Victoria Coren Mitchell explores the complex life of Mary Poppins author PL Travers, looking at her battle with Walt Disney, whose film version she loathed but made her rich.
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# Chim chim-in-ey, chim chim-in-ey # Chim chim...
In 1964 the Disney film Mary Poppins was released to worldwide acclaim.
#..chim chim cher-oo
# Good luck will rub off when I shakes 'ands with you
# Oh, blow me a kiss...
# And that's lucky too... #
The film told of a magical world
where chimney sweeps are happier than bankers,
where you can jump into living pictures on the pavement.
Or should that be sidewalk?
It made an international star of Julie Andrews overnight,
and it changed forever our concept of what a nanny is,
or should be.
And the songs... Who could forget the songs?
# Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious...
But one person hated the film's cheery tone...
# Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious #
..the author of the Mary Poppins books, PL Travers.
In contrast with the practically perfect world of the movie,
her own life was complex and troubled.
As a single woman, PL Travers adopted a baby.
Who knew that was allowed in the 1930s?
But it all went horribly wrong and she nearly tore her own family apart.
50 years later, the Disney Corporation has made another movie about HER.
Would PL Travers have liked this one?
Will it set the record straight?
Can her bumpy, quirky, controversial life story be told on film at all?
All I knew is, those guys can dance!
Or is it too strange for Hollywood, even now?
Good luck. Thank you, everybody.
Everyone's heard of Mary Poppins,
but far fewer can name its author.
Many have no idea of the real origins of the world's most famous nanny.
Mary Poppins began life as a book in 1934.
This atmospheric cottage in Sussex was the rented home of PL Travers,
who had just turned 35.
When she was younger, she had wanted to be an actress.
This is her playing Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
But she moved on to become a well-established poet and art critic.
Now, she was starting her first novel.
At the time, she was cohabiting with a friend, Madge Burnand.
Biographers have speculated they were romantically involved,
and that PL Travers had unconventional romances with men and women throughout her life,
but she never wrote or talked about this.
In her writing, PL Travers created a more conventional family, the Banks family.
She chose as her subject one of the great English preoccupations -
nursery life -
a relatively untapped seam, the relationship between a nanny and her charges.
"Mary Poppins' eyes were fixed upon him,
and Michael suddenly discovered that you could not look at Mary Poppins, and disobey her.
There was something strange and extraordinary about her,
something that was frightening, yet at the same time, most exciting."
I like the cottagey-ness of this room.
I went to Golden Eye once where Ian Fleming used to write, and it was very glamorous.
You could imagine that's where you create stories of spies drinking martinis,
and seducing beautiful women,
but this feels just the place for stories
about children creeping out of bed at night and having adventures.
You can see sort of fields and sky,
so there's a sense of, you know, what lies out there beyond our little world.
It's quite Poppins-y. I like it. I'm glad it was written here.
Despite the book being quintessentially English,
PL Travers was actually not English at all.
She was Australian,
born and brought up in this small town in Queensland at the turn of the last century.
And her real name wasn't Pamela Travers.
She was christened Helen Lyndon Goff.
Her father worked in the town bank, just like the father in Mary Poppins.
But there were key differences.
Unlike Mr Banks in her story, PL Travers' father failed as a banker, and he struggled with drink.
He died young, in his early 40s,
almost certainly of alcoholism.
PL Travers was just seven years old.
Her mother found it increasingly hard to cope,
and shortly afterwards, attempted suicide.
PL Travers always claimed her turbulent upbringing had little influence on the book.
"I don't know that it is based on my personal life.
I think Mr Banks is a little bit like my father.
And Mrs Banks, in her most flustered,
is perhaps a little bit like my mother.
But really I don't think it is based on my childhood."
But at the heart of the book was the character of Mary Poppins herself,
the clipped, strict, but ultimately mysterious nanny who had blown in on an east wind.
It's hard to find a modern-day book or article about hiring a nanny
that doesn't mention Mary Poppins.
At Norland College in Bath, they train nannies in the art, or is it a science -
- it's certainly a mystery -
of looking after babies and children.
We are going to show you the old way to do it with the blankets and the sheet.
-The seam is always away from the child.
You need to make sure there is so much room for tucking in.
No sleeping with a hat on, no pillows for the baby. It needs to be completely flat.
What about my granny's old rule - no cats in the nursery, or the child will be hairy?
We definitely wouldn't advise any pets in the nursery.
No, because it can make people grow fur like a cat. My granny knew this.
It's not written about.
Because it's 2013, they need extra skills.
Tae Kwon Do.
Do not let go of the pushchair.
And how to escape paparazzi in a high-speed car chase.
