*Not many spoilers at all*
Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start…….oops, wrong film and I was thinking about Julie Andrews, but I’m not thinking about Julie anymore (such is the quicksilver and mostly hollow nature of fame) and that’s how Ms Andrews wanted it. No cameo for her in MPR. Maybe they wanted her to be the balloon lady, and substituted the ancient Ms Lansbury instead, when Julie said ‘No’ but, who knows, and I can’t see it myself, for Angela is a bona fide Disney star in her own right, and the singing balloon lady (selling happiness on a string, ‘nowhere to go but up!’) is much too close in spirit to the bird woman – except a far cheerier version – to have been written for a sprightly, no-nonsense, posh but OLD Mary Poppins. No, Julie can’t be replaced, or equalled, and Emily Blunt didn’t try.
Back to the very beginning. I saw Mary Poppins Returns in a tiny cinema (the Copper Cinema) in The Square Chapel Arts Centre, Piece Hall, Halifax, West Yorkshire (remember that address and pay it a visit.) I went with my mother and her friend; one an octogenarian, one a soon to be nonagenarian, and both outdid me in terms of energy, driving ability (mother’s) sociability and general enthusiasm for what I’ll call ‘getting out of the house.’ On our way to Piece Hall we drove over the old North Bridge into Halifax. The North Bridge was opened in 1871, designed in an attractive Victorian gothic style, and is 75 ft high. In 1973 they stuck a concrete bypass over one end of it, significantly decreasing the overall aesthetic nature of that bit of Halifax town but, not to worry, for the lovely Piece Hall is but a stone’s throw away.
And what a wondrous place Piece Hall is, after its £7 million lottery grant (and various other grants) make-over. Built in c1779, it’s a thing of beauty, an architectural wonder surrounded by not so wonderful, 20th century rubbish. There it sits, emanating a bygone splendour, intensified by the fact that accessing its interior is via an entrance directly opposite a bog standard two-storey car park. Walk through this entrance and you might gasp a little (if it’s your first visit.) You might wonder how historical gems like this are not on everyone’s radar and you might genuflect, giving thanks to the National Lottery God and his heritage grants.
Tiny cinemas suit me, especially ones that are tucked away in a far-off corner of the remarkable Piece Hall. On some days The Square Chapel Arts Centre shows films at 11 am, charging an admission price of £5, which comes with a drink and a bit of cake, and it is a bit of cake; a square bit of cake so minuscule I mistook it for that multi-layered square one you get in a bag of liquorice allsorts. ‘Bit meagre on the portions.’ I inwardly muttered, ‘the gangsta mice I’ve currently got in my hall stairway cupboard would probably turn their noses up.’
All these itty-bitty square bits of cake were laid out on top of the centre’s bar and, to the right, a woman was doling out tea and coffee into a motley assortment of cups and mugs. I declined a morsel of cake, much to the chagrin of the woman responsible for cake. ‘Coffee?’ the drinks lady proffered and began pouring into a giant mug. I usually drink coffee from cups the size of thimbles, anything bigger and I’m in caffeine distress. ‘Just a small one,’ I said. The only other person who could have showed more chagrin was the cake woman. ‘Just a small one?’ coffee lady repeated in disbelief and carried on filling the ginormous mug. I waved my hand in a feeble manner, in the general direction of the mug, in an attempt to stop her, but she kept on going. ‘Stop!’ I commanded, in a sudden flurry of courage, and such was her surprise that coffee slopped down onto the table and she shot a ‘well I never, look what you made me do’ look my way, like I was the first caffeine lunatic she’d ever come across, in all her doling out the coffee days. ‘Are you sure that’s all you want?’ she implored, composing herself in her determination to not let me get away with half a cup. ‘Yes, it’s fine,’ I said. ‘Sugar!’ she suddenly screamed, in sudden realisation that there were other coffee-related things she could force upon me, ‘it’s all free you know.’ ‘No,’ was my short, but firm reply, and then I found myself sitting with mother and friend, surrounded by little kids and their parents, all studiously colouring in on bits of paper. It turned out the kids were scribbling messages to be given to The Jolly Postman, or The Fat Postman, or The Grand Post Master General (I can’t remember exactly who this curious character was) and he would then pass them on…….to whom, I have no idea. This mysterious post person was residing inside the Red Brick Auditorium, the big brother to the Copper Cinema. As a child on our table fiddled about with crayons, I took a gander round the room.
