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22 August 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:04pm

Exit, pursued by a bear: how the real Christopher Robin escaped Winnie-the-Pooh

As a new Disney film imagines Christopher Robin as a careworn salaryman, AA Milne’s biographer recalls the boy behind the character.  

By Ann Thwaite

A year ago, I was guiding a large group of walkers down Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, from Galleon’s Lap (as it was called by AA Milne) right down to Poohsticks Bridge. At the top, which still looked, even after the 1987 hurricane, remarkably like EH Shepard’s double-page spread towards the end of The House at Pooh Corner (1928), I read to them from that last section. Christopher Robin confides to Winnie-the-Pooh,

“I’m not going to do Nothing any more.”
“Never again?” says Pooh.
“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”

The walkers last year were American journalists, brought over by 21st Century Fox to publicise the release of its film Goodbye Christopher Robin. They liked Milne’s words as I read to them; most of them had never seen the original books. They knew Pooh and Christopher Robin only from the Disney cartoons. The film, directed by Simon Curtis, was giving them the chance to discover something resembling the true story that inspired the familiar characters.

Now Disney has made its own story, Christopher Robin, which has very little to do with that reality and everything to do (so a cynical American friend emailed me) with keeping the franchise alive. Disney owns the characters Milne created – indeed paid millions years ago to buy out the Royal Literary Fund’s inheritance.

But, of course, Disney has no rights over the Milnes themselves. So in the new film they are never mentioned. Christopher Robin is a Mr Robin, played by Ewan McGregor; he works for a company producing upmarket luggage, has a wife called Evelyn (not Lesley) and a daughter called Madeline (not Clare). The only thing that ties him to the reality is the fact that he has a cottage near Ashdown Forest and once owned a number of attractive toy animals. His father is apparently dead and never wrote any books anyway, even though the new film is full of quotations from them, and the computer-generated imagery brings not only the toys, but Owl and Rabbit too, wonderfully alive. Near the beginning we see an animated version of the party illustrated by Shepard at the end of the first book, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), transposed to become a farewell to Christopher Robin, to lead into that conversation about “doing Nothing”; three words are added: “They don’t let you at boarding school.” This is the child Christopher Robin, playing in the Forest with his toys, knowing it is all coming to an end. He goes to school, grows up, marries a girl he met on a bus; they have a daughter and he goes off to the Second World War. He returns unscathed and, instead of living happily ever after, finds himself ground down in an uncongenial job and groaning on a bench in St James’s Square.

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The theme of the new film is one very much likely to resonate with many overworked parents today. Childhood is short, don’t miss the chance to enjoy your own children and, above all, don’t send them off to boarding school. Learn to play again, and not just golf.

Ewan McGregor’s Mr Robin is something of a Gradgrind. There is a painful scene in his daughter’s bedroom: Madeline is upset because her father has broken the news that he can’t go to the country for the weekend, but must stay in London and work. The child asks her father to read to her. He willingly complies, but starts on a dreary historical tome, full of facts, and Madeline naturally decides she would rather sleep. She had come across a box of souvenirs from her father’s lost childhood (a few acorns, a toy donkey’s lost tail) and I longed for him to find the actual books and read:

Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders…

That was the day Pooh came across the buzzing bees and decided “the only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey”. There’s a good deal of honey, inevitably, in the new film. Pooh has a disastrous encounter with a spilt jar when he mysteriously turns up in London, hoping the middle-aged Christopher Robin will return to the Forest and help him find his lost friends. The chaos in the Robins’ kitchen seems rather to belong to Paddington, that other famous bear, than to the more cautious and now elderly Pooh, more typically seen describing the passing scenes from the railway-carriage window. In this almost convincing Fifties London, which I knew well, there are, of course, some lovely steam trains.

Pooh is undoubtedly the hero of the film, voiced by Jim Cummings, and looking thankfully in CGI far more like a Shepard illustration than his former cartoon appearance. He seems moreover to have a real relationship with Ewan McGregor, as his friend the middle-aged Christopher Robin. We care about them both. The CGI remains a most extraordinary accomplishment and one can almost believe it cost the advertised $75m to make this family film. It is likely to appeal to anyone, I would guess, between six and 12, and over 30.

Ewan McGregor and Hayley Atwell star in Disney’s Christopher Robin

My own connection with Christopher Robin goes back to my childhood in the Thirties. I still have the first edition of Winnie-the-Pooh, given by my father to my mother when it came out in 1926, six years before I was born. The books have always appealed as much to adults as to children. My edition of The House at Pooh Corner is dated 1937, the year I became five. I have always known many of the best of Milne’s verses and stories more or less by heart. My London childhood was a slightly downmarket version of Christopher’s own a decade earlier. Even my double name (I was always known as a child as Ann Barbara) owed more to Christopher Robin than to my contemporary Princess Margaret Rose. A photograph survives of my six-year-old brother clutching his own Kanga and Roo.

