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Trailer: Saving Mr Banks

The story behind the making of the movie Mary Poppins, and the clash of personalities between Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers.

PT2M58S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2q0tn 620 349

It's hard to imagine a character more English than Mary Poppins, or a take on her story more American than Walt Disney's, but, in truth, the character has her roots in Australia, and so too does Saving Mr Banks, the new film about how Disney came to claim her.

We knew we only had one bite of the cherry. If Disney didn't like it, we couldn't take it anywhere else. Really, we knew it was their property or no one's. 

Mary Poppins was created by P.L. Travers, born in 1899 in Maryborough, Queensland, as Helen Lyndon Goff. Her pen name was a self-conferred amalgam consisting of the adopted Pamela, her given middle name, Lyndon, and her father's forename, Travers.

Paemal Travers, creator of Mary Poppins.  From ABC doco

Resistance to populism: P. L. Travers.

Literature's most famous nanny first appeared in print in November 1926, in a short story called Mary Poppins and the Match Man. That tale was later reworked as The Day Out in 1934, in the first of the eight Mary Poppins books written by Travers. It also became the basis of the Jolly Holiday sequence and song in the Disney movie of 1964.

''The fact that Disney had chosen this story as such an important scene for the film always irritated Pamela,'' writes Valerie Lawson in her authoritative biography, Mary Poppins She Wrote (originally published in 1999 as Out of the Sky She Came). ''She later called The Day Out chapter 'false' and the weakest of all her Mary Poppins adventures, but never explained why.''

It says so much, that dismissal of a scene that plays, both on screen and on stage, as a joyous piece of magic and myth. Travers insisted through her long life that there was nothing at all frivolous about Mary, and it is her resistance to the easy populism of Walt Disney that is at the heart of Saving Mr Banks.

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers in <i>Saving Mr Banks</i>.

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers in Saving Mr Banks.

Like many Australians, producer Ian Collie knew nothing of Mary Poppins' Australian origins until he chanced upon Lawson's book in 2001.

''I thought, if nothing else, this is a nice hook for an Australian audience,'' he says of that first encounter. ''But as I read it, I realised a lot of the characters and themes of the Mary Poppins books came out of her years growing up in Queensland, and especially her relationship with her father.''

In 2002, Collie produced the documentary The Shadow of Mary Poppins, focusing in particular on her early life and the role her father — a banker, a fantasist and an alcoholic — played in her creations.

DISNEY 990831 SMH SPECTRUM PHOTO SHOWS JULIE ANDREWS, WALT DISNEY, P L TRAVERS(CHECK SPELLING) AT THE 'MARY POPPINS' PREMIERE IN HOLLYWOOD.

P. L. Travers, pictured right, with Walt Disney and Julie Andrews at the Mary Poppins Hollywood premiere.

Even as he worked on it, Collie recalls, ''I thought, 'There's a really good seed for a feature biopic here'.''

As the father of a young girl, he was particularly drawn to the theme of the father-daughter relationship. Over time, the focus shifted more to the wooing of Travers by Disney, who pursued the movie rights to Mary Poppins for almost 20 years before she finally acquiesced.

The Disney of this story was the persistent but always respectful suitor, Travers the short-tempered shrew with a sharp tongue and a loathing of ''unsubtle'' animation. In many respects, admits Collie, ''she's a pretty unlikeable woman''.

Ian Collie.

About Mary: Ian Collie was intrigued by the origins of P. L. Travers.

Sue Smith, best known for her work as writer of the TV series Brides of Christ, turned in the first draft in early 2006. After the fourth draft, English writer Kelly Marcel joined the project too, brought on board by Collie's English co-producer, Alison Owen (Elizabeth, Sylvia, The Other Boleyn Girl).

From the outset, Collie realised that they would eventually have to take the project to Disney if they were to have any hope of using clips from Mary Poppins.

''We knew we had a good script and a good property, but there was a lot of anxiety,'' says Collie. In early 2012, they finally felt it was time.

''We knew we only had one bite of the cherry,'' he says. ''If they didn't like it, we couldn't take it anywhere else. Dreamworks had expressed interest in it, but Disney would have said, 'Dream on, Dreamworks'. Really, we knew it was their property or no one's.''

In fact, Disney loved it, and by October they were shooting, with Tom Hanks as Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers.

No one should confuse Saving Mr Banks for fact — the key scene between Disney and Travers in her London home never happened, for instance — but Collie insists there's plenty in it that is true to the essence of the protagonists.

''It's about that battle of wills between two polarising, contrasting figures, and that wonderful cultural battle between English literary high art and the king of populism, and her mistrust that he was going to sentimentalise it and make lots of money for his empire.''

Arguably, that's exactly what happened. Despite the steady flow of income she received from the film (5 per cent of the gross), Travers was intensely critical of it (she never saw the stage show, which debuted on London's West End in 2004, but would likely have found it more to her liking, since it was more faithful to the tone of the books).

A good chunk of Saving Mr Banks consists of flashbacks to Travers' Australian childhood (scenes filmed, however, not in Australia but California), but the adult Pamela admits nothing of this past. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, she is English, a misconception that rings true with the Travers of Lawson's book.

''Lyndon was never, in her own mind, an Australian,'' she writes.

''In her middle age, she found something slightly shameful about being born in Australia, explaining that her birth there came about 'almost by chance'. She regarded Australia as the 'southern wild' and herself as a woman displaced.''

In many respects, the Travers Ian Collie has come to know is almost the polar opposite of the Mary Poppins Disney created.

''She's just a pain in the arse, a control freak, untrusting, uncompromising … and yet you feel for her in the end,'' he says.

''To be able to somehow imbue this woman with some empathy, that comes down to Emma.''

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