The Square Arts Chapel is a capacious oblong room, full of tables and chairs, the aforementioned bar, and a ticket desk gaining entry to the Copper cinema at one end (which doubles as a theatre) and entry to the Red Brick Auditorium at the other end. At this other end is a huge red brick wall, left as it would have been aeons ago, and equally huge modern windows fill the wall to its right. In the middle of this red brick wall stood a large Christmas tree, at the top of a double stairway, lit with tasteful white lights. ‘What a lovely tree!’ I inwardly gasped, ‘what a lovely place!’ And then there’s the modern, multi-coloured, vaulted ceiling, hanging above your head. Made up of separate triangular pieces in places, like a sort of hanging, shattered stained-glass window. So, you see, I was in just the right state of wonderment required for a viewing of Mary Poppins Returns.
Into the cinema we went. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the sort of Victorian set-up I got. There was a small section of rows of nearly vertical seating, in the middle, which was flanked at the sides, and the back, by raised balconies. It’s all done in tasteful hues of light purple (for the seats) and a sort of stone colour for the balconies. We sat near the back of the seating, high up. It’s true to say that the seats were not the most comfortable things I’ve ever sat on, and the leg room was non-existent, and you were very, very close to your neighbours, but this was a small price to pay for the advantages of a feeling of cosiness in pleasant low lighting; for a sound system that didn’t blow your ears off and a mercifully short run of adverts and trailers.
The adverts were showcasing productions clearly put on by amateurs (when the Copper cinema becomes a theatre) and those amateurs weren’t doing themselves any favours and, what’s more, if I’m wrong and these people are professionals, then they should know better. It’s difficult to choose a ‘worst’ amateur production from the ones that were on offer, but a really good contender would be the woman gyrating around behind a transparent screen, like a life size shadow puppet, apparently giving birth to her own hand. This ‘performance art’ (what other term is there, when what you’re witnessing is basically CRAP, entertainment-wise) was clearly designed to make some kind of statement on the act of birth. Now, I’ve given birth four times, and not once did it involve striking ridiculous poses a la Madonna in Vogue. I’d also mention the two middle-aged blokes here, cavorting around each other, sometimes inexplicably munching biscuits from a very large plate, in what was termed ‘an incredibly intimate modern dance,’ but the less said about that the better.
And then the cinema went really dark and Lin-Manuel Miranda, as his alter ego Jack, was lighting a gas street light, whistling a merry tune. And then he was off, cycling around 1930’s streets under a lovely London sky. And he passed St Paul’s, where the pigeons took flight from the steps, and the camera flew upwards with them, all the way to the dome, and then flew over the city to Cherry Tree Lane. And Cherry Tree Lane looked exactly the same. And there was Admiral Boom and the old Banks family’s housekeeper. But now Michael and Jane are all grown up. Michael has three children and the Banks’ household is in distress, so down from the sky comes Mary Poppins, this time holding on to a flying kite (so effective.) And she takes the kids under the sea, via disappearing down the bath’s plug hole. And they all dance and prance around, like those kids in Bedknobs and Broomsticks once did. And Emily Blunt is quite ‘hard’ and stern and matter of fact and very, very posh. And Georgie Banks is adorable. And the other two kids are pretty nifty themselves. And Lin-Manuel Miranda is charming, and much more cutesy than the great Dick Van Dyke ever was, but let’s whisper that he doesn’t compare in terms of dancing skills.
And the hand drawn animation is magical – more magical than CGI, but that’s the pull of nostalgia. And the costumes are just right. And the settings are just right. And the dance numbers are a joy. The lamplighters are an improvement on the chimney sweeps and so are the BMX bike riders. The music is a delight (spot on, old-school Disney orchestral flourishes) with constant musical references to the classic tunes from the 1964 version.
I smiled all the way through it, and hardened my heart when Ben Whishaw sang a lament to his dead wife in the attic (he was in the attic, not the dead wife) so as not to cry in public. And I had to harden my heart again, when Emily sang her lullaby about dead people (not your standard lullaby) to the kiddiewinks, after their collective animated nightmare. And, after further musical high jinks and misadventures, it was all over – 2 hrs and 20 mins had sort of flown by in a happy haze because Mary Poppins Returns is
practically perfect in every way. And we left for home.
We drove past the old North Bridge and (unbeknownst to us) as we swooped around to the right, on and out of town, a young woman jumped from the bridge to her death. No magical Mary Poppins floated down, from out of a lovely Halifax sky, calling out: ‘Young Lady, do come away from that parapet this instant, one should never jump from anything more than three feet high.’ No jovial Jack cycled by, to give her a friendly nod and a reassuring wink, and there was no balloon lady to hand her a happy balloon to hold onto; so there was nowhere to go but down.
Fantasy and Reality. I know which I prefer.