During the construction of the Channel Tunnel in 1990, when teams from either side met in the middle and connected the UK to Europe for the first time since the Ice Age, British workers chose a Paddington soft toy as the first item to pass through to their counterparts. (The French brought champagne).
Paddington is a British icon, but it is the fact he is not British that makes him an icon. In a world that seems bent on building barriers and demonising difference, he cuts through these constructs with politeness and deference, with heart.
Born while the wounds of war were still healing, the marmalade-addicted bear from darkest Peru celebrates his 60th birthday next year. His creator, Michael Bond, drew directly on his memories of what he saw of the Kindertransport – children from Europe arriving with whatever belongings they could carry and a note around their neck – and later the evacuees fleeing London during the Blitz.
The books have sold more than 35 million copies, spawned a much-loved television show and inspired a hit movie that grossed over £190m. Its sequel is out now in cinemas, made by the team behind the Harry Potter films. But instead of looking to other children’s classics, producer David Heyman cites the Frank Capra masterpiece Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as a major inspiration.
“It’s about seeing the good in places where others might not,” Heyman says. “That’s a good message, in a world where we’re all a little too willing to judge a book by its cover.”
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
In Paddington 2, our hero is sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit, but overcomes all obstacles with resolve and enthusiasm.
“It wasn’t about having more action, it was about capturing the spirit of Paddington, his generosity, kindness, optimism and decency,” Heyman adds. “That’s what was important to us.”
At its core, Paddington’s story has always been one of acceptance, belonging, identity and compassion. Important life lessons delivered in the guise of an utterly charming, guileless, furry foreigner. He embodies a generosity of spirit we tend only to rediscover in the festive season, which is fast turning him into a Christmas staple.
M&S certainly think so, having Paddington front their festive advertising campaign, which encourages us to ‘Spend it well’, with staff performing random acts of kindness instore, like handing out marmalade sandwiches.
Paddington’s story has always been one of acceptance, belonging, identity and compassion
“Please look after this bear,” reads the tag placed around his neck when we first meet Paddington on the station platform. His story comes from a place of desperation, destitution. He is lost, homeless but crucially not hopeless. Isn’t there something a little ‘no room at the inn’ that chimes with the season?
Once given a home with the Browns, Paddington unites rather than divides the family, helping them realise who they really are. As Hugh Bonneville’s Mr Brown says: “He looks for the good in all of us… and somehow he finds it.”
Michael Bond, who died in June aged 91, continued to use Paddington for social commentary to the end. In his penultimate book, Paddington’s Finest Hour, published in January, it only takes a couple of pages before a policeman is accusing our hero of being “one of them illegal immigrants”.
Technically, maybe he is, but he is also one of us and a reminder that we have a choice about how to behave and treat others.
Paddington’s mantra, learned from beloved Aunt Lucy, is: “If you’re kind and polite the world will be right”. Let’s give it a go.