Hail, Mary!

Witch? Fairy? Goddess of wisdom? For 70 years readers have been searching for the truth about Mary Poppins. Does the answer lie in the childhood experience of her creator PL Travers, asks Mark Bostridge. And can a new musical version of the story work the magic all over again?

It's exactly 70 years since Mary Poppins blew in on an east wind as magical nanny to the Banks family at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. In the first Poppins book, published in 1934, the author PL Travers ("never Pamela, don't call me Miss or Mrs, just PL") offered the fullest description of her heroine. Mary Poppins has shiny black hair, like a Dutch wooden doll, and is rather thin, with large hands and feet, and peering blue eyes. She is vain and slightly capricious, and always travels with a carpet-bag, camp bed, and parrot-headed umbrella. Later, at the request of her growing number of readers, Travers obliged with a few more details. "She is a plain 27-year-old who obviously has assumed all the prerogatives of a pretty woman, because everybody falls in love with her."

But Travers rarely ventured beyond this. She didn't care for direct questions anyway, and was evasive as to the source of Mary Poppins' powers and the way in which her magical adventures arise out of everyday circumstances, like an encounter with one of the stars of the Pleiades on a Christmas shopping trip, or a tea party which turns into an uproarious affair, floating about the ceiling. She was reticent too about the mystical undertones of the Poppins books, which seemed to grow stronger with each fresh instalment. How was it that this outwardly prim and proper nanny, smelling of boot polish and Sunlight soap, was able to see "over the rim of the world" and into the minds of her charges, communing with nature and the universe? Travers even claimed to have only the vaguest recollection of how the character "came to her", while she was convalescing in a Sussex cottage after a long illness. She certainly hadn't created or invented her. Like Poppins, PL Travers made a point of never explaining. "For me there are no answers, only questions," she once said. "... I don't look for an answer, because I don't think there is one. I'm very glad to be the bearer of a question."

Over the years, however, interviewers and critics have been constantly ready with their own questions and answers. Mary Poppins has been called a witch, an elemental spirit, the good fairy ("If you're going to say 'fairy', don't", warns a penguin in a chapter titled "Full Moon". "I've thought of that already but as it's not a bit like her, it won't do"); she's been compared to Sophia, the goddess of wisdom, even to the Virgin Mary. George Russell, the Celtic poet and theosopher known as AE who was closely involved with Travers on her personal journey towards mysticism, believed that had Mary Poppins lived in another age she would have assumed the appearance of one of the great mythological creatures, with "long golden tresses, a wreath of flowers in one hand, and perhaps a spear in the other". In 1995, the year before Travers's death at the age of 96, there was even a furore in an Italian newspaper over an article that linked the extraordinary nanny to Satanic thought and ritual.

For most of us, though, it's safe to assume that Mary Poppins will always be identified with Julie Andrews who, in her first film role, played the character in Walt Disney's Mary Poppins, in 1964. The musical film, re- released in 1973 and 1980, and shortly to be available in a 40th anniversary two-disc DVD, was both a personal success for Disney himself - he'd prised the rights from the wary author after years of courtship and negotiation and supervised every aspect of the production - and a pinnacle of critical and box-office achievement for the studio. Mary Poppins was nominated for 13 Oscars and won five, including the Best Actress award for its leading lady. In the role Julie Andrews may be enchanting, but she's more pert than peppery, while the film itself is a saccharine treatment of the original material (after all, the lyric of one of its famous songs is, "Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down"). Yet the breadth of Disney's imaginative recreation of the books for the screen, with the film's wonderful score, special effects, and mixture of live actors and animation, has ensured that Mary Poppins remains an enduring expression of a childhood world of fantasy and magic.

And now that Poppins magic is set to exert its hold yet again. In one of the most eagerly awaited stage musical adaptations for years, Cameron Mackintosh and Thomas Schumacher of Disney Theatrical Productions have joined forces, in Disney's first ever co-production, to create a new version of this much-loved classic. The musical is open for a trial run this month at the Bristol Hippodrome before transferring in December to the Prince Edward Theatre in London for its official premiere. Laura Michelle Kelly as Mary leads the cast, and the production team includes Richard Eyre as director, Matthew Bourne as choreographer, and Bob Crowley as the designer. Many of the Sherman brothers' songs from the film find a home in the show alongside new numbers and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, while the book is by Julian Fellowes. The keynote for this adaptation, according to Fellowes, is reinvention. "It's not enough just to put the film on the stage," he says. "Anyway, that clearly wouldn't work. We can't have cartoon figures in the show so the 'Supercalifragilistic...' sequence, for instance, has to be rethought and placed in a different context, in this case the story of Mrs Corry, which isn't in the film."

Aware that Travers was distinctly ambivalent about what Disney had done to her books, Fellowes contends that "our Mary Poppins is much closer to what Travers wrote. Robertson Ay, Miss Andrew, and Neleus, the Marble Boy who steps off his plinth and plays with the children in Mary Poppins Opens the Door, have all been reinstated." The stage version, like the film, is set in the Edwardian era (Travers herself insisted on relocating the film from the Thirties setting of the books), but Fellowes has dispensed with one of the aspects of the film that Travers disliked most: the portrayal of Mrs Banks (by Glynis Johns), ill-defined in the books, as the dottiest suffragette imaginable.

