Screened as part of NZIFF 2003
It’s easy to forget that the Disney film of Mary Poppins was a veritable phenomenon when it was released in 1964. The success of the movie made Pamela Travers, the author of the books on which it was based, a very rich woman and an instant celebrity. Being a celebrity, Pamela’s life story became, to a degree, public property, but whose life story was this? And who at the time knew that plucky P.L. Travers, daughter of a loving Irish family relocated to a genteel life in Australia, was as fictional a creation as Mary Poppins herself? From this distance, it’s also easy to forget that the kind of background that would nowadays be trumpeted by publicists was at one time something to be ashamed of.
Lisa Matthews’ charming documentary carefully unravels the stories P.L. Travers wove about her childhood for public consumption and in their place restores the grim truth of poverty and abandonment. This personal history in its turn suggests the psychological need that lies behind her most famous creation – a benevolent, slightly forbidding interloper intent on reuniting alienated parents with their children. The lessons offered by the magical nanny were not always heeded by her creator, however, and the story of her unadopted twin is a truth stranger than fiction.
With gentle determination, the filmmaker manages to get behind the public mask Pamela Travers carefully constructed to a far more fragile, sympathetic and recognisable figure: a woman spurned by her one true love, afraid of loneliness, old age and critical neglect. That final fear is tidily dealt with by the commentators enlisted for this film, who illuminate the spiritual and personal subtexts of the Poppins books and offer an introduction to Travers’ lesser-known writings.
The tales are told by Pamela’s friends and family, and various academics. They feature an unexpectedly eccentric supporting cast: G.W. Russell, W.B. Yeats, Francis Macnamara, G.I. Gurdjieff and, of course, Walt Disney. The documentary features generous excerpts from Disney’s blockbuster, offering audiences the opportunity to experience anew those perky songs and the tooth-grinding awfulness of Dick Van Dyke’s tin-eared Cockernee impersonation. — Andrew Langridge