The day Paddington's sandwiches almost started a RIOT!
. . . and how TV bosses wanted the Brown children to have a drug habit – two of the marmalade-dropping tales about our best-loved bear, 60 today, as told in the magical memoirs of his creator
SIXTY years ago today, writer Michael Bond published his captivating childhood classic A Bear Called Paddington — and so began a worldwide love affair with the characterful bear, complete with duffle coat and stash of marmalade sandwiches. His creator died last year, aged 91, but Paddington lives on in his books and films. Here, in Bond’s own words, is the heart-warming story of how Paddington came to be…
‘ MR AND Mrs Brown first met Paddington on a railway platform. In fact, that was how he came to have such an unusual name for a bear, because Paddington was the name of the station . . .’
When I wrote those few words, I had no idea quite what a change they would make to my life. It really was a case of putting something down on paper to get my brain working that morning. My inspiration was sitting on the mantelpiece above the gas fire in our London flat.
I had bought him as a stocking filler for my wife, Brenda, the previous year. Taking shelter from the weather that Christmas Eve, I happened to wander into Selfridges and found myself in the toy department where I came upon a small toy bear left on a shelf — looking, it seemed to me, rather lonely.
We called him Paddington because Paddington Station was just down the road and it had a nice West Country ring to it, safe and solid.
It was memories of newsreels showing trainloads of evacuees leaving London during the war, each child with all its important possessions in a tiny suitcase and a label round its neck, that prompted me to do the same for Paddington. ‘Please look after this bear’ was the message on the label the Browns could hardly resist, and the addition of ‘Thank you’ said even more.
Suppose Mr and Mrs Brown had been my own parents, I wondered: what would they have done? My mother, on learning that this small bear had travelled all the way from Darkest Peru as a stowaway, would have unhesitatingly taken the line of ‘first things first’, and fed him.
THUS my father would have found himself sitting in the station buffet, ‘looking as though he had tea with a bear on Paddington Station every day of his life’.
From then on the story followed a simple but logical process, and before lunch I had written the f irst chapter of a totally unpremeditated children’s book.
Looking back, Paddington was quite a lot like my father. Norman ‘Norrie’ Bond was the manager of the local post office, and he always wore a hat.
On holiday at the Isle of Wight, he went into the sea with his trousers rolled up and kept his hat on, in case he met someone he knew. If he hadn’t been able to raise his hat, he would have been mortified.
In my story, the Browns took Paddington to live with them at Number 32 Windsor Gardens. It seemed to me that any family who would take a strange bear home to live with them must be a pretty soft touch, so there was need for a stronger character in the background. Someone of whom Paddington would remain slightly in awe.
Mrs Bird, the Browns’ housekeeper, was a familiar type of woman in Britain between the wars. They were among the many millions who had lost a husband or a boyfriend in the carnage of World War I and found themselves reduced to living with a relative in return for doing all the housework and the cooking. Mr Brown was also very like my father, who was hopelessly addicted to his pipe. he once almost choked after smoking a mothball that had rolled into the bowl while in his pocket.
On another occasion, he started to light the gas fire but couldn’t find a live match, because of his tidy habit of placing the burnt ones back in the matchbox after getting his pipe going. By the time he located one, he’d forgotten the gas was on and lit his pipe instead.
I don’t remember the explosion, because I was in my pram at the time — with the hood up, fortunately. That protected me when the kitchen dresser was blasted on top of me, shattering most of my parents’ wedding china.
Many of my earliest memories sprang from my imagination. Each morning, after washing with a jug of cold water that drained into a bucket, I would use the toilet, pull the chain and run downstairs as fast as I could. I had to reach the bottom before the cistern stopped flushing, otherwise the world would come to an end. Small children’s minds are full of secret fears.
Childhood imagination came to the fore again after my wartime service, first in the RAF (I was airsick) and then in the Army. While waiting for demob in Egypt, I had submitted an article to a magazine, and received a cheque for my trouble. I decided I rather liked the idea of being a writer, and kept trying through the Fifties, while earning my living at the BBC as a trainee cameraman (among the shows I worked on were Dixon Of Dock Green and Blue Peter).
My agent, harvey unna, was a sweet-natured Jewish man who had fled Germany in 1933 with the equivalent of just £5 in his pocket.
he had suggested that I might do well with children’s stories, though I hadn’t had a lot of luck before Paddington.
As I wrote the first story, with its refugee overtones, I remembered the story of harvey’s flight to Britain, and this partly inspired my character Mr Gruber, the antiques dealer. Mr Gruber and Paddington become firm friends, perhaps because the old man understands what it is like to find oneself an immigrant in a strange country with no money and nowhere to go.
Paddington and Mr Gruber enjoy a formal yet very special relation-
ship, always addressing each other by their surnames. It wouldn’t occur to either of them that it could be any other way.
Paddington’s hat and duffle coat were simply replicas of what I happened to be wearing. The basket on wheels, which became his trademark whenever he went out shopping, was an indispensable part of our own household equipment. And his love of marmalade came about just because I happen to prefer it to honey.
After eight days of writing, I had a first draft ready for Harvey Unna. He wrote back to say he liked it, but picked me up on an error: I’d said Paddington came from Darkest Africa. ‘There are no bears in Africa, darkest or otherwise,’ Harvey reproved me. ‘Children either know this or should know this, and I suggest you make suitable amends.’
