There’s no substitutiary for Angela Lansbury when it comes to giving Bedknobs And Broomsticks (1971) its locomotion!
Far better than the “Mary Poppins”-lite it’s often dismissed as, “Bedknobs And Broomsticks” takes the more famous nanny’s Disnified spoonful of sugar and stirs it into a shot of absinthe before knocking it back in one go and heading off to war.
A curious and yet intoxicating mixture of Disney tweeness and stiff-upper-lipped British blitz spirit, “Bedknobs And Broomsticks” opens with Bayeaux tapestry-inspired credits which segue into a “Dad’s Army”-esque opening number, immediately bringing a much darker tone than the quirky cobbled streets of Edwardian London that Poppins drops in on.
In 1940, three children Charlie (Ian Weighill), Carrie (Cindy O’Callaghan), and Paul (Roy Snart) are evacuated from London and placed in the reluctant care of Miss Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury) who prefers to live alone. Her desire to be left in solitude is related to her very important work for the war effort, to whit her ongoing studies to become a witch under the correspondence course tutelage of ‘Professor’ Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson). With Nazi invasion imminent, Miss Price is desperate to learn the final spell of the course to help defend her home.
It’s somewhat troubling that it now seems quaint how easily and unequivocally the film establishes Nazis to be bad guys and it’s doubly refreshing to see a witch taking a principled moral stand on the matter, which is certainly more than can be said for the quislings of J K Rowling’s increasingly problematic Wizarding World. There’s a ramshackle leanness to the story here – not quite as indulgent and fond of detours as its Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious stablemate – and it keeps its focus tightly on its five main characters, with the adults front and centre as opposed to background foils for the children’s adventures.
There’s nothing practically perfect about the characters in “Bedknobs And Broomsticks” and so, vitally, there’s room for them to grow and change. ‘Professor’ Emelius Browne is nothing of the sort, instead he’s a low-level grifter and con-man plying his trade in the grimily multicultural alleyways of London who learns through his adventures the value of duty and sacrifice while Elgantine Price is not some kind of quasi-angelic paragon but a capable and strong-willed woman trying to her best for King and Country. Although it retains a playful lightness of tone, there’s always a slightly sombre counter note as the shadow of war lurks in the background.
The film dabbles in some pretty trippy images too, whether it’s the “Willy Wonka”/ “2001: A Space Odyssey” mash-up visuals which accompany the magical bed frame travelling to the spooky shenanigans which accompany the film’s substitutiary locomotion-powered Nazi-bashing finale, or even the interactions with the animated occupants of the island of Naboombu and through it all, it’s Lansbury which holds the weirdness and wonder together.
She’s the source of the film’s energy and it noticeably sags whenever she’s not onscreen, most noticeably during the interminable ‘Portobello Road’ song and dance interlude. There’s a steely no-nonsense aspect she brings to the superficially whimsical character which allows the story to keep one foot in the light while dipping a toe into darker themes. It’s a role which is hard to imagine anyone else playing quite so well – even the sainted Julie Andrews (who was offered the role first) – and it remains one of 1970s Disney’s best offerings and one of Angela Lansbury’s most memorable roles.