David John McKee was born (on 2nd January 1935) and brought up in Tavistock, South Devon. He studied at the Plymouth College of Art and, after he left, supported himself by painting as well as selling one-off cartoons to the national press. His first book, Two Can Toucan, was published by Abelard-Schuman in 1964.
He was approached in 1970 by the BBC who wanted him to produce something for the Watch With Mother strand of programming. He told The Guardian in 2017, “I showed them the first Mr Benn book I’d written and they requested 13 stories. When they asked how it would be animated, I just said: “I’ll ask somebody.” It was complete innocence.”
The animation style, in collaboration with Ian Lawless, helps add to the series charm in that it relies on simple camera moves - pans and zooms - across detailed McKee drawings, though the characters do ‘walk’ after a fashion.
Festive Road, artwork by David McKee
Mr Benn lives at 52 Festive Road, which McKee based on his own street in Putney. “I changed Festing Road to Festive Road, because Festing sounded too much like festering,” he told The Guardian. The fancy-dress shop, key to Mr Benn’s adventures, was “based on a dusty junk shop in Plymouth. I went into it once, to ask about something in the window, and the owner really did appear ‘as if by magic’, as the narrator in the series says.”
The book and television versions of Mr Benn share the same format. Always dressed the same, in a black suit and bowler hat, Mr Benn visits a fancy-dress costume shop where the fez-wearing shopkeeper suggests he try on a particular outfit (usually linked to something that happens early in the story, such as a game children are playing in the street). Mr Benn leaves the shop through a magic door at the back of the changing room and has an adventure, tied in to whatever costume he’s wearing, before the shopkeeper reappears to lead him back to the changing room. In a clever move, although Mr Benn has returned to his normal life, he has a small souvenir from the adventure.
“I wanted Mr Benn to be Mr Everybody. Bowler hats were more common in the early 1970s. There was a respectability to them, plus Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy are favourites of mine,” McKee told The Guardian. “I was heavily influenced by fables, because of their apparent simplicity. I like stories with a moral, that have a reason for being there – I don’t like a character to wake up and realise it was all a dream. That’s why I introduced the souvenir that Mr Benn always takes back with him, to say that it really did happen.”
The music for the series was composed by Duncan Lamont (using the pseudonym Don Warren) while Ray Brooks provided the narration (and for a long time, whenever I saw him act, as soon as he spoke I just saw Mr Benn). “Grandmas come up to me and say their grandchildren are fed up with today’s cartoons,” he told The Guardian, “but they love the simplicity of Mr Benn, the fact that he’s very moral, always sorting out people’s problems – including dragons.”
Each episode, directed by Pat Kirby and made by Zephyr Films, lasted for 15 minutes. The first six episodes, starting with The Red Knight, were broadcast on Thursday afternoons on BBC1 at 1.30pm from 25th February to 1st April 1971. The last seven were shown on Friday afternoons on BBC1 at 1:30pm from 21 January to 31 March 1972. The series was then repeated, twice a year, for the next twenty-one years.
The episodes were The Red Knight, Hunter, Clown, Balloonist, Wizard, Spaceman (my favourite), Cook, Caveman, Zoo Keeper, Diver, Cowboy, Aladdin and Pirate. A 14th episode called Gladiator, based on McKee’s 2001 book Mr Benn - Gladiator, was broadcast in January 2005 on the Noggin channel.
In its 2001 poll for their 100 Greatest Kids TV shows, Channel 4 ranked it number six.
“The BBC dropped [the Watch With Mother name] later,” McKee told The Guardian, “but for me it was important: it made you conscious the audience wasn’t just children.”
David McKee went on to make films for Save The Children and wrote more books then, in 1980, co-created King Rollo. The TV series of the same name was written by him, with narration from Ray Brooks and music by Duncan Lamont and produced by King Rollo Films, which McKee co-owned. The company also achieved success with other series including Eric Hill's Spot the Dog, Lucy Cousins' Maisy and Tony Ross' Towser as well as the animated stories within the Fimbles programme. McKee also wrote Not Now Bernard (which I read to Dude as a bedtime book when he was small but found it really sad) and created and wrote the Elmer The Patchwork Elephant series of books.
Happy birthday, Mr Benn and thanks for all those childhood adventures!
