This post takes up a story that I began a few weeks ago...
Of course, it all happened a long time ago: twenty-four years ago, to be precise, in 1987...
For several years, I'd been friends with P L Travers the author of the 'Mary Poppins' books and, over tea one Sunday afternoon, we were discussing the latest in a long line of requests from Disney that they be allowed to make a sequel to their hugely successful, multi-Oscar winning movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.
This particular proposal was for a film in which the magical nanny would make a return visit to help the children of either the grown-up Jane or Michael Banks. It was a clever idea, reminiscent of J M Barrie’s idea of having Peter Pan come back to London in order to take Wendy’s daughter - another ‘Jane’ - off to Never Land.
For Pamela Travers, however, it was totally unacceptable, since she resolutely maintained that all she knew about her heroine was whatever was to be found in the published stories. It was pointless asking Pamela who Mary Poppins was or where she went and what she did when she left the Banks family. Her answer was always the same: “I don’t know! I didn’t invent Mary Poppins, I discovered her!”
Knowing that I would be incapable of changing the author’s mind about the Disney offer, I merely observed that there were a great many people who loved the original film and would be incredibly pleased to see Mary Poppins fly back into the cinema one more…
“Well,” said Pamela whose prickly views of the Disney film of her books were widely known (and which you have read on this blog), “I would only agree if I was to be completely involved in the process of making the film and if I could work with someone whom I could trust.”
Then, after a lengthy pause, she looked at me and said, “But if you want to suggest to Disney that you and I might work on a film story for them, then go ahead and see what they say…”
So I did!
I didn't believe for a moment that it would actually happen, but I wrote to Walt’s nephew, Roy E Disney whom I had met and interviewed several times, and then forgot all about it.
This was in the days before e-mail, so it took a week for my letter to reach the Mouse Factory. At the time I was living with my parents and returning home late one night, I was greeted by mother telling me that there had been a message for me to ring Disney. Assuming she meant the studio's London office, with whom I had lots of dealings, I replied that I'd call first thing in the morning.
"No," insisted my mother, "you have to ring the American office, now!"
"But who do I have to ring?" I asked, "there are thousands of people working there!"
My mother looked at me as if I was an idiot and simply said, "Mr Disney, of course!"
Within half an hour I was having a conversation with an enthusiastic Roy Disney and within a matter of weeks, Pamela Travers and I were contemplating starting work on the project.
Before we began, I suggested it would be a good idea if we watched the original film together and I arranged for a screening at the Disney office, then in London's Soho Square. There were just the two of us in the small viewing theatre and, as the lights went down, I asked Pamela when she had last seen the film? "At the premiere," she replied and my heart sank.
That was twenty-three years earlier: if she was critical of the film based on two-decade-old memories, what would her attitude be on seeing it again? Might this not deal a death-blow to the whole project?
Not so, as it happened. The film ran and Pamela kept up a running commentary with some predictable complaints but a great many positive observations.
"That's something we should incorporate..." she whispered.
"That's good!" she announced, "Let's find an idea that recalls that moment..."
"Use that song as a reprise," she instructed. "Make a note of it!" And I did!
Days later, Pamela Travers and I were hard at work, drafting an initial outline, following the approval of which we went on to produce the first of two developed treatments.
One afternoon, the pair of us and our mutual agent entertained Jeffrey Katzenberg who had flown into town for the premiere of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It was winter and the electric fire in Pamela's front room was running at full throttle, pumping out heat and making the atmosphere heavy and sleepy.
I learned an important lesson about powerful people being just like the rest of us as I watched Mr K fighting jet-lag and the oppressive heat while Pamela laid down demands about a series of issues such as the requirement that Mary Poppins must not (as she did in the first film) display her undergarments!
By sometime in the middle of 1988, to my enormous astonishment, I found myself in Los Angeles writing a Hollywood screenplay for a film to be called (after the second book in the series) Mary Poppins Comes Back!
The story was to take place a little while after Mary Poppins' first visit. Mrs Banks had now given birth to twins, called (as in Travers’ books) John and Barbara, and during her pregnancy, had given up the cause of women's suffrage - an embellishment in the original film which Pamela had hated.
Mrs B was, nevertheless, as dizzy as ever, and not coping with her enlarged family; while Mr B was very wrapped up in his new position at the Bank and gravely concerned over problems resulting from various imprudent investments that had brought the bank to near ruin.
The children, predictably, were being fractious and troublesome...
One day, in the Park, Jane and Michael were having difficulty with their fly-away kite until - helped by Barney the Ice-Cream-Man - they finally managed to reel it in only to discover that holding on to the other end of the kite-string is the supercalifragilistic Miss Poppins!
Disney were hopeful that Julie Andrews might agree to reprise the title role - and, indeed, at that time she could easily have done that - but there were question-marks over the rest of the cast who were either grown up, too old or - er - dead!
When we began working on the project, P L Travers and I were expecting Bert to remain an important character - although Pamela was adamant that the romantic implications of the first film should not be repeated. However, in an early round of discussions with the Studio they suggested we look for an alternative character to act as "a pointer to Mary Poppins", which was PLT's phrase to describe Bert's function in the story.
We eventually decided to use the Ice-Cream Man, a minor character in the books, named him Barney and made him Bert's younger brother adding, by way of explanation, that Bert had gone on to "'igher things" and was now "sweepin' the chimblies of the rich and famous!"
Here – hitherto unseen – is the second outline on which the two versions of then screenplay I wrote were based...
Changes in personnel at the studio led to the project being reviewed and passed to the Howze sisters (Penny and Randy) who had written the screenplay for Disney's 1988 movie, Mystic Pizza. Pamela and I were retained as advisers but, eventually, after another two draft screenplays, the project was shelved.
One small, but significant, plot feature from our original story finally made its way (without acknowledgment, obviously!) into the script of the stage musical of Mary Poppins, so – in a humble kind of way – our efforts were not entirely in vain!
Check out some interesting videos about Mary Poppins on my Sibley blog posting Something About Mary.