On the set of Mary Poppins Returns they’re clearing up after ‘hurricane Meryl’. A room has been turned literally upside down. Shelves on the wall function as steps, a suit of armour dangles from the floor. A piano is split in two and candles hang, inverted, from suspended furniture. We’re in the chaotic upside-down shop owned by frazzled repairwoman Topsy, played by Meryl Streep. And if her character doesn’t sound familiar, then that’s no surprise, as this is Disney’s £100 million revamp of the 1964 classic, which it hopes will introduce Mary Poppins to a whole new generation.
According to screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland, Life Of Pi), his version of Poppins is closer to that created by author P L Travers in her original eight books. ‘Each chapter in the books is a day in the life of the Banks family with Mary Poppins,’ he says. ‘Each day begins with them going on an adventure and ends with Mary Poppins swearing it never happened. We picked the ones we wanted.’ As producer Marc Platt reveals: ‘Topsy is a distant cousin of Mary, based on a character out of the books.’
‘From reading the books, I discovered that Mary’s really eccentric and batty, and also incredibly rude and vain. She’s a striking character,’ says Emily Blunt
The 1964 original is widely regarded as one of Disney’s greatest films (it won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Julie Andrews)
The action in the sequel takes place 25 years after the first film, in Depression-era London. The original film’s pint-sized heroes, the Banks children, Jane and Michael, are now grown up and here played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer. When we meet the pair, Whishaw, the father of three young children, is a poverty-stricken widower and on the verge of losing the beloved family home on Cherry Tree Lane to a scheming banker (Colin Firth).
The 1964 original is widely regarded as one of Disney’s greatest films (it won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Julie Andrews). So how do you follow one of the best-loved children’s films of all time?
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) wanted epic song-and-dance numbers, old-school animated sequences and eye-popping magic courtesy of a nanny who’s practically perfect in every way. But the first job was to find a new star of the show.
‘There is no film without finding the perfect Mary Poppins,’ says Platt. ‘And there was no question in our minds that Emily Blunt could be that actress.’
The 35-year-old is fast becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars on the back of roles in A Quiet Place, The Girl On The Train and The Devil Wears Prada. How did she feel about flying into town on Julie Andrews’ magic umbrella? ‘No one is ever going to out-Julie Julie Andrews,’ Blunt has said. ‘From reading the books, I discovered that Mary’s really eccentric and batty, and also incredibly rude and vain. She’s a striking character so we went more in that direction.’
Screenwriter Magee adds that the Poppins written by Travers is stricter with her charges. He agrees that, while the nanny remains at core just as loving and caring, ‘our Mary is a little sharper, a little more stern’ than Julie Andrews’ portrayal.
Producer Platt was apprehensive about the singing the role demanded, despite Blunt having sung on screen for fantasy musical Into The Woods, also directed by Marshall. ‘I had a great practice run with Into The Woods,’ agrees Blunt, ‘but I was very nervous for this role. And the dancing was terrifying, as I’m not a trained dancer.’ But she put her back into it, rehearsing for eight arduous weeks, ‘pouring sweat every day’.
Platt insists their leading lady needn’t have worried: ‘She sings beautifully, very naturally, a lovely singer. She just is Mary Poppins. Emily makes Mary her own.’
Marshall had asked Julie Andrews to come aboard, but the veteran star nobly turned down a potential million-pound fee, saying: ‘I feel this is Emily’s show and I don’t want to step on that in any way. I don’t want people going, “Oh there’s Mary Poppins.” ’
But one of the original stars has returned. Dick Van Dyke, who played Bert the chimney-sweep, flew to London to shoot a musical number near the film’s climax. You’ll believe a nonagenarian can (almost) fly when you see his dance routine. ‘In the first film, he played two characters, Bert and Mr Dawes, an old man at the bank,’ says Platt. ‘In our film he plays the son of Mr Dawes. Originally he was in his late 30s playing 80; now he’s 92 playing 80. He just needs less make-up now!’
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) wanted epic song-and-dance numbers, old-school animated sequences and eye-popping magic courtesy of a nanny who’s practically perfect in every way
Taking the role of flat-cap-wearing Londoner this time is New Yorker Lin-Manuel Miranda, the actor-writer-director behind global theatre hit Hamilton. He plays Jack, a leerie, the lamplighters responsible for maintaining London’s gas-fired street lamps. More importantly, he has to maintain a credible cockney accent.
‘Dick Van Dyke is so brilliant in the original film, who cares about his accent?’ says Marshall (Dyke acknowledges his ‘cockernee’ was ‘the most atrocious accent in the history of cinema’). ‘Dick never had a dialect coach. He told me that wasn’t how they did it back then, so he just did it on his own.’
We got to film at amazing locations like Buckingham Palace… two words will get you in anywhere: “Mary Poppins”!
But Miranda is taking no chances. ‘Lin’s employed a dialect coach to help him find his interpretation,’ says Marshall. And Miranda himself said recently: ‘I’m trying my hand at the accent. We’re doing this – I don’t want to be in a Mary Poppins movie and not have a British accent.’
The original film, set in 1910, was shot entirely at the Walt Disney studios in California using painted London backdrops. This time around it’s a more authentic British movie, filmed at Shepperton Studios in Surrey. Today, in a huge set constructed to look like an abandoned park, cast and crew are running through one of the musical set pieces, Trip A Little Light Fantastic. Composing team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray) have created nine brand new songs, some inspired by classic English music-hall writers Flanagan and Allen, and Blunt is surrounded by dozens of dancers and stunt performers dressed as lamplighters for this extravagant number.
It’s a huge feat of choreography featuring 300 performers. The action-packed number ends with a fleet of dancers – some of them professional BMX riders – racing through the streets of London on feet and bicycles.
The original film’s pint-sized heroes, the Banks children, Jane and Michael, are now grown up and here played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer
‘Mary Poppins represents the nostalgia and romance of people’s childhood in many ways, particularly in England,’ remarks Blunt
The team have also used a number of London locations for its key scenes.
‘Mary Poppins represents the nostalgia and romance of people’s childhood in many ways, particularly in England,’ remarks Blunt. ‘And that’s why we were able to get such amazing locations. I said to Rob Marshall, “How did you get this location outside Buckingham Palace?” And he said, “Two words: Mary Poppins.” And it’s true! “James Bond” and “Mary Poppins” get you anywhere!’
Marc Platt says: ‘We are living in unsettled times, and the kind of entertainment that people yearn for is a story like Mary Poppins. It’s where we can forget our lives for a while. And it’s where we can bring back some charm and music and love and innocence and childhood.
‘And, of course, some magic.’
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ is released on Friday