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Mr Benn's back in town

As if by magic the shopkeeper appeared one of the most well known British phrases, from a series inspired by a Putney street and written by a novice animator, the creator of Mr Benn.

Get into one of those pub conversations about the best children's TV series of all time and the name of the bowler hat wearing bloke in the suit, recently voted the nation's sixth favourite children's character, invariably tops the list.

Cartoonist David McKee's creation is set for a whole new lease of life later this month in the book Mr Benn's Little Book of Life, which looks back affectionately at the world of Mr Benn and the colourful characters he encountered during his adventures. There is also the first new Benn adventure for more than 20 years Mr Benn Gladiator and there are plans to release all 13 television episodes, narrated by Ray Brooks, plus the Gladiator episode on video.

The Borough News caught up with David at his retreat in the South of France, where he reminisced about 52 Festing Road, Putney, his former home and the model for the series' Festive Road.

"I visited the street recently, I love that area. There is a fantastic park at the bottom which I used and, of course, the river. It was a very nice area to live in, I've got fond memories," says the 67-year-old grandfather.

"Most of the characters in the books and BBC series' were based on people I saw in that road. I was always working at home, never had a job, always had a way of life."

But the fruits of those happy times the thousands of drawings which made the three-and-a-quarter hours of film were destroyed when David moved from his second Wandsworth home in Dryburgh Road in the early 1970s.

"I threw most of them in a skip, there are only about 30 originals remaining. I do regret it now, they would be worth a fortune at auction, but I had done it before and I had any idea just how popular Mr Benn was going to be. It's wonderful and it's great the way people talk about him with such fondness," he said ruefully.

"When I moved from Devon to London I burned all my paintings. The problem is when you're an artist there's always a question of where you're going to put it all."

Tess Read was brought up on the enchanting adventures and wonderful worlds Mr Benn accessed through the back of a fancy dress shop changing room. The author of Little Book of Life, Ms Read revealed not all residents of Festing Road, which David modified to Festive because it sounded too much like festering', were happy with the Benn connection.

"The current resident of number 52 isn't too happy about Mr Benn, I think he's had a few too many Mr Benn stalkers," she said.

Tess's book brings to life a darker side to Benn than most of us know with Mr Benn: Prisoner deemed too controversial by the BBC in which he tries to prove he can make the best of any situation.

The world appears even less ready for this scenario now than it was 30 years ago, says David.

"I guess prison is always a difficult subject, even more so now than it was in the 1960s. It seems these days there are more and more rights and less and less freedom," he says.

Benn, 34, was based on the sort of anonymous figures drawn by Rene Magritte and portrayed by Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. The magic costume shopkeeper was based on a Plymouth antiques shop owner who was always very reluctant to sell anything.

"I tried to make him as natural and bland as I could without making him uninteresting," said David.

"When I did the first adventure The Red Knight, I was drawing a lot for the nationals and a lot of knights in armour and I thought they were kind of humorous. I wanted to be the knight in a way."

The Benn tales hold messages for us all behind the fantastic settings, be they jungles, castles or prehistoric caves.

"I think Mr Benn is so neutral that everybody gets along with him and he is always trying to resolve situations," he says.

Although a national treasure, David was never going to get rich from Mr Benn.

"I signed a contract where I only got a one-off payment and no repeat fees but I've done quite well from a number of other things and I'm still exhibiting paintings," he added.

Prepare those Christmas stockings Benn's back in town.

November 12, 2001 13:00

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