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Stowaway in a sou'wester

Forty years ago a bear turned up in the lost property office at Paddington station. He's been with us ever since.

Geraldine Brennan examines the enduring appeal of the creature from Darkest Peru

Paddington Bear is 40 this year. So am I, but only one of us has been honoured by a statue at a London mainline railway station. There are currently two Paddingtons at Paddington - one near the ticket office and one in the lost property office, which is where the Brown family first encountered the stranded bear from Darkest Peru in the book that made BBC cameraman Michael Bond's fortune.

At the London Toy and Model Museum, a short walk away, an exhibition, 40 Years of Paddington Bear, opens on Sunday (April 5) to celebrate the life of Bond's creation on and off the page. Here Paddington appears on soap and Christmas crackers as well as on film and as toys of all vintages. His merchandising potential was spotted long before the age of the Power Ranger and Teletubby, when the only serious competition came from the Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter empires. Bond's bear has the edge on both Noddy and Peter Rabbit because the "Please Look After This Bear" tag lures adults as well as children.

Adult fans were recruited in large numbers in the 1970s by the animated five-minute TV films made by FilmFair and narrated by the late Sir Michael Hordern. These programmes did not reach the same cult status as Bond's other hit TV series, The Herbs, but they were a perfect platform for Paddington's slapstick scrapes.

As the series took hold, celebrities were photographed carrying toy Paddington bears, which no doubt would have been used as props for Hello! shoots if the magazine had existed then. At one point they were considered appropriate leaving-home presents for otherwise hip 18-year-olds. Until punk killed off undergraduate sentimentality, Paddingtons outnumbered Desiderata posters and Yes albums in some university halls of residence. A Paddington on the bedspread did not damage its owner's image in the same way as, say, a pussy-cat nightdress case.

These soft-toy status symbols were the official Paddington bears from Gabrielle Designs, the Yorkshire cottage industry set up in 1971 by Shirley Clarkson, who made her first bear for her son, TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson. Gabrielle Designs ceased trading earlier this year, and the right to produce Paddingtons worldwide now rests with Eden, the US toy company. The bears cannot be more than 3ft 9ins tall (there is no minimum size), but duffle coats can come in all colours (the original Paddington had a blue one). The newest bears' plushy fur is a light marmalade colour. The early Gabrielle Designs bears, which are collectors' items, are more of a mid-brown.

Mrs Clarkson's first bear is on display at the Toy and Model Museum, alongside the original sets from the FilmFair series and the eight-inch-high puppet. The museum's marketing manager, Matthew O'Reilly, is particularly fond of the FilmFair model. "Most adults are very attached to Michael Hordern telling the Paddington stories, and this bear brings back the voice," he says. "The model is very expressive and amazingly tough and flexible - it had to be in order to be manipulated for animation."

Children who missed the Hordern series can tour four life-size replica scenes at the exhibition. The latest Paddington cartoons from the Canadian animation company, Cinar, will also be playing.

Of course, it all began with a book, and the first typed manuscript of A Bear Called Paddington will be on display alongside Bond's first draft in a W H Smith notebook. Four decades and worldwide sales of 25 million books later, Paddington's age (as opposed to the anniversary of his fictional birth) is open to debate. In the first book, A Bear Called Paddington, we learn only that he is young enough to have an Aunt Lucy and old enough to stow away in a lifeboat. He has the air of an enquiring eight-year-old as he helps younger children through a word-search game in the latest Paddington picture book, Paddington at the Carnival. When he is seeing off his grouchy neighbour, Mr Curry, with one of his "hard stares" (as he frequently does in Bond's 14 longer stories) he seems more like a fierce fiftysomething.

His appeal remains that of an ageless, mystified creature from outer space grappling with the strange universe of humans and adults - more ET than Winnie-the-Pooh. Michael Bond, inspired by the pathos of the last toy bear on the Selfridges shelf one Christmas Eve, also drew on wartime newsreels of child evacuees wearing their address labels for the emotive "Please Look After This Bear" line. This, and Peggy Fortnum's original line drawings for the books, make Paddington a touching figure. The shabby coat and hat and the battered suitcase (which have been cleaned up for the latest cartoon series) give him the air of a drifter or refugee. It is no coincidence that his best friend Mr Gruber (the wise, courteous Portobello Road antique dealer ) is also far away from home, being a refugee from Hungary.

A Bear Called Paddington has just one plot - Paddington tries to make sense of his new environment, gets it wrong, and has another go. Catastrophe follows as he eats a messy bun in a cafe, navigates the bathroom, tackles the Underground escalator, and gets lost in a department store. The kind, hapless Browns who have adopted him are his stooges. The FilmFair series reflected the wallpaper nature of Paddington's fellow characters by making the bear puppet the only three-dimensional creature; humans are represented by watercolour-shaded, two-dimensional, cardboard cut-outs.

The Browns' low profile in the books means they have not dated as much as they might have done. They belong to the fictional London timewarp of Dodie Smith and Noel Streatfeild: Mr Brown is something vague but important in the City, although he's not all that bright; Mrs Brown is a more tolerant version of the other fictional Mrs Brown, Just William's mother.

We can ignore the fact that the Browns could not afford to live in Notting Hill and keep their housekeeper today, but attempts to update the text spoil the books' gentle period charm and add nothing to their child appeal. A reference to an 80p Underground fare is incongruous next to Paddington's wonder at the strange whirrs and clanks of the pre-decimalisation ticket machine. The Cinar cartoons, which take Paddington to the Winter Olympics and the White House and give the Browns a sauna (Mr Brown must be doing well in the City), are a world away from the mildly adventurous, very English, domestic dramas of the books.

When comparing Paddington's image to that of Pooh, who is 32 years older in publishing terms, there is more than the relative merits of honey and marmalade to consider. Pooh is a self-styled bear of very little brain; Paddington has plenty of brain but rarely stops to use it. Pooh is a philosopher, sure of his place in the world; Paddington is an action bear trying to make sense of his surroundings. But while Pooh's character is inseparable from the books, Paddington's reputation depends on his transition from the page to the screen to the toy box.

Meanwhile, according to the Evening Standard report on London Fashion Week, Paddington is one of the Next Big Things. Could this mean that duffle coats are coming back? Good news for anyone who bought one in 1971.

Michael Bond's books are published by HarperCollins, and include 'A Bear Called Paddington' pound;3.99; 'Paddington at the Carnival' pound;9.99; 'Bears and Forebears' (Michael Bond's autobiography) pound;6.99. "40 Years of Paddington Bear" is at The London Toy and Model Museum, 21-23 Craven Hill, London W2, from April 5 to September 6. Tel: 0171 706 8000

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