#00Benn: An Interview with David McKee
Whether you read his adventures at bed time or watched him come to life on your television screens, Mr. Benn enchanted and delighted all during his heyday in the 1970s.
Now primarily considered a nostalgic figure, it is safe to say he still remains in the hearts of all he entertained over the decades. In celebration of Mr. Benn’s 50th Anniversary, T&A have worked with creator David McKee on a limited edition range of pocket squares, inspired by James Bond. We spoke to him about this #00Benn collaboration, as well as the impact Mr. Benn has made.
T&A: How does it feel celebrating fifty years of Mr. Benn?
David McKee: It feels very strange because I don’t feel that I’m yet 50! When you say fifty years, it sounds a very long time; when you live fifty years, it goes quite quickly.
T&A: What inspired you to create the Mr. Benn character, and what inspires you now?
DM: I think the same things inspire me now largely as they did then. With Mr. Benn I was really trying to create somebody who was neutral, who was not completely defined, so anybody could associate with him. I think I achieved that to a certain extent. The bowler hats, people ask about them, yes, they were more popular then. They’ve been around for a long time in my life because when I was a cub, I was in a play as a detective wearing a bowler hat, so that was probably my first real contact with bowler hats! But I also love Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and etcetera. In fact I think it’s a shame bowler hats aren’t worn much now because they really are very, very nice.
T&A: If you had to pick one favourite costume or adventure, what would it be and why?
DM: Well, it’s a bit like your children – you don’t really have favourites. But in this case, if I had to pick one I would have to go for the Red Knight, simply because it was the first one, and in any series, the first one is usually the one which the people ask for the most.
T&A: Is that because it’s more nostalgic?
DM: Yes – it’s not that I really prefer it above others but if they said you must choose one, or otherwise you will die, I would like to have the Red Knight with me!
T&A: When it comes to conceptualising new scenes and stories, does it usually begin with a situation, or with a costume?
DM: It absolutely depends. It could be the costume that I see, as the first story was. I wanted to do a story about a knight, you know? And the idea for the series came later. Other times it may be the story that sort of presents itself, but it can be anything.
T&A: When it comes to creating the illustrations, how long would it normally take from conception to execution?
DM: I’ve no idea! It’s true, it’s difficult to judge because my life is so broken by circumstances, that I take whatever working time I can – but what it amounts to in total time I don’t know. It’s amazing, the older you get, the more you have to carry in regards to things like the VAT papers to fill in, and seeing family, and it gets harder and harder to find time, which is also why I don’t have a computer.
T&A: This James Bond-inspired pocket square collection is your second collaboration with Turnbull & Asser. What did you enjoy about it this time round compared to the first?
DM: I enjoyed the first one and was very flattered, and even more flattered that they wanted to collaborate for the second time. This was in some ways a harder challenge because he [Mr. Benn] was going from being somebody in a black suit, to being somebody in a black suit – if you know what I mean! (Laughs)
T&A: Absolutely! You initially made four illustrations, but one had to be pulled following the attacks on Westminster due to the similarity of the events that unfolded. What went through your mind after hearing what happened?
DM: The hard thing was the business of the Westminster attacks, that was terrible and every scene I thought of to replace it, I thought ‘but what happens if’.
T&A: Has this ever happened to you before? Where something you illustrated actually happened later on in real life?
DM: Well yes, in fact once before. I used to draw weekly for The Times’ Education Supplement, and I once did a cartoon based on the idea of ‘we don’t believe in what you are saying, but we will die for your right to say it’, and there was a demonstration the next day and a student was actually killed. By then the drawing had already been published and nobody made a comment about it, but still – it was quite difficult to take.
T&A: Going back to the three pocket squares, if you could only pick one to wear, which would it be?
DM: I think it would be the mirror sequence in the dressing room. I always loved that scene anyway and it gave me a chance to use, not reflections, but different perspectives and positions – so it’s even more complex.
T&A: Was that the most time consuming and challenging one to draw?
DM: It may have been.
T&A: So what’s next for Mr. Benn, and yourself?
DM: There’s an opera that’s created, which sounds terrific. There’s also a film, although people have talked about this possibility for years, this one is actually at a very advanced stage and I have a feeling that it will go through. As far as I’m concerned, I paint, I draw, I write and life’s fun.
T&A: What’s your crowning Mr. Benn moment?
DM: Just the fact that now after 50 years people still come up to me in the way that they do. That in itself is absolutely fantastic.
The limited edition #00Benn pocket squares are available to order in-store and online here.