Tuesday, October 29, 2013

P L Travers and Mary Poppins

In Ashfield, NSW, a suburb of inner western Sydney, where I used to live and where I still have my office, there are various statues:

. . . a disembodied head in Hercules Street of Quong Tart, a 19th century merchant and one of Sydney’s personalities (a future Bytes item) who lived in Ashfield . . . 

. . . a statue in Ashfield Park of Philippines national hero Jose Rizal . . . I have no idea why it is in Ashfield or in Ashfield Park. He has very small hands, doesn’t he . . .

. . . and a statue, also in Ashfield Park, of Mary Poppins . . . 

The MP statue was erected by Ashfield Council after lobbying by 13 year old Gracie Drew, to acknowledge that the author of Mary Poppins, P L Travers, lived with her sisters and mother in a house overlooking Ashfield Park between 1918 and 1924, after having moved from Queensland.

So why am I telling you this?

A new movie, Saving Private Ryan Mr Banks, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, looks at the life of Travers, her negotiations with Walt Disney and the the making of the film Mary Poppins in 1961. Hanks plays Walt Disney. 

Saving Mr Banks is due for release in late December, 2013 but the film omits some of the more controversial aspects of Travers’ life.  Unlike Mary Poppins, her creator was not practically perfect in every way.

* * * * * 

Some factlets about P L Travers:

She was born Helen Lyndon Goff in 1899 in Queensland and suffered an impoverished childhood, which inspired her magical stories and characters. Her father, Trvers Robert Goff, was a banker who turned to alcohol, lost all his money and died at age 43 in 1905 - it is widely considered that the character Mr Banks was based on him.  ( "Hardly Mr Yeats," commented her father when she showed him her first poem at the age of seven).

* * * * *

Goff began publishing her poems whilst a teenager and wrote for The Bulletin. She was also an actress, adopting the stage name Pamela Lyndon Travers. 

Travers as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

* * * * *

In 1931 Travers moved to England and concentrated on writing fiction under the name P L Travers. With her friend Madge Burnand she moved into a rented cottage in Sussex and started work on Mary Poppins. It was published in 1934 and was an immediate success. Sequels followed, the last in 1988. It was the Harry Potter of its day.

* * * * *

Travers spent years rejecting attempts by Disney and other US film companies to acquire the rights to MP. Eventually she relented and sold the rights to Walt Disney, accepting a $100,000 advance, around $2 million dollars today, as well as five per cent of the film's profits and the chance to approve the script personally.

PL Travers, right, with Walt Disney, centre, and Julie Andrews

Travers hated the Disney film. She was against the diluting of the MP character, her pretty appearance and the animated, sugary musical numbers. Because of her stream of complaints and criticisms, both during and after production, she was banned from the premiere. 

When she complained to Walt Disney that the animated numbers needed to be deleted, she was told by Walt “Pamela, that ship has sailed.”

Obviously a spoonful of sugar didn't make the movie get up for her.

* * * * *

Disney sought rights to sequels. Travers never granted any further film rights to anyone.

* * * * *

Cameron Mackintosh approached her about rights to a stage musical when she was into her 90s. Travers agreed provided that:

· only English-born writers (and specifically no Americans) were to be directly involved with the creative process of the stage musical;

· no one involved with the Disney film was to be used.

So adamant was she in her directives not to use Americans in the stage musical that she also included the directives in her Will. 

* * * * *

Although she never married, she had romantic relationships with both men and women. Her biographer Valerie Lawson writes that she probably had a sexual relationship with Madge Burnand.

* * * * *

At the age of 40 Travers, unmarried and wanting a son, adopted a baby boy from Ireland.

The adopted child was named Camillus Hone and he was one of 4 children, which included Camillus’s twin, Anthony, who had been placed into the care of their struggling grandparents. Travers refused to take Anthony or any of the other siblings. She selected Camillus based on advice from her astrologer. In so doing, the author of a children’s book about a nanny with magic powers cruelly blighted the lives of two children.

Travers with Camillus

Anthony remained with his grandparents. Neither boy was aware of the other twin's existence until the age of 17, when Anthony appeared unannounced at Travers' London home. He had learned of the existence of his twin and tracked him down. Travers had Anthony thrown out but they met up again and shared a 3 day drinking binge. There was little meeting after that. Camillus had been brought up in luxury and travelling, Anthony had been raised in poverty. Their upbringings had been so dissimilar that their only common aspect was their partiality to alcohol. Both died alcoholics in sad circumstances

* * * * *

Travers died in London in 1996 aged 96.

Camillus died in 2011,

* * * * *

Goodbye, Mary Poppins, don't stay away too long.


And while discussing local statues, can anyone tell me why a newly created park at a road closure in Dulwich Hill, near to where I live, has a spaceman sitting on a seat holding a ball (the Earth?) . . . 

. . . and does anyone else also think that it resembles Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet? . . . 

That's Leslie Nielsen on the left, btw, with Anne Francis.

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