Despite the obscurity with which PL Travers chose to surround Mary Poppins, it hasn't been difficult for eager researchers to track down the early instances of the character in print. In a story, written in 1924, while Travers was still in her twenties and before she left Australia for England, Mary Poppins made her first appearance, though she was neither magical nor particularly memorable. Following this, in November 1926, Travers published Mary Poppins and the Match Man in the Christchurch Sun. The eponymous heroine was at this stage "an underneath nurse" of 17, but the plot outline reappeared, under a decade later, in the chapter called "The Day Out" in the first Poppins book. However, the deeper roots of Mary Poppins in Travers's own life are not so easy to unearth. She certainly owed something to Travers's great-aunt Helen Morehead, a rich Australian spinster, wearer of plumed hats with a turn of phrase strikingly reminiscent of Mary Poppins's - "Spit-spot into bed", for one - and who, also like Poppins, had the habit of making "a curious convulsion in her nose that was something between a snort and a sniff". Then there was the memory of a family servant named Bertha, from Travers' early years on an Australian plantation, whose most valued possession was the parrot-headed umbrella she kept wrapped in tissue paper.

But anyone researching PL Travers's life soon becomes aware of what Diana Rawstron, one of the trustees of Travers' estate, calls her overriding desire to keep "a mystery about herself alive". According to Staffan Bergsten, who corresponded with Travers in the Seventies while writing his book Mary Poppins and Myth, most of the things she said hover "on the frontier between tale and truth, reality and myth". Although Travers had stated that she didn't want her life written, she had also sold her papers to a Sydney University, and when Valerie Lawson, an Australian journalist, set out to write a biography of the author shortly after her death, she uncovered evidence of her subject's falsification of the record.

For a start, Travers had lied about her age. Helen Lyndon Goff - Travers, the nom de plume she later adopted, was in fact her father's name - was born, appropriately enough, in Maryborough, Queensland in 1899, not 1906 as she'd always claimed. Furthermore, Lawson's researches revealed that the figure of the father, who'd died when Travers was seven, was an important component in the evolution of Mary Poppins herself. Travers had spun a romantic myth around Robert Travers Goff, inventing the story that he'd been born in Ireland and had become a tea or sugar planter in Australia, when in fact, though he was of Irish descent, he hailed from south London and had been a manager at branches of the Australian Joint Stock Bank, before being ignominiously demoted to the role of clerk because of his heavy drinking.

Drink was the underlying cause of Goff's death in his early forties, but through the persona of George Banks, the harrassed pater familias of the Poppins books, he lived again, albeit in idealised form. "The redemption of George Banks", as Julian Fellowes labels it, is the true focus of the books (this theme would later appeal to Walt Disney who had his own troubled relationship with his father), and it is Mr Banks who is Mary Poppins' true opposite, not, as in the film, Bert, the pavement artist/match man/chimney sweep. In the recovery of lost innocence, Mr Banks, who remains a little boy at heart, almost understands.

For PL Travers, George Banks would represent the father and lover she'd wished she'd had, and for the rest of her life her search for this ideal would encompass a number of literary and spiritual mentors: Yeats, whose passion for Celtic mythology she shared; AE and AR Orage, who published her poetry and journalism; and later other gurus like Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Krishnamurti. Before arriving in England in 1924, Travers had made her debut as an actress in a production of Sleeping Beauty and had toured with a Shakespearean troupe. Later, she switched to poetry, and it was as poet and drama critic that she earned her living before the success of Mary Poppins. By the time of the second book, Mary Poppins Comes Back, in 1935, the stories, with their fine drawings by Mary Shepard, who'd taken over as illustrator when her father, EH Shepard of Winnie the Pooh fame, had refused the commission, were firm favourites. "If she really has left the Banks," one distraught mother wrote when Poppins flew away again, "couldn't she come to me? I have four children under seven and am at my wits' end!"

There would be six major Poppins titles - some separated by decades as Travers concentrated on other fiction, with the final one, Mary Poppins and the House Next Door, not appearing until 1988 - as well as several minor works like Mary Poppins in the Kitchen (1975) in which Poppins takes over as temporary cook. In all of these Mary Poppins arrives with the wind, and intervenes in the lives of ordinary humans, making magic, but never admitting that it has taken place. She understands the language of animals and birds, and between her visits to mortals returns to some secret source. Although the Poppins books have much in common with other works of children's literature - all the way back to the early 19th century and ETA Hoffmann's inspiration of making toys come alive - Travers was adamant that she didn't write specifically for children, and that there was no such thing as children's books. Poppins, she said, "had come up of the same well of nothingness as the poetry, myths and legends that had absorbed me all my writing life." This was something else that connected Travers to Disney, who maintained that his films were not directed at children, but at the innocence within us all.

