A quick Google of Mary Poppins accompanied by the word chimney and you’ll soon discover there is an inherent link between the Disney favourite and fireplaces. We’ve counted at least 15 chimney sweeping companies called Mary Poppins in the UK and throughout both the book and the film, there are numerous magical references to fireplaces and chimneys.
The original 1964 Disney film was based on a series of books published between 1938 and 1988 by English writer P.L. Travers.
She was not best pleased with Disney’s interpretation of her works (as charted in the recent film Saving Mr Banks) and she held out until 2004 before signing across the stage rights to Cameron Macintosh – her conditions being that no Americans or anyone associated with the film industry were to be involved.
In brief, the book tells the story of George Banks and his family. He returns home from work to discover the nanny has resigned because his children, Jane and Michael, have run away “again”. They’re returned home by the local constable, who reveals they were chasing a lost kite when he found them. Jane and Michael ask their father to help them make a new kite, but he dismisses them.
Taking it upon himself to hire a new nanny, George advertises for a stern, no-nonsense woman to fill the role. Jane and Michael put forward their own suggestion for a kinder, sweeter nanny, but George rips up the letter and throws the scraps in the fireplace, which magically floats up the chimney and into the sky.
Mary Poppins arrives at the Banks’ home, blown in by a very strong wind and complete with her bottomless carpet bag. She proves to be just the tonic the family had been looking for. Not only do the children settle down, but she also seems to have a profound effect on the lives of Mr and Mrs Banks together with anyone she meets. This includes Bert the chimney sweep in the Disney film, where a hint of romance is suggested – something that P.L. Travers was most insulted by.
One of the most famous songs in the film is Chim Chim Cher-ee, which was inspired by one of the drawings of a chimney sweep by Mary Poppins’ screenwriter, Don DaGradi. He was fascinated by the ancient British folklore attributed to sweeps and how shaking hands with one could bring you good luck. It was sung in the film by comedian Dick Van Dyke, who was often given a lot of ‘stick’ for his terrible Cockney accent.
Another song, “Step In Time” features Bert with a host of dancing chimney sweeps on London’s rooftops. Apparently, in both the film and the stage version, they are supposed to represent guardian angels sent to look after the children and the family.
Fireplaces and chimneys are used throughout Mary Poppins as the gateway to a more magical world where anything is possible if you set your heart on it. It is a pity that Disney and Travers fell out as she produced seven Mary Poppins books, the last in 1988, and we could have been treated to a series of great films, with lots more iconic scenes featuring fireplaces and sweeps.