Mary Poppins in the USSR

There is an appalling Mary Poppins’ film produced by Mosfilm called “Goodbye Mary Poppins”Meri Poppins, do svidaniya, which was made, I assume, without permission from PL Travers. However, said Pamela actually visited the USSR in 1932 before she published Mary Poppins. Maybe Mary Poppins was already partly on paper by then? It is tantalizing to speculate.

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I thought when I read her account that I would find evidence that she was a secret communist and would altogether have approved of the Russians stealing her copyright. Perhaps she never knew. Perhaps she stayed silent because she thought the soviet film might spite Disney. Whatever she knew of the film, though, there can be no doubt that she dislikes the Soviet system itself.

The book, her first, is a transition piece. She even dedicates it to herself (HLG), or rather to the old self that she was in the process of shedding. She went to Russia having just recovered from TB as Helen Lyndon Goff but she returns as PL Travers. Two months after publishing “Excursion” she published Mary Poppins under her new name.

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She was going on a trip well-trodden by the arts groupies in the UK organised through INTOURIST and VOKS. A few months before publishing Mary Poppins in 1934, (so in the same year as Katherine Susannah Prichard’s THE REAL RUSSIA but a few years before E. M. Delafield would publish Straw Without Bricks, or The Provincial Lady in Russia, which incidentally quite explains why so many Russian girls are encouraged even today to read the appalling Diary of a Provincial lady!) she published an account of her trip to Moscow called “Moscow Excursion”. She writes, ‘going to Russia, it appears, is almost as hazardous and complicated a business as going to Australia must have been in the days of Captain Cook.” She called it “a chance of a lifetime or a piece of utter recklessness.” She says that she went for “pure enjoyment: it is difficult for me to think or feel politically.” Unlike George Bernard Shaw, she did not meet Stalin but she saw him, as ‘a dark Asiatic face huddled in one corner’ of a car. But it meant nothing much to her. “Nobody, it appears, can conceive that a person who is admittedly neither for nor against the Soviet regime should want to go there.”

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Her trip, accompanied by a delegation of british trade unionists whom she calls the “woikers” together with a handful of earnest academics (“serious and solemn”), began in Leningrad and went to Moscow by way of Novgorod (a part of the trip that was later cancelled when all available transport broke down). She was on a journey that proved to be a standard of Soviet propaganda, what Malcolm Muggeridge in 1972 called “one of the wonders of our age”, and what I assume at least two of the mothers of my prep-school friends must have been on.

Travers is not terribly respectful. She disliked the traditional version of Swan lake. She is irritated that the Kremlin is shut. there was a Congress going on. Meanwhile she was taken round nurseries, prisons, hospitals:

“here we are”, she writes, “solemnly trooping about looking at boots, babies and criminals as though they were bits of the True Cross”.

She brings with her 6 lemons which she distributes to a poor Muscovite, “his face suddenly softened and mobile and joyous.”

She thought the hospital was “the happiest place I have yet been,” though she also liked the prison where no-one did anything. She refused to visit the Prophylactorium for Reformed Prostitutes, though, which she calls “the house of prostitutes”. The guide was apparently confused and could not believe that she was not interested.

But Travers had some naughtiness going on, or at least says she had. She had a number of “friends” around Leningrad- T (with a stash of extra roubles), Z (a Russian Anti-communist whom she had met in Cambridge) Maybe one of the people she met was Hubert Butler who wrote Peter’s window and translated Chechov. She also mentions M, A, V and an anonymous film-maker from Birmingham “who had gone so Bolshie even the Bolshevicks think he is rather too much on the Red side.” Reading between the lines, though, these characters seem not only to have fictitious names but to be entirely imaginary- surely, one might reason, she could never have left her minder or her group to meet these individuals! It beggars belief. She says “the characters in the book are all synthesized personanges. So that should anyone imagine he has come face to face with himself- he is mistaken. It is always with someone else.” Still, the Butler link is intriguing and Olga Maeots even suggests a location where these people met PLT, an apartment on the 5th floor at 14 Lomonosova street.

