St Paul’s Cathedral dome at sunset.
A map of London showing some of the locaitons that might be connected to “Mary Poppins.”
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A terrace next to Regent’s Park, the residential area that is most likely the home of the Banks family. These homes are a bit too affluent – the family would have likely lived further to the north in less prestigious surroundings. Today, apartments in terraces like these run at least $8,000 a month.
Primrose Hill in London, which figures in 101 Dalmations and Mary Poppins.
Primrose Hill in London. It’s a place that figures greatly in 101 Dalmations and Mary Poppins.
Primrose Hill in London, which likely figured in the stories “101 Dalmations” and “Mary Poppins.” It’s considered one of the likely spots of the “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” song and scene at the end of “Mary Poppins.”
The London rooftop chimney sweep dance number from the movie “Mary Poppins.” P.L. Travers gave few clues to London locations in her books. The entire Disney movie was filmed on soundstages in Burbank, California.
The Bank of England building includes a museum dedicated to the history of moneymaking in London. It keeps bankers hours, closing on weekends.
A Mary Poppins-type aerial view of London today. In the lower right is the Tower of London, which dates from 1078. The Tower Bridge crossing the Thames opened in 1892. At the left is The Shard,at 1,004 feet is the tallest building in western Europe. Completed in 2012 its observation deck opened in 2013.
Visitors relax on Primrose Hill, London
The clock on the Royal Exchange building across from the Bank of England. The City, as it is known, remains the financial center of London. It’s where Mr. Banks worked in “Mary Poppins.”
Dick van Dyke and Julie Andrews on the set of “Mary Poppins.” The new movie “Saving Mr. Banks” tells Disney’s version of the struggle to make the P.L. Travers books into a Hollywood movie
Pedestrians walk across the Millenium Bridge in front of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The church was one of the few recognizable locations from “Mary Poppins.” It was the scene of the song “Feed the Birds.”
Sunlight streams into through the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London
The skyline from Primrose Hill in Regent’s Park.
Julie Andrews as the flying nanny “Mary Poppins” in the 1964 Disney movie version of the P.L. Travers stories. Though set in London, neither the stories or the movie give many direct clues of locations around the city. But a little investigative reporting turned up a few likely candidates. The new movie “Saving Mr. Banks” is about the relationship between Travers and Walt Disney during the making of the film.
Long before Google Maps, there was “London A-to-Z,” a detailed pocket map book showing every street in the British capital.
When I purchased my first copy many years ago, I went to the index to look up a familiar address. But there was no Cherry Tree Lane. Which meant there was no No. 17. I would have no easy road map to the home of the bickering Banks family and their nanny with a flying umbrella, Mary Poppins.
With the new Disney movie “Saving Mr. Banks” about to open, the question of London locations in “Mary Poppins” has returned. In the new film, Tom Hanks as Walt Disney is frustrated by the intransigence of writer P.L. Travers, played by Emma Thompson, to allow her children’s books to be made into a movie.
I’m frustrated that Disney and Travers left so few clues about locations of the movie that shaped my earliest ideas about England and the English.
A carpetbag of clues
“In every job that must be done there is an element of fun,” someone once sang. So I would have to turn investigative reporter and follow leads and clues. Opting for a chug of coffee over a spoonful of sugar, I set off to see what I could find of “Mary Poppins” in London.
Travers is unspecific about most locations. But just as Jane and Michael Banks first looked inside Mary Poppins’ magical carpetbag and thought they found nothing, there really is something there.
The first page of the first “Mary Poppins” book begins with a wink by telling the reader looking for Cherry Tree Lane to ask a policeman for directions, who will send them on a series of lefts and rights to the address. The best Travers will do is tell you the lane is where “houses run down one side and the Park runs down the other and the cherry trees go dancing right down the middle.”
OK, they live across from “the Park.” Upper case. It has to be one of the big ones, the Royal Parks.
Like Mary Poppins hovering high above the city with her umbrella, I stood outside Charing Cross station and looked at a fold-out map of the city. Richmond Park was too far west. Greenwich Park was too far east.
Mr. George Banks, Jane and Michael’s father, works in the City, then as now the financial center of London. When he leaves home, giving his wife, Winifred, a chaste kiss, he walks. So it has to be close to London’s center. Travers writes in “Mary Poppins,” “the afternoon began to die away behind the park.” So the Banks family would likely live on the east side to watch the sun set over the park. Mayfair, east of Hyde Park, seemed too expensive an address for the frugal Mr. Banks. Unless they are secretly royals living in St. James’s Palace, the area east of Green Park doesn’t match up well either.
