TV review: 50 Years of Mr Men

Benjie Goodhart / 14 May 2021

Matt Lucas delves into the history of the creation of the Mr Men on Channel 4, and taut thriller Innocent starts on ITV.



50 Years of Mr Men with Matt Lucas, Sunday 16th May, 6pm, Channel 4

“All of this began 50 years ago with a tickle.”

No, no, don’t worry, it’s not that sort of a film. Far from it – this is actually about as wholesome and delightful a family watch as you could wish to see. This hour-long one-off documentary is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first ever Mr Men book.

The idea came when a young boy, Adam Hargreaves, asked his father, Roger, a question: “Daddy, what does a tickle look like?” Hargreaves senior, an advertising creative, went and drew his answer, and made up a story to go with it, and Mr Tickle was born. Today, there are over 90 Mr Men and Little Miss characters, and the books have sold over 250 million copies. This literary phenomenon is one of the greatest successes in British publishing history.

Roger Hargreaves, the man behind the advertising slogan “Bring out the Branston”, wanted to stop commuting and work from home. (He should have waited 50 years, a global pandemic might have saved him the bother of having to create a publishing franchise). He turned Mr Tickle into a book – and Adam Hargreaves gives Matt Lucas the original copy. It is remarkable, both for its significance, and because it looks exactly like the finished product. He got it faultlessly right first time.

He then tried hawking it around publishers. You can guess the rest. Think ‘man who turned down the Beatles’ or ‘publishers who passed on Harry Potter’. So Hargreaves published the book himself – to instant success.

Roger Hargreaves died from a stroke in 1988 aged just 52. But his son, Adam, then a 25-yerar-old farmer, revealed he wanted to continue his father’s legacy – and he has done just that. The Mr Men stories continue to delight kids the way they have done for 50 years. Lucas – a funny and enthusiastic presenter – goes off to a primary school to talk to children about why they love Mr Men (although, unfortunately, most of them are more interested in discussing how much they need a wee. Never work with kids!) He also talks to experts about why the naughty and anarchic behaviour of the Mr Men is a fun outlet for little ones.

There’s a look back, too, at the animated series of the Mr Men that accompanied the books. I had entirely forgotten, through the mists of time, that the cartoon was narrated (quite brilliantly) by Arthur Lowe. The story of how the cartoon came to be made, and how Lowe came to narrate it, is a delightful one, and contains a link to tinned spam that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. There’s also a revelation about the extraordinary painstaking process of making the cartoons.

By 1981, with gender roles changing, Roger Hargreaves decided it was time to launch some female characters as well. ‘Miss’ was deemed to sound too much like a teacher, and ‘Mrs’ too much like a mother, so the ‘Little Miss’ series was born. By the time of Hargreaves’ death in 1988 there were 46 Mr Men books, and 33 Little Miss books, a TV series, and a burgeoning merchandise empire. (Though they didn’t accept every offer. Mr Men condoms were turned down. Presumably they’d not have featured Mr Small much in their branding…)

This film is a gorgeously nostalgic wallow in the world of a classic canon of children’s literature. Lucas meets some of the key players, visits a woman with an absurdly large merchandise collection, and goes out to meet the public in Mr Men costumes. And the film climaxes with him revealing which two new characters have been chosen, after a public vote, to join the ranks of the other Mr Men and Little Misses with books of their own. They have been updated, to reflect the lives of modern kids. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the two newest characters: Mr Social Distance and Little Miss iPad-Addict. (Not really).

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Innocent, Monday 17th – Thursday 20th May, 9pm, ITV

We live in an age of instant gratification. My son, for example, can’t understand the concept of leaving his favourite part of a dish till the end. He’ll gobble up his chicken and roast potatoes, and then sit and look mournfully at his cabbage and carrots for half an hour while we shout at him. People nowadays don’t need to learn to delay gratification: everything is instant. You want to watch a new film? You can stream it now, direct to your TV. Want to try Malaysian food? We’ll have it delivered to your front door in 20 minutes. Want to read the hot new book everyone’s talking about? You don’t have to order it, or go to a bookshop, you can have it on your kindle in five seconds.

And so it is with telly. Once upon a time, dramas went out weekly, and we thought nothing of it. You’d be left with a cliff-hanger, and you’d just wait for a week for the next instalment. It was perfectly, normal, that was how TV worked. It allowed the anticipation to build. If a show’s producers really wanted to mess with people’s heads, they would end a series with a huge, shouty question mark. We waited endless months to find out who shot JR.

