Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Lessons from Mary Poppins

I bought the children the DVD of "Mary Poppins" for Christmas. The movie has since taken over our lives. So captivated by the music, the story and the characters, they insist upon watching it almost every weekend, and given that it guarantees us almost three hours of peace, I indulge them. I downloaded the soundtrack too, so we listen to those wonderful songs every day as we drive to and from preschool.

I've always loved the film, a BBC staple over the Christmas and Easter Holidays and I have seen it many many times. That film, "The Sound of Music", and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" must have been the only films that the BBC had the rights to back then, they were played so often. Still, getting reacquainted with Mary and Bert, and Michael and Jane and their gloriously neglectful parents has been fun. The movie has prompted all sorts of wonderful questions from the children.

They are fascinated by the fact that all the characters are played by real people; almost all of the movies they have seen to date have been animated. I have been explaining the concept of acting; that the person on the screen is a real actual human (in these days of sophisticated computer animation it can be hard to tell, when you come to think about it), but that "Mary Poppins" isn't a real person. She is an imaginary character played by an actress called Julie Andrews, who has been in lots of other films, playing other characters. I look forward to when they are old enough to watch her as the lovely flippertygibbet Maria in, "the sound of music". Though I remember as a child myself not quite believing that she was the same person as Mary Poppins.

They are intrigued by the clothes that the characters are wearing. I've explained that the movie is set in England a long time ago. I decided not to go into the deeper details; that it was made in 1964, but set in 1910. Considering this made me realize how time compresses as we spiral away from it. 1910 and 1964 are such distinctly different times, but, historically challenged as I am, I would struggle to define the differences between the years 1810 and 1864. I expect the early part of the twentieth century will merge into a muddle of flappers, hippies and yuppies in the minds of the generations to come.

They are baffled by Dick Van Dyke's accent (as is almost anybody who watches the film, really), conscious as they are of the differences between how I speak and how they do. Geekyboy, who had already been channeling his inner cockney, has perfected Dicks rendition of "Its a Jolly 'olidaiy with Mairy", adorably apalling accent and all.

Geekygirl is becoming very interested in aging and the cycle of life and death. Is "Mary Poppins dead in real life" she asked me. I had a quick google, then reassured her that Dame Julie Andrews is a sprightly 75, still alive and kicking. "What about the children?" she asked, and I realized that those sweet young actors, immortalized in film, must be adults in their fifties now. I wonder what they are doing now?

The kids have memorized the music, and can often be found marching around the house using one of my scarves as a sash, singing

"Cast off the shackles of yesterday!
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!
Our daughters' daughters will adore us
And they'll sign in grateful chorus
"Well done, Sister Suffragette"

Which has afforded an excellent opportunity to teach them about the rise of women's rights. That Mrs. Banks left her kids with a strange chimney sweep while she went to her rallies doesn't sit quite right with me, but it does illustrate the ongoing issue of affordable, flexible childcare. The movie was way ahead of its time, really. The father gets the weight of the movie's disapproval for not spending enough time with his kids, whereas the mum, fighting the good fight for future generations, is treated much more kindly. In fact it is probably one of the least sexist Disney movies made, despite being filmed in 1964. I wish they would sell Mrs Banks dolls in her "votes for women" banner, alongside the ubiquitous princesses.