Television: Supernanny fragilistic: the weak link in the Mary Poppins legend
It’s a part of PL Travers’s life that Hollywood glossed over: when the author adopted a baby in Ireland
Hidden history: Emma Thompson and Victoria Coren Mitchell in ‘The Secret Life of Mary Poppins’, which looks at a little-known episode in the life of PL Travers
A documentary on the complicated and colourful life of a quintessential English writer is probably the last place you’d expect to hear a story of a grim Irish adoption. But then nothing about PL Travers, the subject of The Secret Life of Mary Poppins (BBC Two, Saturday), was straightforward.
Travers wasn’t English at all; she was Australian, something she didn’t reveal to even her friends, and the story of how she came to adopt a baby in Killiney, in south Co Dublin, in 1940 was bizarre.
When Madge, her housemate and maybe lover, moved out after 10 years, Travers, then 40 and single, decided to adopt a child. “I thought that sort of thing only started to happen in 2005,” said its presenter – and Mary Poppins fan – Victoria Coren Mitchell.
When Travers, who moved in arty circles, heard that WB Yeats’s biographer Joseph Maunsel Hone had again been left holding the baby – this time twins by his son and daughter-in-law – she offered to adopt one. He suggested she take both, saying, “Take two: they’re only small.” She wanted only one, and, on the advice of her astrologer, she adopted Camillus.
Their relationship was troubled from the start, and although she created the byword for the ideal nanny, she had little interest in or patience with children. Camillus knew nothing about his adoption until a 17-year-old Irish boy arrived in London to tell him they were twins. This fascinating chapter, less well known than her fight with Walt Disney about his 1964 film of her book, which she hated, was only a small part of Travers’s story.
Camillus is not mentioned in the film Saving Mr Banks, as, according to Coren Mitchell, it is “too messy for Hollywood, which craves order and redemption”.
There’s always a fear that a documentary – even a Culture Show special timed for broadcast with the launch of a Disney movie – is going to be a fluff piece, but Coren Mitchell is no gushing pushover. Although the programme was topped and tailed by scenes from the glitzy London premiere of the movie, which stars Emma Thompson as Travers, this was an entertaining but serious biographical overview of a writer who even a fan such as the engaging Coren Mitchell said “sounds like a nightmare, but it was brave of her to speak up for herself”.
“Fluff”, in London’s Liberty department store, are the plebs or browsers who are unlikely to buy any of the high-priced fancy goods on offer and are therefore best ignored. Or so new staff were told during an instore training session shown in Liberty of London (Channel 4, Monday). Instead the new crew of immaculate girls and boys were given tips on “grooming” likely big spenders – a most unfortunate choice of word. Much as with the fascinating series about Claridge’s hotel last year, a documentary crew was let in for a three-part observational series, but shops, no matter how high-end, just aren’t very interesting. Even the second series of The Paradise, the BBC’s Sunday-night drama set in a Victorian department store, is flagging – although at least they can make things up to keep the interest going.