Encouraged to read Travers' stories because of his wife and daughter's enthusiasm for them, Walt Disney made his first attempt to acquire the film rights from the author during the Second World War, while Travers was living in the United States with her adopted son Camillus. He wasn't the first: Sam Goldwyn and Vincente Minnelli had already expressed interest, and the comedienne Beatrice Lillie had talked at one time of putting Poppins on the stage (there would be an American TV version in 1949). As an 18-year-old, studying with Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim had written several songs for his own adaptation, which was never completed.

But Travers turned Disney down, and despite meeting him in England in the early Fifties, it wasn't until 1959 that she succumbed to his offer of $100,000 plus five per cent of the gross. Even then, she insisted on final script approval and that the film shouldn't be an animated cartoon. In 1962, Travers arrived in Hollywood, at Disney's invitation, to hear the studio's plans. Disney was charismatic and proprietorial towards material that he had longed to adapt for so long, and he must have been surprised at Travers' resolute refusal to give up on what she saw as the truth about the character she claimed at other times never to have invented. Audio recordings of the conferences that took place during her 10-day visit show that Travers attempted to keep a tight rein on the production, and that she wasn't prepared to give in without a fight. One of the aspects of the script that upset her most was the scene in which George Banks tears up an advertisement his children have written for a new nanny. Why, she asked, did he have to be such a monster? She fought to ensure that there should be no inappropriate romance between Mary Poppins and the character of Bert, created from an amalgam of three minor figures from the books, and was informed by Julie Andrews during filming, possibly tongue in cheek, that the cockney accent of Dick Van Dyke, the American actor playing Bert, was of an "individual" rather than "regular" cockney type.

The music wasn't necessarily to her taste either (presumably she never caught the rumour that the word "supercalifragilisticespialadocious" predated the movie, and was in fact a term used by Irish whores when someone wanted "the works"). The Shermans had composed more than 35 songs while the project was in development, but Travers wanted them to reflect more of the style of the period in which she'd grown up (some of the rejects later resurfaced in Jungle Book and Bedknobs and Broomsticks). However, she approved wholeheartedly of the casting of Julie Andrews, and apparently wept throughout the first screening, though whether from pride or disgust isn't clear.

For, increasingly, following the death of Disney himself in 1966, Travers would round on the film version of Mary Poppins as "ghastly" and a travesty of her work. She wasn't alone. Some English critics of the film were harder to please than their American counterparts. Dilys Powell disliked the way in which Dick Van Dyke had been encouraged to play "Miss Travers' pavement artist as the American cinema's idea of a cockney card, all smirk and bounce", and criticised the magical adventures for being "piled on from the outside" rather than, as in the books, "being an imaginative extension of the everyday". David Robinson rejected the film's "rather dated and common flashiness".

But despite the disapproval of Travers and others, it's impossible not to admire the way in which Disney transformed the episodic quality of the books into mass entertainment, equipping it, as he did so, with a strong narrative plotline. In the sequences in which live actors are mixed with animation, the studio surpassed itself. Although Disney had employed such techniques before (notably in 1946's Song of the South), the live-animation scenes in Mary Poppins, using a new kind of composite photography, were, according to Thomas Schumacher, a former president of Disney's animation division, "totally thrilling for their time". The supporting players, including David Tomlinson, and such veteran stalwarts as Hermione Baddeley, Elsa Lanchester, Arthur Treacher and Jane Darwell (Ma Joad in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath) as the bird woman, in her final screen role, provided a brilliant ensemble cast. There is one tragic footnote, though: Matthew Garber, who played Michael Banks so appealingly, died young, in 1977, at the age of 20, a victim of hepatitis he had contracted while travelling in India.

Like Disney, Cameron Mackintosh had personally to convince PL Travers that he was the right man to adapt Mary Poppins. After unsuccessfully attempting, over quarter of a century ago, to acquire the stage rights, he finally met Travers in 1993, three years before her death. "Sitting in the window of her Chelsea house," he remembers, "a frail, but extremely alert and sharp old lady eyed me up and down and asked me lots of questions about what kind of musical I wanted to do. I was able to persuade her that a stage musical could only be created by combining her stories with key ingredients and songs from the film to invent something completely new."

Would Travers have approved of this reinterpretation of Mary Poppins? Brian Sibley, who worked with her in her last decade on an, as yet, unproduced sequel to the film, thinks that she would. "I actually believe she liked the film a lot more than she let on publicly. The sequel, for instance, was to have begun with the children trying unsuccessfully to remember the words of 'Supercalifraigilistic...'. You have to remember that she was, above all, a great storyteller. And in the long line of storytellers who have faith in an oral tradition, who believe that for a great book or books to survive, they have to be retold or reinvented for each generation."

'Mary Poppins': Prince Edward Theatre, London W1 (0870 850 9191), previews from 6 Dec, opens 15 Dec, booking to 24 Sept 2005. Now previewing at Bristol Hippodrome (0870 6077500), to 6 Nov. To order a new edition of 'Mary Poppins' by PL Travers (HarperCollins £5.99, free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897

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