From Bagpuss and The Goodies to The Box Of Delights and The Changes, more and more of the television soundtracks that everyone once thought they’d never get to hear without that pesky ‘acting’ plastered all over the top are being made available in crystal clear quality as standalone soundtrack albums, giving everyone the opportunity to listen properly to short bursts of music way in the background in muddy scratchy mono that had nonetheless lodged themselves into way more memories than any of the musicians involved can ever have really anticipated. If you’ve heard my appearance on Perfect Night In, however, then you’ll know that there’s one musical holy grail that’s still drifting along at one thousand two hundred feet above ground level fuelled by an ignited combination of liquid propane and air. It’s a short and in some regards not especially remarkable piece of background music that appears partway through an episode of an animated children’s series that several generations have probably seen dozens of times without ever really noticing it. I certainly did, though.
Mr. Benn – the everyday story of a city gent who visited a local costume shop, where a fez-sporting shopkeeper pointed him towards a changing room containing a door that led to an appropriate vista for his choice of apparel – is unique amongst the programmes broadcast in the BBC’s Watch With Mother slot in that it never really had the opportunity to fade into hazy half-memory. Whereas the likes of Mary, Mungo And Midge, Barnaby and Ragtime – and even, at one point, Bagpuss – abruptly disappeared and took the nostalgic equivalent of an ice age to resurface in any form, Mr. Benn thoroughly deservedly kept on being shown well into the nineties and right up until the point where it could become easily available on home media. Nobody ever really needed to have a conversation about ‘remembering’ Mr. Benn because pretty much everyone did remember it. Though apparently not enthusiastically enough ever to warrant a soundtrack album.
The Balloonist was first broadcast by BBC1 on 4th February 1972 – staggeringly, the first of more than thirty showings – and to be honest it’s probably one of the less well remembered episodes of Mr. Benn. Although the balloonist costume – essentially a heavy suit jacket with a stovepipe hat – could be seen hanging up whenever The Shopkeeper appeared, with the possible exception of a handful of aspirant steampunks it wasn’t one that any young viewers were particularly looking out for hopefully on that wheel of costume choices in the opening titles. Yet in this episode, after seeing some children playing with balloons in Festive Road, Mr. Benn takes a stroll to the costume shop and finally opts for the vaguely Victorian getup – although he never did choose the Native American outfit hanging up next to it, nor indeed the equally issue-raising Napoleon hat and tunic in the window, but that’s another story – and strolls through The Door That Can Lead To Adventure to find himself in a big colourful turn-of-the-century park where a balloon race is about to commence.
A huge crowd of people in Quality Street-style getup resembling a lost scene from The Wrong Box have assembled to watch the competitors set off, and while surveying the proto-Howard Stark technological whizzbangery that they’ve all affixed to their balloons in the hope of gaining an advantage, Mr. Benn notices that one of the balloons is occupied by a lone individual apparently cosplaying as someone from Peaky Blinders. ‘The Young Man’ – that’s all that he’s ever introduced to us as – laments to Mr. Benn that his co-pilot ‘suddenly had to go’. This he attributes to the machinations of one Baron Bartram, a top-hatted twirly-moustached toff who will apparently go to any lengths to ensure that he wins a balloon race; an enviable skill but one that you can’t help but suspect wasn’t exactly pressed into service that often. Anyway, seeing as he is already dressed for the part, Mr. Benn volunteers his services as a co-pilot despite apparently having no obvious previous experience of or expertise in the artform. Which can perhaps be used as evidence to convince certain individuals who have loudly declaimed that we have all ‘had enough of experts’ that they too should embark upon a balloon flight in exact identical circumstances.
