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Rupert Bear gets 21st Century makeover

At the age of 86, one of the nation's favourite bears has been given a TV makeover. But, asks Ed Caesar, will New Rupert draw the kids?

Rupert, it seems, will bear anything. Over nine decades, the Daily Express stalwart has withstood changes of fur colour, allegations of racism, and a lurid sex scandal. He even survived the recent jobs cull at Express Newspapers (although, because of "restructuring", he may have started subbing the arts pages and filing a sports column). Now, Rupert Bear, as all public figures eventually must, has one more obstacle to overcome: re-branding.

On Wednesday, exactly 86 years after he began life on what was then Britain's best-selling newspaper, a jazzed-up Rupert will appear on Five, in a new children's programme called Rupert Bear - Follow the Magic. Although Rupert is ostensibly unchanged, he has a whole new outlook on life. He runs. He jumps. He rides a scooter. He helps to clean up the environment in his bucolic fictional home, Nutwood.

Despite a number of scare stories circulated in the nationals last week, the new Rupert does not wear a hoodie. Nor does he refer to his friends as "blud" and "homie". Indeed, Rupert looks, at first glance, unchanged. The garish yellow check trousers and red jumper remain (although Rupert now sports snazzy red trainers instead of boots.) And, following the old maxim that you can tell a bear by the company he keeps, Rupert is seeing less of his old boys, like Algy Pug, preferring to hang out with diverse, funky cats like Ping Pong, a feisty five-year-old girl with magic powers, and Miranda the Mermaid.

It sounds suspiciously like Rupert has employed the same re-invention gurus as David Cameron's Conservatives. In fact, he is using Entertainment Rights, Britain's leading children's intellectual property owners. Their last major success was to re-work Postman Pat from a cat-owning loner into a snowboarding family man. So will Rupert be snowboarding, or is he just another tweed-wearing Tory in disguise?

"Rupert won't be snowboarding," says Jane Smith, commercial director for Entertainment Rights, "unless, of course, it snows in Nutwood. The thing about Rupert is that he's 86 years old. So there's a huge heritage there. We've tried to make him into a pre-school character, and he's never been one before. So we've had to make him more exciting for today's kids."

Does that mean the gentle, pottering Rupert of old - a bear for whom a treasure hunt was the pinnacle of adventure - is gone?

"Absolutely not," says Smith. "We're going to operate a dual-brand strategy. We're keeping Classic Rupert, which will be a much more adult, collectible type of brand [Royal Doulton are creating a new Rupert range]. And then we're developing New Rupert for children's television. Classic Rupert will still appear in the Express, and The Rupert Annual."

Over the years, "Classic Rupert" has had a bumpy ride. Conceived in November 1920 by Mary Tourtel as a brown-furred bear, Rupert started life in the Daily Express with two cartoons a day, and a short story underneath. The penny-pinchers at the Express, though, quickly realised that white was much cheaper to print than brown, and Rupert's colour soon changed (although in the Netherlands he is still known as "Rupert Brown Bear").

When Tourtel's eyesight deteriorated in 1935, a Punch illustrator called Alfred Bestall was asked to fill in for six weeks. He drew the cartoon for 30 years, until his retirement in 1965, and was the original contributor to The Rupert Annual - a hardback collection of Rupert stories that has been published every Christmas since 1936 and has sold 50 million copies to date.

But Rupert, for all his success as a media player, has also found himself in a few compromising scrapes. In 1971, he was caught up in the notorious Oz trial when the irreverent colour supplement edited by Jim Anderson, Felix Dennis and Richard Neville published two cartoon strips featuring a sexually aroused Rupert defiling an unconscious virgin. The cartoons were actually a montage, assembled by a 15-year-old schoolboy called Vivian Berger, in which a Rupert cartoon had been superimposed over a Robert Crumb sequence. In a landmark obscenity case, the three editors were charged with conspiring "to corrupt the morals of young children and other young persons". Not only were they fined, they were also handed nine to 15-month prison sentences, later quashed on appeal.

If Rupert's image had, in the Oz case, been tarnished from without, his problems with race were of his creator's own making. Frequent references to the "Golliwog" in The Rupert Annual have had to be retrospectively softened to "Golly", while the 1946 and 1947 Annuals are now considered too racially insensitive to be reprinted. Of particular concern to the Express were the stories involving "coons".

So Rupert's makeover - a clean break from his fabled, middle-England past - may not be before time. Although, it should be said, the major changes to the Rupert Bear universe occur not so much to his identity, as to the world around him.

"The new Nutwood is a lot more friendly," says Smith. "Rupert and his friends hang out in a tree house. Miranda the Mermaid lives in a gorgeous pink pagoda, which fits in with her character. And the natural environment now features more heavily in the storylines. There's one episode where Rupert and his friends have to clean up the forest for the spring inspection."

Cleaner, greener Rupert will, Entertainment Rights hopes, be a huge hit on children's TV. And, the company hopes, by staying fairly close to the original Rupert, they can count on parent-power as well as pester-power to push their viewing figures up.

"What parents love to do," says Smith, "is to share characters from their own childhood with their kids." Whether parents will recognise Nutwood, though, is a moot point. I remember when it was all fields.

'Rupert Bear - Follow the Magic' begins on Five on Wednesday