Pamela Travers, her life, my biography, Disney’s movie

Dancelines is of course a site about dance, and this post is not.

Well, only indirectly, in that the creator of Mary Poppins, Pamela Travers, was once a dancer and that Travers really wanted the nanny to be illustrated posing in ballet’s turned out first and fifth positions of the feet.

This is about Saving Mr Banks, the film that’s just had its world premiere with a screening at the London Film Festival, an event attracting many critics.

Many reviews are already published, and they’re mixed.

As the biographer of Travers, my feelings are also mixed. It’s odd to have researched and written about Travers’ life throughout 1997/98, and then to have her story re-told in a film, especially as its title is Saving Mr Banks.

My idea, expressed in the book, was that Mr Banks, the employer of Mary Poppins in the stories, was inspired by Pamela’s father, a banker, who drank too much, was demoted from being a bank manager to a clerk, and died when Pamela was only 7.

My book carried that theme all the way through the narrative. I believed that Pamela Travers was always looking for another father, another “Mr Banks”, but never found him.

She was a strong, independent woman who never married, adopted a son, Camillus, (who became an alcoholic) and who was cursed with various illnesses and a great deal of tension.

The book is now being re-issued but it’s not, strictly speaking, a movie tie-in, as the producers of Saving Mr Banks say their film is not based on my book that explores Travers’ early life in the town of Allora, Queensland, where her father died, and her encounters with Walt Disney in Hollywood, before and after the making of Disney’s Mary Poppins movie in the 1960s.

So, to go back to the origins of the Travers’ story, one that no one wanted written, including Travers herself, many of her friends and her literary agent, in 1996/7, I pressed ahead, with the help of her son, the late Camillus Travers, and spent over 18 months touring the world to find out more of her life, from the small towns of Australia, to Santa Fe and Taos (where she lived for part of her life), to Washington DC, New York City, Dublin and London and finally my book was published in 1999 by Hodder Headline, now incorporated within the corporate publishing labyrinth of Hachette Australia.

In 2005, it was republished in Britain by Aurum Press and then in 2006 by Simon & Schuster in the US and again by Hachette in Australia in 2010.

It’s odd to see references to the Disney/Travers’ encounters of the 1960s in the reviews of the film.

I feel as though I am living my research years all over again, especially as I’m reading, in the reviews, some facts I wrote about in the book, for example, how Travers’ father was “demoted from bank manager to clerk”.

It’s only a phrase, but it took a lot to discover the details behind this information.

My husband, Vic Carroll, who helped me with some of the research, discovered the fate of Travers’ father through extensive research of the archives of the Australian Joint Stock Bank, a now defunct bank, where Travers worked in the early 20th century.

In the past few days, I’ve been interviewed by an American reporter who has seen the film and asked me for my views.

I told him about the background to my book and what I knew about Travers but explained that I haven’t seen the movie and I probably won’t see it until December or January as I don’t plan on flying to the UK or US in the next few months.

I’ve now read more than a dozen reviews of Saving Mr Banks and gather from these reviews, and from the American reporter, that the film has a happy ending with Disney and Travers making their peace, and happily understanding one another’s lives.

That didn’t happen, but… you know, poetic licence, it’s a movie not a documentary!

Travers really disliked the film from the start, and more and more as time went on, but she did agree to a sequel in 1988 when the English writer, Brian Sibley, suggested another Poppins’ story to Disney.

The Poppins’ sequel was never made and Travers died in 1996.

The film reviews published so far are more positive than negative.

David Gritten, in The Telegraph, writes that the “bravura” performance of Emma Thompson as Travers “effectively dominates the film”.

The movie “bowls along agreeably” and is a “smart, witty entertainment”.

Gritten is not so keen on the scenes of Travers’ childhood that act as “a counterpoint, sometimes awkwardly so, to the knockabout battle of wills waged between Travers and Disney”.

Theartsdesk.com describes Travers as “such a beast”, a view of Thompson’s performance that is stated many times in the reviews.

(Another writer, Chris Haydon, thought Travers was “a royal pain in the backside, an oppressive, bitter and rude individual…”)

Theartsdesk.com critic, Karen Krizanovich found that “Saving Mr Banks is a surprise: apparent schmaltz with a core of molten emotion.

“Bring an embroidered hanky. You’ll need it.”

Variety’s chief film critic, Scott Foundas, is positive, praising Tom Hanks as Walt Disney while pointing out that while “Saving Mr Banks builds towards a cathartic happy ending…in real life Travers, then well into her 90s, authorised Cameron Mackintosh’s stage version of Poppins only to be made on the condition that no one from the film version, including the Shermans (the song writers), be involved”.

Bloggers Chris Haydon of filmoria and Genevieve Sibayan of Culthub, were ecstatic about the film with Haydon calling it “one of the year’s most breezy and enjoyable pictures” and Sibayan waxing lyrical – “faultless”, “emotional rollercoaster has you cracking with laughter and crying with empathy”.

Now for the negatives.

International Business Times’ critic, Alfred Joyner, thought Saving Mr Banks was “a prosaic picture” with a set-up that “grows tiresome excruciatingly quickly”.

Disney was portrayed in “a sugar coated representation…an all-loving figure who helps Travers finally exorcise her demons.

“That’s not really a surprise seeing as the studio financed the picture..”

