The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Paddington Bear – An Enduring Icon for a Throwaway Age

In an article for the Children's Media Yearbook 2018, Diana Hinshelwood considers the reasons for Paddington's longevity.

Paddington 2 was the fourth most successful British film of 2017.  Considering that this gentle, unassuming character first made his way into our hearts in 1958, that is an astonishing achievement.

In October this year, Paddington will be 60 years old.  He’s wearing well for a seasoned traveller, and has shown us all how the key to staying young at heart is curiosity and adventure.  Mind you, he has some natural advantages.  His fur is always insta-ready and needs no filters. His hat, coat and boots are design classics that no influencer could possibly improve. He brings his timeless adventures to a new audience in a way that YouTube vloggers can only dream about. Avocado on toast can’t match the sugar rush of a marmalade sandwich, so eat your heart out food bloggers. And no self-styled YouTube adventurer can stage a daring escape from prison as Paddington does in his latest film.

So, what is the reason that Paddington has found his way into several generation’s hearts and stayed there?  One answer of course is storytelling.  No matter what the medium, you need content, and in our era of style over substance it is always a good story that will capture imagination. This is no surprise to us working in Children’s Media. Children have always been the most critical of audiences and will turn away if their attention isn’t grabbed immediately.  We know how to get their attention and keep it.  Having said that, as times change, few Children’s characters have endured in the way of Paddington, and many characters from my own childhood memories are not interesting enough to my son and his friends, which is very disappointing.

For adults, Paddington is a nostalgic treasure from childhood.  For today’s children, he is a funny character who makes them laugh when his good-natured efforts to help lead to mayhem. Despite today’s faster pace and constant visual stimulation, the mix of slapstick comedy and jeopardy remains appealing from generation to generation and is classic. Childlike and full of curiosity, he represents the child in all of us.

But it isn’t just Paddington’s naïve curiosity that the young audience identify with.  The Browns, and particularly the Brown children, are also identifiable.  As a young child, who didn’t want to have a wild animal living with them?  Paddington is a spectacled bear from deepest Peru and he might be more mild that wild but he beats a cat or a dog any day.  Can you imagine the envy of your school friends?

And adventurers always have our respect.  In 1958, international travel was not as easy as it is today, so it’s incredible that Paddington managed to travel to London all by himself from so far away.  It shows courage and determination – essential qualities for a hero.  Michael Bond tells how he based Paddington’s famous suitcase and ‘Please look after this bear’ label on his memories of children at London stations in the ‘40s, uprooted and sent to live with strangers in the countryside – which might as well have been a foreign country to the evacuees.  Today’s children may be familiar with travel, but there is drama in being separated from all you know, with hints of danger and the thrill of the unexpected. That is as true for stories today as it was then. What will happen to them?  We want to know.

The story of how Paddington came about is almost as amazing as his escapades.  Michael Bond was a BBC Cameraman, and when he came across a lone teddy bear on a shelf in a London shop, he bought it as a Christmas present for his wife.  This last minute, impulse buy was the start of an incredible story that spawned many books, three animated TV series and two major films.  Michael had worked on Blue Peter, and Paddington became involved with the programme, resulting in many appearances and further books and stories of Paddington at the BBC, including a guest appearance in the 2009 Children in Need video.  Of course, his association with the National Broadcaster helped to keep his profile high during the years before social media, but as the digital revolution brought a constant stream of new and relevant characters, Paddington continued to hold his place in our hearts.

Here we must mention the toy bears that are now collectors’ items. I have one – now much loved by my son, and another clue to Paddington’s endurance.  The popularity of the Paddington Bear toy keeps the character alive, but it is also an indicator of how important merchandise and branding would become for future broadcasters, TV producers and film makers.  The original bear was created and manufactured in 1972 by a company famously run by Jeremy Clarkson’s parents, and wasn’t linked to a broadcaster or publisher, but licenced by Michael himself.  The success of the bears became an obvious business model for marketing, publicity and of course generating profit.  Eventually broadcasters saw the potential and now no major production deal for children’s media is complete without a merchandising plan.

We may insist that content is key, we can’t ignore the fact that today’s young audience are more sophisticated in what they expect to see, and Paddington’s journey through the generations has been accompanied by the advance in animation and production techniques.  Bizarrely, the very first TV series in 1975, produced by London based animation company, FilmFair, was the most experimental, with a stop frame puppet in a 3D space against 2D black and white backgrounds.  All the other characters were 2D drawings. This gave the series a distinctive appearance and is unusual for the mixing of techniques.  The subsequent two series, in 1989 and 1997, were traditional 2D colour animations.

Then, following on from his success in books and TV, Paddington became a film star.  The films with their contemporary mix of 3D animation and live action, give the Paddington films a modern, new look while still hinting at the 1950s nostalgia of ordinary families living in large London houses complete with housekeeper.

Nostalgia aside, Paddington has moved with the times, making full use of digital techniques to stay relevant. He is a multi-media star across books, TV and film, with potential for further media domination in radio – particularly now Ben Wishaw has given him an instantly recognisable voice.  Don’t under-estimate the popularity of podcasts, as technology has enabled parents to download content for later, especially useful for long car journeys.

So, Paddington’s longevity owes much to adapting and being accessible to newer audiences.  This is combined with a grown up’s nostalgia, essentially remaining the same while other popular characters, having been given reboots, are unrecognisable from their originals.  He is a modern multi-media, cross- platform star with commercial clout, but above all it is the classic storytelling of his adventures that keep us coming back for more as we wait eagerly for the Paddington 3 film. Not bad for a 60-year-old. Happy Birthday Paddington.

This article was first published in the Children's Media Yearbook 2018

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