Roadblock, roadblock. Paparazzi, quick, into reverse!
Maybe if PL Travers were writing today, Mr and Mrs Banks would have to have been Russian oligarchs.
Go, go, go. Go!
What do you think of Mary Poppins from the film?
Is that an inspiring figure?
-I like the bag. Fits everything in.
It's a good bag.
In the books, the nanny rules the nursery,
and Mary Poppins just says this is how it is going to be, and the mum is terrified.
Is that not the modern way?
The old-fashioned nanny is quite a stern, sort of matronly type.
I think that's how she is pictured in books and films, whereas we're not like that at all.
The author of the books, PL Travers, let me tell you, would turn in her grave to hear that.
She never believed things should be geared around the children,
and certainly not that there should be songs.
It's all about making it fun.
Obviously keeping everybody safe, and making sure what needs to be done is done,
but doing it in the funnest, and most creative way possible.
Is it recommended to put the children to bed,
and then get them up, and take them up on the roof for a dance?
The character of Mary Poppins was inspired, at least partly, by a relative.
After her mother attempted suicide, the young PL Travers latched onto a maiden great-aunt.
Aunt Ellie was reliable. She brought order and discipline.
She was also formidable, she was bossy, and stern.
PL Travers had strong views about the appearance of Mary Poppins.
She was no beauty, but rather plain,
similar to a doll that had belonged to the author as a girl.
"The newcomer had shiny black hair,
rather like a wooden Dutch doll, and she was thin,
with large feet and hands, and small, rather peering blue eyes."
And mixed in with all this was her magic.
When I was a child, I loved the magical potential in these stories.
Like the Alice books, and the Narnia series,
there was a sense in Mary Poppins that always a parallel magic universe was going on
you could slip in and out of, and there'd be no rules, and no bedtime.
But like those other famous stories, Travers' books also had darkness in them.
There was fear, and sadness and loss.
There's magic, but there is no forever.
And I think children know there's no forever.
They know about old age, they know about loss.
The greatest works of children's literature always have dark shadows within them.
PL Travers' creativity all came together in that book of 1934,
a book that very nearly failed to see the light of day.
It never occurred to me that anybody would want to publish it,
so I was writing it really for myself.
And then a friend saw it, half written and said,
"I'll take this to a publisher",
and I thought, "Well, a publisher won't want this."
But apparently he did.
The publishing house was in London, so PL Travers would motor to Soho
in her beaten-up old BSA sports car.
She was keen to take control of everything -
the artwork, the design of the cover, even the typeface.
That autumn, the book came out.
The initial print run sold out quickly.
It was on the road to being a children's classic.
Jenny Koralek, an author herself, knew PL Travers well.
She could be fun and funny, and bubbly, and a bit wacky.
And the books have got that somewhere too.
Was she an easy person to be friends with?
I get the sense she might have had a slightly mercurial temperament.
No, she wasn't easy.
She was not at all easy.
She kept parts of her life very private,
and none of us realised she was Australian.
Until she finally confessed that she was!
Her dark secret?
She was a complicated, profoundly... unusual woman.
In the book, Mary Poppins arrives from nowhere, simply blown in by the wind.
PL Travers always maintained that the character had come into her mind in a similar way.
Mary Poppins was not her sitting down to concoct.
She was very dramatic, and theatrical, and whimsical,
and when you were with her, and she said something like...
"She just came to me", and that's how she talked -
this creature sort of came up.
Out of God knows... As she puts it, God knows where.
Jung would know where.
Mary Poppins was a nanny who slid up banisters.
Even the author never knew what she might do next.
To me it was a shock too when she rode up the banisters.
I didn't know she was going to do it.
And again and again, when I read back over the books, I am surprised.
And I think to myself,
"Well, how did she think of that?"
PL Travers's imagination was broader than we might presume in a children's author.
Rather surprisingly, PL Travers also turned her hand to erotic writing.
Here she is in the literary magazine The Triad
inviting readers to imagine her taking off her underwear.
"And then the silky hush of intimate things,
fragrant with my fragrance,
steel softly down, so loath to rob me of my last dear concealment."
In the end she went on to write six Mary Poppins books.
Although they were marketed towards children,
she always saw them as books for grown-ups, too.
Millions came to love her story of the magical nanny.
It struck a chord with readers all over the world.
This overseas success was to change everything for PL Travers.
Over in Los Angeles,
a young girl called Diane had become a big fan of Mary Poppins.
Diane was living an ordinary, all-American life...
..but for one important difference.
Her father was Walt Disney.
Disney had created a powerful new studio in Hollywood,
and was always on the hunt for source material.
