Pop goes the penguin
The image of a black and white seabird has adorned everything from chocolate biscuits to paperback books. Now 'Happy Feet', a new hit film, has set the seal on the penguin's place in popular culture
Tuesday 19 December 2006
Pingu, children's television series
Created by Otmar Gutman for Swiss television in 1986, Pingu began life as the eponymous hero of a series of five-minute shorts about a mischievous little penguin who, with a kind of Zen disregard for physical obstacles, gets into minor scrapes at the South Pole. The key to Pingu's success is the fact that he speaks an unintelligible language called "Pinguish", or "Penguinese" (depending on which professor you listen to). For the original four series in the late 1980s, Pingu's Pinguish was voiced by Carlo Bonomi. But, in a cruel bout of ageism, Bonomi, now in his sixties, was considered "too old" to do Pingu for its recent 52-episode run. Like the impish winger himself, Pingu's brand has suffered some pratfalls over the years. In 1989, David Hasselhoff released a Switzerland-only single, "The Pingu Dance". And an episode called "Little Accidents" was banned in some countries because Pingu urinated in public. But perhaps the greatest indictment came from Madonna, who called the lovable bird "a bad influence" because her daughter would not stop watching the programme.
The Penguin, 'Batman' character
The Penguin - or Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot as he was named - is perhaps the most complex of Batman's nemeses. Introduced in DC Comics in December 1941 by the artist Bob Kane, the Penguin is a short, deformed pudding of a man who wears a top hat, dinner jacket and monocle. But he is no monster: the Penguin styles himself as the "gentleman of crime". Born to a society family, the Penguin was relentlessly bullied as a child. His love of all things feathered was evident from his earliest days, and he is said to have been tipped into lawlessness by an incident in which his mother's pet shop was attacked by a group of toughs, who murdered all the animals. The Penguin was initially a minor character in the Batman comics and it was Burgess Meredith's performance as the waddling supervillain in the 1960s television series that shot him to prominence. The Penguin's status as a major player in the Batman series was confirmed when Danny Devito played the feathered fiend in the 1992 motion picture Batman Returns.
Original Penguin, clothing label
There was a time when no self-respecting American teenager would be seen dead wearing Original Penguin. With its staid, fusty colours, and its trademark penguin logo golf shirts, it was the embodiment of the middle-class suburban nightmare most youngsters were trying to escape. But as anyone who has seen Strictly Come Dancing will know, our irony-rich times are full of stories of the unfathomably unhip that have somehow ridden the retro bandwagon to cool. Original Penguin is just such a brand. The clothing company started life in 1955 as an offshoot of Munsingwear, a Minneapolis underwear and military clothing outlet. What Original Penguin wanted to promote, however, was its golf shirt, and its first advertisements featured Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. By the 1980s, the brand looked as if it had died a death, but in 1996, it was bought by Perry Ellis and relaunched in 2003 with a new sportswear collection. Suddenly, Original Penguin was hip again. Now young pups, following the example of the beautiful children of The O.C. (all big fans of the Penguin) can be seen wearing OP from NYC to LA.
Happy Feet, animated feature film
Released in the UK on 8 December, Happy Feet features the voices of Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and Robin Williams, and has grossed $190m worldwide on its theatrical release alone.
It tells the story of a group of emperor penguins in Antarctica, who express their true love for each other with their own unique "heartsong". However Mumble, the hero, cannot sing, preferring to express himself through his Astaire-esque dance moves. When a lean period of fishing hits the colony, the elder penguins blame Mumble and he and his friends set off to find out what is really affecting their fishing waters. The film had barely hit the cinemas before conservative commentators were decrying its left-wing agenda. Liberals, needless to say, hit back. Meanwhile, children everywhere have laughed at the funny dancing. But what do they know?
