Bedknobs And Broomsticks - Mary Poppins With A Spoonful Of London Grit

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 19 months ago

Last Updated 12 October 2022

Bedknobs And Broomsticks - Mary Poppins With A Spoonful Of London Grit
Angela Lansbury in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Image: Disney/fair use

In 2014, Angela Lansbury made an entrance on an iron bedstead in a marketplace in East London, and was given a standing ovation by hundreds of adoring fans.

It was a cameo surreal enough to make you rub your eyes in cartoon fashion — although maybe less so when you know that the late Murder, She Wrote star spent much of her childhood in Poplar, and that her grandfather was George Lansbury, a great social reformer whose name lives on in Poplar's Lansbury Estate. Her dad was also mayor of Poplar, and it's said his death from stomach cancer when she was a young girl led to her creating characters as a coping mechanism.

Angela Lansbury's screen debut in Gaslight (1944)

Though the bright lights of Hollywood beckoned, London was always a kind of home to Angela Lansbury. Her first screen performance was in 1944's Gaslight, a London-set thriller, in which she flexes her cockney twang as a devious maid. One of Lansbury's final performances was as a balloon seller in a London park for the kite-flying climax of 2018's Mary Poppins sequel. (Even though I'm pretty sure that cameo should've been Julie Andrews.)

As for that appearance in Poplar, Lansbury was already in town, starring in a West End production of Blithe Spirit — returning to the stage at the grand old age of 88. At Chrisp Street Market, though, she introduced the 1971 Disney musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks, in which she stars as Eglantine Price, a trainee witch who begrudgingly takes in three London evacuees during the second world war.

Chrisp Street Market: an unlikely place to bump into the hero of Murder, She Wrote. Image: M@/Londonist

Call Bedknobs a poor man's Poppins. Call it, as the New Yorker did at the time, "a mixture of wizardry and ineptitude". You'd be wrong — the film is every bit as transformatively bewitching as Mary Poppins. In fact Julie Andrews was initially offered the lead role; the world, it seems, is full of Lansbury/Andrews crossover.

Bedknobs was shelved by Disney due to its similarities with the P.L. Travers invention, and you can see where the studio was coming from. Both Lansbury and Andrews play stern-yet-enchanting matriarchs with a penchant for flying (both actors give landmark performances, too). Both feature sodium vapor process escapades into the animal kingdom. Both have a special phrase (Bedknobs' answer to 'supercalifragilisticexpialidocious' is 'treguna mekoides trecorum satis dee', which admittedly never entered common parlance).

But there's room in the canon for both, especially if you consider Bedknobs as Poppin's earthy cousin (after all, how many unexploded bombs, psychotic lion kings, black magic incantations and Nazis terrified by self-propelled suits of armour does Poppins have?). Forget a spoonful of sugar, Bedknobs and Broomsticks comes with a shovelful of grit.

And for Bedknobs' veritable conveyor belt of trippy scenarios, the setting of London has some of the most enchanting scenes. Though not as inherently 'London' as Mary Poppins, the magic of Bedknobs and Broomsticks is in its longing for the capital; the kids yearn to escape the dreariness of Pepperinge Eye, and get back to the bomb-riddled East End. They get there eventually, by way of a possessed bed frame, finding Professor Emelius Browne (played by David Tomlinson of Mr Banks fame, another Poppins segue for you), a fraudulent street barker who doesn't realise the phony spells he's been flogging to Price by post are not so phony after all.

There's a lovely scene in which Browne shows Price and the kids to 'his' London mansion house, which he is quite patently 'borrowing', perhaps owing to an unexploded bomb (still smoking) in the front garden. The real magic, though, comes in the Portobello Road episode — a paean not only to Notting Hill's antiques market where you'll discover "anything and everything", but the vibrant diversity of London, with a musical number thronging Highland dancers and Caribbean steel drummers.

It happens to be one of Bedknobs' finest songs — which is saying something, as the soundtrack was written by the Sherman brothers, who also penned the songbook for... uh huh, Mary Poppins.

Bruce Forsyth appears as a cutthroat bookseller in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Image: Disney/fair use

I can tell you this is all pretty heady stuff if you happen to be a seven-year-old who lives in a village not dissimilar to Pepperinge Eye, and only have half a dozen VHS tapes, one being Bedknobs and Broomsticks. But I did watch the film for the first time in years during lockdown, and can confirm that most of its magic is still potent — with Lansbury's performance a doozy.

By the way, if you think the sight of Jessica Fletcher on a bed in Chrisp Street Market is screwy, wait till you get a load of Bedknobs' fleeting appearance of Bruce Forsyth as a bloodthirsty bookseller; his chinny smirk is enough to put you off going into a Waterstones for good.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks is available to watch on Disney +.