Michael Bond obituary

Author and creator of Paddington Bear, whose popularity and relevance has lasted six decades

Paddington station, as described in the opening chapter of Michael Bond’s book A Bear Called Paddington, has the melancholy of a departed world. Some of its trains are still steam, whistling away to halts as yet unaxed. There are buns in the buffet. The Browns, waiting for their daughter to chug home from school for the holidays, find a creature from “darkest Peru” who has stowed away on a boat to Britain. He is sitting on a small suitcase near the lost property office, wearing a hat and a label around his neck: “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” The Brown family adopt him.

This did not seem a fantasy when it was written. Bond, who has died aged 91, was a BBC television cameraman who had nipped out to Oxford Street, London, late on Christmas Eve, 1956, for a stocking filler for his first wife, Brenda. Out of pity he bought a bear glove-puppet, rejected and alone on a shelf in Selfridges. Bond had been scribbling for over a decade – his first short story was completed in an army tent outside Cairo in 1946. He bashed out the bear opus in 10 days in the spring of 1957 on a typewriter in a tiny flat off Portobello Road.

Paddington Bear as envisioned by Peggy Fortnum.
Paddington Bear as realised by Peggy Fortnum. Photograph: © Peggy Fortnum and HarperCollins

He located the book in the shabby world around Paddington and Notting Hill, and created the bear out of his memories of evacuee children in the second world war, luggage-labelled against loss in transit; Paddington’s friend Mr Gruber was based on Hungarian refugees he worked with at the BBC’s monitoring service at Caversham Park, with their attache cases packed with sad pasts, and their careful English. A generation later, the bear was interpreted as a sympathetic allegory of the Commonwealth immigrants of the 1950s: Bond initially wrote that Paddington came from “darkest Africa”, but his agent noted that the continent no longer had native bear species, so Bond amended it to Peru. In later life, Bond was touched by many letters from child immigrants who told him about their own fresh starts in England, just like Paddington’s: many liked the way the bear politely challenged authority. By the time of the 2014 Paddington film, Bond’s bear was a benign signifier of welcomed migration.

Seven publishers rejected the book, then Collins paid Bond £75, and brought it out in 1958: there were 13 sequels, though no later illustrators matched the original, Peggy Fortnum, who inked Paddington as stubborn, catastrophe-prone and kitted out in duffle coat (Bond had been wearing one, the government-surplus gear of an outside cameraman, when he found the original bear).

He began to bank serious writing money only in the 1970s, after Graham Clutterbuck and Ivor Wood (whose Guardian obituary Bond wrote) created a BBC TV series using an appealing animatronic bear– with a great hard stare – and simple, drawn backgrounds. The stories were narrated by Michael Hordern, who later remarked that his most challenging roles had been God, Lear and Paddington Bear.

That really began the cult. The books were translated into 40 languages, including Latin, and sold 35m copies worldwide. The 2014 film, starring Hugh Bonneville and Nicole Kidman, used Ben Whishaw’s voice, animatronics and CGI to bring the bear to life (Bond had a cameo as “Kindly Gentleman”). The sequel is to be released later this year.

Bond based the good-hearted Brown family on his own father, Norman, who worked for the post office in Newbury, Berkshire, and the safe, warm house his mother, Frances, kept, smelling of Brasso and Reckitt’s bath cubes; the few events from his childhood he cared to share with interviewers include his prize of a watch for winning a slow bicycle race and his father’s occasional fall from the saddle while raising his hat to a lady.

Please Look After This Bear from the BBC TV series

Bond attended a strict Catholic school in Reading, Presentation college, which he left as soon as he could, aged 14. He joined a solicitor’s office, then followed his aptitude for building wireless sets into transmitter engineering with the BBC. Despite his desire to be a wartime pilot, he so failed to cope in the air that he was grounded, then offered the choice of going down the mines or joining the army. After soldiering in the Middle East, Bond returned to the BBC in 1947 and got behind a camera in the improvisatory days of TV, shooting everything from Dixon of Dock Green to Face to Face: “It was live … everything was held together by string and there was always some disaster going on behind the scenes.” Writing radio plays for what was then Ceylon, and Hong Kong, and journalism for Men Only, Lilliput and the Manchester Guardian, was an extra, and Bond did not give up the day job until April Fool’s Day, 1966.

Paddington was a rare British merchandising success, making £5m a year. The Paddington soft toy, freestanding in Dunlop wellies, was the mascot of the decade; the blue-rosetted beast Margaret Thatcher posed with at a Tory conference was a knock-off. (Long after, when David Cameron’s arrival at a restaurant brought the number at table to 13, ministers drafted in a proper Paddington for luck.) The toy was joined by Aunt Lucy from “the Home for Retired Bears, Lima”, in the bowler hat of a native Peruvian. Autograph hunters began to arrive at the door of the Bonds’ house in Haslemere, Surrey, and were kindly asked to stay.

