‘Mary Poppins’ sequel has 2018 layers
As our favourite nanny returns, Emily Blunt and her co-stars talk to Robbie Collin about cockney accents, colour-blind casting and sex
The 35-year-old Emily Blunt descends into cinemas this Friday, including in East London, in the long-delayed sequel to Mary
Poppins, which was vetoed by the creator, PL Travers, for 30 years.
The Australian-born writer had always resented the original’s cartoons and show-tunes approach, and was still hectoring Walt Disney at its 1964 premiere.
But three years ago, Travers’s more amenable estate gave the go-ahead – so here is Mary
Poppins Returns, an antidote to our troubled times.
On the morning of its recent London premiere, I meet Blunt, her co-star, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda (who plays Jack, a lamplighter and one-time apprentice of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert), and their director, Rob Marshall, at a hotel near Mansion House, which doubles on screen as the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.
Spare tuppences are thin on the ground in the new film, which takes place in the Great Depression. The story picks up 25 years after the first, with Jane and Michael Banks, played by Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw, as adults: Michael is a widower and father of three, whose household is sorely in need of a magical nanny’s touch.
Blunt hadn’t seen the original since she was “six or seven years old“, and opted not to refresh her memory. She remembers the impact Andrews’s performance had on her, “but not the details – and I thought if I was going to take her on, I had to take a big swing, and not impersonate or compromise”.
Instead she pulled ideas from Travers’s stories: “She’s quite different in the books – terribly rude, vain, and batty, which made me laugh so much”.
“Rob and I talked about her being an adrenalin junkie, and the adventures her outlet.”
One such escapade involves Blunt performing a music-hall number with nudge-nudge lyrics. It’s hard to picture Andrews’s version of the character, ahem, pulling it off. I try to discuss this without using the word “raunchy”, and can’t.
“It’s a raunchy number,” laughs Blunt. “Who’s to say she doesn’t like to get a bit raunchy now and then? She’s a bit sassy, Mary Poppins. She loves flirting with labourers.”
It was Blunt’s idea to perform the song in a thick Cockney burr. “She’s talking about people taking their clothes off and having sex, so it made sense that she and Jack should sound of the same world,” she says.
That in itself is a cinematic milestone: Blunt plays the first ever realistic-sounding Cockney in a Mary Poppins film. In the half-century since the original’s release, Van Dyke’s Bert has become the gold standard for bad accents in cinema: Miranda’s Jack picks up the vowelmangling torch, and I tell him that I greatly enjoyed his “tribute”. To my horror, he looks crestfallen, then explains he worked for months with a dialogue coach – the one who honed Tom Hardy’s vocal cords for the Kray twins biopic Legend – and also listened to Sixties crooner Anthony Newley.
“I’d never really done accent work on this level before,” he says. “And I knew it would be scrutinised, because we’re still talking about Dick’s accent now. So I wanted to do the best job I could.”
I hastily add that I think it works beautifully, which is true: the London of Mary Poppins has always been an unreal hybrid. Marshall was keen that his film should retain the miragelike quality of the original – not least because he spent a year in the north London suburb of Golders Green, when his father, a professor of medieval literature, took a sabbatical in the capital. Mary Poppins was the first film he saw as a child, and he remembers roving around as an 11-year-old, trying to find places from the film – which, of course, didn’t exist, as it was shot on studio sets. “I got close!” he laughs. “I went to The Boltons in Kensington, which felt like Cherry Tree Lane to me.”
When it came to casting, Marshall insisted it should be “colour-blind”: the racial mix would correspond to the modern world, rather than Depression-era Britain.
“No matter what we do, we’re always going to be seeing the Thirties through the eyes of 2018, so when I cast I like to reflect who we are,” he says. “Diversity has been important to me from the very beginning, when I made Chicago” – Queen Latifah and Taye Diggs were cast in roles originated by white actors. “You don’t have to be perfectly literal to the time period. But I cast the greatest actors anyway. It worked because it wasn’t forced.”
One casting gambit that didn’t work out, though, was Marshall’s idea for Julie Andrews to make a cameo. He approached her as soon as Blunt had signed on to play Mary 2.0. She turned it down, politely. “She said, ‘Oh no, this should be Emily’s show’,” Marshall recalls. “And later I remember thinking that that had been wise – it would have been like having Sean Connery standing there as Roger Moore was trying to play James Bond.” That’s why he opted to bring back Van Dyke as Mr Dawes, the elderly bank manager.
“I thought it was very generous-spirited of her to say it was my turn,” says Blunt. “But at the same time, if she had come back it would have been an extraordinary thing for the audience. Because when Dick [now 93] appears it’s like the Beatles have arrived.”
While filming, Miranda took the opportunity to compliment Van Dyke on his rap in Jolly
Holiday. “You forgot,” says Miranda, noting my baffled expression. “Go back and watch. He raps about the different women he dated beside Mary Poppins, to make her jealous.
“Dude’s got bars!” Miranda enthuses. Happily, Van Dyke still has his 1964 moves, too – and like the rest of the Poppins package, they’re back not a moment too soon. —