive nor out of place. Even the bonus episode, The Gladiator from 2004, despite being more colourful and slightly better animated, still appears to be a very homegrown product that displays a love of the story in every scene. And that is part of the appeal of this show - it's a unique series that originates from a very unique mind and made the journey to the small screen almost untouched by others. Where the show is Mr Benn, that is something to celebrate.
Whilst it would appear to be a difficult one to properly gauge, there really isn't anything wrong with the transfer onto DVD of Mr Benn and any lack of colour or sharpness is due more to the original production than to the DVD. As proof of this, compare the screenshots from the original series to one taken from the 2004 episode. In the former, the colours are muted whilst in the latter, there is more detail in the image and the colours are much richer. The DVD, therefore, produces a fair reflection of the quality of each episode.
Screenshot From The Red Knight (1970)
Screenshot From The Spaceman (1970)
Screenshot From The Gladiator (2004)
The sound is in mono and it's perfectly acceptable with very little background noise and a nice, clear reproduction of the dialogue.
Given that it isn't part of the original Mr Benn series from 1970, I have considered the 2004 episode, The Gladiator, as a bonus episode for the purposes of this review. In this, Mr Benn leaves his home for the fancy dress shop along a Festive Road that is being worked on. Seeing a gladiator's outfit - the Romans make good roads - Mr Benn is transported to ancient Rome, where he meets Smasher Lagru, from the unfilmed book 123456789 Benn, who is being taken prisoner for a show for the emperor in the Collisseum. Before long, though, Mr Benn has rerouted the lions and introduced football to the Romans.
Like the moment in which Mr Benn reaches into his pocket and finds a memento of his adventure through the green door, there are some fine memories that resurfaced through a viewing of this DVD of Mr Benn. It may, however, be a little slow for today's children unless they are prepared to spend a little time on it and do not expect something reminiscent of a PS2 cutscene. Should they pass that test, Mr Benn should be a treat but I suspect it will mums, dads or others of a similar age that will be enjoying Mr Benn's trips out of Festive Road and into the wild west, under the sea and into space amongst many, many other places.