At another point, PLT manages to sneak into a production of Hamlet probably at the Vakhtangov theatre. I suspect she was chaperoned there too and she seems to have worked out rather more of what was going on than she could have done without a translator. Her account is nevertheless wonderful. And I too had my own Hamlet experience in Moscow, where, like PLT, I was mesmerised by the way the text was cut up. In my case, the To be or not to be monologue was put into Act 5, but PLT records the following,

How often have we groaned when some star actor rhetorically hurls at the empty air the question whether it is nobler in the mind—etc, etc, and not even echo makes reply. Not so here. The speech was divided between Hamlet and Horatio. The two students are in the library of the palace, Hamlet turning a globe, Horatio on steps reaching up to a high shelf for a book.

To be or not to be—begins Hamlet.

That is the question, returns Horatio, as one who observes, Boy, you’ve said it. And so the speech goes on and for once appears real and the natural comments of very young undergraduates.

And she complains about the restraints of the guided tour and is critical of Russian society in general. “It seems to me horribly imperfect, horribly old-fashioned, horribly bourgeois … and at the moment more like Tom Brown’s Schooldays or a Church Lads’ Brigade than an ideal State.” She bemoans the “mechanization” of humanity where the old class system is subverted and the new workers “privileged to the exclusion of all others”.

“The machine is getting us, we are falling into place, cogs in the great wheel….The great human clock goes ticking evenly, but nobody seems to know if it is telling the right time.

she has a great piece about Divorce and a gramophone player:

But in marriages where there are no children there is no end to the number of times you may be married and divorced. A young American I met a few days ago told me that a friend of his, also an American, had given an old gramophone to a Russian girl before he returned home. She was conspicuously plain in person, but she was immediately married by a young man with a taste for music. As soon as he had gained possession of the gramophone he divorced her and married a prettier girl. Succumbing, he made his new wife a present of the gramophone, and upon that she divorced him and married a handsomer husband. And so on. The gramophone led a giddy life, passing from marriage-bed to marriage-bed. Its end is not recorded. Probably it died eventually of old age and overwork

She resents being a tourist and having to submit to such controlled access: “a part is not enough for me. I want it all.”

“Oh, it’s clever, it’s diabolically clever. Lenin discovered that bears dance naturally and Stalin knew well how to put rings in their noses and lead them through the streets. But somewhere, behind all the cunning exploitation, is there not the bear’s own desire to be so led? Haven’t the people themselves chosen the tyranny that flatters their deepest instincts and relieves them of the necessity of thinking for themselves?”

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The book, written on the eve of Stalin’s purge is now, I understand, translated over 6 years by Olga Maeots into Russian.

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Mary Poppins

There is a splendid interview with Rob Marshall and Emily Blunt about the upcoming Mary Poppins. A link here:

I was looking through some previous posts and forgot that I had drawn Nicola Sturgeon as Mary Poppins twice- here she is!

nicola sturgeon 2 by TIM

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Indy 2

Nicola Sturgeon enters a fantasy world

nicola sturgeon 2 by TIMBritain’s first referendum was held on June 6th 1975 to approve or reject the EEC agreement reached 2 years’ earlier by Edward Heath. Clement Attlee said that referendums were “a device for despots and dictators.” In the 1970s, Mrs Thatcher thought Lord Attlee was probably right. Louis Napoleon (Emperor Napoleon III) used 2 referendums just over 12 months to overturn the fragile French Republic in 1851 and confirm his December coup d’état as legal and constitutional. Hitler held 4 referendums in 1933 (to leave the League of Nations),  1934, 1936 and 1938 (they were then banned for 60 years), so did Mussolini in 1934 (ostensibly an election, it was seen as “the second referendum of Fascism”) as did Pinochet in 1980 and Ferdinand Marcos (who used 3) and JR Jayawardene in Sri Lanka who used a referendum to prolong parliament by 6 years. Colonel George Papadopoulos and the Greek Generals seized power using a referendum in 1973 to legitimise their rule. Putting too much trust in Referendums, in other words, is to cosy up with some very disturbing bedfellows. We have just had two referendums in two years. Surely that is enough for now.

