How Disney added a spoonful of saccharine to Mary Poppins

This article was published in The Sunday Times today, 27 October, 2013

Pamela Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, spent her long life searching for connections, looking for love, travelling the world and seeking comfort from gurus, medics and mystics.

In old age she became a guru herself but she never recovered from the loss of her father at an early age and, despite several intense love affairs with both men and women, she never married.

So perhaps it is not surprising that she created a fictional nanny whose sole purpose was to make connections between disconnected people. Poppins flies down from the heavens to connect parents with their children and only leaves when she has made an unhappy family happy.

In many ways her creation echoed aspects of the author’s own remarkable life.

A new film, Saving Mr Banks, claims to tell the story of the complex and difficult relationship between Travers and Walt Disney during the making of a film that she came to hate, declaring it “ghastly”.

She loathed the way her creation had been transformed from the strict and sometimes scary character of her books into the sweet singing nanny played by Julie Andrews.

She hated the Americanisms that crept into the script and she did not approve of Dick Van Dyke’s strangely accented chimney sweep.

Who was the woman who created Poppins? Travers, who died in 1996 aged 96, shared much with her creation. Both were mysterious, flirtatious and frustratingly elusive about their origins. Poppins boasted that she “never told anybody anything” while Travers perfected the art of keeping secrets. Questioned by journalists about her personal life she replied: “I don’t wear my private life on my sleeve.”

Sometimes portrayed as stern, cold and unforgiving, those who knew her saw a complex person who was charming, intelligent and always seeking new adventures, including a time living with the Navajo people in Arizona.

Known for most of her life as PL Travers, she was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Queensland, Australia, in 1899 where her father, Travers Robert Goff, was a bank manager.

In 1905 his excessive drinking led to his demotion to the bank’s branch in the small town of Allora. He died when Helen was seven, after which the family went to live in Bowral in New South Wales where they were supported by Travers’s great-aunt, Helen Morehead, whose sayings included “spit spot, into bed”.

Travers acknowledged how much the no-nonsense Morehead had “stalked with her silent feet” through the pages of Mary Poppins.

PL Travers thought the film was ‘all fantasy and no magic’PL Travers thought the film was ‘all fantasy and no magic’ In 1924, after a brief career as a dancer, poet and actress, Travers sailed alone to England, armed with £10 and a determination to go on to Ireland.

Once in London she wrote to George William Russell, the editor of the Irish Statesman in Dublin, offering poems for publication. Russell brought her into the circle of William Butler Yeats, Bernard Shaw and Francis MacNamara, with whom she fell in love. MacNamara did not love her and left her with a broken heart.

Russell’s letters to Travers tell of an intimate relationship that lasted until his death in 1935, after which she felt “fatherless”. Not long before he died, he was thrilled to hear Travers’s idea about a witch whose broomstick would fly “just as well by white magic as by black magic”.

The “witch” took shape in Sussex, where, in 1931, Travers rented a cottage in the village of Mayfield. There she wrote her first book of Poppins’s adventures, published in 1934.

She shared her home with Madge Burnand, a daughter of the playwright Sir Francis Burnand, and on occasions with the American Jessie Orage.

Orage’s diary, and other papers I have unearthed, detail the tempestuous relationship between the women. They suggest that Travers and Burnand were lovers and that she was also intimate with the artist, Gertrude Hermes, whom she met on a journey to New York.

The nanny in PL Travers’s book is a strict, sometimes scary characterThe nanny in PL Travers’s book is a strict, sometimes scary character In 1939 Travers adopted Camillus Hone, one of seven Dublin-born siblings who had been offered up for adoption, and took him to Mayfield. Soon after the start of the Second World War, Travers and Camillus sailed to America and spent two summers with the Navajo people, renting a house in Santa Fe and visiting the artists’ community of Taos. They returned to London in March 1945 once it was safe to cross the Atlantic. Like Travers’s father, Camillus, who died in 2011, became an alcoholic.

For many years Travers had resisted Disney’s offer to buy the film rights to the Poppins stories but in 1960 she succumbed to the lure of an initial £100,000 along with 5% of the producer’s gross.

Disney promised much but gave little. Travers was a consultant on the film and spent 10 days in Hollywood fighting to ensure that it was not too saccharine, that Poppins was not having a love affair with Bert and that Mr Banks not be portrayed as a “monster”.

One night she wrote a nine-page letter warning the screenwriters against showing Poppins as a “hoyden”. She left Hollywood satisfied with the meetings and continued to give Disney advice, suggesting the songs in the movie should have an Edwardian air.

When Disney failed to ask her to the premiere she travelled to Hollywood and maintained a dignified silence at the party afterwards.

Later she wrote to her publisher that the film was “Disney through and through, spectacular, colourful, gorgeous, but all wrapped around mediocrity of thought, poor glimmerings of understanding”. In time her comments became harsher — “all fantasy and no magic”, “all that smiling, just like Iago”, “the movie hasn’t simplicity. It has simplification”.

The author hated the change from her creation to Julie Andrews’s sweet, singing nannyThe author hated the change from her creation to Julie Andrews’s sweet, singing nanny (REX/Everett) A spoonful of fame and a healthy bank balance gave Travers some security but she continued to seek the peace that eluded her through the spiritual teachings of George Gurdjieff, Jiddu Krishnamurti and Karlfried von Dürckheim.

In one of her last interviews, in 1995, she said: “I’ve suffered a lot in my life. I will only share my suffering with my pillow.”

At her funeral the following year the order of service showed Poppins flying up to the sky. In her right hand she held her umbrella aloft. In her left hand she clutched a carpet bag, packed and ready for her journey to the heavens.

Valerie Lawson is the author of Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of PL Travers, to be reissued by Simon & Schuster next month.

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Mary Poppins and the children, illustration by Mary Shepard

Pamela Travers in 1995, photo © Jane Bown

Pamela Lyndon Travers, sculpted by Gertrude Hermes, circa 1942

Dick van Dyke, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber and Julie Andrews in the 1964 Disney movie, Mary Poppins