As their new novel, The Screaming Dead, is launched, I hand over the blog to a guest post with a difference from my old partners-in-crime Richard Farren Barber and Peter Mark May.
In the afterlife, the loudest sound is the screaming of the dead.
Death isn’t always the end or the answer. Sam thought his suicide would be the end of his suffering, but he was wrong, as he wakes up in a never-ending graveyard. He soon realises he has an opportunity to be reunited with his departed twin brother, Paul. Yet they must cross through the many planes of the afterlife to find each other. They will need to escape the hordes of the dead, survive forests where burning corpses are nailed to trees, and navigate the feuds and machinations of the people who promise to help them along the way.
Can Sam and Paul find each other in hell, or will the afterlife claim another two souls?
This discussion between Richard Farren Barber and Peter Mark May was recorded on Thursday 11th February 2021 in a Covid-secure manner and without their knowledge.
RFB: You still have the negatives? I assume the deal is we hand them over to Mark once he’s posted a glowing review of The Screaming Dead on his blog, and not a moment earlier?
PMM: They’re in the safe, only accessible with both our retina scans.
RFB: Pete, if Mark asks, what first attracted you to the prospect of working with handsome, charming, witty, stellar author Richard Farren Barber?
PMM: Stevie King kept snubbing my emails.
RFB: I’ve warned you not to call him Stevie, he doesn’t like that! And I bet he drank that beer in the fridge. Anyway, I’m glad he turned you down. You came up with the initial idea for the novel, and I loved the outline you sent to me. How did you feel about sharing your idea? And how do you cope when your co-writer takes the story off into a different direction to the way you may initially have intended?
Thanks to the pandemic, the last opportunity we had to get together was in Bedford, on November 30th 2019. We've chatted online since but it's not the same as meeting up, scouring secondhand bookshops and having a pizza together. I miss these two...
PMM: As the owner of Hersham Horror Books, I’m used to sharing good ideas for others to write and run with. With you taking the story off in different directions, it was a challenge in a good way. Trying to steer it the long way back to my ideas, sometimes going in a fresh direction, or simply reinventing large part of the plot, was a great writing challenge. How did you find the process of writing alternative chapters of approximately 1000 words? Did you write ahead only to be foiled by my next off-kilter chapter and dramatic story direction changes?
RFB: Yes I did! (I can laugh now, but at the time I cursed you. It seemed almost intentional!) But I learned from my mistakes. I would often finish writing a scene and send the file back to you, but by then I was in the zone and I’d carry on writing into the next scene for my set of characters… only to get the document back and discover you’d thrown me a curveball. A few times I could re-use what I’d written, but sometimes I had to stop and rethink where we were going after I got your response. I suppose that is what comes of writing together for the first time. What would you say are the attractions and challenges with collaborative writing when compared to writing alone?
PMM: Doing half the work to write a full book appealed. The challenges were, waiting for the next chapter and finding out either my ideas or the plot you had in mind had to alter or be thrown out the window totally. I enjoyed the dire cliff-hangers I left you with at the end of most of my chapters. Thinking, ‘how is he going to get out of this’ like some old black and white Flash Gordon serial, but you batted them back well. Did any stump you at all?
RFB: Hopefully not, but maybe we’ll get an irate email from a very Cock-a-Doodie reader telling us we cheated because he didn’t get out of the car. (To be fair, and hopefully not giving away too much of a spoiler given that it’s clear from the blurb that if the character in front of you isn’t dead, they will be soon…. We sorted that particular issue by making sure no one gets out of any car alive!)
PMM: What was your favourite chapter to write, any chill you?
RFB: I loved the scenes in the graveyard when the horde churns around and around as a new arrival enters the afterlife. But the one which affected me the most was one you came up with of the dead forest and… well, let’s not give too much away about what happens in there! How about you, do you have any particular favourite scenes from the book?
PMM: The sky-train of death (no spoilers) was a vivid image I had in my head when writing certain chapters. The chains, death shadow, blood and cow-catcher all unnerved me. That and a certain scene with the baby.
RFB: Oh yes, that scene!
PMM: The story is all about death and the afterlife. Did it stir up personal views, or beliefs in what happens after we die? Did they influence the plot at all?
