Victoria Coren Mitchell: The original Mary Poppins was as sinister as Julie Andrews was sweet

"Julie Andrews's Mary Poppins is sweet-natured... but it's a story that chilled my blood as a child," says Victoria, as Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks's version of events hits cinemas

It is famously said about the film Titanic, that half its American audience had no idea it was based on a real-life event.


The combination of amusement and horror that accompanies that statement is akin to what I feel when people say they don’t know that the 1964 Disney musical Mary Poppins was based on a series of books.

Honestly; films are wonderful, but sometimes they can block our vision like an eclipse. While working on The Secret Life of Mary Poppins (a one-hour Culture Show special about the author, PL Travers), I was amazed to discover how many people believe that Julie Andrews was the magical nanny’s first incarnation.

For those of us who loved the original four-book series as children, this is exasperating. Not just because we worry that all books get lost in the blaze of big-screen adaptations, but also because this particular on-screen “heroine” is so different from the one on the page.

Julie Andrews’s Mary Poppins is a beautiful, smiling, singing-and-dancing miracle of a person; starchy, but essentially sweet-natured. The Mary Poppins of the books is a far darker character. She is prim, vain, chilly and full of unpredictable anger. She snaps and threatens; she uses her magic to create wondrous scenes, but also to mete out bleak and sinister punishments.

For example, here is a story that chilled my blood when I was a child, and still does today. It’s from the second book, Mary Poppins Comes Back…

Jane Banks, one of the children in Mary Poppins’s care (there are five children in the books; just two in the film), wakes up one day in a bad mood. She has a tantrum and hits her brother Michael.

So, Mary Poppins takes the other children out and leaves Jane alone in the nursery. On the nursery mantelpiece is a Royal Doulton bowl; it features a Victorian picture of three little boys, playing in a garden.

Suddenly, Jane can talk to the boys in the picture. They reach out their hands to draw her into the bowl to join their game. Once inside, they lead her across a field and into a dark wood full of dead leaves. On the other side of the wood, invisible to anybody looking at the bowl from the nursery, is a huge and shadowy house.

Jane suddenly feels frightened. But the boys insist on leading her into the house, where she sees “a figure that filled her with terror”.

It is a weird old man in a dressing gown, smoking a pipe. The old man tells Jane she is his darling and his treasure, then offers her cherry wine. Knowing that something is very wrong, Jane pleads to go home. But the old man tells her it is too late. She has gone back 60 years in time. She has no home any more. “You will stay here,” he tells her in a cracked and high-pitched voice. “There is no other place for you. The twins and Michael, even your mother and father, are not yet born. Number Seventeen is not even built. You cannot go home!”

At this point, Jane starts screaming and screaming in abject terror – and her screams form themselves into an apology to Mary Poppins. At last, Poppins arrives and draws her out of the bowl, back to safety.

Is this not a harrowing tale? Can you think of a crueller or more disturbing punishment? A child may not understand why she shouldn’t take wine and whispered compliments from a shadowy stranger – but every child knows that this spells the deepest danger. Add in the common children’s nightmare that it is impossible to go home, along with the twisted idea of travelling irrevocably into a past where your home doesn’t even exist and your parents aren’t born…

I can honestly tell you: in the 25 years since I first read that story, I have never read or seen another that has chilled me as much.

The Mary Poppins series of novels, by PL Travers, is filled with such sinister imagery. There is the character of Mrs Corry, for example, who mentally abuses her troubled daughters and eats her own fingers.

Beneath these creepy ideas, the whole thing is played out in a tone of wistful uncertainty, because Mary Poppins is always coming and going. The children beg her to promise she’ll stay (or, at least, come back again), but she never promises.

So they are always, even at their happiest, frightened of loss. Walt Disney clearly felt that this darkness, sadness and horror would not play well to a cinema audience. For the screen version it is wiped clean, replaced with flying kites and cartoon penguins. A new Disney feature film, Saving Mr Banks, which opens tonight 29 November, tells the real-life story of the period when PL Travers (played by the magnificent Emma Thompson) travelled to Hollywood to work with the screenwriters and fight for the original tone of her stories.

Whether this 2013 Disney biopic is more “truthful” than the 1964 musical is something we’ll be looking at in our Culture Show documentary. But, whether Walt was right or wrong about what cinema-goers want, those original books were hugely popular with children from 1934 onwards. Nearly 50 years later, in the 1970s and 80s, I was certainly not the only child to be obsessed with the stories, re-reading them over and over. I remember seeing the film Mary Poppins for the first time, aged about ten, and being disappointed. I loved the songs and cartoons, of course, but I knew that something hugely important was missing.

So, there is something I have never forgotten about children: that they sense darkness. However much you protect them (and I had a pretty protected childhood), they know the world is jagged and shadowy. Seeing this reflected in stories, transformed into magical versions through which they glimpse an underlying truth, they are captivated.

The uncertainty of when Mary Poppins will leave, I realise now, is about death. It’s about knowing that nothing is permanent, that nobody is there for ever. And her dark punishments are about danger and injustice: things that children sense deeply, even before they understand them.

PL Travers’s father was an alcoholic, who died when she was young. Our Culture Show film tells the story of her own bizarre and deeply flawed experiment with motherhood in later life: deciding to adopt a child, she went to see a pair of twins, chose one to take home and left the other behind.

So, Travers herself experienced the extreme end of dark family dynamics. But all children know some part of them.

In 1997, 63 years after Travers’s first book (Mary Poppins) came out, another woman began publishing a series of children’s novels about magic. Or rather… a series partly about magic. It was also about a small, unhappy, lonely boy who suffered from the cruelty of fate (and adults). Alongside a fantastical world of midnight flights and talking creatures, the books told of loss, fear, threat and death.

That was the Harry Potter series – and a whole new generation of children was entranced.

See The Secret Life of Mary Poppins Saturday 8:30pm on BBC2