The original Mrs Doubtfire: Memories of Edinburgh past led Anne Fine to write a book. Then Hollywood got in on the act - and things got a bit twisted
Sunday 23 January 1994
Twenty years on, the name 'Mrs Doubtfire' can be found sprawled across billboards, cinema screens, leaflets, with Robin Williams standing dressed as a nanny, feather-duster held up, with his expression expectant.
There is no likeness between the two. There wasn't meant to be. When Anne Fine, 46, first dreamed up the story Madame Doubtfire, she had no idea that Madame Doubtfire's name and her story would be borrowed by Hollywood and turned into a box-office hit.
'I never spoke to Madame Doubtfire. I don't want people to think that the cross-dressing character in my book was inspired by the lifestyle of this woman,' she said.
In the mid Seventies, Mrs Fine lived just round the corner from Madame Doubtfire's shop. As a young mother she would push the buggy past Madame Doubtfire's jumbled up bric-a-brac shop. The shop was full of jewellery and old furs.
It was dark and smelt of cats.
Outside, Madame Doubtfire would daub slogans in chalk: 'Why be cold?'
'I had a child. I couldn't stop to go in,' said Mrs Fine. But she noted the name.
In 1979, Madame Doubtfire died, aged 92. Her shop was turned into an estate agency. Mrs Fine moved away and settled at Barnard Castle, near Darlington. She hadn't been back to the shop but in 1986 she wrote the book, Madame Doubtfire. For eight years it sat on library shelves and children's bookshelves, praised but hidden. Then Hollywood discovered it, Anne Fine was discovered and the film, and Mrs Fine's fame, were born.
In the film, Robin Williams plays Daniel Hillard, a divorced man so devoted to his kids that he resorts to dressing as a woman to keep visiting them. Disguised as a stout, elderly half-Scottish nanny named Doubtfire, beaming with grandmotherly benevolence, Daniel descends into the household of ex-wife Miranda (Sally Field) and their three children, winning hearts and straightening out habits. Mrs Fine went to see a preview. She says she enjoyed it. She recognised some of the lines and admired Robins Williams's performance. Did she feel proud to see her book on screen? 'The film is nothing to do with my book,' was the tight reply. 'They bought it and took what they want.'
The book is about divorce and the effect it has on the children. The film is about a man dressed in drag.
Mrs Fine says the book is valuable because it explores the jealousies, heartbreaks and inevitable recriminations of divorce. The film touches on these issues, but with a gloss.
She says she does not feel exploited. Her book is still there. It is 'untouchable'. She sometimes wonders if she has been ripped off financially. She received enough to buy a Victorian garden with no gate and a 7ft wall around it. But it was a 'wodge' of money, not a 'windfall', and she knows how much the film has grossed (over pounds 67m in the US to date).
Anne Fine, began her writing career after the birth of her first child. Her debut novel, The Summer House Loon, is about the loneliness of a teenage girl learning about adult relationships and is said to have reflected her own frustrations as a young mother. She sent it to Cape, whose polite and discouraging rejection deflated her so much that she hid the manuscript under the bed. It was resurrected for the Kestrel Guardian competition in 1975 and she came in runner-up.
Since then, Mrs Fine has written 23 more books and won numerous awards including the Children's Author of the Year in the British Book Awards 1990. Heralded as 'one of the genuine discoveries of the decade' with her debut novel, she has always been a celebrity in the world of childrens' books. But not in the adult world. 'People here don't seem to take children's writers seriously,' she says.
Until recently she has been ignored. Now everyone wants to meet her, speak to her, look at her, read about her. She is the person who invented the husky, hairy, huge drag queen - that endearing half Tootsie, half Mary Poppins figure. The attention is flattering, Mrs Fine will admit, if a little late. She has written seven books since she wrote Madame Doubtfire. Mrs Fine decided to write the book after living in California for five years. Everyone she knew there was divorced. She was very impressed by the way the parents handled it. 'It was far less acrimonious. Both parents would really make an effort to pitch in,' she said. 'Children's needs were given priority. Divorce was not a big deal.
'When I came back to England it was a real culture shock. A lot of people were divorced but the attitude was different. People took sides. It was very simplistic. Friends would take a 'he is a devil, she is an angel' stance without really thinking.
'It was at the time Fathers Need Families was first starting up. The issue of men having access to their children was very much in the news.
'The book didn't start as a pantomime/dance comedy. It was supposed to be a study of the complex psychology and the tensions raised by divorce situations - from the point of view of the teenager.'
The cross-dressing theme was supposed to have been a 'vehicle for tackling issues', not the focus of the film.
'I have always been interested in the idea of role reversal. It is a staple for children's stories. Having dad dressed up as a nanny is a convenient way to raise certain issues. It helps tackle painful topics like divorce from a safe vantage point,' she said.
The first page of Madame Doubtfire, the book, acts as a health warning: if you can get through the first page, rest assured that you have the stamina to get through this book. We see sibling rivalry; we see injustice, unfairness and tears; we see divided loyalties.
To Mrs Fine this is kids' stuff. Try my adult books if you are looking for something truly bleak, she said.
The book is an adult book written in a style which will appeal to young people. This is the secret of her success as a writer, Mrs Fine admits. 'I don't think there are many childish children around,' she said. 'I write about the world as it really is. I don't try and put a gloss on it.
'When I write for adults I always work on the principle that if they don't like it they can always shut the book. With children it is different. I feel much more responsible for them. I tackle the same topics but I write it in such a way so as to protect them. I don't want it to hit too hard. I don't want to leave my reader distressed.'
Humour, she says, carries the child through: 'They may walk down a dark road when they read my books but they know I am there supporting them.'
There was some argument about the end of the film. Mrs Fine's book finishes on a positive note but not a terribly satisfying note. The children's rights to see both parents are recognised but the mother and father do not get back together. That is because parents rarely do get back together, Mrs Fine explained.
Robin Williams liked the ending, but the director wanted a happier ending. Had Mrs Fine based her character more on the original Mrs Doubtfire the movie could have had a different title, too. It turns out that the first Madame Doubtfire (alias Annabella Coutts) had married a 'foreigner'. The name of Robin Williams's blockbuster movie might well have been: 'Frau Dobben Funnen.'
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