Watching kid’s TV with a weary head can be a real challenge – you’re functioning on sod all sleep, someone from Milkshake is dancing around with a rictus grin, introducing shows with increasingly manic enthusiasm. A hunch tells you that when the cameras stop, and they’re alone in their dressing room, they will weep, great big heaving sobs, but between 6am and 9am they are pedal-to-the-metal, desperate for you to stick around for another horrible episode of Shimmer and Shine. It’s like being stuck in a lift with a Glee Club. An abominable start to the day.
Children’s Television (as it was known, pre-Kid’s TV) never used to be like this. It was gentle, meandering. Presenters spoke in soft, school-teacherly tones, like hostage negotiators talking war veterans back from the edges of rooftops. No sudden movements. Any musical numbers would be signposted by someone strolling very slowly into a view apologetically carrying a guitar. Yes, back in the halcyon days of 1970s television, the tiny box in the corner of the lounge emitted moralistic children’s tales, read aloud by accomplished actors, like Ray Brooks from Ken Loach’s iconic 1960s TV drama Cathy Come Home. Also, as it happens, the voice of Mr Benn.
Each episode would come with a moralistic pay-off about being nicer to each other, or being kind to animals – such as when he convinces a hunter to become a wildlife photographer.
For the uninitiated, Mr Benn (no relation to Nigel), was a fantasy animation about a bog-standard 1970s nondescript, forever dressed in a dark suit and bowler hat, who would nip into the fancy dress shop down the road and find himself a magical world via the door at the back. He might be dressed as a Red Knight, and be confronted by a dragon. He might put on a clown outfit and find himself at a circus, or he’d dress in frogman gear and meet Neptune at the bottom of the sea. There was a shopkeeper whose friendly nature was very much at odds with his Hitler moustache, and you’d see children in the street, and they’d be sitting around listening for the sounds of the sea in shells, or politely dicking around with an old wheel and a stick. Each episode would come with a moralistic pay-off about being nicer to each other, or being kind to animals – such as when he convinces a hunter to become a wildlife photographer.
In short, it was lovely. Imaginative, soporific, well-intentioned, and like so many shows from the time, only about a dozen episodes were ever made, compared to the four thousand episodes of Paw Patrol that have been blasted into your brain just this morning. Only two travesties have since befallen Mr Benn – one being that its creator, David McKee, took a one-off payment for the show, never quite achieving the giant mountains of cash he deserves for the endeavour. The other being that the much-mooted movie never materialised. Surely, in the current climate, the ethical tales and sartorial adventures of an Average Joe would be catnip for the growing swell of hipster families, looking to school their young in becoming fashion forward, and also environmentally aware.
So, we’ll be the ones to say it first. Bring back… Mr Benn.
On the next Bring Back…: Fischer Price Record Players