|Saving Mary Poppins
||[Dec. 7th, 2013|06:15 pm]
Thanks to a tip-off from poliphilo — , I watched the BBC's 'Culture Show' special on P. L. Travers and Mary Poppins. It pulled off rather neatly the trick of having its bread buttered on both sides: riding the wave of publicity about Saving Mr Banks, and the impending 50th anniversary of Disney's Mary Poppins, praising both films and offering attractive trailers, while occupying the cultural high ground, defending Travers' dislike of the Disneyfication of her book, and pointing out the dishonesty of Disney's attempt to bring her posthumously on side. Victoria Coren Mitchell did a very good job as presenter, despite all the cgi flummery: having her descend once from the heavens clutching an umbrella with a parrot's head handle was quite entertaining; having her flying by umbrella or jumping into a piece of pavement art at every scene change became tedious. She had shed the highly polished and slightly off-key witticisms with which she presents Only Connect, and spoke naturally of her childhood love of the books and ambivalence about the film; her final summary felt less like a concluding speech to camera, more like a friend settling down to discuss what we had just seen. This naturalism may be just as articial, I wouldn't know, but it was a comfortable fit for the programme.
This is what Victoria Coren Mitchell told the Observer about the documentary.
It looked - inevitably - for the origins of the books in Travers's own life, and found an unsettled childhood, in Australia (which was unexpected) with a failed bank employee father and an overwrought mother. You could see how that child would have yearned for someone calm and competent to turn up from anywhere, or nowhere, and take charge. There was also a great-aunt who was stable, repressive and owned an umbrella with a parrot's head handle. Then we jumped to Travers's adult life, and her decision to adopt a boy for whom she provided a childhood which must have been, in its way, as unsatisfactory as her own. The Wikipedia article fills in some of the details of the biography, providing some curious connections as well as explaining how Helen Lyndon Goff became Pamela Lyndon Travers. Wikipedia links to an interesting article by Justine Picardie written in 2008 (when Cameron Mackintosh put on a stage musical of 'Mary Poppins'), which among other things quotes Travers as writing: "If you are looking for autobiographical facts, Mary Poppins is the story of my life."
Indeed, but which part does she play in that story? Is she the little girl longing for security and order, or is she the adult who is an outsider* but who knows best, who allows no sentiment to show, who permits no argument? The more the script stressed Travers' secretiveness, her emotional restraint, while the camera lingered on the wooden Dutch doll to which Mary is repeatedly compared, the more I thought that a connection was being made but not articulated: Mary Poppins, c'est moi.. Of course: all the characters come from the author, and each of them has a spark of her life.
The documentary, anxious to demonstrate what the Walt Disney version was lacking, emphasised the darkness of the books. Victoria Coren Mitchell picked out an episode in which Jane has a tantrum and is left alone in the nursery: somehow she enters the scene depicted in the Royal Doulton Bowl (the children's world is full of capital letters, as if every object were unique, every noun a personal name) in which old fashioned children are playing - and then she is told that she can never go home, she is trapped in the past. Mary Poppins rescues her, of course, but it is a frightening story, though one I had completely forgotten. The one that stays with me was the one in which Michael, similarly left alone, uses some sort of compass to revisit people (racial stereotypes, I fear) whom the children had visited earlier with Mary and been welcomed by, but who are now angry and threatening.
I am writing from memory, and not recent memory either - it shows, doesn't it? And I would have told you I'd read all the books, until I looked at the list and discovered there were eight of them. I have only three, and not the first one**. But from memory, of the books I read and re-read, each one followed a similar pattern - they were episodic, but the same episodes repeated: Mary Poppins arrives, one of the children is naughty and has a frightening experience, there is a visit to one of Mary's relations, Mary has an evening off, Mary leaves***. And what I remember as clearly as the dark and frightening episodes are others which are simply glorious. I'm not thinking about the afternoons in the park, which do find a place in the film****, though without the touch of the numinous the book gives them; but of Mary Poppins' evenings off, her Second Thursdays, when the children are privileged to attend parties at which she is fêted by the creatures of the kingdom under the sea, or at the zoo, or by the constellations. Mary Poppins' dark side is not just the bitter taste of the medicine which is good for you (and which can be helped down by a spoonful of sugar), it is the shadow which casts into relief her brilliance.
ETA: Kathryn Hughes in yesterday's Guardian offers the opposite view: as a child she adored the film and thought the books were All Wrong. She singles out for particular disapproval***** those scenes that I (and, I see from the comments, nineweaving — ) particularly loved. But she backs me up on the class aspect, and goes further.
* Mary Poppins is literally an outsider, of course. She arrives out of the blue, from what might as well be Australia. But she is also a social outsider, a domestic servant (along with Mrs Brill the Cook, Ellen the parlourmaid and Robertson Ay - is this establishment likely for a bank employee in the 1930s? It feels archaic. But I digress...), and it is tempting to see her rigid adherence to propriety as class-specific: not for her the easy emotionalism of the confidently middle-class Banks. She is always referred to by her full name, for she demands respect.
But P.L. Travers biography places her in artistic social circles: perhaps this is a red herring?
** I have only Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary Poppins Opens the Door and Mary Poppins in the Park. This last one doesn't follow the familiar pattern, and is prefaced by a note from the author explaining the the events in it should be seen as occurring in Mary Poppin's three previous stays with the Banks family.
*** Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book follows a very similar pattern, not just in its episodic structure but in the nature of some of those episodes. When he acknowledges a debt to P.L. Travers, this, I suspect, is where it lies.
****I should probably admit that I saw the film when it was new - accompanied by my brother and sister and grandmother - and haven't seen it in its entirety since. This, too, is from memory.
***** OK, she may have a point about the zoo. I remember feeling that the zoo was not my favourite Evening Out. Though when I try to be more specific, I wander into the zoo sequence of Wind on the Moon...