Wednesday, 7 May 2008

MISS JULIE ANDREWS: AT HOME

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! Maria Von Trapp! - who is asking, "Shall I be mother?" and pouring me a cup of tea.

"Sugar?" Just a spoonful...

Ten 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, last year, 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!

And now it's here. Home: A Memoir of My Early Years is, as you'd expect, a charming read. But it's much more than that, being uncompromisingly honest - whilst remaining, as she would say, "polite and decent".

Home is 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 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 are the chapters that will doubtless excite most reader-interest - her experiences during the creation of Lerner and Loewe's classic musical, My Fair Lady. 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...

Here, Julie reveals 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 concludes 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.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to read part of the missing text of my book, you'll find it posted on my Ex Libris blog...



23 comments:

Bill Field said...

Brian, for some reason, I kept running into your books, everywhere I went in my studio today... Odd, because typically,
they are usually in another room altogether, and I had set some old cereal premiums on the top of The Wrong Trousers Storyboards Book. I gathered all the booksand pile of premiums into the room they belong -sat down now, looking up your blog as I have done many times- Ilook over at the premiums- and realize one is a spinning Mary Poppins, from Post Cereal the year it was released, then noticed a huge color ad I stuck on the wall from the 1972-73 re-release of Mary Poppins for HEFTY Trash Bags- they included stickers, I believe.
Then I realize, Julie Andrews featured on your post, today, and then read your marvelous and eliquent retelling of your teatime
with a woman I had a crush on til I was 13- and then switched to Farrah. But my Swan Song and Public Announcement of my Love for Julie, while still 12, much to the chagrin of my friends Vince and Gib and Gib's Mom, who was also Vince's 24 year-older sister. Gib is only 1 year younger than me and his "uncle". I stood up in the opening of Sound of Music and sang out loud, with her- for most of the song- then I sat down, and a fulltheater rose up- and gave me a standing ovation. Not one "boo" nor a single flung tomato. I was lucky, this is Texas, where men have been hung for much less.
So with all the Sibleynicity and Deja vu ala Julie, I felt the need to share my how I revealed my secret love, to my friends and 300 applauding strangers- deep in the heart of Texas.

Suzanne said...

A truly great lady. Thanks for that Brian!
I still enjoy watching Mary Poppins, Millie, Sound of Music etc, so refreshing!

Boll Weavil said...

You've just met EVERYBODY. Was reading your blog on the Moomins again the other day and, of course, not only were you good friends with Tove, but she'd actually drawn you a personal Moomin ! I'm just jealous !!!

LisaH said...

Lovely blog, Brian (and I do like the tie).

Eudora said...

What a lady, as we say "toda una señora". I think she is my favourite voice in the history of cinema, as a singer and actress (the second is Deborah Kerr).

Mr. Sibley, what happend to you in the last 10 years?

Eudora said...

I'm just post in my blog the spanish version of "A spoorful of sugar"...

Brian Sibley said...

BILL - Always best - sooner or later - to get such things off your chest! Thanks for choosing the Sibley blog to do it! I'll forward all requests for ticket refunds as and when received! ;-)

SUZANNE - "Refreshing"... Yes, that's the word. Exactly!

BOLL - And, of course, I've also met YOU! A fact about which many regular readers of this blog - and BOLL WEAVIL's witty comments and contributions - will be insanely jealous! :-)

LISAH - Yes. Nice tie... Pomegranates. Deeply significant, I would imagine!

EUDORA - And, better than Miss Kerr, she sang her own songs...

EUDORA (again) - EXCEPT she didn't sing the version currently playing on your blog! Who was that Spanish Andrews-impersonator, I wonder?

By the way, you ask: "Mr. Sibley, what happened to you in the last 10 years?

Too many spoonfuls of sugar, Eudora!

Andy J. Latham said...

A fascinating account Brian!

Is it true that she can swear like the best of them? I remember seeing a TV show that described her as being all Mary Poppins like while on camera, but once off film, she had quite a filthy mouth! Maybe not practically perfect in every way!!

Brian Sibley said...

Well, Andy, whilst she was not on camera, she was on mike! So, did we catch Miss Poppins swearing like a trooper - or a trouper? As Eliza Doolittle said: "Not bloody likely!"

Eudora said...

The fact is that Miss Andrews spanish voice are two different voices. For the dialogs the usual spanish voice for Julie Andrews: Rosa Guiñon, and for the songs the voice of Teresa María (the usual spanish voice for miss Andrews songs).