Fifty years later, in the Eighties, after I had won a prize for a previous biography, I was approached by Craig Raine, then at Faber & Faber, with the suggestion that I might take on AA Milne. I was well aware that Christopher Milne was still alive. In a book, The Path Through the Trees (1979), written not long before, he had said that he had written his first book, The Enchanted Places (1974), not for “Pooh’s friends and admirers” but rather to explore his own childhood and to come to terms with his relationship with his father. There is no doubt that for many years Christopher wanted to get right away from the boy in the books, and this involved losing contact with his father after his marriage. The two men were very alike, and were very close when he was young. The strength of the bond between them had made the pain of breaking it all the greater. The writing of that first book had lifted him from under the shadow of both his father and Christopher Robin – he was “able to look them both in the eye”.

Christopher Milne said he had another reason for writing The Enchanted Places. It was to forestall other writers:

For if I did nothing, then sooner or later, someone would come to me and propose himself as my father’s biographer… To say ‘No’ would be hard enough, but to say anything but ‘No’ would be in the end to open my private world to a complete stranger and allow him to trample all over it.

He admitted that he had already twice turned down potential biographers.

When I read that, I knew I had to have Christopher’s agreement before I signed a contract with Faber. It seemed unlikely that I would get it. But it was the very act of having written his own books that eventually made it possible for him to agree to mine. I met him only after he had agreed, and it was then that he said something that I found extremely helpful when, after the years of research, I came to write AA Milne: His Life. He told me that I must write the book as if he weren’t going to read it. He made no conditions and did not see the book until it was published in 1990. His reaction relieved us both; the letter he wrote when he had finished it is one of my most prized possessions.

My first contact with Disney came in 1995. By that time I had published a scrapbook with Methuen: The Brilliant Career of Winnie-the-Pooh (1992), which included, among much else, cartoons by Nicholas Garland and Vicky showing Harold Wilson as alternatively a pipe-smoking Pooh and a pipe-smoking Christopher Robin. The book was reviewed by JG Ballard, an unlikely fan, in the Daily Telegraph. Published also in America, it resulted in an invitation from Disney to the opening of a big “World of Pooh” exhibition in New York at the Museum of Childhood.

I got my agent to tell Disney I would go only if I could take with me one of my grandchildren, the then seven-year-old William. We were lavishly entertained for six days in a luxurious Park Avenue hotel, and William made it more fun for me, reading Eeyore’s Birthday on national public radio, and standing in for Christopher Robin on every possible occasion. The New York Times called me “The world’s leading expert on Winnie-the-Pooh”, not a description I relished.

That was long ago and certainly in another country. I wrote three more books, which had nothing whatsoever to do with Christopher Robin, or indeed children’s books. Then in 2009, I was sent a script by Mammoth Screen Ltd, who wanted my opinion before submitting it to the BBC as a potential drama documentary. It was called Goodbye Christopher Robin and had almost as little relation to reality as the new Disney film. I was paid for my opinion and thought that was the end of it.

Then, years later – it must have been in 2013 – I was told by my agent that a film company (Pathé, originally) wanted to use me as a consultant on a movie with the same title, about the Milnes and the making of Winnie-the-Pooh. Everyone told me not to get excited; it would never actually happen. But eventually it did, after I had read numerous screenplays, and after a period in which it had to be known as Untitled A.A. Milne. This was when I first heard of Disney’s plans for Christopher Robin and the resultant fight was for our film to retain the original title. It was only when Frank Cottrell-Boyce transformed the script, and producer Damian Jones had found the right A list stars to get Fox interested, that at last filming of Goodbye Christopher Robin started in 2016.

In spite of the clash of titles, the two films are so entirely different that there is really no need to compare them. Both make great use of the Forest, of the Hundred Acre Wood, whether it is really Ashdown or mostly Windsor Great Park. Both seem to be made with love for Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. But after all the pleasure, all the fun and adventures in the Disney film, anyone might like to be reassured that Christopher Robin never was a harassed “salaryman”.

Christopher Milne was rather a good writer and a contented, self-employed Devon bookseller, and said himself later that he had had a happy life (without the assistance of Pooh and the rest of the gang). That was how I ended his obituary in The Independent, when he died in 1996. In 1982, he had published The Hollow on the Hill, set on the Devon hillside where he lived, not in the “enchanted places” of his childhood.

He dedicated this book

To A.A.M.
on your hundredth birthday
from C.R.M.
with love

His father died long before, in 1956. In this book Christopher Milne had some interesting things to say about himself and “The two halves of my world” – reason and emotion. (He was, like his father, by training a mathematician.) Reason tells us the Disney film is rather ill-judged. Emotion tells us it is highly enjoyable. Marc Forster, the director, and his crew, have done well. Both films will send you back to AA Milne’s two books, without which the world would certainly be a poorer place.

 “Goodbye Christopher Robin: AA Milne and the Making of Winnie-the-Pooh” by Ann Thwaite is published by Pan

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This article appears in the 22 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?