That left the Regent’s Park in north-central London. Into the Tube I went, winding up on the Bakerloo line.
A stroll with purpose
I exited at Regent’s Park station and picked up a George Banks-worthy stride. This was a stroll with purpose, no lollygagging. I tried to put myself in his mind-set as I looked at the homes.
“It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910! King Edward’s on the throne, it’s the age of men!” he sang in the movie version.
Where might an upper-middle management banker have lived in those days? It’s hard to imagine, since the London real estate market is so overheated in recent years that the George Bankses of the world with a large family would no doubt be riding the train in from some suburb in Sussex. But London was different then, and the smaller homes might be Banks-worthy.
I made my way north along the Outer Circle on the east side of the park. There were a few spots – Gloucester Road and Village Park West with tall, narrow colonnade-fronted homes. Still, a bit too grand. I passed the famous (and famously expensive) Chester Terrace, designed by John Nash in 1825. One of its 42 houses was the setting for the 1965 film “The Nanny,” with Bette Davis portraying a murderous anti-Mary Poppins.
I cut into the park, walking briskly up the Boardwalk along with the midday dog walkers and even a nanny or two pushing along a pram. The route went past the London Zoo, which has a merry-go-round with horses and other animals, much like the one in the movie whose animals magically fly off with their riders. I felt close, but not quite there.
A kite-worthy hill
I took St. Mark’s Bridge over the Regent’s Canal, then crossed busy Prince Albert Road, full of red buses, Fullers beer trucks trundling in from the brewery in nearby Chiswick and the famous London black cabs, though many now are painted over with advertisements. I remembered once seeing a white one with black spots, advertising “102 Dalmatians” – another Disney film set in London.
North of the road, the topography suddenly felt familiar. Albert Terrace and Regent’s Park Road had just the right sweep, though no cherry trees for a Cherry Tree Lane. But I was sold that I’d found the right area when I crossed over onto Primrose Hill, the small northern bump of Regent’s Park. It’s a trendy area today because it is home to Mayor Boris Johnson, and has been the address of current agent 007 Daniel Craig and Orange County-born rock star Gwen Stefani.
But in its day, this was a more sedate neighborhood. Children ran about, there was a small playground, and on a windy day, it would be a perfect place to fly a kite, just like in the movie. Somewhere along this stretch was the home where Mary Poppins cared for Jane and Michael Banks (and in the books, the other Banks children, who were deleted from the Disney movie).
Prudently, thriftily, frugally invested
From Regent’s Park it’s a long walk or a short subway, bus or taxi ride to the City, where Mr. Banks worked in his namesake trade. I took the Tube to the aptly named Bank station and popped into what was, in George Banks’ time, the economic heart of the world. The area was hit hard by German bombers during World War II and rebuilt in a combination of styles loved by some, but loathed by Charles, Prince of Wales.
“You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe,” Charles said in a 1987 speech, “when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”
George Banks’ claim that “a British bank is run with precision” would bring scornful laughs from Brits who went through the financial roller-coaster that led to the last recession and has yet to fully stop. What would Banks think of Bruno Iksil, the infamous “London whale” trader for the City branch of venerable JPMorgan Chase & Co. who lost $6.2 billion of the bank’s money in 2012? Hardly the “prudently, thriftily, frugally invested “ credo of Mr. Dawes, Banks’ employer.
But the City is a much showier place in recent years, its landmark now the sparkly, glass-sheathed, pickle-shaped “Gherkin” skyscraper. It took the place of the stolid Baltic Exchange that stood on the site at 30 St. Mary Axe since 1903, when George Banks would have worked nearby. The exchange was blown up in 1992 by a 1-ton truck bomb set off by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Two men and 15-year-old girl were killed.
There’s still more than a bit of the conservative banking tradition of Banks’ fictional employer, the Dawes, Tomes, Mousley, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Its spiritual home is, no doubt, the Bank of England. The famed “Old Lady of Threadneedle Street,” the bank’s headquarters exude the attitude of muscular rectitude needed for a strong, steady British sterling pound.
