Not unlike the bear himself, the film Paddington has had a long and bumpy ride to the big screen. Paddington’s movie, like the character, unwittingly left a marmalade smeared paw print on the delicate sensibilities of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC).
The BBFC classified the film a PG with “mild sex references”. After a plea from the distributor, this was changed to “innuendo”. The scene this referred to was one in which Mr Brown disguises himself as a cleaning woman and is flirted with by a security guard – the sort of playful gender switching that is a feature of the many pantomimes about to get into full swing across the nation.
In response to this, the national newspapers ran headlines about the smut in children’s film. Author Michael Bond was clearly very upset by the idea that his creation now had “sex” in it. But this isn’t a one off – lurking behind these headlines is a perennial paradox inherent to the stories for children which are created by adults.
Over their heads
It is a clichéd argument found in many reviews of children’s films that much of the humour is there to entertain parents and “goes over the children’s heads”. Yet the question of what is appropriate for children is rarely debated beyond a general hand-wringing concern that each new film is some further indication of the demise of childhood. Meanwhile, children enthusiastically and, at times, unpredictably adopt new stories and new cultural phenomenon, the meanings of which are rarely taken seriously perhaps because it goes “over the heads” of adults.
Paddington Bear seemed rather an exotic character to my seven-year-old self. His journey from Darkest Peru, his penchant for marmalade and his singular independence all seemed peculiarly intriguing and possibly account for my long-term affection for orange-flavoured preserve. But above all Paddington is loved for his predilection for causing chaos.
This comedic device is common to British children’s stories: a neat, tidy, ordinary family existence is disrupted by the arrival of a character, in this case a cute bear, with little or no understanding or regard for the niceties of the adult world. From the physical comedy that inevitably ensues emerges an acute examination of adult social norms from the point of view of a bewildered child, someone for whom the rules, including flirting and taxidermy, do not always make sense. The moments the two worlds collide are key to the appeal of the film, but it is these same moments which are deemed “inappropriate”.
This cosseting is decidedly hypocritical and results in some rather questionable things turning out to be deemed more or less appropriate than others. And so it’s worth looking carefully at the reasons the BBFC offer for their decision.
The BBFC describe Paddington as “a family adventure about a talking bear from Peru who travels to London looking for a new home”. Their concerns relate to “imitable behaviour”, and refer to “infrequent scenes of dangerous behaviour” such as Paddington riding on a skateboard while holding on to a bus. “Threat” is also an issue, alluding to scenes in which Paddington is captured by a villain who threatens to kill and stuff him. Then there’s the famous mild innuendo, “involving a comic sequence in which a man disguised as a woman is flirted with by another man” and, believe it or not, the single use of the word “bloody”.
This description is fraught with contradictory assumptions about children and childhood. It’s assumed that children will imitate risky behaviour and that risky behaviour is intrinsically bad. Then there’s an anxiety that the film might frighten children and that being frightened is also intrinsically bad. And sexual innuendo and swearing are deemed to be fundamentally inappropriate for children.
Yet none of these ideas really tally with contemporary notions of childhood. For example, in their early years we encourage children to take risks, playing outdoors to develop their resilience and confidence. In fiction, peril drives the narrative and provides a moral compass – the goodies outwit the baddies. The fear resulting from “mild threat” in fiction is also an important aspect of children’s developing emotional repertoires. After all, Paddington arrives alone at the station, an evacuee, with a label around his neck, requesting the finder to: “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” Children of all ages encounter displacement and feel lonely which begs the question who we are protecting when we try to sanitise the representation of children’s lives.
Interestingly, the anxiety about children and sexual innuendo is argued to be a modern phenomenon. Historically children have been party to bawdy jokes in stories, jokes and playground rhymes. “When Susie Was a Baby” is one that springs to mind but there are many more rhymes through which children explore the boundaries of taste. It would appear that the rules governing the certification of children’s film are unhelpfully and unrealistically protectionist.
Adults have always co-existed, in children’s fiction, be it book, film, television, comic or game – as characters, but also as makers and audiences of the texts. Children’s stories from the Tales of the Brothers Grimm to The Hunger Games convey our cultural concerns about morality, childhood and parenting but they are also more importantly attempts to see the world from a child’s perspective. It is this which distinguishes a children’s film.
A child is highly likely to enjoy a film or story in which rules are broken and authority is challenged and this is an important pleasure. We have a responsibility to allow children to take risks, not only physically in their play, but also culturally and creatively. If we censure all transgression we will increasingly provide tame, didactic entertainment which will bore children and adults alike. So bring on the mild threat, the flirting and the fun Paddington – all that Mr Curry would definitely not approve.