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July 2006
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Kathi Maio
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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by Kathi Maio


ALTHOUGH we clearly would wish otherwise, there is nothing particularly magical about child-rearing (or any other form of caregiving). It just takes common sense, love, compassion, infinite patience, and lots and lots (and lots) of time and attention. Money helps, but is much less important than many Americans think. With kids, the ability to be tough as well as tender ("setting limits," creating discipline and structure) is also crucial—and is much more important than many Americans think.

With all due props to the Peace Corps, it is parenting that deserves the motto of "The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love." Not everyone with the power to reproduce is actually capable of doing the toughest job, however. Which explains a lot in human society.

Most folks do a passable job, but fear they're not even coming close. They are exhausted, stressed, and fear that their lives as well as their children are Completely Out of Control. Which might explain a lot about the considerable power of the magical nanny as a cultural motif.

Someone with a tenure-track position and more time for research could probably trace the potency of this fantasy figure all the way back to ancient Egypt. Personally, I wasn't aware of it before the mid-twentieth century when, during a one-year period between 1964 and 1965, young Julie Andrews helped to personify the myth in ways that have been copied ever since.

The 1965 film in question was The Sound of Music. No fantasy elements here, just plenty of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. For the real magic, you must look to Ms. Andrews's earlier film, the Disney musical/live action/animation classic, Mary Poppins.

Based on the children's book series by P. L. Travers, Mary Poppins told a story of Edwardian London that was designed, by Disney, to speak directly to American audiences. And it did—and does today.

Two adorable but mischievous siblings, Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber) Banks, have driven off numerous nannies—a recurrent theme in such stories. They are largely ignored by their middle-management banker father, George (David Tomlinson), and their flighty suffragist mother, Winifred (Glynis Johns). Then, just when she is needed most, a capable young woman literally blows into the household, descending on the east wind, with her no-nonsense yet fun loving approach to child-minding.

With Mary Poppins around, play rooms magically clean themselves up in the time it takes to sing a song. The children dance on rooftops, and escape into brightly colored cartoon worlds where penguins serve tea and carousel horses can break free and win steeplechase races. Overtly didactic content is kept to a minimum in Mary Poppins, which is why it does such a good job of enchanting children. Oh, the kiddies learn to appreciate how hard old Dad has it, while old Dad realizes that he needs to pay more attention to the kiddies and kick back a bit, so there are a few morals to the story. As to what Mom learns—presumably it's to abandon her political work and to realize that the only thing a "Votes for Women" sash is good for is to make a tail for a mended kite.

Family united, it's time for the "practically perfect" Miss Poppins to open up her brolly and fly away again, without a single teary good-bye or even a twinge of separation anxiety.

Since Mary Poppins, the character of the eccentric caregiver who swoops in and heals the family has been recurrent and influential. Disney (as has always been their wont) has attempted to copy their own success—as in the witch-in-training surrogate mom played by Angela Lansbury in Disney's 1971 musical fantasy, Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Although there have occasionally been examples of caregiver tales that clearly qualify as science fiction (like the NBC "Project Peacock" production of Ray Bradbury's The Electric Grandmother), most incarnations of the healing hand of the nanny were far from realistic, and yet contained little to no real fantasy elements.

On the big screen, the British nanny has been blown away by distinctly American varieties. In dramatic (and some might say, stereotypical) mode, Whoopi Goldberg has played several hired nurturers in films like Clara's Heart (1988) and Corrina, Corrina (1994). And there have been scary nannies like psycho Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992) and the terrifying-in-a-much-different-way drunken flibbertigibbet played by Brittany Murphy in Uptown Girls (2003), too.

If American women have generally failed to catch on in such roles, the macho and man-in-drag childminder story has flourished in the last fifteen years. Such films include Mr. Nanny (1993), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), The Pacifier (2005), and 2006's Big Momma's House 2. No fantasy here, of course, except for the idea that Hulk Hogan can act, or that anyone would mistake Robin Williams or Martin Lawrence for a woman.

On TV, a few were direct descendents of Mary Poppins, like the mysterious yet perkily British caregiver in Nanny and the Professor. But most shows simply tried to add a twist to The Sound of Music hired-help-to-real-stepparent story. These include everything from Tony Danza's palooka nanny of Who's the Boss to the culture clash of Fran Drescher's Flushing-born The Nanny bringing joy to a snooty British theatrical producer and his brood.

All the pointless variations and spins are enough to make you want to slap the fortieth anniversary disc of Mary Poppins back in the old DVD player to see the real thing again. And for those who'd like to see a new yet classic tale of an enchanted kiddie caretaker with a distinctly British flavor, I can also recommend the retro charms of Nanny McPhee.