It’s easy to imagine George Banks striding up the steps of the Bank of England. But the current bank dates from just before World War II, when the magnificent bank building erected by John Soane that Mr. Banks would have known was demolished as too small for running the financial side of an empire.
Inside, there is a museum that tells the story of the Bank of England from its start in 1694 to its place as the United Kingdom’s central bank. Visitors can touch a gold bar and see old, huge, foldable bank notes and coins with various kings and queens going back centuries. Mr. Banks would no doubt approve that the museum keeps bankers’ hours – if you try to visit on the weekend, you are out of luck. It’s open weekdays only, excepting, of course, bank holidays.
No feeding the birds
Nearby is the only recognizable landmark from the movie – St. Paul’s Cathedral. At least four cathedrals have stood on this spot, the highest hill in the City. The current cathedral is a masterwork of England’s great church designer, Christopher Wren. It opened in 1697 and has survived Reformation and Counterreformation, fires, Zeppelin raids, the “Blitz” and centuries of soot from millions of coal-burning fireplaces.
Restoration experts have done their best to erase the chipped and darkened exterior. But the interior still gleams, its pillars and soaring ceiling the site of white marble. It has hosted state funerals from Lord Nelson to Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher.
It’s most famous in recent times for the opulent wedding of Prince Charles to Diana Spencer. St. Paul’s hosts an annual Thanksgiving Day celebration for Americans, with a Marine color guard from the U.S. Embassy taking part.
It was in front of the cathedral that Michael Banks saw the old woman singing “Feed the Birds” and chose to spend his “tuppence” on the pigeons instead of putting it in the bank to amortize into investments in African railways, tea plantations, canals and ocean liners as his father wished.
While this charitable act and its fallout were the linchpin of Mary Poppins’ hoped-for transformation of George Banks and his family, it would now be difficult and anti-social.
You can still get a bronze-colored coin worth two pennies – the “tuppence” of the song. But the city considered the pigeons disease-carrying vermin whose droppings were a blight. In 2003, a citywide campaign was launched to stop pigeons congregating in large numbers at public venues. Seed sellers were shooed away from St. Paul’s and visitors discouraged from feeding the birds. In Trafalgar Square, once teeming with pigeons, it’s now illegal to sell seed or feed the birds.
George Banks would have heartily approved – at least before Mary Poppins came along.
Insight: The “ages” of Mary Poppins
Regency: The Banks family and Mary Poppins likely would have lived near the 410-acre Regent’s Park. It’s named for the oldest son of King George III, of Revolutionary War fame. He was named prince regent in 1811 to rule in place of his father, who suffered bouts of mental illness. Unlike his Germanic father, the prince regent was a bon vivant, dandy dresser and arts patron, whose taste ignited the extravagant Regency period. He became King George IV on his father’s death in 1820. The area where the Banks family and Mary Poppins lived was largely developed during the Regency period. The main part of Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill was divided by the Regent’s Canal, which carried goods to a larger canal and then on to the docks of East London.
Victorian: George Banks would have grown up under George IV’s niece, Queen Victoria, whose long reign from 1837 to 1901 was marked by expansion abroad and cultural rectitude at home. It was during this period that the British Empire grew to the point that “the sun never set” on its holdings. In the “Mary Poppins” movie, Mr. Banks and his employers try to persuade Michael to invest his two pence in the bank, where it will help fund projects from railways through Africa to dams on the Nile to far-flung tea plantations and “self-amortizing canals.”
Edwardian: Victoria’s son, Edward VII – the “King Edward” of Mr. Banks’ song – loosened the strictures of his mother’s era, setting off the type of Victorian- parents-vs.-Edwardian-children debates that are the center of the “Mary Poppins” movie. He was king during the sometimes violent campaign for women’s voting rights, led by Emmeline Pankhurst. She’s mentioned by Mrs. Banks in her song “Sister Suffragette.” (“Take heart for Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!”)
Pre-Great War: In the movie, Mr. Banks sings, “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910! King Edward’s on the throne, it’s the age of men!” Not for long. Edward VII died in May of that year, his son becoming King George V. Four years later, the Great War began. When it was over in 1918, more than 880,000 service members from Britain had been killed. Another 1.6 million were wounded. It became known as World War I after World War II. In between was the Great Depression, which threw millions of Brits into poverty and shuttered some banks. The world had changed, including naming eras after British monarchs.
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