March of the Penguins, documentary film directed by Luc Jacquet
Who would have thought that an 85-minute film about the annual breeding patterns of the emperor penguin could cause such a rumpus? The controversy that accompanied the release of this film last year was rooted not so much in the subject matter - the extraordinary lengths to which penguins will go to protect their eggs and newborn chicks - but in the various and ludicrous interpretations that were foisted upon it. The American religious right radio host Michael Medved said the film was great because it showed traditional family values at work in nature. The author Andrew Sullivan made the point that the penguins were only monogamous for a year, and that some penguins have a tendency towards homosexual relationships. Luc Jacquet, who directed the film, condemned any link between penguins and humans. "I find it intellectually dishonest to impose this viewpoint on something that's part of nature," he told the San Diego Union Tribune. "You have to let penguins be penguins and humans be humans."
Penguin books, paperbacks
Penguin Books revolutionised the reading habits of a generation. Founded in 1935 by Allen Lane, the concept behind the new publishing phenomenon was to provide quality writing for the same price as a packet of cigarettes. Traditionally, paperbacks had been associated with pulp, or low-quality fiction. Penguin changed all that.
The early series of Penguin Books have become design classics. Whereas most paperbacks of the 1930s were gaudy items featuring ornate illustrations, Lane's books were simple. Consisting of three horizontal bands - two coloured stripes sandwiching a white band in the middle - the covers simply detailed the name of the title, its author, and iconic Penguin logo.
Following the success of the original imprint, Penguin branched into academic literature, with its enormously successful Pelican range. And, having branched out with one imprint, Penguin further extended its wings with a number of other imprints, including Penguin Classics (for classic literature), Allen Lane (for original non-fiction), and Puffin (for children). Perhaps the publisher's greatest moment, though, came in the court case over its decision to sell D H Lawrence's erotic masterpiece Lady Chatterley's Lover, which sparked over 3.5 million sales.
McVitie's Penguin, chocolate biscuits
Created in 1932 by McVitie's, the manufacturing arm of United Biscuits, the P- P- P- P- Penguin is one of the Olympian achievements of the British biscuit industry. This milk-chocolate covered biscuit bar has been a mainstay of field trip lunchboxes and picnic hampers. It has been much-imitated - most notably by the Australian Tim Tam - but never bettered.
The Penguin was wrapped in foil grease-proof paper featuring a picture of an emperor penguin and a joke or fact. Modern sachets continue the traditions in a more environmentally viable medium. Penguin spin-offs have appeared (Penguin chukkas, Wing Dings, and the Flipper Dipper.). But nicecupofteaandasitdown.com, has told McVitie's to "leave it out ... This is like getting your granny up to dance to the latest choons [sic] at a wedding disco".
Club Penguin, online role-play game
Club Penguin is something young people do that old people don't understand. It's an interactive, multi-player, online, role-play game, in which participants become an on-screen penguin. Playing the role of their penguin, players can talk to one another, have parties, go on adventures, and generally lark about in their snowy (virtual) world. Unlike other "virtual world" games in which players can pay for sex or assassinate people they don't like, Club Penguin is a wholesome environment, designed for children, and monitored by Orwellian "Moderators"who make sure no one uses bad language, or murders their pets, and so on. One can buy a pet - called a Puffle - or decorate one's igloo with home furnishings. Every so often, there is a party, where a free clothing item is given out (the next one is on Friday). Penguins in need of more excitement can become secret agents and go on special missions.
Feathers McGraw, character in 'The Wrong Trousers'
Has there ever been a more evil penguin than Feathers McGraw, the implacable villain of the Wallace and Gromit classic The Wrong Trousers? A mute, seemingly harmless character with stone-cold eyes and a colder heart, Feathers answers an advertisement for a lodger at No 23 West Wallaby Street, and quickly inveigles his way into Wallace's affections. Feathers, we soon discover, is a criminal mastermind after Wallace's new techno-trousers, which he plans to use in his next heist. Using an ingenious disguise - a rubber glove on his head so that he looks like a cockerel - Feathers has everybody fooled, except for Gromit. We can safely assume that justice took its rightful course. When Gromit is wrongly imprisoned in the subsequent adventure, A Close Shave, a scrawl on the prison wall reads "Feathers woz 'ere". A case of doing bird if ever there was one.
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