For those of us who grew up in the early 1970s, one man in a bowler hat became a firm childhood friend. He never seemed to have a job, he often hung around small children in the street and he had a penchant for dressing up. His name was MrBenn, and we loved him.
Mr Benn first appeared on our TV screens at 1:30pm on Thursday 25th February 1971. I didn't see the very first episode because I was at school, but the BBC gave me every opportunity to catch up during umpteen repeat showings over the coming years. In that first show Mr Benn had been invited to a fancy dress party, which is how he found himself lured into a mysterious back lane establishment owned by an "as if by magic" shopkeeper. Off came his hat, on went a suit of bright red armour, and a legend was born. Only 13 BBC episodes were ever made, and at the end of each Mr Benn took a souvenir back to reality to remind him of his adventures. Here's the full list:
The Red Knight(box of matches) The Big Game Hunter (photograph) The Clown(red nose) The Balloonist (medal) The Wizard (a jar) The Spaceman(lump of rock) The Caveman (stone hammer)
The Cook (wooden spoon) The Zoo-Keeper (parrot's feather) The Diver(a shell) The Cowboy (Sheriff's badge) The Magic Carpet(bottle stopper) The Pirate (Jolly Roger flag)
One of the stars of the show was the street in which Mr Benn lived - Festive Road. Every episode kicked off with some everyday activity taking place on the pavement, be it the selling of a carpet or some kids playing with bows and arrows. This was a blatant hint to the escapades Mr Benn would be having later, but as mere six year olds we often failed to notice this connection until later. Our hero's scribbled house at 52 Festive Road was a very ordinary two-up two-down Victorian terrace, and a world away from Mary, Mungo and Midge's anonymous highrise. But it turns out that his house actually exists, not just as a wiggly line drawing but in real life. In Putney.
This is the front door to number 52 Festing Road, a residential street half a mile to the west of Putney Bridge. And nextdoor is number 54, formerly the home of DavidMcKee who was Mr Benn's creator. He liked the idea of living beside his cartoon creation, never imagining that the bowler-hatted bloke might eventually take on a life of his own. And so Festing Road became Festive Road, and Putney became the gateway to our imagination.
David McKee now lives in France, but he flew back over the weekend to unveil a special 'Mr Benn' plaque paid for by local residents. It's not outside the correct house, it's up at the far end of the street, and it's not terribly impressive either. There's no cartoon character smiling up from the pavement, just a short phrase with rather too many capital letters for my liking. Maybe it's been placed here to try to distract attention away from number 52 and to allow the current resident to continue to live there in peace. Didn't work, I'm afraid.
If Mr Benn lived in Festing Road today he'd notice a considerable number of differences. The houses didn't need burglar alarms in the 1970s, neither were there loft extensions tucked away in the roofspace. More particularly there are absolutely no parked cars in the cartoon series, whereas they're thickly packed along both sides of the street today. Mr Benn and the Traffic Warden wouldn't have been a classic episode, I fear. Also fresh is the local Neighbourhood Watch scheme. A single gentleman with an eye for the childish wouldn't escape their scrutiny today, and I was certainly eyed up and down by more than one householder as I attempted to take photographs of numbers 52 and 54.
Good news. Everybody in Festing Road can now walk properly, and doesn't flap their legs in a medically impossible manner as they shuffle to and fro.
At the plaque end of the street is the Lower Richmond Road, a thoroughfare lined by very familiar looking little shops. I looked in vain for a fancy dress shop, but alas no shopkeeper appeared. There's an outfitters with clothes hanging in the window, but this is a ladies boutique entitled Glamour and Mr Benn wouldn't have been seen dead trying anything on in there. There's a Tandoori restaurant, and an estate agents, and even a sparkling white shop that appears to specialise in fluffy icing and cupcakes. Not really the stuff of which cartoon dreams are made.
What surprises me, having visited Festing Road, is that Mr Benn always turned right on leaving his house and never left. Number 52 is only six houses down from the river Thames, and yet the riverside appears briefly in just one of the 13 original episodes. There are a heck of a lot of boathouses along Putney Embankment, probably the greatest concentration to be found anywhere within London, so if Mr Benn had turned left he could have ended up an expert rower or a prize-winning cox instead. It's our gain that he turned right to the parade and found the shopkeeper's magic door, the door that could lead to an adventure.