Sunday, 17 September 2017

As if by magic the shopkeeper appeared.

Well it happened years ago when he lived on Festive Road. But Mr Benn neither worked in the garage up the road nor did he seem to have the remotest interest in impregnating anybody. In fact all indications were he was a confirmed bachelor who liked to spend his weekends getting dressed up in fabulous outfits and embarking on fantastical adventures. There were two sides to Mr Benn, alright.

Not that, as a toddler, I saw it like that. It was just a regular quarter of an hour of escapist magic, with an obligatory moral message snuck in, backed up by Duncan Lamont's memorable score, in which our titular hero would visit a fancy dress shop, change into the outfit of a knight, a caveman, a chef, an astronaut, or a clown, and then enter into whatever world was fit for whichever character he was that week.

The bulk of the story would take place in that world where the simple premise would be that there would be some kind of problem and that Benn's character would find a solution to it. Then he'd go back to the real world. Little Princess Annabella wouldn't eat because she was lonely so Benn the chef invites the poor children to the palace for a feast which Annabella soon joins in, Benn suggests to a bunch of Neanderthals menaced by alarmingly quick moving dinosaurs they move in to stone huts, and Benn the zookeeper helps out his charges by caging the local humans so that they can see the cages are too small and do something about it. You get the idea.

On returning his outfit he'd return to the suburban normality of 52 Festive Road, draw the curtains, and wank himself silly.

Ok, I made that last bit up. Who knows what he did when he got back home but he did, always, have a little souvenir of his adventure. A wooden spoon, a photograph of a herd of elephants, a parrot's feather, a lump of rock that was once gold, or a jar that once held magic dust. Absolute crap basically.

Mr Benn and the Shopkeeper with the Red Knight Costumer (1971)
But us kids didn't care. Mr Benn was in the big league. He was up there with Bod, Bagpuss, Rainbow, Pipkins, and The Mr Men and whilst Benn himself, a slightly better defined Homepride Man who'd no doubt balk at the ostentatious dress and behaviour of Mr Monopoly or the monocled absurdity of Mr Peanut, was the nominal star of the show it was the shopkeeper who, as if by magic, stole every scene he was in.
I didn't even know what a fez was (being too young for Tommy Cooper) and nobody in my family sported a natty speckled bow tie so he looked like nothing I'd ever seen before. He looked like the sort of man who ate Turkish Delight. There was something of the east about him, for sure, but never having travelled further east than Clacton-on-Sea I didn't really know what that actually meant. Who knows? Maybe people from the East do just disappear and reappear on whim. I met a girl from the area once and she certainly seemed to do that.

The Shopkeeper's Costumes (?)

Preparing for the Royal Banquet (1971)
Mr Benn was screened between 1971 and 1972 and then, surely, repeated time and again throughout my youth. It certainly feels like I saw each episode a considerable number of times. They were narrated by Ray Brooks who later played small time gambler, and all round cheeky chappy, Robbie Box in the BBC comedy drama Big Deal, a show whose theme music came courtesy of Bucks Fizz's Bobby G. In the mid-eighties that was top-end stuff.
But it meant nothing to me in the early seventies and the name of David McKee meant even less. I didn't care who wrote or narrated the thing. I just wanted to sit with a pack of salt'n'shake crisps and a beaker full of Quosh and be transported into world where a city gent with no concept of dress down weekends, let alone Fridays, helps King Neptune and a mermaid outwit two submarine's worth of paparazzi who are trying to get long range shots of their pet dragon. Was that really too much to ask?

Mr Benn Waving Goodbye (?)

Mr Benn - Spaceman! (1972)

Hugging the Dragon (1972)
The Illustration Cupboard in St.James's, however, is for big kids, not little ones. So their exhibition, 50 years of Mr Benn, focuses very much on the obviously highly talented creater, writer, and illustrator of the series, McKee. Brought up in Devon McKee started off with a story called Two Can Toucan which, true to its title, featured a toucan that could carry two cans of paint on its bill. There doesn't seem to have been an awful lot of mileage in that so it's no surprise that it was Mr Benn that shot him to fame.
After Benn and the shopkeeper, McKee, with Brooks back on board for further narration duties, kept himself busy with King Rollo. Rollo was an infantile king whose limbs rotated violently and disturbingly and busied himself in moronic escapades involving dogs, balloons, breakfasts, and shoes. Rollo may have worn the crown but Benn was still the king of McKee's creations and remains so to this day.

52 Festive Road (2017)

The Fancy Dress Shop (?)
Disappointingly, the Illustration Cupboard has set up the show more for retail than anything else so if you've got a spare £5,500 burning a hole in your pocket why not get down there. That's how much Preparing for the Royal Banquet will set you back. If you've been feeling the pinch the iconic Mr Benn and the Shopkeeper with the Red Knight Costume weighs in at just over two grand. Just imagine the eyes of any future romantic partner lighting up as they see that taking pride of place on your bedroom wall.
Whilst the high prices weren't particularly surprising (there's a certain type of man, and it usually is a man, who fetishizes his youth to such a degree that money really is no object) the lack of information boards proved to be a minor disappointment. But this was still an interesting trip down memory lane, third right off Festive Road, and it was a surprise to see that Benn had been brought out of retirement not once, but twice in recent years.
First, in 2005, as a gladiator and then, last year, as a very suave looking 007 dispatched to prevent some nefarious action on the Thames in front of the Houses of Parliament. If only he'd been there in March when deranged Islamic fundamentalist Khalid Masood drove a hired Hyundai Tuscon into pedestrians, ploughing them down, and taking six lives. Although it's hard to imagine Ray Brooks narrating that.
So Benn is back it seems. Perhaps Benn has never been away. As for the shopkeeper, judging by his advanced years and his ever expanding paunch, it seems safe to say that, much like my youth, he's disappeared forever. Memories are made of this. 

The Changing Room (Caveman) (1972)

The Changing Room (Gladiator) (2005)

007 Benn (2017)

007 Benn to the Rescue (2017)

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