The book’s had millions of children the world over chanting their way through its epic adventure for nigh on 30 years.
Now the bedtime classic We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, which has sold 9 million copies since it was first published in 1989 and spawned countless sing-along theatre productions, has been brought to life in a new festive film that promises to be one of this Christmas’s most magical family highlights.
The adaptation of author Michael Rosen and illustrator Helen Oxenbury’s bestseller follows siblings Stan, Katie, Rosie, Max and the baby as they embark on an adventure with their dog Rufus on Christmas Eve.
Spurred on by Katie’s love of grizzlies the children go in search of one, encountering a series of daunting obstacles along the way.
They must overcome long wavy grass, a deep cold river, oozing mud, a dark, threatening forest and a whirling snowstorm, and at each one they’re united in their resolve, chanting, ‘We can’t go under it; we can’t go over it; oh no! We’ve got to go through it.’
When they reach a cave, they find a bear all on his own. Rosie believes him to be kind and gives him a cuddle, but the others run away so Rosie follows, back through all the obstacles with the bear padding after them.
They reach home, lock the door, run upstairs and hide under the bedcovers with the dog. The bear knocks on the door but no one answers, and the poor forlorn creature trudges off home.
One of the beauties of the book is the words Michael Rosen has used to conjure up each obstacle – ‘swishy-swashy’ for the long grass, ‘splash-splosh’ for the river, ‘squelch-squerch’ for the mud – and the way they draw young readers into a sensory experience as they chant them out loud.
And it’s turned the ancient children’s rhyme on which it’s based – ‘We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We’re not scared!’ – into one of Britain’s best known children’s songs.
The new TV adaptation has been expanded, and introduces us to the children’s mother, father and grandma too. It’s been made by the people behind The Snowman And The Snowdog, the sequel to the 1982 animated Christmas classic The Snowman, that pulled in 11 million viewers in 2012.
In the new film Mum, Dad and Grandma prove pivotal to the children’s adventure when the parents leave them alone to go and help Grandma whose car has broken down. When they return, and the children are safe after their encounter with the bear, Dad gets out his ukulele and Grandma leads everyone in a singalong.
‘I know the book, I read it to my older children,’ says Broadchurch and The Night Manager star Olivia Colman, who voices Mum and is the mother of boys Finn, ten, and Hall, eight, and a one-year-old daughter.
‘It was a long time ago but we loved it. Their favourite part was joining in with the sound effects and the chanting – doing movements with the swishy grass and the squelchy mud. My youngest is too little at the moment, but she’ll be enjoying the book in the near future.’
The film will enchant a whole new audience with its story of perseverance, optimism and a love of nature. Coming up against a host of obstacles the children battle on, united in their ambitious quest.
‘What appealed to me about the story is the bond the family have,’ says Olivia. ‘They care for each other and look after each other. Another wonderful aspect of the story is that it’s kids enjoying a natural adventure with their imaginations, fresh air and the wilderness.
‘It’s the sort of adventure adults remember from their own childhoods, while kids are currently in that place where they can imagine these things so clearly,’ she says.
‘It just struck a nerve with families young and old. I’ll be spending Christmas with my family and being cosy, going for walks, lighting a fire and eating an awful lot of food. But part of Christmas is cuddling up together and watching a film, one that everyone can enjoy, and this is perfect for grandparents and kids, cuddling up and experiencing it together.’
Dad is played by Harry Potter and Father Brown actor Mark Williams. ‘When I read the script I was moved to tears,’ he says.
‘I’m terrible for doing that. I said to my wife, “Do you want to read it?” and she said “No, I want to wait till it comes out.” So over Christmas we’ll definitely be watching it. Our teenage children will probably be on their phones but I’ll be watching it and weeping quietly in the corner. It was difficult playing Arthur Weasley in Harry Potter when one of the twins dies, as a parent I found that very tough, and this film is no different.
‘The poor bear has become more of a character in the film than he is in the book,’ he explains. ‘But the image of the bear trudging back to his cave alone and abandoned is a masterpiece as it’s so emotive – you know exactly what the bear is feeling, he feels so misunderstood.
‘My character, the dad, is only in our film version, but he’s a classic father, a loving dad. I think theirs is a bit of a confused household. Dad loses his car keys for example. He’s got something you might call “Dad-Head”, which is when your family buzzes in your head like a swarm of bees. Mums are much better at swatting the bees away but dads sometimes get a bit overwhelmed. He’s one of those dads.’
Pam Ferris of Call The Midwife has a poignant role as Grandma, who’s a kind of metaphor for the book’s message of coping with whatever gets in your way. ‘I was in tears reading the script too,’ she says.
‘We meet Grandma at a time where she’s had a very sad experience – her husband, the children’s grandad, has recently died. Yet she’s not the kind of person who would expect everybody to share her grief, and she lifts the atmosphere in the house by dancing and singing.
