The London Of ‘Paddington’

London

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I didn’t grow up with Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear stories, and being largely immune to the appeal of sugar-rush candy-coloured ADD-afflicted children’s films, I tend to give kids’ fare a swerve. I’d also struggled with director Paul King’s previous fantastical film, ‘Bunny and the Bull’, which presented London as a cut-and-paste Blue Peter model of cardboard and paint. The idea was charming, but the overall effect was exhausting.

So the big surprise in the enchanting film ‘Paddington’ is just how right he gets the tricky balance of creating a fantastical modern-day London. First, he gives the bear the sense of wonder that exists in any small child, then combines it with the temperament of a small dog, placing him in a fish-out-of-water situation. Then he creates a London that is at once both recognisable and one step away from reality. He keeps the rain, the pigeons and the grey skies but pumps up the colour a little, so that the Portobello Road, while mercifully avoiding the tackiness of ‘Bedknobs & Broomsticks’, is still sparklier and more flower-filled than its real-life counterpart.

This is a London where people still use red phone boxes and guardsmen share their sentry boxes, where everyone lives in what would now be a £3.5 million house, a London untrammelled by tourists and pointless council road furniture, a city as we would secretly like to see it, not as grand as the London of ‘Mary Poppins’ but perhaps correct for ‘101 Dalmations’.

The director is aided by a fine script that’s full of terrific London jokes, including a cracker involving a Satnav, an Easy Rider reference and a pair of coppers who spend their time discussing biscuits. There’s lots of good character acting, some Heath Robinson-esque gadgetry and a rich sense of the kind of design that was virtually the only enjoyable thing about the Harry Potter films. Oh, and in typically British style, a bit of drag, and drinking.

This is the London we tried to create in the Bryant & May graphic novel, the London I used in ‘Disturbia’ and ‘Soho Black’. It’s the London Charles Voss has used in ‘The Jennifer Files’ books, and Ben Aaronovitch employed in his ‘Rivers of London’ series. It appears in ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Franklyn’ and ‘Harry Potter’, and is based on the London of Virginia Woolf (there’s a poster of Woolf in ‘Paddington’), a 1930s pastiche that’s recognisable but nicer, kinder than the harsh realities of the present, a place where there are still milkmen and lollipop ladies and cheery constables on the beat.

In the opera ‘Hansel and Gretel’ there’s an orchestral scene that’s traditionally awkward to stage, when the children are lost in the woods and protected by angels. In a brilliant ENO production I saw many years ago, Hansel and Gretel’s wood was transformed into a London park, and the children were protected by these classic authority figures, who guarded them through the night.

The new film also has a nice London message; in a city where everyone is different, everyone can fit in.

When this kind of Neverland London appears in books or on film there has to be a bit of grit in it, otherwise it’s not believable (cf. dreaded Richard Curtis films). It’s this London that ‘Paddington’ gets right, a city that it feel you might yet discover around the next corner, but never quite manage to find.

Except that sometimes – just once in a while – you do.

7 comments on “The London Of ‘Paddington’”

  1. RobertR says:

    It is a delightful movie, I took 3 of my godchildren (from 5-10) before Christmas; having grown up with the BBC Michael Horden version and having read Bond’s series on a very wet holiday in Scotland when I was 7, I did wonder if they might be a bit too twee and whimsical for modern children. However they all loved it, it was funny, engaging, with great real-life performances, they all wanted to go and visit London & talking after over ice-cream they all agreed they understood Paddington’s sense of scary new world, new people whose ways are different, so much to take in and understand. Plus they all decided learning how to use the ‘hard-stare’ was a useful talent to acquire – especially with their parents.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    I wondered whether I was too adult for this but it sounds as if it will be just fine. When 1001 Dalmations came out there were 5 adults using one child as an excuse to see it and this may be another such.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Oops, that’s 101 not a thousand and one!

  4. Agatha Hamilton says:

    Yes, it’s always useful to have a child you can borrow to justify entry to children’s films. Mind you, I missed a bit of ‘Paddington’ because my seven-year old chaperone ate a huge bag of Mint Aero and thought she was going to be sick. There are drawbacks to mini companions. And some terrible films. ‘Sponge Bob Square Pants’ ( or indeed, any combination of those four words – never quite got the grasp of it and it seemed like the longest six hours I have ever spent in the cinema. Was amazed it was still daylight when we got outside.
    Am looking forward to ‘Shaun the Sheep’, though

  5. Alan Morgan says:

    Yes, and yes.Saw this with my youngest for her birthday. I am of an age to have read the Michael Bond books, along with The Wombles (I was young, and like most here I’m sure a precocious reader). Perhaps inevitably my eldest wanted to know why Dr Who lived next door. I felt it didn’t need quite much back story is the only thing, the bear simply being at Paddington station, and being from darkest Peru, once enough. I thought it was perfect that the kindly old man on the bus that features in the stories, was in the film Michael Bond.

    And considerably better than the also-meant-to-be London I saw yesterday in Night at the Museum 3. That also was because it involved taking a child to the flicks. Oh dear god, my eyes. Today she can watch Jason and the Argonauts with me, and damn well like it.

  6. J. Folgard says:

    Every time I read about this movie I want to see it -I’ll catch it on DVD probably.
    Being childless, I remember being completely alone in the cinema for a showing of ‘the Iron Giant’ -but being a gentleman, the projectionist ran the movie anyway. I also remember seeing ‘Coraline’ by Henry Selick from the Neil Gaiman book, and one or to mothers trying to soothe their too-young children: seeing “oh, animation” they hadn’t factored the subject matter could be a bit scary!

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Animation does not necessarily equate with suitable for young children, a good lesson for the parents to learn. The name Coraline apparently came out of a typographical error or a misreading at one point and thereby clarified the pronunciation for me.
    May I put in a query about horror here? I was reading a mystery the other day, a story set in semi-rural Ontario, familiar sort of characters (although I only know one person who committed and two who have contemplated suicide) and normal routines, but without any of the mood setters (fog, wind, creaking trees or buildings) I had shudders of horror, a desire to flick past a page which I knew would contain actions that should have been avoidable. I wonder how often authors are able to do that – pull horror out of the ordinary, the routine – or is that the real source of horror?

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