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Biographer Valerie Lawson tells the story of P L Travers and Adult Children of Alcoholics in 'Mary Poppins, She Wrote'
Valerie Lawson talks 'Mary Poppins, She Wrote' and P.L Travers
Biography reveals original character's sharp edge
December 20, 2013|By Kevin Nance
The new Disney movie "Saving Mr. Banks" is partly based on "Mary Poppins, She Wrote" by Valerie Lawson, which is about the life of P.L. Travers, who wrote the book on which the "Mary Poppins" movie is based. (Francois Duhamel )
In the film “Saving Mr. Banks,” the children's author P.L. Travers finds herself in tense negotiations with Walt Disney over the 1964 film version of Travers' classic stories featuring the magical English nanny Mary Poppins. Played in what's rumored to be an Oscar-worthy performance by Emma Thompson, Travers struggles to protect her sharp-edged creation from being softened too much by Disney (Tom Hanks).
She fails, ultimately, but along the way, the audience learns how “Mary Poppins” — the book, not the movie — reflects Travers' own troubled history as the daughter of an alcoholic father and a psychologically fragile mother in Australia.
The original source of much of that history is “Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers,” by the Australian journalist Valerie Lawson. Originally published in Australia in 1999, the book later saw print in Great Britain and America as a result of renewed interest in Travers due to the West End and Broadway productions of Cameron Mackintosh's stage musical “Mary Poppins.” Lawson's book is receiving a new wave of attention in paperback form as a result of “Saving Mr. Banks,” in theaters now.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Lawson, a former feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, for a telephone interview from her home in Sydney. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: Your book was published a number of years ago, but now with the movie coming out, you must be getting a lot of interview requests.
A: Yes, any time anything new happens regarding Pamela Travers, there's a lot of interest in the book. When "Mary Poppins, She Wrote" was published for the first time in Australia, it was too early, in a way. Nobody knew much about Travers, including the fact that she was an Australian, in part because almost nothing had been written about her. She was this mystery woman.
But not long after that, Cameron Mackintosh, the English theater producer, created the stage musical, which opened in London in 2004 and later went to Broadway. The book was published then for the first time in Britain and the States, in 2005-06. And now with the film — which is partly based on a documentary based on my book by an Australian filmmaker, Ian Collie, who is also one of the producers of "Saving Mr. Banks" — everyone is now interested again. It's like she never goes away, but at the same time she's never fully revealed. It's lucky for me, the way things have worked out.
Q: Have you seen the film?
A: Yes, I've seen it twice.
Q: What do you think of it?
A: It's a really good film. I think Emma Thompson has just nailed it. She's really annoyingly funny and lovable, which was a really hard thing to do. Travers was a lovable woman in many ways, but as a public figure, no, she was quite sharp, as you can see in the film. Of course she had a lot of life issues that explain, much more than they can do in flashbacks in the film, why she was so prickly. Tom Hanks is good; he makes Disney lovely, although Disney wasn't totally lovely or lovable.
Q: I saw Emma Thompson on a talk show recently, and she said Travers wasn't very nice. Do you agree?
A: Nice? Well, certainly she wasn't your best friend. She wasn't warm and fuzzy. If you think of a children's writer being like, I don't know, your favorite auntie or something, she was completely unlike that. She was Australian, but she assumed this identity of an upper-middle-class Englishwoman who was demanding, you know, and commanding. She didn't give in to anyone's questions or explain herself.
So when they say in the movie, "We're going to put in this song now," or "Dick Van Dyke will play Bert" — a shocking piece of casting — she's always saying, "Definitely not." She was trying to protect her precious Mary Poppins, who she feared — and she was right — that Disney would make very pretty and sweet. Julie Andrews was not the Mary Poppins she created.
Q: Travers had a difficult life, in some ways.
A: That's right. She was the daughter of an alcoholic, and later adopted a son who also became an alcoholic. At the time the "Mary Poppins" movie was being made, her son was actually in prison for drunk driving without a license. And she never married, so she had to go through everything alone. She had a lot of reasons to be not very jolly.
Q: But she wasn't a monster, either.
A: No. Some of the English newspapers, not knowing very much about her, have written that she was a "dragon woman." It's not true. She was a complex woman, and not inclined to be particularly friendly. But of course filmmakers want a lovable character, even though the character may do very unpleasant things. Look at Tony Soprano. But there wasn't much lovable about Travers, which is what made it so challenging for Emma.
Q: Why is it, do you think, that Travers was so protective of the book?
A: First of all, she came up with a unique mythical character in Mary Poppins. Second, she'd seen Disney's animated films, and she feared that he would do what he ended up doing: making Mary Poppins just fun, singing and happy and playful, not at all mysterious and otherworldly.