All of their Monte Carlo Or Bust-prefiguring modifications turn out to have been added in vain, however, as Baron Bartram has actually used them to his advantage and indeed their disadvantage; propeller turned around the wrong way, oars besieged by seed-seeking birds, and – in the case of Mr. Benn and The Young Man – rope drop-line securely attached to a convenient nearby drainpipe. As everyone else whizzes off in a variety of entirely wrong directions, they equally problematically end up going absolutely nowhere whatsoever, until Mr. Benn has the bright idea of breaking a section of drainpipe away from the wall. The reactions of the occupants and the extent of the ensuing dent in their paypacket are conveniently not recorded. Before long, Mr. Benn and The Young Man have as good as caught up with Baron Bartram, who registers his disapproval of this turn of events with a furious wave of a largely static fist.
There then follows possibly the most extraordinary eighty three seconds ever broadcast in the name of animated entertainment for very young viewers. As the balloons – and a flock of serenely smiling birds – drift dreamily across the screen, and Ray Brooks’ narration dissolves into a series of tranquil meditations on the sensation of gliding through the clouds and observing the ground below, a trumpet, flute, stand-up bass, vibraphone and soft brush drumkit shimmer out a hazy jazzy melody that perfectly underscores the hazy philosophical musings. Then everything bar the drumming drops out and leaves a Vox Continental organ to wander through its own variation on the melody, before everything else comes back in with a delayed swagger that really does sound as though the music has caught a sudden gust of wind. It’s worth stressing that eighty three second duration, incidentally, as so profound is the change of pace and tone that the entire sequence almost seems to drift free of time and it’s a fair bet that anyone who remembers it was under the impression that it actually lasted considerably longer. Or shorter. It’s one of those situations where it’s impossible to really tell.
Needless to say, this is followed by something of a rude awakening as the handy-looking heavy in a bowler hat accompanying Baron Bartram gives a bugle-derived signal and a horse and rider emerge from nearby bushes, grabbing their drop-line and galloping away in a bid to drag them towards inconspicuous victory. The ever-resourceful Mr. Benn, however, has other ideas, and in an alarming display of don’t-try-this-at-home resourcefulness that would have done The A-Team proud, devises a mechanism involving attaching the broken-off drainpipe to the burner and releasing small amounts of ignited gas in a sort of makeshift propulsion engine system. This succeeds in bringing them horizontally level with Baron Bartram just at the point where they are vertically level with the rider and horse, which is sufficiently startled by the sudden appearance of this wicker interloper to bolt off across open country and away from the finish line, which Mr. Benn and The Young Man duly effortlessly glide over to hearty Victorian cheers. The Young Man is presented with a cup and the prize money, whereas Mr. Benn is informed that his medal is ‘inside’. You won’t win a medal of your own for guessing where that ends up taking him.
With the medal pressed into his hand by The Shopkeeper, it’s back to Festive Road, where the children are still playing with balloons to the evident disquiet of a couple of oddly elongated cats. Mr. Benn pauses at his front gate and has another look at the medal, inevitably concluding that “I’ll keep it with my other souvenirs – it’ll help me remember”. Quite much ‘help’ you would realistically need in remembering this particular escapade is open to question.
Modern Jazz wasn’t exactly an anomaly in programmes intended for the BBC’s Watch With Mother slot by the early seventies – if that’s your area of interest then you should very much lend an ear as well as an eye to Mary, Mungo And Midge and Joe – but the music from Mr. Benn was improvising on a very different scale. At writer and animator David McKee’s own invitation, jazz saxophonist and bandleader Duncan Lamont was invited to provide the score, credited for contractual reasons under the pseudonym ‘Don Warren’. Performed – as anyone who struggled to count the number of ‘Mr. Benns’ accompanying the end credits as a youngster will wearily recall – by a seven-strong ensemble that included organist Harry Stoneham (who more normally played a Hammond C3, so perhaps those Vox Continental-esque tones might actually be an aural hallucination brought about by the ropey sound quality and primitive television speakers), bassist Ken Baldock, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, drummer Art Morgan, flautist Ray Swinfield, percussionist Terry Emery and pianist Pete Hughes, it was all a good deal closer to what was going on in the wider post-Prog Rock UK Jazz scene at that point and it’s a fair bet that anyone reading this is at least humming the Mr Benn theme music already, if not the two pieces used for his opening and closing strolls up and down Festive Road. Which is hardly surprising, as it was music that was heard dozens of times by successive waves of younger viewers and was as carefully and fascinatingly arranged as it was tunefully evocative of suburban day to day hustle and bustle. It was also music that was created specifically for that sole use and purpose and was never made available in any other form. There wasn’t even a Mr. Benn story record with Ray Brooks’ narration frustratingly welded over the top of it; you had recordings you’d made off the television or you had nothing at all. Never mind what manner of ridiculous sums you might have to fork out for not-dissimilar-sounding rare albums by the likes of Mike Westbrook, Collin Bates, Norma Winstone or The London Jazz Four; by accident rather than design, the Mr. Benn soundtrack – and the Balloon Race music in particular – ended up the rarest of the lot.