Thanks to his daughter's obvious enjoyment, he homed in on Mary Poppins.
Film historian Brian Sibley has investigated the life of Walt Disney,
and in particular, his relationship with PL Travers.
In the 1940s, Disney was at the peak of his current success.
He'd made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,
the first feature-length cartoon film with synchronised sound and colour.
That film changed everything.
More than 250,000 paintings like these
were created by Walt Disney and his band of artists
to make the most daring adventure in the history of motion pictures.
Dwarves' names fit their personalities.
This pompous-looking individual is Doc,
the self-appointed leader of the group.
He'd made it clear to people a film was capable of
carrying much more than just the comic antics of a mouse or duck.
It could carry emotion, and character, and portray those things on the screen,
and also that it could play to an audience, not of children,
but a whole family audience.
And old sourpuss here is Grumpy, the woman-hater.
Last but not least is Dopey. He's nice, but sort of silly.
He had an extraordinary nose for a good story.
He really did. He sussed out a story the moment he read it.
I think he instantly saw this would make a perfect motion picture.
What do you think appealed to him? Was it just the principle of the magical nanny?
The true strength of the Poppins stories is the character herself,
because she comes from nowhere.
She's somebody whose magic is contained within her.
It's something special and separate, and unfathomable in a way,
and I think he saw all those as very positive qualities he could make a story from.
What sort of image of family life do you think Walt Disney wanted to put out there?
What did he think about families, and what did he want to say about them?
Well, the interesting thing about Disney and families is that his own family,
as a child, was one that was quite a stressful and disturbing one, in many ways.
He had a father who was really quite brutal, and very severe and doctrinaire.
He had a loving mother, but it was a difficult childhood,
and I think he idealised the idea of the perfect family.
When he told his daughter he was going to get the rights to Mary Poppins
do you think he anticipated any trouble with that?
No, I don't think he did because, up till then,
most of the stories that he had been working on,
they were stories where the authors were not alive.
You know, he was already toying with Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.
His next film was Pinocchio, which...
All these authors were dead and buried.
As far as he was concerned, I don't think he saw that it was going to be a problem.
But convincing this particular live-and-kicking author
would come to be Disney's biggest challenge.
It was around this time that PL Travers attempted to create her own family.
A real family.
By now, after ten years of living together,
she and Madge had gone their separate ways.
And as she neared her 40th birthday,
Pamela Travers decided to adopt a child.
Her friends tried to stop her.
They thought she was crazy. They said she'd be an unsuitable parent.
I think this is rather amazing.
A 40-something single woman - possibly a gay 40-something single woman -
setting out to adopt a child,
determined to create a differently shaped family
in the teeth of social disapproval.
I think I thought that sort of thing started in about 2005.
And yet here it is happening in 1939.
We could make a documentary about her even if she hadn't written Mary Poppins.
Her first attempt to create a family was completely bizarre.
She tried to adopt the 16-year-old girl who cleaned her cottage.
Despite her ingenious argument that the maid's parents had too many children as it was -
What's one kid give or take? -
the girl and her family refused.
In a moment of pique, Travers sacked the maid.
Undeterred, the adoption fantasy remained lodged in her mind.
A little while later, she heard of a new opportunity in Dublin.
PL Travers moved in Irish literary circles,
where she met the writer and critic Joseph Maunsel Hone,
biographer of WB Yeats.
His son and daughter-in-law were struggling to look after their large family.
Twin boys - Camillus and Anthony - had just been born.
The family couldn't cope financially or emotionally,
and decided to have them adopted.
Quite naturally, they were keen the twins remained together,
but PL Travers would only agree to take one of the babies.
PL Travers believed in astrology,
and asked her favourite astrologer to cast a horoscope for both the children.
We've had a couple cast to see how they would have looked.
The astrologer's conclusion was that the preferred baby would be Camillus,
saying, "All in all, it would be rare to find better cross rays between a child and it own mother.
So I would say, by all means, adopt him."
So PL Travers chose Camillus, and left his brother behind.
But motherhood was far more demanding than she'd assumed.
Camillus cried most of the time,
and PL Travers even considered putting him in a babies' home.
But she persevered,
and when he was old enough, she sent him to boarding school.
PL Travers made the fateful decision
not to tell him that he was adopted, and had a twin brother.
After her own difficult upbringing,
with an alcoholic father and suicidal mother,
it seems she was sowing the seeds for a crisis in her new family later on.
A single mother. An adopted child.
This was all about as far removed as it could be from the traditional, nuclear family of PL Travers' books.
But those books don't necessarily show us a happy family.
They're full of coldness and distance.