But then streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime came along, and binge-watching became a thing. Suddenly, people didn’t want to wait a week to find out if Martina had killed Juan Carlos with a letter-opener for sleeping with his brother’s wife (note to self: Stop watching Mexican soap operas). People wanted to know now, so they just hit ‘play’ on the next episode. Soon afterwards, the broadcasters started following suit on their streaming services. Lots of new series from the BBC, ITV and Channels 4 & 5 are available as soon as the first episode has screened.

And they’ve also started cramming whole series on consecutive nights, stripped across a week. This new drama from ITV is a case in point: Its four episodes are on every night from Monday to Thursday at 9pm. In some senses, it’s a risk for ITV. If the show’s a dud, they’ve wasted a week of Prime Time. Fortunately for them, on the basis of the first episode, this looks like it could be really rather intriguing.

The action opens in a court room. A woman is in the dock, looking nervous. I suppose being in court accused of murder will do that to you. The jury returns its verdict. Not guilty! (That’s not a spoiler, it happens in the first 30 seconds of the show!)

Then we start to get a bit more detail in the picture. It’s an appeal. The woman is Sally Wright (Katherine Kelly, formerly of Corrie), a former teacher, who has just served five years in prison for a murder she didn’t commit. The victim was one of her pupils, 16-year-old Matthew Taylor. She may not have killed him, but rumours abound that the pair were engaged in a relationship, after they were supposedly seen kissing in a car.

In the five years that she’s been in prison, her husband, Sam (Jamie Bamber), has divorced her, and is getting married to an old neighbour of theirs, Karen (Priyanga Burford). Sally hears this news when she’s released from prison and, I’m sorry to have to tell you, makes the following comment: “Karen? She’s old, isn’t she? She’s got to be – what – 50?” I know. Outrageous. However, on we jolly well go.

Sally has decided to return to her hometown of Keswick. This being a TV drama, and what with her being linked to a case of a murdered child, you can imagine that everything is going to run super-smoothly, and the community will welcome her with open arms. Errrrr… Not that she gets the hint. She goes back to the school and asks for her old job back. Under the circumstances that seems a little… optimistic.

Meanwhile, DCI Mike Braithwaite (Shaun Dooley) is heading up a new investigation. He seems kind, and thoughtful… But he’s a TV copper, so obviously there’s some profound sadness in his life.

Of course, this being a murder-mystery, it seems that everyone in Keswick is hiding a dark secret. And we can, presumably, accept the fact that each secret is a red herring and that, in the end, it’ll be the one person we thought was cleaner than clean who actually did it. But, in the meantime, this is a beautifully shot, nicely paced and taut thriller, with a depth and sadness to it, that certainly requires more watching. And we won’t have to wait long for the next episode.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 15th May

The FA Cup Final Live, 4:15pm, BBC One: Chelsea v Leicester City should be a cracking game, with a high-performing Leicester team taking on a resurgent Chelsea who are also through to the Champions League Final.

Charles & Harry: Father & Son Divided, 9pm, Channel 5: Royal experts chart the development of the estrangement between Prince Charles and Prince Harry, and ask what could be done to rectify it.

Sunday 16th May

Titanic: Into the Heart of the Wreck, 7:30pm, Channel 4: A look at the history of the extreme dives down to the legendary wreck, including the French-American expedition that discovered it in 1985, and James Cameron’s epic exploratory missions.

Monday 17th May

The Pact 1/6, 9pm, BBC One: When a young brewery boss is found dead, a chain of events is triggered that draws four of his employees into a fragile pact of silence that will change their lives for ever. Starring Laura Fraser, Eiry Thomas, Heledd Gwynn and Julie Hesmondhalgh.

Catching Paedophiles: Crime and Punishment, 9pm, Channel 4: Documentary exploring the challenges of investigating and prosecuting child sexual abuse.

Tuesday 18th May

The Mark Lewis Money Show: Live Summer Special, 8pm, ITV: The financial guru is back with more ingenious ways to save the pennies, and is joined by Angelica Bell, as the two explore good deals for holidays at home and abroad, and the latest money-saving wheezes out there.

Wednesday 19th May

The Psychedelic Drug Trial, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary chronicling a ground-breaking new trial at Imperial College, London, where clinically depressed people are being treated with psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and compared to those treated with traditional antidepressants.

A Very Royal Baby: From Cradle to Crown, 9pm, Channel 4: With the birth of Harry and Megan’s second child imminent, this documentary looks at the reality of what it means to be born a royal, and how this reality has changed over the generations.

Murdered by a Mob, 9pm, Channel 5: Feature length documentary looking at the murder of Iranian asylum seeker Bijan Ebrahimi, who was killed by a hate-fuelled mob back in 2013.

Thursday 20th May

Subnormal: A British Scandal, 9pm, BBC One: Documentary looking at one of the biggest scandals in the history of British education – that black people in the 1960s education system were seen by many as intellectually inferior, and treated as such.

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