Friday 23 March 2018

A Bear For All Seasons by Steve Gladwin

When I was about seven I have the vague memory of picking up a book from the school shelf called ‘Paddington Helps Out’. It didn’t take me long to get either the story or the wonderful idea of a bear from Darkest Peru with a luggage label around his neck saying ‘please look after this bear.’ After this initiation into matters ursine and paddingtonian, I must have read two or three more of the books – they must after all have pretty much been coming out while I was growing up – but of course Paddington Brown merely joined a whole load of other stories, characters and the various excitements which invariably juggle for attention when you’re seven. Later I was vaguely aware that there was a children’s TV series which seemed to be on for quite a long time in the slot which was then reserved for things of such a nature,and I can’t thinking that instead of everything for children on the BBC having its own channel now it wouldn’t do anyone any harm for the pre Six o’ Clock news slot to be filled with something more agreeably vintage than Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman!

I grew up, (arguably!) and forgot all about bears and marmalade and aged aunts in Peru and although this is at best regrettable and at worst thoroughly misguided, it has made it all the more of a pleasure to recently find myself back in the company of Paddington and the other Browns, Mr Gruber and especially grumpy Mr Curry. 'BEAR!'

I’m not sure I'm allowed to use a phrase like tripartite when it comes to the exploits of Peruvian spectacled bears, (in case you didn’t know) but I’m going to because recently between the film, (the first – haven’t yet seen the second), an omnibus of five of the first six books and the entire TV series, Rosie and I have been enjoying a tripartite paddingtonian pleasure which has reaffirmed for both of us just how special and enduring this character is, and how easy it is for him to once more take up a place in our hearts.

Big Screen Bear

The 'Paddington' film came first; coming to it late I found it a total delight and could watch it over and over again. Apart from enjoying it as a story and as a lovable romp with the live actors clearly so enjoying-themselves, it immediately brought back all the things I’d loved and forgotten about the characters. I could list all sorts of those, but above all was the sense that it had been done with love, that the sentiments were just right and that the attempt to expand Michael Bond's series of comic interludes style into a coherent plot was done without in any way dumbing-down and where the natural need for modernisation never jars.

It also helped me to understand screenplay structure and that’s a big thing for me at the moment as I’m writing at least one, and the business of that structure was doing my dyspraxic head in. But as soon as I realised how well the ‘Fun and Games’ section at the beginning was done – essentially the part of the film which isn’t so much plot driven, but gives the audience a taste of all the goodies to come and is often therefore fun and incident filled – everything else began to click. Pretty soon I was writing down how Paddington works structurally as a screenplay and eureka, I finally understood. And of course I also got the chance to fully appreciate a bath sweeping down the stairs on a tide of water and Hugh Bonneville disguised as a Welsh char lady!

But that was only the start. Rosie and I have been going through a retro children’s phase for the last two years and long may it continue. It seemed therefore a wonderful idea to buy her a Paddington Omnibus so I could read them all to her and me and I could do all the voices; slightly breathless and eager to please, but also easily wounded for Paddington, sharp as a needle for Mrs Bird, gruff but essentially kindly for Mr Brown, always slightly on the verge of whatever is that bear going to do next for Mrs Brown, kingdom of eternal sarcasm with his fuse ever lit ready for Mr Curry, and Jonathan just keeps saying ‘Crikey’ every time Paddington gets into another scrape.

Just that moment.

You could, I suppose, write any number of blogs which discuss the origins of Paddington as an idea, (something which Michael Bond does himself at the back of the paperback edition of A Bear Called Paddington) Or how Michael Bond himself was a cameraman on Blue Peter in its heyday, and that’s why Paddington himself had such a long and fruitful relationship with the programme and so often had special stories written for the Blue Peter annual. Then there is the – for me at least – slightly disturbing knowledge that it was Jeremy Clarkson’s mother Shirley whose company produced the first Paddington bear toy, and the first ones made were Christmas presents for him and his sister (unless Wikipedia are making that last one up, that is!)

But what I want to do is explore why Paddington is so enduring as a character, that the two current films have so easily made their way into the hearts of younger generations  and back into those of the older viewers and older readers, who took very little persuasion.

We’ve finished the five book omnibus now and it’s been even more fun to watch the 56 episode Paddington Bear TV series more or less back to back with it and especially to see how each perfect little misadventure is reduced to the small sum of its parts, backed by a then truly original method of animation - an early example of stop motion where the Paddington puppet is placed against a series of three dimensional backdrops and the characters are merely paper cut-outs. These characters, who at times – Mr Curry in particular - look as if they might have been drawn by Gerald Scarfe – are made even better by a quite wonderful voice over from Sir Michael Hordern who could harrumph better than anyone on the planet.

But these are all fairly cosmetic things which don’t’ really get us to the guts of Paddington as a character or the books as a conceit.  There’s been a gulf of time and experience since I first encountered Paddington as a boy, and I can of course never rekindle my initial reactions, or to what depth they went, but what I can do is share a few modern day thoughts and sometimes surprises as to why bear and books are so enduring.

First of all, because I was too busy chortling over his latest misadventure, I didn’t realise as a young reader that the Paddington books were a series of stories rather than one straight narrative. It’s their brevity of course which means that such a successful formula can be repeated time and time again. Basically find a ridiculous situation to put Paddington in, get him well and truly stuck in it and then extricate him from it with only minimal affront to his dignity and everyone else’s patience levels. It’s the most basic of storytelling formulas, but one which wins over and over again purely because it is delivered so simply and effectively.

