Paddington Bear ranks among the best-loved characters in British children’s literature, a status confirmed by the two hit films made about his adventures and by his recent screen appearance with the late Queen.
But in the heart of his creator, the writer Michael Bond, there was room enough for another favourite: a guinea pig called Olga da Polga. The star of a popular series of children’s books, this wildly inventive furry creature will now feature in a children’s television series, just as the author had always hoped.
“Olga’s moment has finally come,” said Bond’s daughter Karen Jankel, whose childhood pet was the inspiration for her father’s books. “They were really wonderful stories and he always believed they would work well on TV, filmed in just this way, with a combination of live action and animation.”
The series, Olga da Polga, comes to CBeebies this autumn and will use real actors and animals, switching to animation to tell Olga’s elaborate, and not entirely reliable, stories. The books, which came out from 1971, were equally as loved as Bond’s tales about the famous bear from Peru.
“It all began when my father came home with a guinea pig for my eighth birthday in 1966,” Jankel recalls. “I named it Olga da Polga, an idea that might well have been suggested by my father because she was a tri-coloured Abyssinian, hence of Russian descent.”
Bond had already enjoyed success with his Paddington books, as well as with his animated television series The Herbs, which ran on the BBC in the late 1960s and 70s. The arrival of the new pet set his imagination running once more.
“My own Olga lived to seven-and-a-half years old; not bad for a guinea pig. My father built a hutch for her as well as a run so that she could go out in the garden,” said Jankel, who ran Bond’s literary estate for 30 years until the company the family had formed was sold in 2016.
Programme makers from Maramedia, a Glasgow-based production company which specialises in filming animals, approached Jankel with the idea of making a show based on the books. Some of the characters in the new 13-part series are drawn from her childhood, just as they were in her father’s original stories.
“There is Noel the cat, who we also had at home, and then there are the grownups, Mr and Mrs Sawdust, who were based on my parents, and of course Karen Sawdust, who I suppose was me. That was where the similarities with us ended. But the stories also have Graham the tortoise and Fangio the hedgehog.” Greg Hemphill, star of the Scottish sitcom Still Game, will play Mr Sawdust opposite Balamory star Julie Wilson Nimmo’s Mrs Sawdust.
Jankel was close to her celebrated father, who had formerly worked as a television cameraman for the BBC and who died five years ago at 91. “My father had always felt that Olga should be on telly, and he wanted to do it with live action combined with animation for her fantasies,” she remembers. “So much so, in fact, that he acquired another pet Olga later, in 1989, and started to make a pilot show himself. A friend helped him get a tortoise from London Zoo, and our new cat played Noel. But Fangio the hedgehog was missing. Even though I lived in Pimlico, not the country, one day I found a hedgehog curled up by the bins. I called Dad and he put him inside a cardboard box where he hibernated for a while. My father eventually filmed them all in my stepmother’s lovely, large garden, where we all discovered that filming with real animals is a lot harder than we thought.”
Bond wrote scripts for a whole series, and when Jankel was shown the adaptations put together by Maramedia she was struck by the similarity. “It was remarkable. The whole thing is exactly as my father imagined, although Olga is not a tri-coloured guinea pig. She is now sandy, for continuity purposes, because they had to use four different animals. She does have rosettes though.”
Jankel said her father’s writing always included animals, from his books about Thursday the mouse, to his adult detective series about Monsieur Pamplemousse and his faithful bloodhound Pommes Frites: “Somehow he could see an animal’s character coming through.”
But Bond would be amazed, she believes, by the close association his bear now has with royalty: “The timing with the platinum jubilee meant that the last time many people saw the Queen close up was in the lovely teatime film she made. But there are people who love Olga, rather than Paddington, because she really meant something to them as children.”
Maramedia co-founder Jackie Savery is one such long-time fan. “After years of working in kids’ TV and with animals, I wondered whether it might be possible to portray Olga’s funny and irrepressible spirit,” she said, adding that making the series, in consultation with animal welfare experts, “has been a total labour of love”.