In the original Mary Poppins book, she doesn't just have a little romance with Bert and is a bit strict, but not very strict, with the children she's looking after. When they're asleep, she seems to magically take them out to the cosmos to look at the moon and talk to the stars, then go to the bottom of the sea and have these incredible adventures with sea creatures, then take them back in time. She's a bit like Dr. Who, really.
But in the morning when they say, "Mary, that was a wonderful adventure we had last night," she'll pretend it never happened, and say, "What are you talking about? Silly children." And Travers thought, "Well, they're not going to turn my Mary into Bambi or Mickey Mouse." She just didn't trust Disney, didn't trust him at all.
In the end she succumbed to his charm, but mainly because she needed the money. And the money was good. She got 100,000 pounds, plus 5 percent of the gross.
Q: That was a lot of money at the time.
A: Yes. And in the beginning, she was quite praising of the film, because she believed there was going to be a sequel. But Disney died in 1966, so that didn't happen. And as time went on, she got more and more annoyed with the film, and disliked it more and more, for being false to what she had created.
Q: Then there are the songs, which are silly and fanciful and, again, not in the spirit of Mary Poppins as Travers wrote her.
A: That's true. What the composer and lyricist did, putting those very catchy songs in there, it's hard to get them out of your ear, isn't it? But Mary Poppins in the books would never have sung anything. She didn't dance around. She didn't wear pretty dresses. She wore rather drab, long-skirted suits and a hat just plonked on top of her head. There was no beauty about that Mary. The beauty was in her soul, not in her appearance. Certainly she wasn't anything like Julie Andrews.
Q: Andrews was relatable in a way that the Mary of the books is not.
A: That's true, although the children in the books still loved Mary, because she was there when the parents weren't there. She made everything all right again, and that's what children need, that sense of security and containment. An absent parent is very troubling to a child, and Travers knew that, because it happened to her.
Q: Let's talk about that. In what ways does "Mary Poppins" the book mirror its author's own childhood?
A: Well, her father died when she was 7. She watched him, as an alcoholic, getting demoted from his job and having to move from town to town. And her mother, after that, was very lost, quite a fragile woman.
At one stage, when Pamela was around 13 years old, her mother tried to commit suicide by throwing herself into a fast-moving river that was flooding. She said she was going away and never coming back, and Pamela had to comfort herself and her younger sisters. From being a lost little child that needed a nanny, she had to become a sort of nanny herself. And although her mother did come back, there was always that fragility about her, and Pamela had to take charge. Later in life, she never did find that other person she could marry and feel secure with. All of which went into the books; "Mary Poppins" didn't come from nowhere.
Q: Travers also had aunts who influenced her idea of Mary.
A: Yes, she had a particular great-aunt, Helen Morehead, who after the father's death came and rescued the family, who had no money. She was a rich woman in Sydney who took care of the family, but did it in a strict kind of way. There was no messing about with her: "You eat all that now or you won't get anything else!" She was really a big inspiration for Mary Poppins.
Q: There's one aspect of the movie that's actually darker than the original Mary Poppins book: the portrayal of the Banks family, particularly the father.
A: Yes, the film treatment makes Mr. Banks very cranky, tearing up the letters his children wrote asking for a new nanny, storming out of the house. He even looks unpleasant except at the very end, when he becomes all lovely again. Travers was particularly upset with this, because her own father was so important to her.
Q: And she didn't want that reflection on her father, of whom Mr. Banks is an idealized version.
A: No, but of course the Disney people didn't know that. Nobody knew her back story at all. All they saw was this grumpy, demanding woman. In the film, Disney eventually discovers this connection with her own family. In a completely made-up scene in the film, he flies to London to convince her that she should sell the rights to the book because this will make everything all right, that she won't have to go on reliving the pain of her early years.
Q: The stage musical is more true to the book, I think you would say.
A: Yes. Cameron Mackintosh went to visit Pamela Travers often when she was old. She still had the rights to any stage interpretation. He was able to convince her that he was going to make something faithful to the books, and that's what he did. He got Julian Fellowes, who wrote "Downton Abbey" and "Gosford Park," to write the script, and it's very true to the books. Pamela unfortunately died (in 1996) before that musical got onstage.
Q: She died, in fact, just before you were scheduled to meet her in London. You had corresponded with her, but hadn't met her.
A: Yes, it was sad, but her son was very helpful. Maybe it worked out for the best.
Q: You probably would have found yourself in something like Walt Disney's position, negotiating with Travers.
A: Well, yes. She probably would have made so many stipulations that writing the book may have been impossible. So it might have been serendipity in a way. I was upset at the time, of course, but now I see that it worked out in the end.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
"Mary Poppins, She Wrote"
By Valerie Lawson, Simon and Schuster, 401 pages, $16