RFB: Hmm, good question! I don’t recall any particularly strong responses to the storyline in terms of life-after death. I do remember that for me one of the strongest emotions came from the idea of the brothers being separated and that filial urge to get back together. But I do think one of the strengths of horror fiction is the ability to pose the big questions: What is the point of life? Is there anything after this world? I don’t have any answers, but I’m fascinated by exploring the possibilities.
PMM: How does it feel to have something you have writing, turned into audio?
RFB: It’s a very weird experience! I suppose in some ways it is not dissimilar to producing a script and then handing it over to a team to manage. During the writing process I have a clear idea of what the characters sound like, and so it’s fascinating for someone else to pick that up and give their own interpretation.
We’d better stop now, before someone finds us. Can you send Mark a couple of the images…. Just to keep him focussed! And remind him The Screaming Dead is available in paperback, eBook, and Audiobook.
* * *
Richard Farren Barber was born in Nottingham in July 1970. After studying in London he returned to the East Midlands. He lives with his wife and son and works as a manager for a local university.
He has over 80 short stories in publications including: Alt-Dead, Alt-Zombie, DarkFuse, ePocalypse – Tales from the End, Fever Dreams, Horror D’Oeuvres, Murky Depths, Midnight Echo, Midnight Street, Morpheus Tales, Night Terrors II, Siblings, The House of Horror, Trembles, When Red Snow Melts, and broadcast on Tales to Terrify, Pseudopod, and The Wicked Library.
Richard has six novellas published: The Power of Nothing, The Sleeping Dead, Odette, Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence, Closer Still (which I wrote about here), and All Hell. His debut novel The Living and the Lost was published in 2019.
Peter Mark May is the author of nine horror novels and one novella Demon, Kumiho, Inheritance (written as P. M. May), Dark Waters (novella), Hedge End, AZ: Anno Zombie, Something More Than Night, Forky’s House, The End of All Flesh Book 1: The Flood in 2019 and The End of All Flesh: Book 2: The Red Death in 2020.
He’s had short stories published in genre Canadian & US magazines and UK & US horror anthologies such as Creature Feature, Watch, the British Fantasy Society’s 40th Anniversary anthology Full Fathom Forty, Alt-Zombie, Fogbound From 5, Nightfalls, Demons & Devilry, Miseria’s Chorale, The Bestiarum Vocabulum, Phobophobias, Kneeling in the Silver Light, Demonology and Tales From the Lake Volume 5.
He also writes historical crime under the name Alexander Arrowsmith, his first two a series of novels - The Athens Atrocities and The Medousa Murders - published in 2019.
He also runs Hersham Horror Books and has published 30 books so far.
To mark the publication of her next collection, I Spit Myself Out, here's a guest post from my friend Tracy Fahey
Eighteen unsettling narratives map the female experience from puberty to menopause.
I Spit Myself Out is a collection of female-voiced stories exploring the terror that lurks beneath the surface of the skin. In this collection, an Anatomical Venus opens to display her organs, clients of a mysterious clinic disappear one by one, a police investigation reveals family secrets, revenge is inked in the skin, and bodies pulsate in the throes of illness, childbirth and religious ritual.
Disturbing and provoking in equal turns, I Spit Myself Out reinvents the body as a breeding ground of terrors that resurface inexorably in the present.
This February 13th, my
collection, I Spit Myself Out, is
born. It’s a weird, hybrid selection of stories that respond to the themes of
body-based terror and the female experience. It’s influenced by
autoethnography, by female rituals of blood from puberty to menopause. But a
large part of its conception lies in my abiding love for morbid anatomy, a history that goes back decades.