Jeffrey Wells, on the website Hollywood Elsewhere, was not impressed and was sorry that he flew from the US to London to see the film, finding it too “hammy, too family-filmish – it approaches a farcical tone at times”.

The Independent (unnamed critic) thought he movie was “effective enough as a weepie” but that it “also feels sanitised and disingenuous”.

Hanks’ interpretation of Disney “seems like a whitewash”.

Finally, The Guardian’s critic, Peter Bradshaw, thought the movie was an “outrageously sentimental and self congratulatory film from Disney about the master himself”.

Saving Mr Banks was “an indulgent, overlong picture which is always on the verge of becoming a mess. Thankfully, reliable old Tom Hanks snaps his fingers and – spit spot – everything more or less gets cleared away”.

A nice touch to finish: Bradshaw believes that the longer the film goes on “the more you realise that Hanks and Thompson are born to play Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher”.

10 Comments

  1. Adrian Ryan
    Posted October 23, 2013 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    A very interesting post Valerie. Thanks for the roundup of first critical opinions ! An author of a biography is generally only too happy to have a very full bibliography giving an indication of the depth of their research and also to acknowledge possible forerunners in the area. However filmmakers, when dealing with biographical material, are rarely so generous. Of course there is no easy way to substitute the bibliographic appendix of a written biography for a credit crawl, indicating all source material, at the end of a film.

  2. valerie
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 1:13 am | Permalink

    Thanks Adrian, Yes, it’s frustrating because most people don’t stay until the end of the credits of any movie. If they stay for Saving Mr Banks, they will see an acknowledgement of my book, first discovered by one of the producers of the film in a Sydney bookshop in 2002! He had never heard of P L Travers and went on to make a documentary based on my book.

  3. Adrian Ryan
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    Talk about serendipity – quality always wins out in the end Valerie !

  4. David Sumray
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    An article in today’s (London) Daily Mail about Travers (the starting point being the adoption of Camillus but not his twin brother) by David Jones refers to your ‘definitive biography’.

  5. valerie
    Posted October 27, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Thanks David. It’s good to hear from you again.
    I’ve posted an article I wrote on Travers that was published in The Sunday Times, UK, yesterday 27 October.

  6. Ralph Spurrier
    Posted December 1, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I went to see “Saving Mr Banks” last night at Uckfield Picturehouse in Sussex and found the film highly effective. I am aware that it is a Disney production and that there has to be a “slant” to it which would not criticise Walt Disney in any way but, that aside, I was intrigued by the character of P.L.Travers (never having read the books or seen “Mary Poppins”) – intrigued enough this morning to search for more info on the intenet – and hey, presto! I find the biographer of P.L.Travers. I shall now seek out your book Valerie – so one extra sale! (Its a bit spooky that I discover that P.L.Travers lived just down the road in Mayfield).

  7. valerie
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:19 am | Permalink

    Good to hear from you Ralph. You can buy the book online now through Amazon or direct from Simon&Schuster.
    Pound Cottage where PL Travers lived is so close to you! The couple who live there are lovely and am sure would let you look around if you mentioned you have been in touch with me.

  8. Loretta Lowe
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Just saw the movie in California on Christmas day. I agree with all of the reviews above. It was indulgent, disingenuous, “hammy” as well as breezy, enjoyable and a cathartic emotional roller coaster with brilliant acting by Mr. Hanks and Ms. Thompson. For me, a good film has you thinking about the characters and story (knowing,full well, that there are likely inaccuracies and poetic license). As the other poster said, this one had me wanting to learn more about PL Travers. (I did see your book mentioned in the credits and will search it out on Amazon). Sounds to me like the Disney organization owes you a lot more than just a mention. Thank you for sharing her story with the rest of the world!

  9. Cindi Brown
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Valerie, I saw “Saving Mr. Banks” recently in Vermont. I loved it, but it left me with an intense interest in knowing if P.L. Travers was really as disagreeable as the movie portrayed her.
    In trying to answer this, I read your biography of Travers. I enjoyed this book very much and have recommended it to friends. As for answering my question? Yes, I think she was pretty disagreeable, but maybe had some reason and some justification. Did she really say Disney couldn’t put any RED in the movie? Cindi

  10. valerie
    Posted January 25, 2014 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    Hi Cindi, I’m really pleased that you liked my book and recommended it to friends – thank you! As far as I know Travers did not have any aversion to red. I think that was in the screenplay to underscore that Travers was extremely stubborn and making impossible requests. Red was, of course, in Disney’s Mary Poppins. Who can forget the red velvet bow at Julie Andrews’ neck, her red corselet of the Jolly Holiday song and most of all the red cherries in her hat!

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Julie Andrews, Walt Disney, Pamela Travers

Julie Andrews, Walt Disney, Pamela Travers, published in Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson, published by Simon & Schuster

Mary Shepard's illustration for Mary  Poppins

Mary Shepard’s illustration for Mary Poppins

Pamela Travers in her 40s, image from Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson, published by Simon &  Schuster

Pamela Travers in her 40s, image from Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson, published by Simon & Schuster

Pound Cottage, Mayfield, East Sussex, where P L Travers wrote her first Mary Poppins story, photo © Valerie Lawson

Pound Cottage, Mayfield, East Sussex, where P L Travers wrote her first Mary Poppins story, photo © Valerie Lawson

Pamela Travers, 1995, photo © Jane  Bown

Pamela Travers, 1995, photo © Jane Bown