Bear on the Beeb

Secondly the Paddington stories are pure farce, as much in their own way as anything written by Feydeau, or starring Brian Rix, or even classic seventies sit coms written by John Cleese. I can only imagine what Paddington would have made of it if the Browns had misguidedly taken their holiday at Fawlty Towers in the company of Misses Gatsby and Tibbs and the major, but you can bet at least one hard stare would have been involved! Farce isn’t easy to work at the best of times, let alone make it funny. In order for it to work you need a central character who remains – at least in his own heart and  mind – entirely innocent, so that the various happenings can catch him up and spin him in the washing machine of confusion until his spin cycle is complete and apart from his fur being a little more ruffled and sticky, he is none the worse for his experience.

Thirdly and with all due respect to the kind of obsessive fan sharpening their poisoned paw pen even as I compose the next sentence – PADDINGTON GETS AWAY WITH MURDER. It’s the sort of thing you’ll never notice when you’re little, but the more you read it the clearer and clearer it becomes. Because he is a small innocent a long way from home, he gets time and time again to behave like the naughtiest exploring three year old, and as long as he says ‘oops’ and puts on a suitably innocent expression he gets away with it every time. He can also be quite insufferable, with an ego which is very easily bruised, but seems to have potentially titanic dimensions. Paddington could also teach us a great deal both about persistence and moral certainty.

Fourth – and never under-estimate the importance of this – he is equipped with a hard stare. You couldn’t swear in children’s books in those days and something was clearly needed in place of anger and intolerance which would clearly and unequivocally teach readers of all ages how to behave. According to Paddington’s Aunt Lucy, a hard stare was quite suitable enough reproach for people who either didn’t know their manners, or were in imminent danger of forgetting them. The first time the hard stare is used in the TV series it results in a slow red flush creeping up the face of the ticket collector, which is quite wonderful.

A possibly halfhearted hard stare at his creator - courtesy of 

Next is the fun Michael Bond has with the whole idea of an anthropomorphic bear. I don’t want to be one of those people who tries to ruin a perfectly simple and innocent character by analysing it to death, but part of the fun Michael Bond has with Paddington is in the very ‘normal’ way people react to him and thus make him all the more loveable. Most people outside the Brown family call him ‘Mr Brown’ and that includes his best friend Mr Gruber at the antiques shop. Others, like his nemesis Mr Curry and those few others who deserve a suitable hard stare type going over, call him – obviously most rudely - simply ’Bear’, as if in an attempt in doing so to draw attention to his ‘alien’ status. Otherwise with the exception of sometimes struggling to create, clean, build or more often wreck what he ‘lends his paw to’ because of his lack of opposable thumbs, Paddington copes better with life than nearly anyone else apart from Mrs Bird and Mr Gruber, who are, not so coincidentally, the two people who know him best; the one because he immediately took Paddington under his wing and now enjoys a simple bun and cocoa routine and companionship with him, interspersed with occasional gentle but firm guidance and the other who of all people has Paddington ‘s number because dearie me, there are no flies on Mrs Bird.

Every series needs a villain and Michael Bond has quite splendid fun with Mr Curry. In many ways he and Paddington are similar because neither seems to essentially learn from his mistakes, but there the similarity ends because Paddington’s very decency and generosity are in total contrast to Mr Curry’s selfish miserliness and grudging nature. Mrs Bird has Mr Curry’s number of course, as much as she has Paddington’s. Whatever horror Paddington perpetrates on the hapless Mr Curry, he receives little or no sympathy from the astute and unforgiving Mrs Bird, who knows that in most cases Mr Curry had only invited himself to whatever event it is, and because most times that Paddington gets in trouble it’s because he’s been exploited by Mr Curry in the first place. Of all of his friends and family, it’s Mrs Bird who is Paddington’s greatest defender, as well as in her own quiet way his greatest critic. Poor Mr Curry really doesn’t stand a chance.

Finally - and as I said above, this is part of Paddington’s character – the books and the gentle philosophy they preach are so generous. The Browns and their friends exist in a timeless world which can be as modern as you like, but wherever it is, the message is all about goodness and tolerance and integration, where the weak can truly feel as if they have inherited the earth and people usually learn from their mistakes unless perhaps their surname happens to be Curry. It's the sort of curious world where the stuffy store owner switches from someone who has no appreciation of the sticky stains caused by Paddington's bulls-eye, to someone willing to give the ‘young bear gentleman’ ( a phrase I love, by the way) either the freedom of his store, or a trip to the nearest sweet shop, where the magician at the next table persistently pestered by Paddington because he believes him to be wearing a false beard, quickly softens sufficiently enough to invite the entire Brown family to see his magic tricks, and where the audience at a TV quiz show, in the face of Paddington’s ‘wrong’ answers, badgers mine host over and over again into making them the right ones and allowing him to win the jackpot.

And I couldn't ever forget Peggy Fortnum's quite wonderful drawings which so beautifully evoke 'just that moment'.

I’ve said more than once in two years of blogging that there are so many things I miss about my childhood of the sixties and seventies. Happily Paddington is one of the things which still has the power to entrance and amuse and engage, and above all warm the hearts of a whole new audience.

There, and I managed to write that making the minimum of marmalade stains! 

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'

Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call' 


Pippa Goodhart said...

Wonderful! Bringing back happy memories, but also giving a really insightful commentary on how the magic of Paddington works. Thank you, Steve!

Anne Booth said...

That was lovely! Thank you. Paddington is one of my all time favourites. How did you watch the whole TV series? I must look to see if you can buy it. Or if it is on YouTube.

Steve Gladwin said...

You can buy the whole of the BBC series on Amazon, Anne - all 56 episodes and three feature length specials Not sure about youtube. Apparently there were two later ones but I'd imagine this was the best. Glad you enjoyed it.