I grew up in superstitious, Catholic, rural
Ireland, with its syncretic blend of Christian and pagan heritage. There,
church rituals centred around blood and sacrifice; tales of miraculous relics,
of supernatural cures and the potency of saints’ bodies. Irish people are
bizarrely comfortable with the spectacle of dead bodies; coffins are routinely
uncovered and exposed, the better to stand and talk around at traditional
wakes, as in the story, ‘The Girl Who Kissed The Dead.’ As a child I was
familiar with the miraculous properties of saints’ bodies; in the cathedral in
nearby Drogheda I saw the decapitated, burned head of Blessed Oliver Plunkett,
a saint who became both a symbol of colonial resistance and of Catholic
martyrdom. Down the road from me in Faughurt was St. Brigid’s stone which
boasted a hole burned into it by the eye she plucked out. In this collection,
‘I Kiss The Wounds’ is possibly the most overtly Catholics of these stories,
centring on the cult of Padre Pio (an Italian saint from Puglia adopted by
Irish Catholics) which celebrated his heavenly stigmata, his sacred wounds. The
Cure’ is a testimony to the dying tradition of the holy cures passed from
generation to generation.‘Noli Me Tangere’ reflects a childhood of churches,
staring at the stained glass windows depicting sun-dazzled scenes from the life
of Christ, while ‘Reducing’ speaks to the powerful belief in St. Anthony (yet
another adopted Italian saint) beloved of older Irish people as a finder of
what is lost. Later in life, I returned to this early obsession with visits to
foreign catacombs; tangled and wondrous architectures of monastic bones,
jewel-encrusted bodies of saints, preserved in all their glittering
This fascination with morbid anatomy also
stems from a short-lived stint I spent working in a museum of pathology in
Dublin. This was a cornucopia of diseased limbs, lovingly rendered in linen and
wax by 19th century artists for their medical peers to study. Within
the murky waters of the glass jars drifted strange and terrifying facsimiles of
legs, arms, organs, foetuses; identifiable but
completely other. This
fascination led to my discovery of wax creations the Anatomical Venus and her
sisters, the Slashed Beauty and the Dissected Graces – all moulded in the same
spirit, to probe the boundaries of anatomy. From this obsession, the opening
story of the collection unfolded, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror,’ an exploration,
step-by-step, into the secret recesses of the female body. Likewise, the
closing story of chimeras, ‘I Spit Myself Out,’ is a dark reflection of those
yellowed jars of strange specimens in that long-ago museum of pathology.
Morbid pathology also interests me as part
my own experience of chronic illness; an apprenticeship of living in an
abnormal body that is perpetually straining to conform to normal standards of
health. ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ and ‘Love Like Blood’ both explore what it means
to live in a Gothic body, forever in flux, forever fighting mortality.
And so in this collection, I draw together
these myriad influences—mystical Catholicism, strange anatomy and chronic
illness—to present the reader with recurrent motifs within this collection,
signposts to my own strange obsession with the body and all its secrets...
In 2017, her debut collection The Unheimlich Manoeuvre was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award for Best Collection. Her short fiction is published in over thirty American, British, Australian and Irish anthologies. She holds a PhD on the Gothic in visual arts, and her non-fiction writing is published in edited collections and journals. She has been awarded residencies in Ireland and Greece.
A few weeks back, intrigued by the write-up, I decided to give The Silent Partner a chance and recorded it from the excellent Talking Pictures TV (through whom I discovered the wonderful The Beach Girls (which I wrote about here). I'm so glad I did - what a fantastic, obscure little gem of a film it turned out to be!
Elliot Gould plays Miles Cullen, a mild-mannered bank teller who works at a branch inside a Toronto shopping centre. After finding a discarded paying-in slip with a ransom demand written on it, Miles realises the bank will be robbed before the crime actually happens and uses this to his advantage. When the criminal (Christopher Plummer) carries out the robbery, Miles creams off a substantial part of the loot, knowing the robber will be blamed for taking it all. Unfortunately, the outraged crook is a psychotic who doesn’t take kindly to being outsmarted or losing most of his haul. As he plots revenge, an increasingly deranged game of cat and mouse develops between the pair.
The film is based on the 1969 novel Think Of A Number by Danish writer Anders Boldelsen, a former law and economics student who liked Patricia Highsmith and Georges Simenon and his book was adapted into a 1969 film by Palle Kjærulff-Schmidt, which starred Bibi Andersson and Henning Moritzen.
The 1978 version has impeccable credentials, both behind and in front of the camera. Curtis Hanson, who optioned the book and wrote the screenplay on spec hoping to direct it, would go on to write and/or direct The Bedroom Window (1987), The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992), The River Wild (1994), LA Confidential (1997), Wonder Boys (2000) and 8 Mile (2002). His script is tight and smart (Roger Ebert called it ‘the most audaciously clockwork plot I've seen in a long time’) and filled with complex characters who constantly ring true, even as the stakes rise.
