Since arriving at Paddington Station with nothing but a marmalade sandwich under his hat, and a briefcase labelled: “PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR. THANK YOU”, Paddington Bear has become a British icon, undeniably earning national treasure status.
Unlike others born in the 1950s (John Travolta, I’m looking at you…), Paddington has aged remarkably, remaining just as current and touching as he was 65 years ago. The numerous adaptations of Michael Bond’s original stories are a testament to this, with Paddington 2 overtaking Citizen Kane as the best-reviewed film on Rotten Tomatoes in 2021.
More recently, Bond’s bear even starred as part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations – one of her last public appearances, thanking the Queen over a cup of tea in Buckingham Palace. Since then, Paddington has been used by mourners as a symbol of their grief after the Queen died in September 2022. Hundreds of marmalade sandwiches were left outside the palace and in Royal Parks to commemorate her death – though mourners were in fact asked to stop due to environmental and sustainable reasons.
This alone shows how Paddington’s symbolic status within British culture is firmly embedded, even 65 years after A Bear Called Paddington was first published.
But what is it about this bear from Darkest Peru that we Brits so adore?
The answer to this is two-fold: firstly, Paddington is so loved because he is kind.
Come rain or shine (it’s London, so mostly rain), Paddington chooses compassion, selflessly helping those around him without expecting anything in return. His Aunt Lucy always taught him the importance of good manners, and his politeness is central to his endearing and comforting character. In this sense, Paddington is timeless – kindness never goes out of fashion.
As a children’s character, Paddington is thus the perfect example of the classic “it’s the thought that counts” that we are all taught. Although Paddington does often end up in some sticky situations (no pun intended), his intentions are never misguided and he always tries to make amends. He remains ever-optimistic and takes everything in his bear-sized stride – as he said himself: “Things are always happening to me. I’m that sort of bear.”
With the help of the Brown Family (who perfect the ‘gentle parenting’ strategy that is all the rage today), Paddington becomes a much-loved member of the Windsor Gardens community.
In addition, Paddington’s outsider, immigrant identity is the second reason as to why he has become one of Britain’s favourite fictional characters.
As an outsider, Paddington’s adventures reveal much about British society and humour, leading us to do what we Brits do best – self-deprecatingly laugh at ourselves. Through Paddington’s eyes, Bond picks up on cultural quirks like the incessant apologising, obsession with queueing, and the reverence of a cup of tea (and the judgement towards those who make their tea ‘wrong’), that we often accept as ‘normal’. Paddington’s curious and inquisitive nature is the perfect way to explore the absurdities of some cultural norms, like the unspoken etiquette of the Tube, for example, which baffles the poor bear in ‘Paddington Goes Underground’.
RW Alley, who has illustrated Paddington Bear for over 25 years, believes that Paddington’s outsider status is a key “reason he has endured,” as the desire to belong is universally relatable. His determined attempts to fit into a society with countless hidden rules make him both entertaining, endearing, and relatable.
But, Paddington also shows us that our differences are what make us human (or in his case, a bear). Paddington never becomes less eccentric, and he never tries to be something that he is not. The quote “I’ll never be like other people, but that’s alright because I’m a bear,” is enough to bring a tear to the eye.
What’s more, Paddington never hides his pride for his Peruvian ancestry, teaching the Browns and Mr Gruberman the importance of a hard stare and a good marmalade sandwich, just like his Aunt Lucy taught him. In Paddington 2, the bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) even shares his trademark sandwiches with his fellow inmates, in a prison storyline that would give Shawshank Redemption a run for its money.
In this era of Sunak, Patel, Braverman, and – bafflingly – David Cameron, Paddington is a welcome portrayal of immigration and remains absolutely necessary, more than one might hope. Paddington defies the vile narrative that is being perpetuated in today’s government, showing us that you can come all the way from the Darkest Peru and still be loved in Britain – you can even have tea with the Queen!
In Paddington Bear, Bond created a character that teaches us all, across every generation, what it means to be kind, polite, and generous. Paddington epitomises the best of humanity, reminding us of the values that bind us as members of a community. Against Suella Braverman’s best wishes, a Peruvian immigrant bear better exemplifies what it means to be British more than Sunak’s cabinet ever could, and I for one hope that he remains the pillar of British culture that he is today.