Super Emily is terrific but Ellie was ferocious
Character of Mary Poppins was based on fearsome nanny with Scots blood
As if by magic, she’s back on the red carpet in a Christmas blockbuster.
But fans thrilling to the new version of Mary Poppins starring Emily Blunt might not know that the real-life inspiration for the impeccably English nanny was a much sterner version with strong Scottish roots.
First dreamt up in 1934, it’s believed the inspiration for the iconic Victorian character was creator PL Travers’ own great aunt, Helen Morehead, whose parents hailed from Edinburgh.
Aunt Ellie, as she was known, was a spinster and regularly looked after her many nieces and nephews, giving them presents but also harsh comments from time to time – something which found its way on to the pages of Travers’ classic novel. “Helen was born in Sydney, although she and the entire Morehead family considered themselves Scottish,” explained Valerie Lawson, author of Mary Poppins, She Wrote, and expert on the life of Pamela Lyndon Travers. “Pamela wrote a book called Aunt Sass in 1941, which was a tribute to her great aunt Helen, whose parents migrated from Edinburgh to Sydney in 1840.”
In Aunt Sass, Travers wrote, “[Helen] was a remarkable person. Her remarkableness lay in the extraordinary and to me, enchanting discrepancy between her external behaviour and her inner self.
“Imagine a heart tender to the point of sentimentality. She was stern and tender and proud, anonymous and loving. You will find her in the pages of Mary Poppins.”
Featured in eight novels by Travers, the character of Mary Poppins has been adapted for TV, radio and, most notably, film. Disney’s 1964 hit with Julie Andrews is considered to be one of the most popular children’s films of all time – the musical has grossed a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious $102 million in North America alone.
This month, a remake with Emily Blunt, 37, taking on the role made famous by Andrews, will hit cinemas. Legend Dick Van Dyke, 92, who starred in the original, stole the show at the premiere in Los Angeles as he broke into a dance on the red carpet.
Valerie believes the lasting appeal of Mary Poppins has to do with the complexity of Travers’ original character.
She said: “Even though she is bossy and demanding, Mary Poppins endures because she gives comfort to children, like a second mother, but also because she is a magical creature who takes children on fantastic adventures, can talk to animals, has extraordinary friends, can fly to the stars and can make everything seem perfect with a snap of her fingers.
“Julie Andrews added a spoonful of sweetness to Poppins as the movie depicted her as a smiling, charming woman, pretty in her Victorian-style clothes. “Emily Blunt understands the complexity of Travers’ vision of Poppins, and not just the Disney version.”
Mary Poppins Returns will be released in cinemas on December 21.
She was stern and tender and proud, anonymous and loving
Julie Andrews plays Mary in first movie