Wednesday, 8 June 2011


It's one of those occasions when you have to pinch yourself and ask, "Is this really happening?"

I'm sitting in a suite in London's Dorchester Hotel with Julie Andrews - yes, the Julie Andrews – Mary Poppins! – who is asking, "Shall I be mother?" and pouring me a cup of tea.

"Sugar?" Just a spoonful...

Thirteen years ago, 1998.

Radio producer, Malcolm Prince, and I are finally about to have an interview for which we've waited weeks. It's been on, it's been off and, now, it's back on again...

Julie is in London, rehearsing with the cast of the new musical, Doctor Dolittle, in which she is providing the voice of Polynesia the Parrot, and she's agreed to give us an interview for a radio series we're making on Disney's Women - the real and fictional women in the life and films of Walt Disney.

The evening of the interview eventually arrives. We are on time - well, absurdly early, of course! - but Miss Andrews is delayed. Detained at rehearsals....

An hour passes. Then another... We sit in the Dorchester bar, drinking over-priced orange juice, not daring to risk any alcohol - just in case the interview actually happens! I'm unaccountably nervous. It feels how, I imagine ,it would feel if you were waiting for an audience with the Queen...

I look at my watch. It's getting late. Miss Andrews is now stuck in traffic. The interview will definitely get rescheduled... Then the call to go up to her suite.

If possible, I am now even more anxious: at the end of a long day of rehearsals, she'll be tired, she'll be hungry. She's certainly never going to be able to give us the promised hour of her time...

In the suite we sit and wait some more. So near and yet so far... I hum to myself: "Fa - a long, long way to run..." How true.

Then the door opens and in comes Mary Poppins - spit-spot, hurry up, no dawdling...

She greets us with a big, warm smile and instantly defuses all anxiety. "Gentlemen! I am terribly sorry to be so late and to have kept you waiting!"

We shake our heads. Was she late? Had we been kept waiting? Really? We hadn't noticed!

Malcolm ventures that we'll try not to keep her too long. Again: the reassuring, I-have-confidence-in-sunshine, smile...

"I think we said an hour. Let's do it!"

Always the trouper, her on-with-the-show, vaudeville origins coming to the fore.

"But first, I need to freshen up - and then I think we all need a cup of tea!"

She vanishes into the bathroom, an assistant phones room-service and in a twinkling - only Disney magic could have done it quicker - a tray with a silver tea-pot and bone china tea-cups materialises before our eyes.

Then she's back, settling herself beside me on the sofa and asking if she should be mother...

Perfect! In fact, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

The interview - which flows effortlessly and runs for well over an hour- passes in a kind of hazy, pink blur...

Disney's Women was duly broadcast - to considerable acclaim - and, subsequently part of the interview relating to Mary Poppins found its way into an essay I contributed to A Lively Oracle, a book about Poppins' creator, P L Travers - which also published one of Andrews' fascinating (and revealing) letters sent to Travers from the Disney sound stage in Burbank.

When, a few years back, I wrote (with Michael Lassell) my book Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It, I'd planned to include part of what Julie had said about Walt, Mrs Travers and playing the practically perfect nanny. But word came down from on high in the Mouse's Kingdom that the Andrews references and quotes would have to go.

The only reason I supposed that this curious decision had been taken - for Julie's presence in the film was crucial not just to the movie itself, but also to her own future career - was that, for some time she had been reportedly working on her autobiography. Maybe she was anxious that we didn't preempt her own book... Who knows? Anyway, the problematic passages were excised and that was that.

And, once again, I waited for Miss Andrews - or, rather, this time, for her book!

When Home: A Memoir of my Early Years eventually arrived, it was, as you'd expect (as you probably know), a charming read. But it's much more than that, being uncompromisingly honest - whilst remaining, as she would say, "polite and decent".

Home proved to be jam-packed with insightful stories: the benefits and pitfalls of being a born-in-a-trunk child star; singing (aged 13 years) for Queen Elizabeth and Princess Elizabeth at a Royal Command performance on the stage of the London Palladium; appearing on radio with Peter Brough and his wooden-headed companion, that other Andrews - Archie...

