Wednesday, 15 November 2006

HELLZAPOPPINS!

With the publication, last week, of Peter Jackson: A Film-maker’s Journey, my authorised biography of New Zealand’s cinematic Lord of the Rings, I fell to thinking how I once got very near --- or, possibly, nowhere near at all --- working with the entertainment industry’s Other Jackson

Of course, it all happened a long time ago: almost twenty 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, this time 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, “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 got an instant, excited response. Within a matter of weeks, Pamela Travers and I were working on a treatment, following which we went on to write developed outline.

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!"

Every now and again, there were stray conversations about who might play Barney - one of which was quintessentially ‘Hollywood’, by which I mean that it was so typical of Moviedom that it may easily have betokened a genuine cast-iron idea or nothing more than a wild and passing whim...

Anyway, this is what happened...

One day, I'm taken to lunch by a studio executive at a ritzy restaurant on Rodeo Drive and, during the meal, am suddenly confronted with a totally unexpected question:

“So," begins the executive, "is it essential for Barney to be ‘Caucasian’?”

I look blank…

“I mean, does he have to be white?” he translates.

My failure to instantly respond is, of course, not because I don’t know the meaning of the word 'Caucasian', but simply because I can’t imagine why I am being asked…

For one thing, black people in Edwardian London were far and few between and whilst it was just possible, perhaps, to find a black footman serving in some big household, encountering a black ice-cream seller in a London park would have been an extremely unlikely occurrence.

And - apart from anything else - Barney was supposed to pass for Dick Van Dyke's younger brother!

So, I ask, why do they want to know...?

"Well,” comes the reply, “it just so happens that Michael is very keen to work with the Studio on a project..."

I interrupt: “Michael…?

"Yes!" replies the executive, as if dealing with a complete idiot, "Michael JACKSON! Having made Captain Eo for Disneyland, he's now a part of the Disney family..."

I can't help it: I laugh...

The executive is not amused. He becomes emphatic: "Look! He sings! He dances! He'd be PERFECT!"

I stop laughing: he's in earnest!

What's more, he's still enthusing: "Listen! Just think of the marquee-billing: JULIE ANDREWS -- MICHAEL JACKSON -- MARY POPPINS! It’s a BRILLIANT line-up --- AND a hands-down BOX-OFFICE CERT!"

***

As it turned out, Mary Poppins never did come back - at least not on film - but if she had, then it's anyone's guess whether we might also we have seen Captain Eo selling strawberry ices in Cherry Tree Lane…

11 comments:

Scrooge said...

I'm trying to think of a blockbuster film that was as good as the studio that made it told you it was going to be. Thank goodness this film wasn't made with Michael Jackson.It would have been great to have a sequel - I know from your radio adaptations that you could have done it well but I'm with PL on this one. It needed to be handled carefully in order not to devalue the stories themselves or even the original film.Chucking Jacko in because he's one of the 'family' would not have done justice to your treatment.

Brian Sibley said...

Jim Hill Media has linked to this story where a number of people have commented on the utter ridiculousness of the idea of casting Michael Jackson in MARY POPPINS.

We should remember, however, that bizarre though it may seem today - and however wrong Jackson would have been had he been cast - there is no question that, at the time, he was a HUGE music star who was being courted by many people in the entertainment industry who were acutely aware of his status with the young as an iconic pop idol.

Times and perceptions change...

Scrooge said...

Perhaps the objection is not so much at the ability or lack of it that Michael Jackson shows on the screen. He is, afterall, one of the best song and dance men in the business and even those of us who don't particularly follow his music, appreciate his ability. However,the idea of a star of a certain genre being pushed into another area where he has no proficency by studio bosses or to fufil a whim of the star himself is an insult to the people who have strived to make the project artistically credible. It shows us how far the movies will go in search of a cheap buck and reminds us that, in the end, money crushes integrity underfoot. That's what I object to.

Deby said...

A reality show makes more money than a movie. Have Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson share a house.
Preferably the Big House.

Rob said...

It's sad, I wish there would be a sequel how P. L. Travers exactly has wanted it; but did she really hate any aspect on the original disney movie? Because I heard she liked the performance of Julie Andrews!

Brian Sibley said...

Rob – P L Travers' attitude to the Disney film was quixotic. I have recorded elsewhere how, when we embarked on writing the sequel, I watched the original film with Pamela in a London screening theatre – just the two of us and the projectionist!

She hadn't seen the film since the premiere and whilst she complained about a number of things, she praised others: particularly, as you say, Julie's performance and that by David Tomlinson, although she hated the fact that Mr Banks tore up the children's letter.

And, despite being very difficult in meetings with Bob and Dick Sherman back in 1963/4, she was, surprisingly, agreeable to reprising some of the songs in the new movie.

lerake said...

That's perfectly batty! At least the twins born by Mrs B were not supposed to be black. And one of my best friends is black African, in case if anyone wondering ...

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much! Didn't know that... I'm sure she was a fascinating woman! Now I have read an early Draft of the Script "Saving Mr. Banks". Perhaps it does her justice as well as Disney, but I don't know- it could be interesting. Thanks a lot! :-)

Brian Sibley said...

You are obviously in a privileged position to have seen the script. Sad that no one contacted Travers' family or any of her friends who could have offered them what might have proved useful information about her

Brian Sibley said...

Just seen your Facebook comments. Thank you!

Rob said...

You are more than welcome! :-)

Yes, indeed! I wonder how screenwriter Kelly Marcel did her research on this story. If I remember right I think she wrote on Twitter that she had a meeting with Richard "Bob" Morton Sherman a while ago.

By the way: This documentary (where you are in it too!) is really good, I think: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeiEumLxTcM :)

However, Jeffrey C. Sherman, the son of the late Robert "Bob" Bernard Sherman (R.I.P.- It's sooo sad, may he rest in peace!) wrote somewhere on a newspaper website that he was not satisfied with the screenplay of "Saving Mr. Banks", it would have a lot of untrue facts in it, he wrote...

Well, we will see how everthing turns out. Emma Thompson (who I guess borrowed a lot from "Mary Poppins" for her "Nanny McPhee" movies [she played the character and also wrote the scripts as well] which are based on the "Nurse Mathilda" books) is in talks for the role of Helen Lyndon Goff (before, Meryl Streep was rumored) and Tom Hanks for Walter Elias Disney.