Except it’s not quite as unavailable as it might appear. In 2011, reportedly after McKee had attended one of his live shows which incorporated a version of the Balloon Race music, Duncan Lamont assembled his Big Band – including Kenny Wheeler – to re-record a series of new interpretations of original Mr. Benn pieces for the album As If By Magic. It’s mostly only been promoted through specialist jazz retailers so it is hardly surprising that it’s not really very widely known about, but while the eight tracks very definitely build on the original short pieces and in some cases amend the pace and phrasing, it all actually sounds very close indeed to the originals. Clocking in at nearly ten minutes, and suitably described by Lamont in the sleevenotes as depicting “the ethereal floating world and the English pastoral scene unfolding below”, The Balloonist takes Mr. Benn and The Young Man on a far longer and far more varied journey than previously; starting out more or less as it did on screen, albeit with a touch more swing, the tune is carried aloft on a series of increasingly more urgent elaborations on the main theme, racing off on a strong brass-assisted breeze and settling into a cascading piano voluntary before the main theme crashes back in to glide back down to earth and over the finish line. It’s actually a pretty convincing attempt at depicting the entire balloon journey in music, and ironically does actually leave the listener longing for an accompanying Ray Brooks narration. It’s not quite the same, though – not least because those shimmering organ figures are omitted and soaring brass drawls inserted in their place – and it’s effectively the music from the programme but without that same sense of transcendental majesty.
The Balloonist isn’t quite the music from the The Balloonist episode of Mr. Benn, but – oddly – it’s recently emerged that it isn’t the only interpretation of the piece out there. During the late seventies and early eighties, Duncan Lamont had been a prolific contributor to Bruton, a library music label that specialised in the sort of clipped, clinical, downbeat grimy funk-rock of the sort that you would have heard in the likes of The Long Good Friday and Wolcott. On 29th March 1980, a number of Bruton composers – including such familiar names to credit-watchers as Frank Ricotti (The Beiderbecke Affair – and also later part of the Big Band on As If By Magic), Don Harper (World Of Sport, Doctor Who), George Fenton (Bergerac), John Cameron (Psychomania, Kes) and Graham Walker (just about everything) – held a concert at The Music Centre in London, playing a number of each other’s compositions as a massed jazz-rock ensemble. This event came and went and would have been entirely forgotten about other than the fact that Bruton pressed up an album of the concert and gave a copy to each of the participants, which went completely unknown to the point of not even being listed on Discogs until Bruton collector George Fields – who is working on a sure-to-be-fascinating book about the label – recently revealed its existence. More surprisingly still, it contained a four-minute version of The Balloonist that is far closer to the original than the later re-recording. It is taken at a slightly faster pace and has a far fuller arrangement with that clean and precise Bruton sound, but it does contain some epic jazzy diversions suggesting Baron Bartram might have used his time advantage to stop off at a coffee shop or two. Does this mean, though, that Duncan Lamont might have regularly been performing The Balloonist live himself, or even that there’s another studio version of it lurking elsewhere in the generally prosaically-named Bruton catalogue?
It’s possible, but the fact remains that the original recordings of the original music from Mr. Benn still have yet to find a release of any kind. Until they do, we can only assume that Baron Bartram has somehow sabotaged the tapes to prevent his old rival from getting too much exposure. Plus he preferred Fingerbobs anyway.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.