Posted July 29, 2014, By Jon Gower, Research Director
The bear is a strange creature, is it not? It can ramble around on four legs, yet also rear up threateningly on two. It will eat vegetarian most days, yet may suddenly kill a deer or claw a salmon directly into it’s mighty jaws. It’s a big, lolloping, giant of a creature; yet it’s closest living relative is the seal.
Mr. Bear also exhibits curiously human-like behaviours. Walking on two legs. Being sociable, yet also liking time alone. Quiet periods of introspection, interrupted with thunderous, angry roars. Bears also appear rather cuddly in their thick, wooly coats, and bear cubs in particular are just too cute. It is these contrasting elements of appearance and behavior that have endeared the bear as a creature of fascination for people through the ages.
One of the earliest and most significant events that cemented the position of the bear into modern culture was a bear hunting trip in Mississippi, 1902. On this trip was American President Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, who became rather annoyed when some associates in his party trapped a bear, tied it up, and invited him to finish it off. Roosevelt felt this was unsporting behaviour, and news soon spread of this incident amongst the Twitterati of the day. Indeed, soon enough, the Washington Post included a cartoon featuring the stand-off between Roosevelt and the hapless bear. This cartoon then prompted toymaker Morris Michtom to design a stuffed bear cub toy, complete with a sign that read "Teddy's bear". The Teddy Bear has never looked back, and millions of his descendants are still with us 112 years on.
The point here is that the subsequent decades witnessed several very famous new bears, created for children’s books and cartoons; who have all contributed greatly to the bear cause. Here are a few of the most distinctive:
The 1920s gave us Rupert the Bear and Winnie the Pooh. Rupert always struck me as a particularly dapper individual, what with his bipedal ways, matching yellow checked trousers and scarf and dazzling red jersey. Winnie the Pooh, however, was more earthy in appearance, and possessed a charming and whimsical personality which still captivates children 87 years on.
Fast forward two decades, and for some unknown reason that still mystifies historians to this day, three years after Hitler’s advances were quashed a small hand-puppet bear called Sooty was created. It is not easy, 66 years later, to know why Yorkshireman Harry Corbett chose to create a small, yellow, mute hand-puppet bear, complete with magicians wand, but he clearly had some insight as Guinness World Records recognise Sooty as the longest-running children’s programme in the UK.
It’s 1958 and Paddington Bear makes his first entrance into the ursine pantheon. Paddington, much like Winnie the Pooh, was a quintessentially English bear (except, of course, he was from Peru.) with similar traits of grumpiness and moments of absurd joy. Paddington was also visually distinct, and was always characterised clutching his battered suitcase, resplendent in squashed red hat, red boots, and blue duffle coat. He was terribly polite, but also a bit confused, in a charming, lost kind of way.
It is very fitting that in the same year that Paddington Bear was created, across the Atlantic the ebullient Yogi Bear was launched by Hanna-Barbera productions. Yogi was a big character, and along with fellow bear Boo-Boo, spent much of this time hunter-gathering in Jellystone Park, much to the chagrin of Park Ranger Smith. The most distinctive features of Yogi are his big bear grin and his ever-cheerful, gurgly voice, as characterised in catchphrases such as ‘Hey there, Boo-Boo!’ and ‘Hello, Mr. Ranger, Sir!’.
Okay, just two more bears to go. You still with me?! Can you bear any more? Or would you like me to paw’s a little? (Sorry!)
If, like me, you were exposed to children’s TV in the 1970s, you will recall the somewhat bizarre sight of a large, upright, naked and cumbersome bear with a dopey voice, accompanied by the excitable Zippy (what animal?!) and mellow George, the hippopotamus. I am talking, of course, about Bungle of cult classic Rainbow series fame. Legend has it that Bungle’s initial representations were very bear-like, but as it was felt that this scared children, he was redesigned to appear more cartoon like. Perhaps all that messing around with his DNA affected his character? Poor old Bungle.
And finally. It’s the eighties. It’s SuperTed! Apparently, Mike Young designed this heroic bear as a means to help his son overcome his fear of the dark. It probably worked. Everything about SuperTed was vibrant, loud and confident. He was sensitive to others, but also possessed a boldness and sense of purpose that sprung into action whenever evil do’ers were at hand. Texas Pete was one of SuperTed’s arch enemies, and once alert to the danger, all it took was the utterance of the ‘secret magic word’ and SuperTed would jump to the challenge. And with SuperTed currently undergoing a revival, we wonder what the modern makeover will do for him?
So, there we have it. As you can see, bears are a strange, quirky bunch, but have remained solidly in our childhood peripherals for over a century. Even within the listed family of VIP bears, we have grumpy bears, polite bears, clumsy bears, introspective bears, verbose bears and heroic bears. So much so, I think I’ve had enough.
Or, as Winnie the Pooh once reflected, “Did you ever stop to think...and forget to start again?”