The lonely Banks children look to their nanny for love,
but although she gives them magic, and she gives them order,
she never gives them tenderness.
To please the apple-pie Disney contingent in America,
it might need jollying up for the screen.
Walt Disney was bubbling with ideas for making Mary Poppins jollier,
but his plans were way too premature.
He hadn't yet secured the film rights.
And PL Travers was not exactly his greatest fan.
Earlier, she'd written a scathing film review of Snow White.
"Oh, he's clever, this Disney!"
Then I'll be fairest in the land!
"The very pith of his secret is the enlargement of the animal world,
and a corresponding deflation of all human values.
There is a profound cynicism at the root of his, as of all sentimentality."
Walt Disney's relationship with PL Travers was less of a walkover,
more of a relentless trudge.
In 1959 he'd already spent over 15 years trying to persuade her to sell him the film rights to Mary Poppins.
But she kept saying no.
By now she'd moved into London and was living in lovely Smith Street in Chelsea,
not unlike the Cherry Tree Lane of the books.
PL Travers suspected the sentimental Disney would lighten up the darkness of her Poppins world.
For example, there's the story of Bad Wednesday.
Jane Banks has been a bit naughty
so Mary Poppins goes out and leaves her alone in the house,
and she's drawn by magic into an old Royal Doulton bowl.
In the bowl there's a big dark house with a strange old man cackling,
and saying to Jane, "You're very pretty. Why don't you live here with me?"
And Jane says, "I don't want to live here. I'm scared. I want to go home."
And the old man says, "You've gone into the past, there's no home.
Your family is not even born.
You're going to be here with me forever."
And Jane screams and screams and screams,
and Mary Poppins comes to get her.
That's her punishment for having a tantrum.
How dark is that?
It chilled my blood when I was a child, and the truth is, it still does now.
Bad Wednesday would surely never make it into a Disney film?
Walt Disney was not the only showman who tried to adapt Travers' books into a different art form.
It's a very sweet little crescent.
The world's most successful producer of stage musicals Cameron Mackintosh was keen to put on Mary Poppins.
The actual feel of that Cherry Tree Lane in the stage show
was taken from the street that we're in.
He met PL Travers to try to win her over,
just as Walt Disney had tried many years before.
It was about 1993, I finally went over to Cherry Tree Lane where Pamela lived,
and...or Ms Travers...
And you know, she was quite frail at that point, but sharp,
And I soon found myself sort of like going back to school
as she sort of rigidly asked me questions,
She was very suspicious that actually all I wanted was the title.
And I made it very clear to her that my interests were actually because of her books.
She created a language for...for her characters which is unlike any other author.
She would never tell me when I kept saying about the characters...
I was trying to find the back story to Mrs Banks,
and if she didn't want to talk about something, she said,
"It just came to me", and that's it.
No other explanation, she wouldn't give me any back story.
How do you see the character of Mary Poppins, who do you think that person is?
I think Mary Poppins was a mixture of herself,
and her aunt, that she brought up,
who was the one who had the great parrot umbrella.
She went sort of from pillar to post,
because you know, her father did drink a lot,
and did die young, and her mother she didn't really have much time for.
I mean she was a very strange person as...you know,
because she wrote about an idealised kind of family life
in a way, that they never either had or knew about.
Did you feel any kinship with Walt Disney in his struggle?
Yes, I did in a way.
He pursued it for all those years,
and I think somebody like that needed to do it.
She would never have volunteered it, and in fact, when it nearly all crashed
it was her lawyer who said, "Pamela, you must do this,
and I don't care - I'm going to force you to sign this contract."
In 1959, with the help of PL Travers' astute lawyer,
trans-Atlantic negotiations were re-opened in earnest.
Disney hoped his perseverance might finally pay off.
Disney made PL Travers his best offer yet.
100,000 in cash!
5 per cent of the profits!
And script approval!
He rued the day he offered that.
After a 15-year stand-off, Travers agreed.
# For a spoonful of sugar
# Helps the medicine go down
# The medicine go down
# The medicine go down
# Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down
# In a most delightful way #
While Walt Disney was busy planning his cheerful version of the Banks family,
PL Travers' own small family of two was in full-blown crisis.
It all kicked off in 1956.
Her adopted son Camillus - by then a handsome young man of 17 -
went for a drink in the King's Road.
Waiting in this pub was a man who has tracked Camillus down,
and has arranged to accidentally bump into him.
His name was Anthony Hone.
The two have a lot in common.
They're the same age, they look strangely similar.
Anthony knows he was adopted.
He knows he had siblings, and possibly a twin.
They keep talking, keep drinking, and it all dawns on Camillus at once.