Today, when we might have expected the news to be dominated by the final stages of the Brexit bill going back through the Commons, the First Minister of Scotland said she planned to trigger Indy 2.

While I think there is a case to be made for a version of Brexit that recognises the 62% vote for remain in Scotland, and while I think a compromise approach may well give the UK overall some access to the EU, however we pursue Brexit, I also think that now is not the time to be discussing these details. More than that, Nicola Sturgeon demonstrates today that she is prepared to pick and choose which referendums she accepts and which she rejects. Either we accept in principle what is returned in a referendum or we do not hold a referendum at all. I am not a fan of the referendum as a concept-I think it is a very clumsy tool, but we cannot keep rerunning referendums until we get the result we want. Isn’t that what is done in Europe? Isn’t that why we have rejected Europe?

In 2016, Greece voted in a referendum by 61% to 39% to reject the Austerity measures. No one paid any attention. In 2008, Ireland voted against the Lisbon treaty by 53% but it was ratified nonetheless after Ireland held a second referendum (as it also did in 2001 when it rejected the Nice treaty and had to try again). The Lisbon treaty was a replacement for the TCE which was roundly rejected by referendums in France and the netherlands in 2005. Significantly, Lisbon was not the subject of a second French referendum.

As for the actual substance of Indy 2, this is very confused. The first Minister might have a case that the Brexit decision represents a “significant and material” change and chimes in with the SNP manifesto, but the practice of holding another referendum and getting the result she wants is by no means certain. More than that, even if she gained a “Yes” for independence, which is far from certain, there is no guarantee that Scotland would even be allowed to stay in or moreover re-enter the European family as a separatist state. The Spanish, for instance, mindful of their own Catalonian issues, might well be reluctant to reward such displays of independence.

Nicola Sturgeon and Mary Poppins

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Here she is sailing into a barnyard inhabited by pig-headed animals and sheep

I think the video below is a copy of the Milt Kahl animation but there is still charm to it and it is interesting to see.

The combination of Nicola and the barnyard scene from Mary Poppins is impossible to ignore.

The original scene in the film was sketched by Don Da Gradi and animated mostly by John Lounsbery and Eric Larson. The pigs in the farmyard are really large sausages with legs. They are absurdly simple and deeply charming.

The design may be simple but the animation is probably the best ever done in the Disney studios, I think. It is fluid, even on 12s and the scenes which suggest beauty with the sun coming through the trees and the butterflies and deer are astonishing. Without this scene, frankly, and the technical advances in process photography/ what we now call “greenscreen”, there would be no “star wars”.

Here is a link to drawings from the fox hunt scene (mostly Milt Kahl):

http://livlily.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/mary-poppins-1964.html

here is a much older page spread from my moleskin. Not the farmyard scene, I know but you can see where I drew inspiration for Nicola’s pose above. Incidentally, it was Julie Andrews who insisted on the turned out feet. Apparently, this was the position in the book illustrations.

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Forging a relationship with Scotland

The most brilliant politicians are not those who say what we like to hear, or even what we want to hear. They are the ones who convince us to like what they say, even when we might have been disinclined to do so. I am not in favour of Scottish independence but Nicola Sturgeon is nevertheless one of the most spectacular and dynamic politicians we have ever seen and she is likely to press for a Scottish solution: we cannot leave things as they are. She pretty well embodies a Nation today and floats into 10 Downing street tomorrow morning like some 21st Century incarnation of Mary Poppins-  she carries with her a giant carpet bag of unknown knick-knacks, the threat of referendum, a smile that packs a pretty mean punch, and slogans that say “don’t mess with me”.

For the record, here is my drawing of her.