‘She’s a lovely woman. The emotions Grandma goes through are very touching. She moves from being very sad to lifting everyone’s spirits. We wanted to avoid the grieving Grandma cliché and it’s brilliant how the film subliminally passes on the message that in life there are some things you can’t go over or under, you just have to go through them.’
As a dog owner, Pam was drawn to the film’s Rufus. ‘He’s gorgeous,’ she beams. ‘The animation tells you in the first few beats that he’s smelled something unusual, and we’re waiting for the bear at every moment as Rufus is onto him.
‘My own dogs would love to join in a bear hunt. Stan’s a very fast lurcher and you wouldn’t see him for dust, while my Jack Russell Elsie would bark her head off if she saw a bear. Instead they have to be content with chasing squirrels up trees.’
Michael Rosen, the former Children’s Laureate who wrote the best-selling book all those years ago, couldn’t be more chuffed to be providing the voices for both the Bear and the Hedgehog the children encounter in the long grass. ‘You can’t imagine how thrilled I am! I’m trying to keep a straight face but I’m actually crying and laughing at the same time.
‘The idea that I can be the Bear in Bear Hunt is mind-blowing. But being the Hedgehog is one of the hardest roles I’ve ever played. If those people in the recording studio thought I could just turn up and go “Sniff!” without the method work, immersing myself in the character, they were wrong,’ he jokes. ‘I had to think about the Hedgehog’s mother, the Hedgehog’s father, where the Hedgehog had been, where the Hedgehog goes shopping…’
Michael, now 70, first started performing Bear Hunt in schools in the mid 1980s after hearing it as an American summer camp song. When David Lloyd, editor of publishers Walker Books, saw him performing it he thought it would make a great book and got Michael to start writing it.
Coincidentally Helen Oxenbury, an award-winning illustrator with a career spanning more than 40 years, was already familiar with the song too.
‘I first heard the story when the Scottish folk singer Alison McMorland asked me to design the cover for an album of folk songs, and Bear Hunt was one of them,’ recalls Helen, who’s now 78.
‘She used to sing it with her son. Then I didn’t think about it for years until, by coincidence, I was asked to do some illustrations. When I was shown the text I thought, “My goodness, I know it!”’
Michael and Helen didn’t meet until after the project was finished and while Michael had envisaged it as a king, queen and jester setting off to find a bear, Helen went for a group of children.
‘I didn’t want adults around because the imagination can run freer without them,’ she says. ‘I modelled them on my own children and added a few more. The dog in the book is exactly like my own dog Stanley, a mongrel, who had lots of Labrador and Collie in him.’
Helen also used real locations for inspiration. ‘I grew up on an East Anglian estuary, and when the tide goes out you get mud flats. When the sun sets and reflects in the mud the scene is absolutely astonishing with a backdrop of big skies, so I used that for the mud scenes,’ she explains.
‘The beach where they find the bear’s cave was inspired by a holiday we had in Druidstone in Pembrokeshire. There was a perfect sandy beach with rocks and cliffs, and the cliffs also had caves, But unlike the children in the book I didn’t dare explore them. The forest was based on Hampstead Heath, which I know very well as it’s near my home.’
Helen admits to being an avid people watcher and uses her observations to create her incredible gallery of postures and expressions.
‘I added the last two pages of the bear walking home alone, so forlorn but adorable, because it occurred to me that the bear was all on his own in the cave and might have wanted some company rather than to eat the children. He’s lonely and a bit scared too. Then he thinks, “Oh gosh, visitors!” But then they run home, so he follows them but is upset when they shut the door in his face.’
Helen modelled the bear’s rounded shoulders on an American friend.
‘This poor chap was going through a rotten time because of his divorce and was depressed. I could just tell by his shoulders and these arms that rather hung to the side. I drew the bear and told him it was him. He was thrilled! I went to his flat in New York recently and he has the drawings framed on the wall. And I’m pleased to say he’s now deliriously happy with a new partner.’
It was important to Helen that the animation for the film still featured elements of the watercolour illustrations from the book. ‘I’m terribly impressed with the film. I’m delighted,’ she admits.
‘It’s absolutely true to the spirit of the original. For instance, for the snowstorm, they’ve really got the atmosphere and the sparseness and the bleakness of it beautifully. They haven’t tried to pretty it up.’
Why does Michael believe the book was such a resounding success? ‘It’s got this pounding rhythm and repetition, but I think the main reason is because it tells the story of a family having tough times, and we all have tough times. But it’s kind of making fun of it. It’s a thing people say – “Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!”’
Make a date with Channel 4 on Christmas Eve – you’ll have no trouble getting through this spellbinding half hour of TV. n
We’re Going On A Bear Hunt is on Christmas Eve at 7.30pm on Channel 4.