With a new book and a feature film released this month, coinciding with the Paddington Trail, Paddington Bear is having a moment in the spotlight. Abi Millar talks to Karen Jankel and Caroline Nuttall-Smith, relatives of the author and illustrator, about growing up with Paddington.
On Christmas Eve 1956, a cameraman was engaging in a spot of last-minute Christmas shopping when he spotted a small toy bear, the last one left on the shelf. Feeling sorry for the neglected teddy, he brought it back to his home in Arundel Gardens and presented it to his wife.
This unassuming gift would spark a future that neither of them could possibly have envisioned. Christened Paddington after the nearby station, the bear would go on to inspire 14 novels, various picture books, a stage show and several TV adaptations. There would be soft toy ranges, museum exhibitions, and even a theme park in his honour, followed by a gong as Britain’s Favourite Ever Animated Character at the 2012 British Animation Awards.
It’s not bad going for a duffel-coated stowaway from Deepest Darkest Peru. These days, Paddington Bear is an institution – a much-cherished childhood memory for millions of readers around the world. Ask someone ‘which Paddington books / illustrations / TV series do you remember’, and you’ll have a fairly reliable means of determining their age.
This Christmas, the bear is set to captivate yet another generation. November 2014 sees the release not only of a new Paddington book, but also a feature film and the so-called ‘Paddington Trail’ around London. Both the bear himself and his eponymous station will find themselves thrown into the spotlight, with Paddington slated as one of this year’s major Christmas releases.
Produced by David Heyman (the force behind all eight Harry Potter films), and directed by Paul King (The Mighty Boosh), the movie has enlisted an Oscar-winning special effects team alongside an all-star cast.
Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins play Mr and Mrs Brown, the kindly couple who offer the bear a haven. They are joined by Julie Walters as the housekeeper, Peter Capaldi as a neighbor and Jim Broadbent as the owner of the antiques shop. In a departure from the books, Nicole Kidman’s character is a sinister yet seductive taxidermist.
Paddington himself is rendered in vivid CGI, worlds apart from the puppet of the original stop-start animation. He was originally due to be voiced by Colin Firth, but Firth amicably departed from the project in June, to be replaced by Ben Whishaw. “It’s been bittersweet to see this delightful creature take shape and come to the sad realisation that he simply doesn’t have my voice,” said Firth in a statement.
With the 28th November release date in sight, the buzz is growing stronger. Meanwhile Michael Bond, the author of the books, is still living and working in Paddington, keeping the original bear around for inspiration when he writes. Along with his daughter Karen Jankel, MD of Paddington and Company, he is preparing himself for a month like no other.
“It’s all happening in November!” Jankel laughs over the phone. “In the film, Paddington is a real bear living in the real world, and I think for some people that has come as a bit of a surprise – they may think of him as a puppet. But for me, he’s spot on because that’s how I picture him.”
While many of us might claim to have grown up with Paddington, for Karen Jankel that’s not an overstatement. Born in August 1958, she was two months old when the first book, A Bear Called Paddington, was published. The books became a defining feature of her childhood, even down to various family mishaps making their way into the stories.
“Paddington has always been a part of my life,” she says. “The bear himself is a part of the family, and he’s very real to us – he was always there as I was growing up. When I did things as a child, quite often Paddington would do them too.”
While the first book had been written more for pleasure than publication, it soon became apparent that Michael Bond was onto something special. A Bear Called Paddington was followed by a whole series, telling tales of bonfire parties and punctured cars, toffee-making experiments and marmalade factories, fishing trips and winter pranks gone wrong.
By 1965, the books had become so successful that Bond was able to give up his day job with the BBC and devote himself to writing. As well as the storybooks, this meant picture books for younger readers and a range of TV scripts.
Each story was delightfully illustrated by Peggy Fortnum, the first and arguably the best-loved in what was to be a long lineage of artists.
