Julie Andrews’ creation of the character of Mary Poppins in the 1964 Disney film not only netted her the best actress Oscar. Her performance helped her magical and all-knowing British caretaker become the default nanny in the public imagination. In fact, it seems, any nanny worth her (or his) salt in popular culture has had a touch of Julie’s prim and proper speech.
Although he was a guy, Mr. French (Sebastian Cabot) in the late-1960s sitcom “Family Affair” was veddy British. His gentleman’s gentleman was more than a butler, as he helped care for those adorable twins Jody and Buffy.
Later came Emma Thompson in “Nanny McPhee,” the 2005 film in which a comely nanny gets prettier as her charges improve their behavior. (Fat chance.) There’s Frances McDormand as a London governess in “Mrs. Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” the 2008 comedy in which a caretaker finds glamour after losing her position. All follow in the commanding steps and tones of Andrews.
“I dreamed of having her as my own nanny when I was a child,” said Shara Schmidt, 27, a Mary Poppins fan and co-founder of the Hand in Hand Nanny Agency in the Twin Cities. “That is the image we all have. We all love Julie Andrews.”
Some have tried to create alternative prototypes to Mary, who flies in from the clouds and lands with her umbrella parachute. British import Joanne “Jo” Frost supersized the role on “Supernanny,” an ABC reality program imported from Britain. It competed with Fox’s “Nanny 911,” which had a troupe of British nannies.
There have, of course, been nannies without clipped accents. Some of them seem to have overcompensated for the fact that they are not British by being extreme. Robin Williams had an antic turn as “Mrs. Doubtfire” in 1993. Fran Drescher, with her squawking Queens accent, entertained America in the 1990s CBS series “The Nanny.” And Whoopi Goldberg helped care for a grieving girl in the sentimental “Corinna, Corinna” (1994).
But the shows that arose from P.L. Travers’ books — the Disney film gave rise to a hit Broadway musical, whose tour returns to Minneapolis on Tuesday — have crushed all comers. They underscore an inclination that people, especially Americans, have. We see the British as sophisticated, charming and magical. (Harry Potter, anyone?)
But must the nanny, super or otherwise, always come with a British accent?
“Of course not,” said Becky Kavanagh, placement counselor at Twin Cities Nanny and a nanny herself for 23 years. “If you’re reading a story, you use accents. But nannies come from every region, every country, all over.”
And they show their roots in cultures that stretch from Mexico to Madagascar, Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. In rearing children, they impart their values and their cultures.
The Poppins character appeals to parents who want their children to straighten up and fly right. Mary is loving but strict, an emblem of the queen’s English who dispenses discipline, elocution lessons and spoonfuls of sugar.
The musical has been on the road for four years. The experience has been a revelation for its young star, who is childless but loves children.
“Sometimes people, especially kids, come up to me after shows and expect me to be just like Mary Poppins,” said Madeline Trumble, the Berkeley, Calif.-bred actor who plays her. “I wish I could snap my fingers and have everything clean itself. But Mary can do that. She’s a guardian angel. Would she be just as powerful and charming if she had another accent? I think so, because her strength comes from the fact she’s so composed and she knows what people’s needs are. But no one can imagine a Mary without that proper British accent.”
“She’s like a dream for parents,” said Schmidt, who is expecting her first child. “She’s like the tooth fairy and Santa Claus and everything rolled into one.”
Such a fantasy is tough to beat.