Byline: VICTOR LEWIS-SMITH
IT'S curious how a simple mishearing can cause a misunderstanding that lasts for years. Last week, after being given the sheet music for The Twelve Days of Christmas, I discovered that the "four calling birds" I'd been singing about for decades were really "four colly birds" (an archaic name for blackbirds). For years I was convinced that Alma Cogan was really a Scottish gentleman called Al McHogan, whose high-pitched voice was the result of some terrible accident incurred south of the navel. And as a child, when I was given a teddy with a squint, I named him after what I thought was the first line of a hymn I was forced to sing at school: "Gladly, my Cross-Eyed bear".
A label sewn into Gladly's left ear revealed that he hailed from Hong Kong and was 65 per cent cotton, but the exact provenance of the nation's favourite bear is less well-documented. His cubhood has long been shrouded in mystery, so in Monday night's Paddington Bear: the Early Years (BBC1), Stephen Fry headed off to darkest Peru, to "follow in the pawsteps" of the ursine celebrity, prior to his arrival at 32 Windsor Gardens, W2. In less capable hands, such a project might have suffered from a chronic excess of highoctane whimsy, but Fry cleverly intertwined biographical fantasy with an objective look at this South America republic, all the while toying with the conventions of the standard travel documentary. So not only did he show us the places where Paddington was allegedly raised, but he also composed a televisual love letter to what is clearly a beautiful (though little-known) country.
"This is Lima's world-famous home for retired bears," Fry remarked as he stood in the now deserted courtyard where Paddington bade his last farewell to his Aunt Lucy (who had first instilled in him his lifelong love of marmalade). But before such anthropomorphism could get out of hand, he also began chronicling the saga of a real-life captive bear called Yogi, who was anything but cuddly and who couldn't be transported from his tiny cage into a larger home because he was well-nigh impossible to drug - unlike the holy men of the Andes, the shamans who chew on coca leaves all day, a practice which enables them to remain on a seemingly permanent high without any danger of eroding the septum. Now, that's what I call a religion, and it certainly has the edge on the C of E, whose only contact with mind-altering substances is a thimbleful of warm sherry, sipped by nervous incontinent octogenarians in the vestry. …