The producers wouldn’t let him direct and, instead, went with Canadian Daryl Duke, who’d previously made Payday (1973) and would go on to achieve fame for The Thorn Birds in 1983. His precise direction tells the story briskly and efficiently, with plenty of scope for the little details that paint character along the way (Miles’ chess set and his beloved fish, especially). In an interview with Kim Morgan, Elliot Gould spoke highly of Duke, saying “Daryl was wonderful. We had a very good work relationship [and] talked about doing other things together. Daryl was a friend.” The film looks marvellous and makes full use of its Toronto locations, a superb display in mood and lighting from Billy Williams who contributed to some terrific films over his career and won an Oscar for Gandhi (1982). As Gould told Kim Morgan, “Billy Williams is first class.” The soundtrack is the only film work of celebrated jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson, coincidentally a schoolmate of Plummer. In an interview with Mark R. Hasan, Peterson explained the producer Joel Michael approached him to write the music but, with time constraints, he laid “out the melodic end and [Michael] brought out a gentleman [Ken Wannberg] to score it.”
The film was financed under Canada’s Capital Cost Allowance incentive, whereby film productions were allowed to act as tax shelters for investors, providing they utilised majority Canadian talent in all positions. It’s worth noting that for all the people who scammed this scheme (apparently, hundreds of films were made under it but never shown), it helped launch the likes of David Cronenberg, Ivan Reitman and many others, fostering the ‘Canuxploitation’ era of 1974-1982. The Silent Partner was the first film to be produced by Carolco Pictures, who would go on to enjoy great success in the 80s and 90s with the likes of the Rambo and Terminator series and Basic Instinct.
“I’m just going to give you a little time to try to be reasonable. If you decide you’re not going to be reasonable, then one night when you come home you’ll find me inside, waiting for you. And that will be the night you’ll wish you’d never been born.”
The cast is a huge asset to the film. Elliot Gould plays Cullen in a very naturalistic way and his transformation from slightly awkward and often underestimated (and, therefore, instantly identifiable) everyman into a kind of criminal mastermind is very well done. He clearly enjoyed the character - he called it “the best script I've read since The Touch” - and still speaks fondly of both the film and the process of making it, as per his interview with Kim Morgan. He’s equally matched by Christopher Plummer, as the bank robber Harry Reikle, who projects menace from the first moment you see him and proved a revelation for me - I’ve never seen him portray anything close to the sadist he does here. He’s very handsome, with manicured nails and mascara’d eyes, but you can almost see the poison simmering below this glamorous front and his soft-spoken approach just unsettles all the more. Once the relationship between him and Gould gets going - late night phone calls, face-to-face meetings, threats that clearly aren’t idle and a terrifying encounter with a fishtank - you know things are going to end badly, you just don’t know how. Gould told Kim Morgan, “Plummer was a very, very creepy guy in that part, [he] was great and gave me a touch of class.”
The male leads are ably supported by Susannah York and Celine Lomez, both of whom create thorough characters as real people in roles that could, quite easily, have become token romantic parts. York arguably has the harder job, bringing a tone of damaged British elegance to Julie, Cullen’s feisty and independent colleague (and love interest). Involved in a dead-end affair with the banks manager, she’s clearly seeking some excitement in her life and she’s also sharp enough to realise what’s going on (and gets Miles out of a sticky situation or two). In a nice touch, Cullen uses a Superman lunchbox to hide the money in and Susannah York had just played Superman’s mum in the 1978 film. Celine Lomez plays the mysterious Elaine, who Miles meets at the funeral of his father. It quickly becomes apparent she’s telling lies and as the affair between her and Cullen picks up pace, it’s clear her loyalties are divided. Lomez sparkles with life and energy, a sensual character who entrances both Cullen and the viewer, calculating her way through a plan of her own. Lomez, who began acting in Canada aged 15 and was due to star in Charlie’s Angels before being deemed “too sexy for prime time”, was also a pop star.
The supporting cast are uniformly solid and help give the film a lived-in quality, especially with all the little aspects of worklife we see. The bank’s security guard is played by Sean Sullivan, who was Christopher Walken’s dad in The Dead Zone (1983) and the film introduced John Candy in a small role as a bank employee who rushes into a quick marriage after his wife/colleague is apparently made pregnant by a workmate.