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I believe that Nicola Sturgeon is someone Mr Cameron must take seriously. I am also convinced that Scotland can teach those of us in England quite alot. The policies of racial and Religious integration, the campaign to promote the cause of refugees are impressive and the approach to education, particularly with respect to the Tier 1 visa campaign and university fees, is something we should notice with respect. I am less convinced by the “Curriculum for excellence” but more on that another time. For now, welcome to Downing street, First Minister! (or rather, the other way round)

Just so you can compare the two, here are some pages from my sketchbook of caricatures of the original Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews-

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Did Disney have a dark side?

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The Dark Prince:

There was a dark side to Disney. There! I have said it. It is hard to imagine when the charm of the man exudes from “Saving Mr Banks” and when every outing of a Disney cartoon reaffirms his near-Divinity, lying just south of Father Christmas and in the company of St Francis of Assisi, the Doctor Doolittle of Paradise. To add to the sense of triumphant hagiography, Disney acquired his own Mother Goddess in the form of Julie Andrews, descending from a cloud to right the wrongs in London and returning there when things, to the echoing strains of that Sherman Brothers’ hymn “Let’s go fly a kite”, are just about right. To cement the deal of course, her name was Mary.

Later on, Mary affirmed her Catholicism, attended a convent and looked after a large family of Austrian refugees. Disney, meanwhile, died and was survived by his wholesome legacy, a global institution to rival the Vatican, and his surrogate son, Mickey Mouse who never aged and, though temped to perform magic to music in “Fantasia”, never did any real wrong. All this looks suspiciously religious!

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This picture is from “How to be Boss” which you can see here on Youtube:

 

Disney and the Nine old men:

But the dark myths about Disney lurk in the recesses of the Internet and in glorious books like “King Rat” and Marc Eliot’s “Hollywood’s dark prince”. The sins seem to fall into three areas- the first is his alleged anti-semitism, the second, his labour relations and his record as an employer and the third is his interest in surviving death. As a film maker, and moreover, an animator, the way Disney managed his empire is of great significance to me. If he made mistakes, then I would want to avoid them and if he did things right that it makes sense to emulate him. For the most part, I resent the endless stories in what are marketed as serious books about animation going on endlessly about who put the cat in the cupboard. When it comes to animation, it is important to learn the trade from the masters- how to convince an audience that a 2d drawing is alive and more than that, has feelings. So I have little interest in the private lives of the 9 old men. I met one of them some years ago- frankly, I have no recollection which one it was, though I think maybe Marc Davis. He talked endlessly about the Disney theme parks and pooh-poohed the use of cinemascope in “Sleeping Beauty”.

However, the life of Disney represents something different because it was Disney who held together, developed and maybe exploited his various artists to such remarkable and lasting effect. Unlike Richard Williams, Disney was no great Draughtsman, nor indeed a gifted animator, but he had an instinct for story-telling and was clearly ready to listen to and implement advice about marketing. It is the marketing that has made the movies from the appearance of Mickey mouse memorabilia within a year of the release of “Steamboat Willie” to all the party frocks for little girls that accompanied the release of “Frozen”. I remember having a much-loved carpet of “Mary Poppins”. A carpet, note and not a carpet-bag.It was pink, peopled with penguins and a tortoise or two while in the centre, Mary Poppins herself floated in serenity. I also had jigsaw puzzles. Indeed, my father was so frustrated by my devotion to Mary that he twice fired his shotgun out of the bedroom window claiming to have “got the damn woman”. Somehow, I knew that my father, despite the tweed suit, was not quite the crack-shot he claimed to be, and that Mary Poppins would survive as indeed she did. Like the birds, she may have lost a few feathers, but “spit spot” on she flew.