A trip to Westminster Public Library, followed by a visit to Regent’s Park Zoo, solved the problem. I settled on Darkest Peru. And on February 10, 1958, Harvey wrote again to say A Bear Called Paddington had been accepted by Collins, the publishers, who were offering an advance of £75.
They suggested Peggy Fortnum as the illustrator. It isn’t easy to capture a young bear’s likeness in a few lines, but Peggy did it to perfection with her pen-and-ink drawings. With a few deft strokes she captured his eyes, his shagginess, his lightly hunched figure, his purposeful air.
By Christmas, the entire first print-run had sold out and my publisher wondered whether I would write a sequel. As Paddington would say, I needed no second bidding.
With success came book signing tours. These were not without their hazards. Marmalade sandwiches figure large in any kind of Paddington promotion and there were times when I wished I had given him a liking for something a little more exotic, like truffles or out- of- season asparagus. It was too late.
At one school summer fete, a squad of sixth-formers were seen disappearing fast over the brow of a hill, carrying a large trunkful of marmalade sandwiches and pursued by a swarm of wasps.
At another event in Glasgow, expecting a modest turnout, my publishers advertised free marmalade sandwiches. Children and sundry passers-by turned out in droves. Soon the police were called to control the crowds outside.
By the time I arrived, the supply of sandwiches was exhausted and, to make matters worse, I discovered the children’s books department was on the top floor.
Forcing my way up a narrow, winding staircase, I squeezed past a hungry, disgruntled horde who held me personally responsible for the absence of bread-and-marmalade.
There were other perils. One Christmas, I was invited to switch on the lights in a Devon town and, as often happens, someone had dressed up as Paddington to stand beside me on the balcony. During the photocall, a local journalist asked if I would mind having the bear sit on my lap for a picture.
Once Paddington had made himself comfortable I gave him a big hug while bouncing him up and down for the camera. During the inevitable argument about whether the flash was working, I asked the bear: ‘And how old are you?’
To my alarm, a girl’s voice said, ‘Seventeen.’ Immediately I saw banner headlines: ‘Children’s author molests girl, 17! I thought it was a bear, pleads middle-aged writer.’
The first producer to try to put Paddington on film was convinced that it would work only with a real actor dressed up in furs. Communication with the actor in the suit was impossible. He couldn’t hear what was being said to him, let alone see where he was going. He could raise his hat, but he could never manage to put it back on his head.
Bereft of facial expressions, he tended to resort to falling over backwards with his legs in the air whenever he needed to register even mild surprise. If anything more startling was needed, he began running around in circles.
The props department created a head for Paddington with eyes that actually blinked. Unfortunately, they did it randomly and not both at the same time, so that the bear looked like it had a particularly nasty tic that caused it to wink at passers-by on both sides.
The producer’s constant search for financial backing led to some tiresome meetings with moguls chomping cigars in backrooms and proposing extraordinary changes to my stories.
ON ONE memorable occasion, in the space of about a quarter of an hour, Mr Gruber’s antique shop turned into an emporium selling old Army uniforms (the designer just happened to have a relative who owned such an establishment on the Portobello Road, available on favourable terms) and the Browns’ children, Jonathan and Judy, gained a few years in order to become teenagers with drugs problems (this idea came from the director, who was clearly speaking from firsthand experience).
There were moments when it wouldn’t have surprised me if someone had got up and demanded to know what a bear was doing in the story. I sometimes wondered the same myself.
When the Paddington musical opened in London at the Duke Of York’s Theatre in 1974, again the lead role was played by someone in a bear skin, this time with a mask.
The actor came up with the idea of gluing a black ping-pong ball to his nose. It worked well enough until one night the glue dissolved. The sound of a ball bouncing over a stage, pursued by its owner, is distinctive and won a round of applause.
Much noisier was the occasion when, in the opening scene at Paddington station, a luggage trolley (borrowed from British Rail — enormously heavy and with a mind of its own) took off on its own accord, gathering speed as it headed towards the footlights. As it disappeared into the orchestra pit, there was an enormous crash and everything went black.
ANOTHER problem was Paddington’s voice. I imagined quite a bearish sound — the closest I ever heard in real life was on a beach one holiday, when an elderly German walked past talking to his wife in a high-pitched growl.
But when Paddington finally arrived on television, Sir Michael Hordern was cast as the narrator, and I thought he was wonderful.
Paddington has come a long way since he first arrived on a London railway platform in 1958, after journeying from Darkest Peru. And it’s a long way too from the house in Reading where I spent the first nine years of my life.
A few years ago, I returned at the request of a newspaper for a series it was running on childhood memories. The house felt warm and friendly, and the memories came flooding back. I found myself wishing my parents could have been there to see it all, and I could have thanked them for my childhood, which I never did. It is the kind of thing one always leaves until it’s too late.
Most of all I could have thanked them for giving me a love of books, for it brought not only immeasurable pleasure but my livelihood too.
But there is no going back. Besides, the bathroom has been modernised and I’m not sure I would trust the sleek new toilet to keep on flushing until I reached the bottom of the stairs — and who knows what might happen if I didn’t make it?
EXTRACTED from Bears & Forebears: A Life So Far by Michael Bond, published by HarperCollins. © Michael Bond 1996. to order special anniversary editions of the Complete Adventures of Paddington (£40; offer price £32) and A Bear Called Paddington (£20; offer price £16), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. Offers valid to 20/10/18.