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Saving Mr Banks

Posted by Simon Parke, 08 May 2017, 10.59am

Saving Mr Banks was a film released in 2013.

You may have seen it; I missed it, but caught up with it recently.

(Eternity kindly waited.)

It tells of the awkward development process of the film Mary Poppins.

PL Travers is author of the book who insists on scrutinising everything; she is not an easy colleague for the script writer, song writers or Walt Disney himself.

The year is 1961, we’re in Los Angeles…and she hates most of the things they’re doing with her book.

(Most authors these days, it seems, sell out rather more quickly when Hollywood comes knocking.)

This narrative is intertwined with flashbacks to her past in Australia, and the alcoholic father she both loved and was let down by.

PL Travers – real name, Helen Goff – also stopped her mother committing suicide, due to her husband’s behaviour.

Back in Hollywood, Travers is endlessly rude to the script writer and song writers. (The Sherman brothers)

We know how rude she was because she insisted on every meeting being tape recorded to make sure her objections were on record.

The tapes still exist…including the famous ‘I don’t want anything red in the film’ requirement.

She’d gone off the colour red and didn’t wish anything to be red in the film - which cut out London buses, a post box etc…though she wore red lipstick as she demanded this.

The script consultation scenes are accurate…and excruciating.

She can’t let go of anything, everything must be as she wishes - and there’s a point in all process when objection after objection becomes objectionable…and Travers reaches that point early.

It becomes apparent that for the film to be made, something will have to give or break.

A key moment arises when Disney suggests that Mary Poppins is trying to save the children.

‘Mary Poppins is not trying to save the children,’ says Travers, storming out of the rehearsal room, as if everyone here is just too stupid. 

And this is true because Mary Poppins is not trying to save the children…she’s trying to save Mr Banks, their father.

Mary Poppins is the angel who wasn’t there for Travers when her own alcoholic father was destroying the family.

Travers writes as the seven year old who wanted to save her own father – but couldn’t.

She wanted someone to come along and make everything right…things which were a long way from right when he died of tuberculosis (and alcohol) when she was

So the story of Mary Poppins was not just a work of a fine imagination; it was heavy-laden with autobiographical significance.

This is what the script writer, song writers and Disney himself didn’t know at the start…and only slowly discovered.

Neither, I suspect, did Travers appreciate this.

It took Hollywood scrutiny to realise that her overly-protective ‘wonderful dad’ myth needed looking at.

In this regard, Hollywood was an unwitting therapist.

But no wonder she resisted Disney’s approaches for so many years; no wonder she fought with everyone who dared touch the story.

This wasn’t just another touching tale from a children’s author. Here was a deep vat of unresolved longings which seriously affected her behaviour towards others…and towards herself.

The final scene in Mary Poppins is Mr Banks going off to fly a kite with the children, no longer the slave of the bank.

‘Let’s go fly a kite!’ we all sing.


Here is some sort of redemption for her own father who died a slave to alcohol.

Perhaps now Travers could be kinder towards herself; forgive herself for not being able to do anything as a seven-year-old girl.

The film’s ending, however, is slightly more syrupy, more Disney-fied, than real life.

She wasn’t emotionally overwhelmed by the film.

While she liked some parts of it, she remained at vehement odds with other parts and angry at the changes.

Our childhood narratives, those things we needed to tell ourselves, are difficult to dislodge.

Even if we write a wonderful best seller…

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