He's adopted, Pamela Travers is not his biological mother,
and this is his twin.
It was a terrible shock for Camillus, and he had furious rows with his mother.
17 was a disastrous age to find out his life had been based on a lie.
Kitty Travers is the daughter of Camillus, and the granddaughter of PL Travers.
Do you think that's something he came to terms with?
Well, it made him go completely bananas,
to have been lied to like that by someone you trust.
He was absolutely devastated when he found out
that he was actually part of this huge, Irish family
of literary and artistic giants,
and to have been booted out of a family like that would be awfully hurtful.
I felt betrayed.
Camillus died in 2011.
Nine years before his death, he took part in an Australian documentary.
The thing about my mother was she was very hard to know
because she kept a great deal concealed.
Even from her son, her only son.
I couldn't believe that somebody I had loved and trusted for so long
could have been lying to me at the same time for so long.
Once he found out he'd been adopted, that was the excuse for the kind of floodgates to open,
and to go at it, no holds barred.
And yeah... He never, never, never got over that,
and he always used is as an excuse for the rest of his life for all his bad behaviour.
How was her relationship with Camillus?
Do you think she could she see that he was still struggling with that finding out?
Do you think she felt guilty?
I certainly don't think she would have ever accepted any guilt.
I really don't think so. I certainly never heard her express any guilt ever.
So what did she think? That he should count himself lucky to have been adopted?
That it was written in the stars that it was...
It was written in the stars that he was meant for her.
Camillus hit the bottle hard.
In early 1960 he was caught drunk-driving, and lost his licence.
But that didn't stop him.
A few months later he was driving down a Middlesex Road
The Police pulled him over, and he was arrested.
Camillus got six months in prison.
# Oh, it's a jolly 'oliday with Mary...
Mary Poppins' jolly holiday was in sharp contrast to the life of the awful son.
# ..ordinary... #
His 21st birthday was spent in Stafford Maximum Security Prison.
Yet another brutal shock for Camillus and his mother.
The timing was horribly ironic.
This was all happening while PL Travers was finalising the deal with Disney
on the film about how best to bring up children.
Walt Disney was besotted with his new movie project.
He filled rooms with drawings of Mary Poppins.
He was particularly excited by his plans to mix live action with animation.
But before filming could begin,
he was contractually obliged to give PL Travers editorial input.
In March, 1961, she arrived in sunny California,
a world away from dreary London.
This was Disney's world, where he controlled everything around him.
But she was undaunted,
and ready to find her corner.
These two characters actually had a lot more in common than you might suppose.
They both had difficult backgrounds, had come from hard childhoods.
They were both used to getting their own way.
By the time they finally met and clashed,
they were both people who were not used to people telling them what they could and couldn't do,
and you've also got, inevitably with that, the fact they are going to have some kind of head-on collision.
Now, where is Mr Disney?
Well, Pamela Travers.
It's the ensuing tussle of wills as Travers fought for the Mary Poppins of her book
against Walt Disney's version that forms the plot
of the new Disney film, Saving Mr Banks.
-It doesn't look like that. No, no, it's all wrong.
-It's ALL wrong?
# Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious #
Stop! Mary Poppins is not for sale.
I won't have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.
Emma Thompson, something of an expert in the business of creating nannies,
plays PL Travers.
I could just eat you up.
That wouldn't be appropriate.
You've never been to Disneyland, and that's the happiest place on earth.
There he is.
I think she didn't understand the film.
She was very snobby about it.
There was a time when film was considered a lesser art form.
That's long gone now,
but she felt that Walt Disney was shallow,
a moneymaking mogul.
I think that Travers really was frightened that it would all be taken away,
it would be destroyed.
What she didn't know about Mary Poppins was that she would survive,
she would survive the clash of cultures,
she would survive being put into a different culture,
and interpreted in a wholly new way.
But how would you summarise the main changes from book to the film of the Mary Poppins character?
Well, she wasn't pretty.
She was based on this little Dutch doll with a square, stub nose.
You know, it's just not Julie Andrews.
It is a plain person, and Julie was so beautiful, beautiful in it.
Shall we begin?
I remember as a child
seeing the Disney film,
and really noticing it wasn't as dark as the books.
Thinking it was wonderful in its own way, but being sort of disappointed.
Even as a small person, I thought, "That's not the book",
but that's OK, because there were great songs.
Now, let us begin.
VOICEOVER: The Sherman brothers created a score that's quite extraordinary, actually.
No, no, no, no, no. Responstable is not a word.
We made it up.
Well, unmake it up.
