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BLOG: What a bear and a sheep can tell us about modern Britain

Paddington and Shaun The Sheep Movie

February 2015

The consensus from audiences and critics alike is that both Paddington and Shaun the Sheep Movie offer a great time at the movies - but what is less obvious is that each has something very different to say about British identity. Film journalist, academic and curator, Ian Haydn Smith, finds much to celebrate in both hit films.

What does it mean to be British today? Since its inception, cinema has given audiences around the world a unique perspective on national identities. Britain has, in many ways, been defined by the way people have viewed it on screen, from the bodice rippers of Gainsborough Studios that were a profitable export in the 1940s and the Ealing comedies that followed a decade later, to the social realism of ‘council estate’ films, opulent period dramas and the comedies of Richard Curtis. Two new additions to this list, the family-oriented Shaun the Sheep Movie and Paddington have been huge successes at the box office. So what do they have to say about Britain in 2015?

Shaun started his life in Aardman Animations' 1995 Oscar-winning short A Close Shave, and appeared in the Wallace & Gromit films that followed. They were set in contemporary rural England, albeit one that had changed little since the 1950s, except for the use of technology that, in various scenes, imbued the films with a hint of sci-fi (not so much Steampunk as Tractorfunk).

Shaun is now more familiar to audiences globally as the eponymous star of the animated children’s series, which has shown in 180 countries. Shaun the Sheep Movie is an offshoot of that series and opens in a familiar world – Mossy Bottom Farm. Beginning with a montage sequence that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Pixar’s ‘Up’ (2009) – charting a number of years on the farm in the course of minutes – the film’s action takes off when Shaun decides the flock need a day off from their humdrum routine.

However, his actions send their beloved Farmer careering out of the countryside and into the City, losing his memory when is involved in a traffic accident. Guilt-ridden and jumping into action, Shaun takes it upon himself to rescue the Farmer, unaware at first that the entire flock has followed him there. They are sheep, after all!

The City, unlike Mossy Bottom Farm – and the locations of previous Aardman features – is a very recognisable modern world. The bus Shaun rides on is a representation of what makes contemporary Britain such a rich and vibrant place. There are people from various cultures and backgrounds. There’s a hilarious scene in a restaurant that is clearly poking fun at bourgeois middle class tastes and – particularly in Britain – an increasing, almost obsessive, interest in cuisine. That sequence features a ‘celebrity’ – another staple of modern British culture – whose coiffured hairstyle, not too dissimilar to sheep’s wool, is shaved off by the Farmer. He enters a hairdressing salon, whose owner believes he is the new stylist – thanks to a sly dig at fashion tastes – and is given a pair of clippers. Amnesiac that he is, the Farmer feels strangely comfortable with the appliance and in no time at all destroys the celebrity’s signature locks. (This is followed by a montage sequence where adoring fans and the beau monde, enraptured by the celeb’s new style, queue up at the hair salon – like sheep – to be given the latest look.)

Suffice to say all ends well for Shaun, his flock and the farmer. Even the stray dog that helps them all out finally finds a home. But things don’t return to the way they were. The experience in the City, with its array of sights and sounds, different and diverse lives, and its familarity with charity shops suggests that change is good; the Farm will function as it has always done, but routine is out – that’s not living. The City showed that change, no matter how small, is good and what you profit from it is far greater than what you ever stand to lose.

Change also lies at the heart of Paddington, albeit with a darker edge that could be read from a political perspective. It’s based on the series of books written by Michael Bond starting in 1956 with A Bear Called Paddington. Its popularity grew with a TV series, which innovatively mixed drawn and stop motion animation.

The film takes us back to the beginning of Paddington’s journey. We start in Darkest Peru, which was only alluded to in the TV series. We witness the Brown family’s first encounter with him at Paddington Station, inspiring his name; his introduction to the lovely Mr. Gruber, the sneaky neighbour Mr. Curry and resourceful housekeeper Mrs. Bird; and his first steps into this strange world. A new element is also added to the mix, in the form of Nicole Kidman’s mean Millicent, the Cruella De Vil of taxidermy.

Paddington’s London fits the pleasant image of the city that has proven popular in films dating back to Mary Poppins (1964) and, more recently, in Richard Curtis’ comedies. It is a wonderful, almost magical place although disturbingly, like the hugely popular 2001 French film Amélie, it is almost entirely white. (By contrast, it would be impossible to walk along any street in London today and not see someone of colour, or hear an accent that wasn’t British or a language that wasn’t English.) Likewise, the representation of the Browns bears close comparison with the Banks family in Mary Poppins. Both films tell the story of a father who needs to reconnect with his family and an ‘outsider’ who becomes the catalyst for that. But to suggest that Paul King’s film is too stuck in a past that never really existed, or fuels an image of Britain that is at odds with reality, is to miss the subtlety of what the film achieves.

Throughout Paddington, we catch glimpses of the Calypso band, D Lime, featuring Tabago Crusoe. The first track they play is ‘London is the Place for Me’. It was originally recorded by Lord Kitchener aka Aldwyn Roberts, a Trinidadian musician who was one of the passengers of the famous Empire Windrush, which brought hundreds of Caribbean immigrants to the UK in 1948. That culture would blend with Britain's and that music would help redefine British pop, rock and even punk over the course of the next 40 years. The song, along with the other tracks the band play throughout the film, is key. It reminds us that Paddington, even if he is voiced by the dulcet tones of Ben Whishaw, is an immigrant and his presence in London, a few hiccups excepted, makes life better for everyone. Everyone except Millicent, that is.

Some critics railed at the introduction of Millicent into the film. However, she can be seen as a thinly veiled attack on a new player in British politics: UKIP. Millicent believes in a past that never existed – the misplaced notion that to be British was to be as recognisable as a cup of tea and there was a time when ‘foreigners’ hadn’t overrun the country -- she even warns, "it all starts with one bear." (It overlooks the fact that we are a whole nation of foreigners, if you only go back far enough in time.)

It’s as though she watched Ealing Studio’s output from the post-war period and somehow missed out on its satire and social commentary. What she fails to see is that Paddington, the Calypso players and the Brown family’s willingness to accommodate change is what is best about Britain. Putting up barriers would make for a duller world, where we would all turn into Mr. Currys and were won over by scaremongering and narrow-mindedness. Like Shaun the Sheep Movie, Paddington embraces change. And both films suggest that Britain is no longer – perhaps never was – a place you can easily define. That’s surely a good thing.

To see examples of how Britain was represented on the screen in the 1940s, visit the British Council’s film archive, the British Council Film Collection.