As Paddington gets the big-screen treatment after 50 years, Cath Clarke assesses the bear’s enduring appeal.
In a recent survey, half of the UK’s adults said they still have their childhood teddies. As I type, a handsome brute called Panda sits on the shelf next to my desk. Being a bear monogamist, I have never paid much attention to Paddington, who this week stars in his first ever live-action film. So what’s a little brown bear from darkest Peru got that Panda hasn’t? Aside from a snug duffel coat and book sales of more than 35 million, that is.
Cover your ears, Panda: Paddington is London’s favourite bear. Just before the 2012 Olympics in the city, a British newspaper took Paddington writer Michael Bond to be photographed next to the bronze statue of his creation at Paddington station. Unexpectedly, he was mobbed by commuters: fans in their 20s and 30s tripped over luggage to get a look at the man behind the character. Bond himself was 28 when he wrote the first Paddington book, describing how Mr and Mrs Brown find a bear with a rumble in his tummy and a label around his neck reading: ‘Please look after this bear, thank you.’
The new film’s director, Paul King, a lifelong Paddington admirer, believes it’s that sign that makes Paddington so lovable. ‘It’s a flash of genius,’ he says. ‘There’s something powerful in that need for help in the big wide world, even for small children who haven’t had to travel around the world like Paddington has. We’ve all been separated from our mums in the supermarket. Or gone to stay at our grandparents, where things are a bit different: the toothpaste tastes funny. Being in an alien world is universal. That’s why I love Paddington.’
Michael Bond’s daughter Karen (her dad is 88 and rarely gives interviews, although he’s still writing) tells me that wartime child evacuees inspired Paddington’s famous label. ‘It was not so long after the war that my dad wrote the first book,’ she says, ‘and he had memories of children with suitcases and labels around their necks being evacuated out of London.’ The biggest inspiration of all, however, came from the ‘real’ Paddington – a teddy bear Bond bought in Selfridges for his wife on Christmas Eve in 1956. The bear was alone on a shelf. ‘I couldn’t leave him there on his own over Christmas,’ Bond later told an interviewer. The next year, he sat down in front of his typewriter and wrote the story in ten days.
In 1975 the books were made into a much-loved animated television series for the BBC. And over the years producers have approached the Bonds about making a Paddington movie. The problem, Karen says, has always been the technology. ‘Paddington is a real bear, not a teddy bear, so it’s only with sophisticated CGI that it’s possible.’ They finally gave their blessing to producer David Heyman – the man who didn’t screw up the Harry Potter movies. Paddington stars alongside non-bear actors Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins as the Browns, with Peter Capaldi as grumpy Mr Curry and Julie Walters as housekeeper Mrs Bird.
Paul King is best known as the man behind the camera of The Mighty Boosh and Come Fly with Me. He’s perfect, it turns out, bringing a bear-sized dose of giddy-aunt silliness to Paddington. One of the biggest headaches making the film, King tells me, was getting the bear’s look right. He took his animators to Whipsnade Zoo near Dunstable in Bedfordshire to study bear cubs and threw a bit of Oliver Twist in there: ‘I wanted a scruffy little urchin who looks like he’s been sleeping for a month on mail sacks. I didn’t want him to be too clean, a bear with a Hollywood smile.’
In June, the film made headlines with ‘Paddingtongate’: Colin Firth’s decision to consciously uncouple from the voice of Paddington. King says it was clear to everyone that it just wasn’t working. ‘Colin is far too much of a gentleman to quit anything, but he wasn’t comfortable.’ The problem – and there’s no way of sweetening this – is that Firth is simply too old. ‘He’s a big chap, six-foot-something, fortysomething, with a bassy voice,’ says King (Firth is actually 54).
Enter Ben Whishaw of the BBC’s The Hour and Skyfall fame. As soon as Whishaw’s name was mentioned, King was sold. ‘Ben is a strange cross between a human and a woodland creature anyway. If someone said to you, “Ben Whishaw was raised by wolves,” you’d go, “Of course!”’
Whishaw himself took some convincing. ‘I was the first to say, “I don’t think I’m right for this,”’ he explains down the phone from his agent’s office. ‘I’m not good at accents and voices.’ He gives me a few bear-like grunts and snuffles from his repertoire that suggests otherwise. What does he like about Paddington? ‘He’s trying to learn how to behave like a human, which I can relate to: “I’ve got to learn how to do things properly so people don’t think I’m weird.” He wants to do things correctly, but he’s a bear, so things tend to malfunction.’
Paddington is out in cinemas across Dubai from December 25.