* * * Made entirely in Toronto, there are plenty of Canadian references throughout and, as someone lucky enough to have visited the country (only briefly, unfortunately) and loved both it and the people, I thoroughly enjoyed them. In fact, their love of the British way of life - the only people in my entire trip to the US who called their mothers ‘mum’ and knew what brown sauce was - made me think the film was set in London until I saw the mall.
The main location is the Eaton Centre, apparently Toronto's most famous shopping mall. It was opened a few months before the film was shot and, according to Canuxploitation, was “still the most-visited shopping mall in North America” as of 2015. The bank branch was real - Cullen works for the fictitious First Bank Of Toronto - and “located on the first level near a small fountain that has since been removed”. The mall’s nameksake department store, Eaton’s, went bankrupt and closed in 1999.
Geoff Pevere, in his book Toronto On Film, says the film “remains a pivotal work in capturing Toronto’s transition from a stuffy WASP burgh to the country’s largest and wealthiest city”, calling it “Toronto’s answer to the urban decay movies made in America in the early 1970s.”
* * * A problem arose after filming ended, that resulted in Daryl Duke leaving the film. The producers wanted to include a scene where Elaine - SPOILER ALERT - is beheaded and Duke didn’t want to film it. “I was not happy that he was taken off the picture,” Gould told Kim Morgan. “He wouldn’t do the beheading scene and they took [him] off the picture so they could shoot it. It was never in the script.” Nothing else of Duke’s cut was changed, according to Gould and while you can debate the ethics, the sequence has a nasty quality that strengthens the sadism of Plummer’s character. Hanson said, in a 2002 interview with Sandra Hebron at the National Film Theatre in London, “I ended up finishing the movie. I was brought back by the producers to do a week of pick-up shots and all of the post-production.”
This scene aside, Gould was very pleased with what had turned into a Hitchcockian thriller. He met the great director in 1977, while co-hosting the Photoplay Awards on TV and since his dressing room was closest to the stage, he was asked if Sir Alfred Hitchcock (there to collect an award) could use his room. Gould readily agreed and the two men chatted, as he told Kim Morgan. “I asked if he was going to make another film” to which Hitchcock replied “I don’t know if the audience still wants my fantasy”. After insisting they did, “we talked a little bit about The Silent Partner, and he knew it. I went off to prepare to do [the film and] wrote Mr. Hitchcock a couple of cards because I knew I wanted to keep that in mind. I wanted it to be a sort of Hitchcockian story. He was a perfect reference. And then, coincidentally, the next year, I did The Lady Vanishes with Angela Lansbury and Cybill Shepherd – that’s when I started to communicate with Mr. Hitchcock and got the chance to spend some real quality time with him.” He later held a private screening for Hitchcock who apparently loved the film.
The Silent Partner was released in Canada on November 3rd 1978 (curiously, it was released in the UK on September 7th) and performed well in its home country, becoming a sleeper hit in the USA. Critical opinion was generally very good.
Nominated for eleven Etrogs (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), it won six, for Best Picture (producers Garth Drabinsky, Joel Michaels and Stephen Young), Best Director, Sound Recording (David Lee), Sound Editing (Bruce Nyznik), Original Music and Best Editing (George Appleby).
A proper under-the-radar film, this isn’t easy to find - its only Blu Ray edition is a Region 1 release from Kino Lorber - and yet does everything it sets out to do perfectly. There’s the touch of Hitchcock, a twisty plot that keeps the viewer on their toes, great characterisation and acting, assured direction, a tight script and the slightly sleazy feel you get from 1970s thrillers. In addition, it’s set at Christmas and takes full advantage of the season with the shopping centre full of patrons buying into the bright commerciality, while the melancholic undertones of the holiday are also acknowledged. In fact, I think this has replaced Die Hard as my favourite Christmas movie!
If you like smart, intelligent thrillers - especially ones from the 70s - and well made, well acted films, you really should try and find this. A cracking piece of work, it does everything the poster tagline promises - “a chilling story interwoven with comedy, sex and terror” - and what more you could want than that?