There are some songs that seem to resonate with something in a collective psyche,
like Let's Go Fly a Kite is one of those songs that...
can't help but lift you up.
It's not an annoying song, EVER.
We had to do it so many times.
I thought we're going to want to kill ourselves at the end of the day, but we were still going...
SINGS LET'S FLY A KITE
We loved it.
The composers, the Sherman brothers, the script writer and the author
began discussions that lasted ten days.
The Disney team had been adapting the episodic chapters of the books
into a neat, Hollywood narrative.
PL Travers insisted that her conversations at Disney be taped,
so we can actually hear exactly what went on as the Sherman brothers
valiantly tried to sell the Disney vision.
It's quite an insight into PL Travers' character.
Now we come to my notes here, my typewritten notes.
It is integral to the book and to the story
in whatever form it's presented
that Mary Poppins should never be impolite to anybody.
We get the comedy out of this grey, quiet, polite person through which all the strange magic happens.
You say later on...
You see, obviously she sounds like a bit of a nightmare in a way, but I'm quite sympathetic.
She cared what she'd written.
She cared what they were doing with it. I think it was brave of her to speak up for herself.
We wouldn't say it like that.
But we have to be very precise about words, particularly in the script.
We must make the words mean exactly what they say, and no more, no less.
At times you can hear the discussion become quite strained.
Just a little something in the script. I'll help you with it later.
PL Travers certainly seems to know her own mind.
My idea is, and probably you will agree with me...
The Sherman brothers frequently try to sweet-talk her.
Leave it that way, please.
Because, truly, I think the other is false.
-I think it's an improvement.
The core of the disagreement was about sentimentality,
sprinkling sugar on everything, solving everything with magic,
making everything too sweet.
But within the film, one scene stands out as haunting and melancholy.
It's a poignant glimpse that's close to the spirit of the books
of a marginalised life that can't be improved or resolved by magic.
It's the Feed the Birds song at St Paul's Cathedral.
The Sherman brothers discuss the song in an audio interview.
It seems to have encapsulated what we were trying to do in Mary Poppins,
that is, to say to give that extra love,
and a tuppence signifies little,
hardly anything, and feeding the bird
meant giving to the people in need.
And in this particular case, the Banks children needed
their father and mother's attention and their love.
Walt loved this sentiment, and he felt it so deeply, and he'd look over at Dick, and he'd say,
I knew what he wanted. Sometimes he wouldn't even say anything,
and he would just look out the window, and get a little misty-eyed, and we'd play it.
# Early each day to the steps of St Paul's
# The little old bird lady comes
# In her own special way, to the people she calls
# Come buy my bags full of crumbs
# Come feed the little birds
# Show them you care
# And you'll be glad if you do
# Their young ones are hungry
# Their nests are so bare
# All it takes is tuppence from you #
It's interesting that Walt Disney was obsessed with this song.
It seems so full of sadness and loneliness.
When the children have gone, the old bird lady will still be there,
on her own, in the cold, pleading for tuppences.
It has the dark shadows that the film otherwise lacked.
Maybe that's why PL Travers actually liked the song.
But that was the exception.
By now, Walt Disney was largely ignoring her.
Although billed as a consultant, she was no longer being consulted.
Take a look!
Disney was far more interested in
using his special effects to make Mary Poppins fly...
Perhaps it's a witch.
Of course not. Witches have brooms.
..along with revolutionary animatronic techniques.
This is a little robin we had in Mary Poppins,
and this little bird sang a duet with Julie Andrews.
Maybe we can get a little response from it.
# .. in a most delightful way #
After 20 years of struggle in the making,
the film was finally completed in 1964.
It was now officially Walt Disney's Mary Poppins.
And the original author hadn't even seen it yet.
COMMENTATOR: You've never seen such a crowd.
On August the 27th, a grand premiere was held in Hollywood.
Here is Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins!
It was a glittering evening. Throngs of screaming people were greeted by Mickey Mouse,
Goofy, Snow White and her small entourage.
There were dancing penguins and Pearly Kings.
All I can tell you is the genius of Julie Andrews and Walt Disney
have made probably one of the all-time great motion pictures
we have ever made in this crazy town of Hollywood.
But so much tension remained between Disney and the genius author
that he hadn't even invited her,
though she wangled a ticket anyway.
PL Travers got rather lost in the crowd,
but despite the presence of Walt Disney, Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke,
the host of the evening still managed a brief interview with her.
This is PL Travers.
Hello to you.
I would like you to tell the people out there how all of this came about.
Ah, now you're asking for my secrets and you know,
one of the first things about Mary Poppins is
that she never, never explains.
I'm looking forward to seeing what he has done tonight, very much.
