The London Of ‘Paddington’
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.