Getting the role of Polly Browne in the first Broadway production of Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend (as a result of a recommendation from fellow Educating Archie regular, Hattie Jacques); and, later, her fairy-tale romance with Tony Walton; playing opposite Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell in Camelot and becoming friends with T H ('Tim') White, the idiosyncratic author of The Once and Future King, the book on which the musical was based.

And, of course, there were the chapters that will doubtless excite most interest - her experiences during the creation of Lerner and Loewe's classic musical, My Fair Lady. It was fascinating to learn, incidentally, that they nearly called their show Fanfaroon - a man who blows his own trumpet! All things considered it's probably just as well that they didn't...

In those chaptrers, Julie revealed the monstrous egocentricities of Rex Harrison, the lovableness of Stanley (Alfred Doolittle) Holloway and Robert (Colonel Pickering) Coote, the utter beastliness of designer, Cecil Beaton and the devoted, nurturing care and attention which director Moss Hart showed towards his inexperienced young star at a point when everyone - and, in particular, the monstrous Rex - considered her a total liability and the show's undoubted ticket to the graveyard of theatrical flops and failures...

"She'll be fine," Hart told his wife after 48 hours of ceaseless coaching, "she has that terrible British strength that makes you wonder how they ever lost India."

Of course, what I was most interested in was what she would say about Poppins? Would it differ in some crucial way from my own interview account? But, no! There it is, virtually word-for-word as it was told to me over the teacups in the Dorchester...

The first volume concluded with Andrews getting the Poppins role, so there's plenty more to come in volume two: The Sound of Music, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Star!, Darling Lili, Hitchcock and Torn Curtain, Blake Edwards, S.O.B. and Victor/Victoria and the story of what happened to that extraordinary voice - not to mention the Shrek and Princess Diaries movies.

Anyway, since the book is now long published, it's probably safe to reveal that expurgated text.

So, here it is...

It was Walt's secretary, Tommie Wilck, who suggested Julie Andrews, the young British singer who had achieved stage stardom in London and New York as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and who was currently appearing on Broadway as Queen Guinevere in the musical, Camelot.

Towards the end of 1961, returning from a visit to Europe, Walt stopped off in New York to see a performance of the Arthurian romance. As Julie Andrews sang, danced and whistled her way through the show stopping number 'What Do the Simple Folk Do?', Walt was convinced that he had found his Mary Poppins.

Backstage, after the show, Walt talked enthusiastically about his plans for the film. “There was no preamble,” Julie recalls, “he said he’d loved the evening and he wanted to talk to me about a project he had in mind for the film of Mary Poppins. I said, ‘Well that sounds lovely’. I don’t remember having had doubts other than ‘Can I make a movie?’ This would be my very first picture and as much as I’d always wanted to go into film I thought, ‘Gosh, would I be able to do it justice? Would I be any good at it?’ and so on.”

However, Walt was persistent and Julie agreed that, once Camelot had ended its run, she would visit the Disney studio with her then husband, designer Tony Walton. Meanwhile, she read the books and began to have doubts not just about her own ability but also about the possibility of adapting the source material for the screen.

“The books were so perfectly written,” she recalled, “but they were so boxed-in with their primness and rigid discipline that I thought ‘Now, how are they going to make that into a musical?’ And, of course, it was miraculous the way that they did.”

Any lingering anxieties were dispelled when she and Tony Walton arrived in Burbank at what Hollywood referred to as ‘The Mouse Factory’: “The minute I walked into the studio and saw what Walt had prepared, I could tell that Poppins had something special about it.”

Looking at the storyboards and hearing the songs convinced Julie that she should accept the role: “The thing that was wonderfully appealing was that my background, long before I had been on Broadway, was vaudeville and music-hall. And the songs they played me on that first day, were wonderfully reminiscent. They had that knock-down, drag-out quality of the good old vaudeville songs and I loved them!”