“There have been many other versions of Paddington since, but I think hers really capture his look,” says Caroline Nuttall-Smith, Fortnum’s step-granddaughter. “He was a refugee bear, so he should look slightly disheveled and he shouldn’t be too smart – I think she was always quite keen on that.”
The words and pictures together created a concept that people wished to buy into. In 1972, Gabrielle Designs became the first Paddington licensee, manufacturing classic Paddington toys dressed in duffel coats and felt hats. This was followed by a slew of Paddington greetings cards, wallpaper and T-shirts, timed to coincide with the TV series, and more latterly a lucrative string of endorsements.
In 1982, inundated with queries about Paddington, a harried Michael Bond approached his daughter with a business proposition.
“He said, why don’t you come and work with me for just a few months before you decide what you want to do with your life?” she recalls. “I never looked back. My job is to act as Paddington’s minder in a way – I look after his business interests, and run the company that controls the rights. This frees my father up to continue as a writer, which is what he really wants to do.”
At 88 years old, he is still going strong. The latest book, Love from Paddington, is slightly different from the others in that it takes an epistolary format, with the story narrated through Paddington’s letters to his Aunt Lucy in Peru. His signature style, however, hasn’t changed and the novel promises to retain the charm of those that came before.
It is tempting to think that, given their relationship to the bear, Bond and Jankel would feel somewhat proprietorial over Paddington, or that they might have mixed opinions about the film. In actuality, they were happy to surrender parts of the creative process.
“David Heymans, the producer, first approached us quite a number of years ago, and we have a great deal of confidence in him,” explains Jankel. “He obviously knew the books and understood Paddington. We’ve certainly been consulted at every step of the way, but there are certain points where we have to step back and say, well, you’re the filmmaker; you know what makes a good film. We have to have complete trust in the filmmakers that they’re going to get it right.”
Caroline Nuttall-Smith too has a personal investment in the movie. Partially, this is due to her family connection – Peggy Fortnum illustrated the novels until the late 1970s, and loved to draw sketches for her husband’s grandchildren. But there’s another element as well – Nuttall-Smith grew up to be an artist herself, and watercoloured some of Peggy’s drawings in 1998 for a special 40th anniversary edition of the book.
“Peggy’s still around, she’s nearly 95, and she actually continued drawing and illustrating well into her 80s,” says Nuttall-Smith. “She’s still very interested in what’s happening with Paddington, so I’ve told her about the film. I’ll definitely take my daughter to go and see it, and I hope it will be true to her original illustrations; I hope it will be a success.”
The film will surely turn out to be a boon for the Paddington area itself. Over the years, Michael Bond has drawn great inspiration from the district, and takes pains to visit all locations before they feature in a book.
The most important of these is Paddington station, where the bear is initially found. Sitting on a railway platform near the lost property office, he sports a label around his neck reading ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you.’ Here, he is discovered by Mr and Mrs Brown, and his escapades begin.
Will this mean an influx of visitors, descending on Paddington station in the way that Harry Potter fans crowd Kings Cross? This remains to be seen, but it is clear that if the link wasn’t already there, it certainly will be now. The film is likely to revitalise Paddington’s image, reinterpreting Michael Bond’s stories for 2014 while staying true to the spirit of the original.
“Alongside the trailer, I’ve seen about three of the scenes from the film and it’s brilliant, really very good indeed,” says Karen Jankel. “For my father, it’s very exciting. We’ll be going to the premiere.”
For the rest of us, it’s on the must-see list for Christmas. This applies whether you were an avid 1950s bookworm, or are newly meeting the much-loved bear through the wonders of CGI. Get your popcorn at the ready – or better still, your marmalade sandwiches.
In cinemas November 28
Director: Paul King
Writers: Michael Bond, Paul King (screenplay)
Producer: David Heyman
Stars: Ben Whishaw, Nicole Kidman, Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins
Love from Paddington
Author: Michael Bond
Harper Collins Children’s Books
Released 6th November 2014
An edited version of this feature appears in the launch issue of Paddington Now.