Uncle walt and the myths

Today, people want to believe the worst of their heroes. American articles have appeared in recent years suggesting that Disney was a hard-drinking drug user, an FBI stouge or spy, and even a secret Nazi attending meetings of the American Nazi groups. His public image as attested in “Saving Mr Banks” was avuncular. “Call me Uncle Walt!” Karen Dotrice, the girl from Guernsey who played Jane in “Mary Poppins” certainly did just this and made three films for her beloved uncle. There are endless postings on the internet about what appear to be sexual imagery in the films of the late 80’s renaissance: the 2 frames of nudity in “the Rescuers”, some (intentionally) suggestive stuff in “Roger Rabbit”, the phallic tower on the cover of “Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”, the Bishop’s apparent arousal, the word sex in the stars in “Lion King” and the suggestion that the relationship between Scar and his brother hints that Jesus and satan were siblings; There is generally an innocent explanation. The animator who drew the Bishop in “the Little Mermaid”, Tom Sito, says that what appears to be naughty is in fact the cleric’s knee: “He’s standing on a box that his long robes cover.” There were complaints that the opening verse in the first song of “Aladdin” was racist and that the “Pocahontas” film covered up her subsequent conversion to Christianity. Perhaps the most impressive of these claims, and one that might stick to Disney himself were it credible, is that in 1937, Donald Duck is supposed to have said “Fuck you” to a clock spring that simply would not stay in place. Frankly, it is possible to read any interpretation into some of the duck rants and I doubt that this expression would have been that common in the mid 30s. The film is on Youtube, so listen to it: I could not locate these words but there was an AFA condemnation registered in 1996: “Disney blasted for using the F word in Donald Duck cartoon”!

The Disney in “Mr Banks” seems to know he is not perfect. When he stubs out a cigarette, he says, “I’d hate to set a bad example for the kids.”

is their any evidence?

Many of the spurious tales come from the Eliot book, “Hollywood’s dark prince”, especially the idea that Disney was a spy, flying to New York to attend left-wing meetings and later to file reports for the FBI. Much of Eliot’s material comes from a disgruntled Disney employee who was barely at the studio for 6 months. Indeed, much of the bile in general comes from the poor handling of a strike in 1941 that lingered on for 4 months. Disney was convinced that communist agents had stirred up trouble with the Screen Cartoonists’ guild. Disney detested the strikers and they him. It is hardly surprising that rumours began. Certainly it is true that Disney was registered as an FBI SAC Contact in 1955 and I suppose in the climate the allegations that he shopped suspected communists to the government may well be true; he was called to testify in 1947 and his testimony is fairly damning but naive: “Well, I think Sorrell is sure tied up with them. If he isn’t a Communist, he sure should be one.” His testimony certainly damaged the careers of some people in the industry and I think he must be held responsible for some of the blacklisting that went on. That he joined an organisation called “the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals” is quite true and this had explicit aims of getting rid of Hollywood’s communists. Some of the members were known anti-semites: Jack warner and Louis B Mayer did not join the organisation because of the anti-semitic bias, but that does not prove Disney was an anti-semite (despite the stereotypes in “three Little Pigs” and “the Opry House”). There seems little truth, equally, in claims that he was a Nazi and some of the war propaganda suggests he was firmly against Hitler though he certainly is recorded by Art Babbitt as meeting Leni Reifenstahl in 1938 She claimed Disney“told her he admired her work”; if he was a racist then he was a man of his time, but any charge that he was an anti-semite seems to be confounded hy his employment of people like Maurice Rapf, who also had a left-wing, probably communist background.

A serious issue

What is perhaps wrong and deeply so is that Disney implied that his workers would get a bonus for what they did on the early features and this never happened. Also, Disney hired women only to ink and paint the animation cels. He paid them a pittance. I have done this work and it is soul-destroying. Any corrections that the painter makes to sloppy animation go unrewarded and unrecognised. But such corrections are essential and part of the expected vigilance of the painter. The detail and discipline of the cel painting during the early Disney period- indeed, until “Sleeping Beauty” is astonishing.

Cryrogenics

There is one myth I have not touched on and that is Disney’s immortality: was he frozen? It always seemed a bit creepy. Would this have been done some time after his death or at some point when his body was still warm? The creepiness continues with stories that it was just his head that was frozen and that his body is kept somewhere under Disneyland for resurrection…It all sounds a bit biblical. But I believe his ashes are buried in Forest lawn memorial park in Glendale and that the story is false and probably dependent on a biography by Robert Mosley in 1986. But there was an initial report about freezing in a French Magazine, “Ici Paris” in 1969.