About one song only, Julie had reservations: it was the ballad 'The Eyes of Love' which the Sherman brothers had come to think of as Mary Poppins' theme. She, however, thought the song too sentimental and not very 'Poppinsish'. In an attempt to find an alternative, the composers drew on an experience of Robert Sherman's younger son who had recently been given an inoculation at school that had been disguised with a spoonful of sugar. The resulting song became one of the most popular in the film.

Walt hoped to clinch the deal by offering Julie $125,000 and asking Tony Walton to be the film's design consultant, but there was one lingering issue: she was still under consideration for the role of Eliza Doolittle in the screen version of the show that had made her name My Fair Lady.

Julie wished more than anything to play on film the role she had created on stage, but Walt wanted her to be Mary Poppins and was so eager for her to commit to the film, that he promised to release her from her contract if Warner Brothers offered her the part in My Fair Lady. In the event, Jack Warner decided that casting Julie was too big a box-office gamble (having Rex Harrison play Professor Higgins was even thought risky) and opted, instead, for the glamorous, but non-singing, Audrey Hepburn. Warner's loss was Disney's gain.

P L Travers had described Mary Poppins as being thin, plain and “rather like a Dutch doll”, with “large feet and hands, and small, rather peering blue eyes.” Although Julie Andrews, at twenty-seven, was considerably prettier, she skilfully captured much of Poppins’ enigmatic personality, described by the author as “a mixture of arrogance and poetry and, underlying both, a certain invincible integrity.”

Julie, who was pregnant, returned to England to give birth and, thirty-six hours after the arrival of her daughter Emma, she received a phone call in hospital: “They said, ‘There’s a Mrs Travers on the line for you,’ and I thought, ‘Oh I’d better speak to her, doesn’t anybody know that I’ve just given birth and I’m feeling a bit weary.’ And she came on, she said, ‘Hello, this is P L Travers, is this Julie Andrews? Talk to me! I want to hear what you sound like.” I said, ‘Well what can I tell you, Miss Travers, I’m very thrilled, I believe I’m going to be doing a film based on your books.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you’ve got the nose for it that’s for sure; you’re too pretty, but you’ve got the nose for it.’”

Later, Julie went to afternoon tea with Pamela and still remembers her assessment of the author: “I liked her, she was an eccentric and rather tough old girl but a good hearted one I felt.” Pamela was equally responsive to Julie and - whatever her subsequent reservations about the film - was unfailing in her praise of the actress, describing her as having “integrity and a true sense of comedy” and her performance as showing that she understood “the essential quality” of Mary Poppins.

That's what you didn't read in the Poppins book although, in her autobiography, Julie Andrews has told the tale in her own words - which are pretty much just about the same!

Home only takes the Andrews story as far as the Walt Disney engaging her to play Mary Poppins and that curious maternity wing telephone conversation with P L Travers...

I actually wrote quite a bit more written about the filming and the Oscar-winning success of Mary Poppins, but since Ms A is at work on a second volume of autobiography, I guess I'd better - for the present - keep that to myself!


Andy Latham said...

You know, I believe that one of my ex-bosses was executive producer on Dr Dolittle with Julie Andrews. I don't suppose you know of him....Adrian Leggett?

Ado said...

Thank you for the digging! I also did a bit on my own through your blog after the previous post... now I can't stop reading and squeezing all its juice! So many interesting stories
I also managed to find a podcast with your "Ain't No Mickey Mouse Music" radio programmes for the BBC, here are the links for everyone to enjoy:

I'm trying to find the "Disney's Women" show, is it available anywhere?... I've been googling around but not luck yet...

scb said...

I'm delighted to see this account of the interview with Julie (which is the post that led me to your blog in the first place) reach the top of the list again, with the wonderful additions of the expurgated excerpts!

*scb toddles off singing 'Just a Spoonful of Sugar' with a large smile on her face*

Clement Glen said...

Thanks for this amazing insight into the production of a truly classic film!