However, the deals for more than 200 items, the prosecution of pirates, and the requests for more TV scripts pressured Bond into depression. There weren’t enough hours in his day: he left Haslemere before dawn and came home past dusk, then moved into a new Barbican flat in the City of London to be closer to work. For two years he was switched off by sleeping pills and on by whisky, but he said that his responsibility to Paddington got him through: “There is something so upright about Paddington. I wouldn’t want to let him down.” Bond spoke of the character easily (right through to his last story, written this April), as a more confident extension of his own shy self: “Unless an author believes in his character, no one else is going to. He isn’t me, but I wouldn’t mind being him – he’s never put down or deflated. He has the naivety of a child and the sophistication of an adult.”

Bond’s first marriage disintegrated during those years (a relationship with one of his book editors produced his son, Anthony) and he took refuge in more work, writing 18 hours a day. He and Brenda divorced in 1981; he then married Susan Rogers, who was employed by his agent – he liked her telephone voice and, too nervous to ask her out to dinner, invited her to a Paddington play in Wimbledon. But he remained friends with Brenda, and they kept joint custody of the Christmas bear, always considered a member of the family: “We ring each other and say, ‘He feels like coming to you now’. I wouldn’t go on holiday without him.”

The last Paddington TV shows were financed by the American Home Box Office channel in the 1980s: in Paddington Bear Goes to the Movies, the bear ploshed through Singin’ in the Rain with the amused permission of Gene Kelly himself.

Bond also devised and scripted another TV series, The Herbs, and many children’s books set in a more contemporary world of pets on the patio, the most popular about the guinea pig Olga da Polga – a real Bond family pet, or rather, a sequence of pets.

The novels that Bond said he most enjoyed creating were whodunits about Monsieur Pamplemousse, a former member of the Sûreté working undercover for Le Guide, the French directory of the highest cuisine. Travelling with his dog, Pommes Frites, Pamplemousse does a morsel of detecting among pages of descriptions of food and wine. Bond had begun his edible education with a daring 1948 trip across the Channel, continued it in the homes of those BBC refugees and the restaurants of Charlotte Street, and detoured on the annual road journey across France to the Cannes TV festival.

A still from the film Paddington, 2014, in which the bear is ‘a benign signifier of welcomed migration’.
A still from the film Paddington, 2014, in which the bear is ‘a benign signifier of welcomed migration’. Photograph: Allstar/STUDIOCANAL

By Paddington’s golden jubilee, the middle-classness of the Browns, with the bear’s bank account and foreign holidays, seemed ordinary to young readers. It was the changeless, sexless security of Paddington’s home at 32 Windsor Gardens (based on Lansdowne Crescent), his food shopping with a basket on wheels at Portobello Market, that had come to be exotic.

In 1997 Bond wrote his own memoirs, Bears and Forbears, definitely not sexless. In all he wrote more than 150 books and was appointed OBE in 1997 and CBE in 2015 for services to literature. Yet he was reconciled to Paddington being his permanent achievement, with such cracking lines as “ ‘Bears is sixpence extra,’ the taxi driver said gruffly. ‘Sticky bears is ninepence.’” (Of course Stephen Fry read the audiobooks.)

Later editions decimalised the coinage and increased the pocket money, which was unwise: inflation no more affects the values of Paddington’s universe than it might Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood. The animatronic bear, under a licence Bond did not directly control, appeared in 2007 ads for Marmite, substituted for marmalade in the sarnies: Bond apologised in a letter to the Times.

For the bear’s 50th anniversary, Bond attempted a contemporary book, Paddington Here and Now, in which the bear was arrested (he is, after all, an illegal immigrant) when his trolley was clamped, and then doorstepped by the tabloids. His most recent Paddington story, Paddington’s Finest Hour, was published in April.

At Paddington station concourse in 2000, the bear-shaped charity collection boxes and stuffed toys in glass cases (maintained by Bond, who kept having to turn out from his nearby Little Venice house to put the bears back on their feet) were superseded by a bronze statue of Paddington on platform one, one of the few memorials in London to inspire real affection. Passengers pose sitting on its plinth, eating sandwiches.

He is survived by Susan; his daughter by Brenda, Karen; his son, Anthony, and by four grandchildren.

Michael Bond, author, born 13 January 1926; died 27 June 2017


Veronica Horwell

The GuardianTramp

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