Memories of Mary Poppins and why the world will taste sweet again - Christa Ackroyd

It was December 1964 when we made a rare family outing to Leeds.

Dick Van Dyke as Bert, Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, Karen Dotrice as Jane Banks and Matthew Garber (1956 - 1977) as Michael Banks in the Disney musical Mary Poppins, from 1964. ( Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

We were Bradford people so our Christmases usually revolved around Bradford traditions, including queuing up for Santa’s grotto at Busby’s department store to meet Father Christmas.

The great man, accompanied by Mother Christmas – presumably to show him the way – arrived after a grand procession through jam-packed streets accompanied by real reindeer, proving this was the man himself.

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This particular year we were promised an extra-special treat, a trip on the train to the big city less than 10 miles from where we lived, but one that seemed very different.

Our city was made of majestic yellow sandstone. Leeds stood proud in red brick, which we saw from the train as we pulled into the station.

I even remember what I was wearing – a little red woollen coat with a velvet collar handed down from cousin Judy. Underneath was a green tartan pinafore dress made by Mum, finished off with bright, shiny patent Clarks shoes measured for Christmas by my Uncle Calvin, who owned a shoe shop at the Arndale Centre in Cross Gates. I thought I was the bee’s knees.

I was seven and my brother was five as we joined the queue for the matinee with Mum and Dad outside the Majestic cinema, just a short walk from the station to the square with the statue of a man on a big black horse alongside the biggest Christmas tree I had ever seen. Hundreds of other families were there, too.

We knew it was a big occasion when we were bought a box of Maltesers and an ice-cream tub at the interval. And the fact that Dad, a serving police officer, had booked the day off months in advance.

This was going to be a day to remember. And it was. As the opening credits rolled I was transported to another world. A world of big houses in a capital city I had never visited. A world of housekeepers and cooks and, above all, nannies.

Or rather one nanny in particular, Mary Poppins. And it was magical. Mum bought the sheet music on the way out and over the next few days of Christmas we learned every word, yes even the big one, as she accompanied us on the piano to entertain Granny, and Grandma and Grandad, as well as aunties and uncles who came to call. Our favourite was A Spoonful of Sugar.

Over the years, every time I’ve watched that film, I have been transported back to my childhood. I still have the sheet music. And when children and, later, grandchildren came along, we watched it together.

Two years ago, with the eldest granddaughter Elise travelling with mummy and daddy all the way from Australia, her two younger cousins and I went to the cinema to see the new Mary Poppins. Three little girls together who hopefully will remember the special time they shared, as I do now. They will do, judging by the number of times we have played both films. They love Mary Poppins.

So why am I telling you this? Because Christmas will be different this year. Elise and mummy and daddy are banned from leaving Australia so won’t be with us for the first time in years.

There will be no big get-together, no party for friends and family when this time it would have been me bashing out the tunes on the piano. It is so different.

But, spit-spot, Mary Poppins remains. And the story of our favourite song, still sung with gusto down the generations, chimes just as loudly this week as it did for me as an excited seven-year-old all those years ago.

Because this week the son of one of the two Sherman brothers, who wrote the music for that much-loved film, posted a wonderful Facebook story which moved me to tears.

I read it on the day it was announced the vaccine, or one of them, will be rolled out here next week. Can you believe it? I can’t either.

In his post, Jeffrey Sherman recalled the day they began the mass worldwide vaccination for polio in the early Sixties. This is what he wrote: “I went home and my dad, who was working on Mary Poppins, asked how my day was and I told him about getting the polio vaccine at school. He said, ‘Didn’t it hurt?’ I told him they put it on a sugar cube and you just ate it.”

What the young Jeffrey didn’t know was that Walt Disney had rejected one of the main songs his dad and uncle had written for the film and had told them to write another – quick.

Jeffrey said, “He went to the phone and called my Uncle Dick. They went back to the office and wrote A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down.”

How lovely is that? A story from decades ago being so relevant today and a reminder of the life-changing brilliance of science.

Jeffrey ends his post with the words: “When the vaccine for Covid comes out, get it. Trust science and doctors and epidemiologists. We are a small world and we will beat this enemy if we listen to those who know.”

This week has been emotional for many of us. We can at last start making plans for when, as Mary Poppins might say, the wind changes and along with it our daily lives, when the scientists and the brave volunteers who have brought us to where we are now once again offer us a solution, as they did all those years ago on a little lump of sugar.

Please listen to them. Until then, stay safe. I leave you with the words from the original Mary Poppins, spoken by Bert to the Banks children: “There’s a whole world at your feet and who gets to see it but the birds and the chimney sweeps?”

Well, we will all get to see it again if we take one step at a time and take the vaccine. And what a new and magical world it will be. Who knows? We may even go and fly a kite together.