What can be stated with confidence is that there was secrecy about Disney’s final illness and that his brother was encouraged by Walt to keep everything quiet. This probably explains why the announcement of the death was delayed. Also, after having serious cancer surgery and the removal of his left lung, Disney returned to work in his office for about 10 days prior to his death. His daughter Diane is supposed to have said that her father hated funerals and insisted, “When I’m dead I don’t want a funeral. I want people to remember me alive”. That is a statement that alone might well have given rise to all the cryronic stories. It just depends how you interpret the words!

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There are some Disney pluses, again not all of them belong to the man, but they certainly seem to be in line with his legacy. Top of the list must be the continued brilliance of the marketing department. Then comes the equal opportunities employment of gay people, provision for their partners and the recognition that Michael Eisner notes that “40% of Disney’s 63000 employees are homosexual”. That seems to redress the balance in a way.

No one seems to have noticed Mrs Pankhurst!!

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Bizarrely as David Cameron re-shuffles his cabinet and brings more women into positions of power, no one on the BBC  news has yet noted that today is the birthday of Mrs Pankhurst, she of the “Sister Suffragette” song at the beginning of “Mary Poppins”. This omission seems both rather odd and slightly sad but there we are! Andrea Leadsom is not on the list of women being elevated to high rank in the cabinet. She was being discussed a great deal today by someone from the TIMES: apparently, she has a reputation in the Party as “difficult” and a bit of a rebel. I have met her: one of the oddest things she claimed was that she would never put forward or speak in an early day motion because it was a waste of time and there was never any “resolution”. Sometimes, I think, issues nevertheless have to be aired. It can take years before a resolution is reached and I think I resent this cavalier attitude to the ordinary business of the house.  That said, I note that she has actually either changed her mind or my recollection of our conversation is wrong because she has signed an EDM for renaming the Parliament tower in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee after she signed an EDM proposed by Graham Evans which bemoaned the continued existence of EDM saying they “rarely have any influence on policy… and questions the value for money to the taxpayer”…Of course, she opposed the same sex marriage bill and made a great fuss in the press about her position- I don’t quite understand this bill as, other than nomenclature, it offers little that the civil partnership had not already established, but it seemed to cause so much more friction. I did a cartoon of Ms Leadsom where she stands among others who found the legislation- in her words “unacceptable” – she also added that her constituents found the idea of gay marriage to be “deeply wrong”. In the end, she lacked the guts to actually vote against the Government and simply ran into hiding during the vote. silly lady.

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More interesting is Merton’s Elizabeth truss and St Hugh’s Nicky Morgan. Now Mrs Morgan also opposed the same sex legislation, but she managed to vote! I rather liked her comments in the Leicester Mercury and most specifically her “third reason” for voting against the bill. I think in time, this may be of significance –

“There were also three main reasons of my own that I voted against it.

“First, this is a very big social change. There have been plenty of little changes down the years but what’s never been changed is that the fact that marriage is between a man and a woman.

“I think that was one of the issues people, especially those who asked me to vote against, found hardest to accept and it also tied in with my own Christian faith too.

“I totally support civil partnerships and that same-sex relationships are recognised in law. But marriage, to me, is between a man and a woman.

“The second reason is that people have become a bit cynical about consultations about policy changes at national and local government level .

“And in this case, I felt the question was not whether the change should be made, but how it should be made and I think we forgot that step of asking if it should be made.

“And the third reason was legal aspects of the Bill. For instance, if we have gay marriage, should civil partnerships now also be opened up to heterosexual couples too? Or should we just get rid of civil partnerships altogether?

“Also, if same-sex marriages are to be dissolved, will that be different to heterosexual partnerships ending?

“I know there are a lot of worries for people like teachers and others in public sector roles and these are things I still feel need to be ironed out as the Bill goes through Parliament.

“I appreciate that there will be people in my constituency who will be unhappy with how I voted and I wish many of them had contacted me earlier and given me a clearer picture of what people thought.”