Sunday, October 12, 2008

Of Marmite and Marmalade

Well, after months out of action (due to depression and other issues), I'm taking yet another stab at this whole blog thing. I have a few more things planned (involving comics, movies, animation, radio, and yes, finally some things in Spanish).

So, for my return entry, I decided to tackle an interesting (or at least unusual) new take on one of my favorite characters: Paddington Bear. I loved Paddington as a kid. I loved the books, I ate marmalade sandwiches because of him (though I liked all orange byproducts anyway), but I especially loved the original British TV cartoons. The cartoons were produced by the UK outfit Filmfair in the 1970s, but I came to them on home video, released by Disney, in the early 80s (three specials from the 80s later made their way to video from HBO, who also put out Cosgrove-Hall's Wind in the Willows series and way too much Filmation). The Disney Video label at that time was releasing an assortment of European characters, also including SuperTed, Asterix, and Lucky Luke, and they also inexplicably put out the stop-motion Pogo for President (more on that one some other time).

The Paddington cartoons were wonderful, faithful adaptations of the book contents, which made sense since Michael Bond wrote each episode himself (he'd previously worked with FilmFair on two made-for-TV series called The Herbs and Parsley the Lion). Bond also wrote some new episodes. Ivor Wood designed and directed the series, and it could truly be called an early experiment in mixed-media TV aesthetics. Paddington was a stop-motion puppet, but without the Gumby clay look or the Rankin-Bass stiffness, he seemed like a teddy bear come to life. His world was a mostly drab cardboard cutout city, of the kind kids tend to make from pastboard and markers, and the human characters were all cut-outs. However, the people were animated frame by frame and drawn so it was like a mesh of traditional cel drawing in a three-dimensional world. The characters all had an inky, drawn look, with action lines remaining, which really fit. The early Paddington books in fact were illustrated in a considerably different manner (and as often as not, Paddington would be drawn sans dufflecoat early on), but later, Bond had Ivor Wood create some Paddington one-page cartoons and other books, especially the covers, followed that aesthetic.

The crowning touch was the soundtrack: a soft piano accompaniment and the voice of the late, great Sir Michael Hordern, a man who had a long film and stage career, but whose best work was perhaps voice-only. For BBC Radio, he played everything from Jeeves to Gandalf (though when you think about it, the gulf isn't that wide; "Gandalf, you know those orcish spats you so dissaproved of?") He was later in the Cosgrove-Hall Willows (as gruff Badger) and other animated productions, but Paddington represents his best work in the cartoon field. He was the sole voice, serving as narrator and loosely characterizing all the other roles: a certain innocence for Paddington, the throaty grumbling of Mr. Curry (raised to a bellow to shout "Bear!"), a gentle Hungarian accent for Mr. Gruber, and a Dame Edith Evans-esque falsetto for the formidable housekeeper Mrs. Bird.

Later, Hanna-Barbera got their clutches on Paddington for a new 2D syndicated series, tossing in an American cousin, with a horriblly loud theme song, and Charlie Adler as the voice of a mushmouthed Paddington, a portrayal that must have made Dick Van Dyke feel a lot better about himself. Though Mr. Curry was, fittingly, voiced by Tim Curry. I have little memory of this incarnation, which is just as well, and the more recent series from Cinar (though with authentic British actors) failed to attract my interest.

Well, as of last year or so, Paddington is back. His newest book, Paddington Here and Now (in which the bear falls afoul of immigration), came out in the states in May. But before that, he became the new TV face of Marmite. When I first heard of it, I assumed the product was a brand of marmalade. But no, it's a variation of Vegemite, a yeast-spread substance whose flavor is, ahem, an acquired taste. In fact, for several years now, Marmite has poked fun at that fact, with the slogan "You either love it or hate it."

So, someone got the clever idea to create a series of TV commercials for Marmite's squeeze bottles (in particular, encouraging folks to try it in sandwiches and not just on toast), so they picked Paddington. This raised a few hackles on both sides of the Atlantic, as Paddington's first commercial endorsement and seemingly a violation of his very character. But Paddington has never lived on marmalade alone (just like Cookie Monster, despite his name, has always eagerly consumed fruits, vegetables, hubcaps, and typewriters, to name a few). Bacon and eggs for breakfast, buns for elevenseses, birthday cake, soups, etc. So the basic idea of Paddington deciding to try Marmite and liking it (Darkest Peruvian bears have unusual tastes) made sense, and he was always given to whims and sudden enthusiasms.

So anyway, here's the first spot in the series, which apparently debuted in September '07 in the UK [Edit: okay, clip embedded now, thanks to Harry McCracken's reminder of how to do this]



The spots capture the look and feel of the original cartoons, even with the same theme music. Only the narrator has changed, with BBC radio personality Paul Vaughan replacing the late Hordern. The thrust of the gag is a little surprising, though it fits into the overall campaign concept: while Paddington likes Marmite, birds will gag on it and cause a chain reaction of chaos. The fact that the narrator points out "Paddington, who you'll remember from childhood" or some variation is a bit dismaying, but apparently the ad agency wanted that to more clearly position the ads as nostalgia spots aimed at adults, not kids.

Subsequent spots took the notion to further extremes, with Mr. Curry and others becoming visibly ill as a result. Actually, even that fits into Paddington canon; in Paddington Goes to the Movies, which was the first time I heard or saw any part of Singin' in the Rain, Paddy innocently makes toffee but uses a glue mix instead, and when he hands one to a gruff movie doorman, the gent appears to break several teeth! The ads also, however, seem to be part of a general trend in advertising, away from tact, euphemisms, and class and towards graphic images and blunt descriptions of what the product does or might do to you. Compared to many US spots, at least these spots are funny, well-made, and have a charm, even when gastric distress is involved. So, buy Marmite, which might make you sick, but hey, your sandwich will never be dull!

1 comment:

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

As someone who's been in the blog bidness for a while now, I can certainly sympathize with any individual who needs a respite now and then.

Good to have you back, buddy...