There’s a Jk Rowling’s London, a Dickens’ London, a Downton Abbey’s London, and for sure there’s a Mary Poppins’ London,. Who doesn’t like the magical nanny with her flying umbrella? The Disney adaptation from P.L. Travers books is one of the most renown family movies ever, and the Broadway musical is simply spectacular. The magical nanny who travels with a flying umbrella and saves the Banks family is now part of our childhood memories. (Actually, the author said that Mary Poppins’ mission was to save the bank slave Mr Banks). Few people, however, were aware of the story behind the story, that is, the author’s experience and inspiration. Where did Mary Poppins come from?
Saving Mr Banks
The movie Saving Mr Banks is all about this. A wonderful Emma Thompson acts as Pamela Travers, the woman who was summoned to Los Angeles by Walt Disney himself to discuss the rights of her novel and take part in the making of the movie. She was strict and demanding, slightly ironic and profoundly English, despite coming from Australia. She didn’t drink tea in plastic cups and couldn’t stand cartoons, or Mickey Mouse and Disneyland. The scriptwriter and musicians had a hard time dealing with her requests and all their ideas were welcomed with one sentence only: “No, no, no, you can’t do that!”
But she had a sad story hidden in her heart. As a child, she had lost her beloved, frustrated and creative father, who couldn’t put up with his banking job, and she was hunted by the fear of having disappointed him. She had an aunt who tried to fix her family situation, whose personality and behaviour inspired Mary Poppins character.
The author and her characters
What is really interesting in the film, beside the exchanges with Disney and the writers team, is the deep and intimate connection between the author and her characters. It is hard to understand what it means to give life to a character that is not an extension of our personality, but embodies a part of our soul and experience. Characters reflect a part of us that sometimes we are not fully aware of. At some point in the creative process, they start haunting us and refuse to act the way we want them to. They have a life of their own, like children we have raised and we must now let go, free to follow their own way.
My Mary Poppins’ London
This long premise leads to Mary Poppins’ London. I went looking for Cherry Tree Lane and I found a road in Kensington, with cherry trees in front of each white house. It’s Victoria Road near Launceston Place and Queen’s Gate, south of Kensington Gardens. I love this area, with its antique shops and nice restaurants. Once there was a little bookshop owned by an old man, who only kept the novels he liked. It’s closed now, a piece of the past that disappeared like Bert’s painting on the pavement in Mary Poppins. From there, I used to run up to Hyde Park every Saturday morning, stopping to grab a cup of tea and a slice of apple cake.
Only recently I’ve discovered another Mary Poppins-like place in London: Hammersmith, with the beautiful walk along the Thames leading to Chiswick. Secret gardens, historical houses, small cottages, flowers and ivy, everything seems to pop out of a children’s book. You can almost think you’re in the countryside, yet you’re just a few stops from the city center. This suburb looks like an old lady who wanders in a park, among the red brick houses. And the Thames reflects the sky, glowing in the afternoon light. It’s like walking in the old London, with chimney sweeps, fruit sellers and magic. And if you find a small café and order scones with clotted cream and tea, the spell is complete. This is my Mary Poppins’ London.
Books and Movies
Mary Poppins by Pamela Travers
Mary Poppins directed by Robert Stevenson
Saving Mr Banks directed by John Lee Hancock