Well, I won't hold you any longer.
Thank you so much for coming to our microphone, the author of Mary Poppins.
PL Travers did not enjoy the film.
There probably aren't words to describe your emotion.
Now, now, gentlemen.
She still resented many of the songs, and there are sixteen of them.
She especially loathed the animation sequences.
# It's Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
# Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious... #
There's a fascinating letter that PL Travers sent her lawyer after the premiere.
She says, "As chalk is to cheese, so is the film to the book.
Tears ran down my cheeks because it was all so distorted.
I was so shocked I felt I would never write - let alone smile - again."
# Supercalifragilisticexpilidocious #
Her failure to understand the movie business helps explain
why she thought she could still change the completed film.
She went to the party after the show,
and she went up to Walt Disney and said,
"Well, you know, the...the... It's all right, I suppose.
The...cartoons will have to go."
And Walt said "Pam, this ship has sailed".
And that was it.
Because, you know, he was a ruthless old sod as well.
I remember seeing the film when I was a child and being disappointed.
I loved the books so much, and the film was...
You know, something was missing.
It was too trivial, too easy, and happy.
There was certainly no Bad Wednesday.
On the other hand, it had cartoon penguins,
it had Dick van Dyke dancing,
it had chimney sweeps on the roof tops of London.
It was brilliant. So I was conflicted.
Was PL Travers also conflicted?
Privately, she said it was all bad, that she was in tears because she hated the film so much.
But was she at all moved watching this film about a happy united family flying a kite?
Did she think at all about her own complicated attempts to be a mother, and her troubled son?
Were some of the tears because of that?
She never said, but then she wouldn't have done, would she?
No sentimentality, remember.
Despite PL Travers' misgivings, the film was a critical and audience hit worldwide.
It won five Oscars including one for Julie Andrews in her first film role.
And the winner is Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins.
As well as a Golden Globe.
Thank you very much for this lovely honour.
It's a wonderful memento of a very, very happy time.
Mary Poppins eventually earned the Disney Corporation well over 100 million.
And remember, PL Travers was on a juicy 5 per cent cut.
She wrote to a friend that life would never be the same again.
She'll be wealthy forever.
A charity is set up, The Cherry Tree Trust, for disadvantaged children.
And with her own share of the fortune PL Travers sets up investments.
# Patiently, cautiously, trustingly invested in the...
# To be specific, in the Dawes
# Tomes, Mousely
# Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank #
Welcome to our joyful family of investors.
Give it back! Give back the money!
In the movie there's an underlying theme
that money is not all-important,
and charity begins at home...
..a message warmly received by the family audience.
The great thing about the Disney film is that
it made Mary Poppins universally known throughout the world.
The sad thing about it is that it made Mary Poppins
into Walt Disney's Mary Poppins rather than PL Travers' Mary Poppins.
And I think she was constantly seeking an opportunity to say, "How can I remind people that she's mine?
I'm here! It's over here! It's me. I really did it, you know."
And so she went on to write two more successful sequels to Mary Poppins,
helped by publicity from the hit movie.
She wrote other children's books too, but they largely sank without trace.
In 1977 PL Travers featured on Desert Island Discs.
It was one of her rare interviews
and tellingly, she chose no music, only poetry.
"Quick now, here now, always."
The film was mentioned just once.
Mary Poppins became in 1964, I think it was, in the hands of Walt Disney, a very successful film.
Did you approve of the cast?
Oh, yes, well, I approved awfully of the chief character Julie Andrews.
Well, it's still being shown all over the world.
Yes, so they tell me.
I've seen it once or twice and I've learnt to live with it.
That's gratitude for you.
It's glamorous and it's a good film on its own level, but I don't think it's very like my books.
Despite her reluctance to discuss the film,
PL Travers' life would always be overshadowed by Disney's Mary Poppins...
..as would the lives of those around her.
Although rocky at times, her relationship with her adopted son Camillus gradually improved.
I'm not sure if the knowledge of a healthy inheritance motivated this reconciliation,
but I don't think it would've hindered it.
Camillus brought up three children with his wife Frances.
It wasn't an easy life.
He struggled with alcoholism, and his attempts at rehab were largely unsuccessful.
But he did have some kind of ongoing relationship with PL Travers.
We grew up having to come and visit her every weekend from the suburbs where we lived.
She wasn't the kind of grandmother who bakes you cakes,
and you sit on her knee,
and it made a big impression on us to have somebody
who leads this mysterious life, and you don't know why she hasn't got a husband,
and you don't know why she's sitting there
wearing all this extraordinary silver jewellery,
and these long flowing robes and stuff.
