How Mary Poppins author PL Travers got a Disney makeover

Mary Poppins 1964 Disney pursued author PL Travers for 15 years to secure the rights for the 1964 film version of Mary Poppins

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When Walt Disney told the story of Mary Poppins, cinema audiences never saw the darker side of the character from PL Travers's books.

The stern, disapproving nanny was coated with that all-singing, all-dancing Disney magic.

The new film Saving Mr Banks tells the real-life story of how Travers sold the rights to Disney, and came into conflict with the studio over how her beloved character was depicted on screen.

Just as Mary Poppins was sweetened for Hollywood in 1964, some darker aspects of Travers's own life remain on the cutting room floor in this new biopic.

Has the author, portrayed by Emma Thompson, been 'Disneyfied' for the screen as her magical nanny once was?

"I don't think she herself is Disneyfied," says writer and broadcaster Victoria Coren Mitchell - a fan of the Mary Poppins books since childhood.

Travers and Camillus Travers did not tell her son he was an adopted twin

"There's an element of comic exaggeration in her English stuffiness. In real life, I think she was a bit more actressy and mystical, but Emma Thompson always gives a deep and believable performance.

"It's the ending that's Disneyfied, really. Reality rarely offers the satisfying resolutions that movies do."

Troubled adoption

In The Secret Life of Mary Poppins, Mitchell explores the complexities of PL Travers that are missing in Saving Mr Banks.

There is no mention of how the Australian-born author lived for ten years with female companion Madge Burnand. Biographers suggest the pair were romantically involved - although Travers also had relationships with men throughout her life.

Travers saw herself as an adult writer and had tried her hand at erotic writing in an Australian literary magazine. She was irritated that Mary Poppins was, very successfully, marketed to children when it was published in 1934.

She also never married, but at the age of 40 decided to adopt a child from Dublin.

Travers moved in Irish literary circles with George AE Russell and WB Yeats. The son of Yeats's biographer, Joseph Maunsel Hone, was struggling with his wife to care for a growing family.

A childhood tale

PL Travers
  • PL Travers was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Queensland, Australia in 1899. Her father was a banker like Mr Banks in the Mary Poppins books.
  • Travers's father struggled with alcoholism and died when she was seven years old. Finding it difficult to cope, her mother attempted suicide.
  • The Mary Poppins character is believed to be inspired by Travers's great aunt Ellie, who brought order and discipline into her childhood after her mother's suicide attempt.
  • Travers came to London as an actress in 1924, then became a poet, journalist and art critic. Her first Mary Poppins novel was published in 1934 and soon became a children's classic.

The couple offered newborn twins Camillus and Anthony for adoption. Travers split the boys apart, taking Camillus alone.

Travers never told Camillus he had a twin, but in 1957 at the age of 17, he was tracked down in London by his brother.

The revelation led to huge rows between mother and son, and Camillus turned to alcohol. He lost his licence for drink-driving and spent his 21st birthday in jail for being drunk at the wheel.

Secretive life

This difficult period of family life occurred at the time Travers agreed to grant Disney the rights to Mary Poppins - yet Camillus plays no part in director John Lee Hancock's film.

Much of Saving Mr Banks focuses on Travers's troubled childhood in rural Australia. Coren Mitchell believes she would not have approved of this sentimental retelling of her life.

"She'd have hated it," she says. "She was a very secretive person, and would have shivered with horror at the idea of her childhood being played out on screen - especially in a tear-jerking way."

"But she'd have hated our documentary more, because we cover lots from her personal life that she wanted kept secret."

Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks in the 2013 film, had pursued Travers for 15 years to make Mary Poppins. She repeatedly rejected him, fearing how a Disneyfied version of her nanny would appear on screen.

Mitchell listens to the tapes of PL Travers's discussions at the Disney studio

But in 1959 Disney finally won her over with $100,000, five per cent of the film's profits, and script approval. Two years later she flew out to meet Disney and pick apart the script in front of the production team.

Travers requested that all her conversations at Disney be recorded on tape. These discussions were fraught. Saving Mr Banks chronicles the numerous disagreements.

Travers disliked the suggestion of romance between Julie Andrews's character and Dick Van Dyke's chimney sweep Bert.

Victoria Coren Mitchell

She disapproved of the Banks family living in wealthier circumstances. And she strongly objected to the animated 'Jolly Holiday' sequence.

Disney nightmare

There was so much tension that Disney never invited Travers to the film's 1964 premiere - although she secured a ticket anyway.

Richard Holliss, co-author of The Disney Studio Story, says the relationship between Travers and Disney "must have been a nightmare at times".

And he believes the determination to make Mary Poppins took its toll on Walt Disney too.

"There were those in the studio who thought a large scale musical film was a big mistake," says Holliss. "Only Disney's complete autonomy prevented such a project as this being shelved the moment Travers made her first complaint.

"Cleverly, Disney utilised the other talented people around him to take the flak on occasions. It was a difficult period for him, and he looks exhausted on his Disney TV show appearances from the period.

"Perhaps it's no surprise that within two years of Poppins' release he was gone."

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson play Disney and Travers in Saving Mr Banks

Mary Poppins won five Oscars and went on to earn the studio more than $100m. Despite her five per cent cut, publically Travers expressed little love for the finished film.

She found the Disney experience so troubling, that when she greenlit Sir Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins musical before her death in 1996, she insisted no Americans were involved in bringing it to the stage.

So why has Disney now decided that Travers's complicated story is suitable for their big screen treatment?

"Actually I don't think that there's very much in Travers own life that suits a Disney film," adds Holliss.

"Except the fact that her books betray her amazingly gifted imagination with strong, believable characters, a strength that Disney brought to all his movies."

The Secret Life of Mary Poppins: A Culture Show special is on BBC Two at 20:30GMT on Saturday 30 November (21:00GMT in Wales). It is available afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

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