Since the 40's all the spanish movies must be "impersonate" by spanish actors (well, not actors exactly but specialists, with beautiful voices (better voices that our actors)). In those days, Franco's days, that was like an order, imposible saw a movie in the original version... Now is almost a tradition, few people want to see the movie or the serie in the original language.

Brian Sibley said...

Fascinating! Thank you, Eudora. I knew that the Disney Studio took great pains to find singers and voice artists who could - in their own language - approximate the original performance. This was essential since - especially in the case of animation - much of the personality of the on-screen characters was derived from the pre-recorded vocal performance.

Hats off to Señoritas Guiñon and María!

Such was Disney's commitment to the foreign versions of his films that special pieces of art were created - at considerable expense - to be included in those films where words appeared on the screen - such as the Wicked Queen's book of spells in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Rena Fan said...

Thanks for this post as well as the Ex libris one, Brian.
As I said to my comment on the Ex libris post, I do hope there will be a second volume of your book on Mary Poppins.
And I would also like to ask the question here, too: there is no reference to Julie attending the Gala Performance of MP at the Prince Edward Theatre. Was this also due to a Julie-related instruction from the Mouse Kingdom or was it due to their decision to focus on the Broadway production?

Brian Sibley said...

RENA - Ah, the Julie Andrews Gala! I wasn't there - the invite must have gone astray, I guess - but I did watch a DVD of the event and wrote about it, but I assume it was felt too parochial for American readers...

Rena Fan said...

Oh, that invitation, too, went astray? I remember you weren't invited to the final performance either. Some guys' memory seems to be fading too easily!

Brian Sibley said...

Can't think who you're talking about, Rena... Walt was already dead by then. ;-)

Good Dog said...

"Sugar?" Just a spoonful...

Excellent. Oh, to be able to say that, straight-faced.

And what a pro, not blowing you guys off after a long day of rehearsals. It's a wonderful reminder that, though the numbers are sadly getting fewer, there are still stars in the film business who are honourable and "polite and decent".

Brian Sibley said...

Her private response to having to do an interview at 8.00 pm at the end of a busy day was probably quite different to how we perceived it, but - if it was - she never let on...

Anonymous said...

Thankyou Brian on your article on Julie Andrews. I'm a great fan of hers. Flew to Sag Harbour last November for the Premier of Simeons Gift as a theater show. Very good and worth the trip. As I was staying at the American Hotel across the road I got the chance to say a quick Hello to her. Us kiwi's are inclined to not jump in someones face and ask for an autograph, so I came away with no photo or anything as a momento except it was an awsome feeling meeting her even though it was very brief. Lovely Lady. Would love to meet her again as she has inspired me to write young adult books.
Thanks again Diane

Brian Sibley said...

DIANE - Thanks for the story of your meeting with Julie. I've always thought the real secret of being a star is not how they handle things like scheduled interviews, but how they respond to unplanned encounters with their fans and admirers. Your experience is a testimony to Miss A's stardom and is one that will live with you forever.

Because your comment came through as 'Anonymous', Diane, there isn't a link back to you, but I do wish you every success with your writing career.

PS: And, wherever you are in New Zealand, please give it my love!

Michael G. said...

Brian - What a lovely story about your interview with Ms. Andrews. I am in the midst of reading her book and loving every minute. I had no idea about the trials and tribulations of her early years. Though I have never seen her on stage, I remember as a child seeing rehersals for "My Fair Lady", on the late Dave Garroway's "Wide, Wide, World" in 1956. This was a year or so before Video tape became widley used, and instead of being a Kinescope presentation, on film, was live via Coaxial cable and Microwave. We lived in California, so most, if not all of what we saw from the east coast would have been delayed because of the time difference. But I clearly remember this live show on a sunday afternoon- seeing Julie, Mr. Harrison and director Moss Hart. There were comments from all of them and it was quite fascinating.

Oddly enough I never saw "Mary Poppins" till it's first re-release in the 1970's, as my brother and I, who had read all the Poppins books in the late 50's and early 60's thought Julie was entirely wrong for the part. Much too young - we envisioned Bette Davis - who we thought even looked a bit Poppinsish would have been a much better choice. I realized, after seeing the film, how wrong we were.

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks, Michael. I often think that if the Disney film had required Julie to be closer to the Travers image of Poppins, she would have managed it rather well.

scb said...

I just came upon this post, quite some time after it was written (obviously) and wanted to thank you for such a wonderful post. I have been an ardent admirer of Dame Julie Andrews for over forty years, and this post shows some of the reasons why her star shines far more brightly than most.

Thank you.

Brian Sibley said...

It's a year since I made that posting. Good to know it's still being read! On my behalf (and Dame Julie's) thank you!