It's quite weird, don't you think, that she wrote books
about a nanny bringing up children in a practically perfect way,
all full of ideas about what children needed,
and then in real life was sort of hazy and distant.
She wasn't interested in helping us in any kind of practical way.
When I was a baby my mum was pushing me in her pushchair,
and she stopped en route and asked if she could come and change my nappy,
and warm up my bottle.
She stood in the doorway and said, "I'm having my lunch. It's not convenient."
And that was it, so, that's quite extraordinary.
Yet she wrote us these poems on our birthdays, and we've still got them,
and claimed that we were her best in all the world,
and that she loved us very much, which is very, very sweet,
but wasn't much help to my mum at the time.
The contradictions are very interesting.
It's obvious with Walt Disney she was very controlling.
We know from the tapes she tried to run everything,
and I quite admire that.
I think that's a sign of an artist really caring about their work.
It really mattered to her.
And unusual for a woman at that time, so I admire that controlling instinct.
And yet Kitty Travers told us that she didn't feel guilty about any of the stuff with Camillus
because she thought it was just meant to be,
it was decided by the stars, it was down to fate, not her.
And I think that's fascinating, that at one level
she wanted to run everything, and another level
she wanted to believe that everything was decided by cycles of nature beyond her control.
PL Travers lived a long life,
and the world that she'd written about was disappearing,
if it had ever existed.
But her character, Mary Poppins, is immortal.
She comes out of a world that is timeless, I think.
perhaps that is all one can say about her.
Her son Camillus had come to accept his mother's nature.
I could see that in a funny sort of way my mother was trying to be like Mary Poppins with me.
So she was trying to be kind, nurturing, and strict,
but at the same time I wouldn't end up hating her,
which indeed turned out to be the case.
I ended up loving her.
Camillus visited her the day before she died.
She was too ill to speak.
He sang her a lullaby, the one she used to sing to him as a boy.
# So lulla lulla lulla lulla bye-bye
# Do you want the moon to play with?
# Or the stars to run away with?
# They'll come if you don't cry
# So lulla lulla lulla lulla... #
Her ashes were scattered here at St Mary's Church in Twickenham,
but there's no memorial plaque.
It's as though even in death PL Travers is resistant to being identified.
After she died the Disney Corporation put adverts in the trade press showing Mickey Mouse in tears.
What would PL Travers have made of that, I wonder?
And what would she make of the new Disney film Saving Mr Banks, this time about Pamela Travers herself?
Mary Poppins and the Banks, they're family to me.
Mary Poppins was a real person?
So it's not the children she comes to save,
it's their father...
It's your father.
Well, they've done it again. They've done it to her again.
They've tidied it all up, they've smoothed off the rough edges,
they've given it a happy ending, they've given it structure and redemption.
They've completely cleaned up the messy story of Camillus.
He simply doesn't appear.
But here's the thing - it really...it really gets you.
That's what's ridiculous,
is that it's incredibly moving the way that they sort everything out,
and they give everything redemption...
is very powerful, and it knows it's doing it.
That's what's infuriating - it knows they're doing it.
There's a moment just near the end where Walt Disney says,
"That's what story tellers do, they restore order with imagination."
Life is messy, difficult, dark and complex.
Feuds can be "made up", but never completely solved.
Books can try to reflect this sadness and lack of resolution
as PL Travers' books did, even for children.
But Hollywood films take a different approach.
In a way, it's like Hollywood itself is a Mary Poppins or an Aunt Ellie.
It's tidying up the nursery, it's finding a way through the chaos.
We want to believe, as much now as we did in 1964, that redemption's possible.
And that is both the lie and the miracle of Hollywood films.
That it can all be neat and tidy at the end.
At some deep human level it's that order we crave.
One last thing.
PL Travers specifically told Walt Disney before filming started
that the line "Let's go fly a kite" was grammatically incorrect.
It should be, "Let's go AND fly a kite".
Walt decided to keep it the way it was.
But I'm with her.
I think the wind's finally blowing west.
# Oh, let's go fly a kite
# Up to the highest height
# Let's go fly a kite
# And send it soaring
# Up through the atmosphere
# Up where the air is clear
# Oh, let's go fly a kite! #
In 1964 the Mary Poppins film premiered in Hollywood to world acclaim. But one person loathed it. She was PL Travers, the author of the books. This Culture Show special presented by Victoria Coren Mitchell explores the dark and complex life of the writer. Her twenty year battle with Walt Disney, the strange adoption of her child (he was one of twins) and how the film version overshadowed her writings but made her rich. With contributions from Emma Thompson, Cameron Mackintosh and PL Travers's granddaughter.