Emma Thompson worked for five years to adapt for the screen the Nurse Matilda stories of Christianna Brand (best known as a suspense writer for mysteries like Green for Danger). Brand claimed that her Nurse Matilda tales were based on stories she was told by her grandfather as a child. The stories revolve around a large chaotic family of countless children who enjoy terrorizing their pets and servants, as well as assorted village people, doing "simply dreadful things" of a quite imaginative nature.

Brand believed that children had too few opportunities to be truly "naughty," and would enjoy reading the adventures of other children who clearly are. It would seem that she was right, as her Edwardian tales of the devilish Brown children first started appearing in the early 1960s and have been regularly reprinted since.

Brand was far from an anarchist, however. So her episodic (yet light on real plot) stories didn't just relate the wicked adventures of the Brown younguns. They also detailed the taming of the numerous imps by a crone-like nanny who conjured up amazing powers with the rap of her walking stick.

Thompson, who cast herself in the role of the homely witch with the heart of gold, did an admirable job of establishing a clear-cut storyline while maintaining the charm of the original stories. And although I hate the Disneyesque cliché of making every child a motherless tyke, I must admit that the cliché works here.

One thing that bothered me about the Nurse Matilda stories is how incredibly bad the Brown children are and how completely oblivious both of their parents were to their outrageous behavior. Mama and Papa appear both lazy and clueless throughout. And although I might be inclined to characterize many modern parents in that way, it always seemed wrong for a seemingly devoted and intact set of parents from a long-ago and more rigid and manner-bound time to be that completely unaware and indulgent.

Thompson gets around this sticking point nicely. The mother of the clan has recently died (of exhaustion, no doubt), while the amiable father (played by Colin Firth) is distracted by grief and money worries into neglecting his children. In this situation, what child wouldn't act out? The Brown children do so, with fiendish imagination.

As per every enchanted nanny tale that ever was, the children have previously driven off nanny after nanny. Seventeen is the current count, with the latest scared away by a seeming act of familial cannibalism. Just when dear Dad is at his wit's end to find another caregiver while he deals with the demand from Great Aunt Adelaide (Bedknobs and Broomsticks's Angela Lansbury, practically unrecognizable in hooked putty nose) that he must marry within the month or lose her desperately needed financial support, a snaggle-toothed hag appears at the door. She is Nanny McPhee, there to take charge of the children, who are presently destroying the kitchen and terrorizing the cook.

Nanny McPhee is neither pretty nor perky. She doesn't sing, dance, or sweep the children off to fantasyland. Thompson has said that there is a kind of zen quality to her, and that seems about right. She is calm and quiet, and the "lessons" she teaches her charges come in the form of bewitched reverse psychology. When the children misbehave, Nanny (with a thunderous rap of her stick) compels the children to continue their bad behavior to a logically frightening or uncomfortable level that makes them want to change their ways—and say please and thank you, to boot.

Before long the children are accepting the consequences for their actions and settling down to a more normal level of mischief, which still includes serving up worm sandwiches to the day-glo Bo-Peep harridan (Celia Imrie) who means to be their evil stepmother.

Nanny McPhee is not a flawless film. A wide variety of colorful support characters (like Mr. Brown's mortuary co-workers, played by Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow) are introduced, and then given nothing much to do. And speaking of that mortuary, I couldn't quite figure out what Thompson had in mind giving the children's poppa that particular profession. But since she did so, I kept expecting her to tie the plot to his grim job. She never did. It was completely inconsequential. (That had me wondering what, say, Tim Burton would have done with that setup. He wouldn't have ignored it, of that I feel certain!)

I would guess that Nanny McPhee will be too old-fashioned and wholesome for the taste of many modern viewers, young and old. The special effects are few and far between and consist of benignly silly hijinks like a donkey dancing on two legs and mimicking a young girl. Still, director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) keeps thing moving, without losing focus on his characters. The acting, by a British cast, is—as you would expect—first rate. And the production design of Michael Howells is delightfully off-kilter, as befits this cheerily fantastical family film.

Although not meant to be an imitator of Mary Poppins, Nanny McPhee is a comfortable and charming film in the same tradition. A few raps of a stick can't, it goes without saying, heal the broken hearts of motherless children, or make them behave better. That's fantasy, to be sure. But I must say that it is, at least, honest fantasy.

Less honest are the latest descendants of Mary Poppins. They can be found on two "reality" television shows called Supernanny (ABC) and Nanny 911 (Fox). The websites for the shows come right out and call each female star a "modern-day Mary Poppins." All are British and carry props like umbrellas and carpetbags if the comparisons aren't obvious enough for you.

In each show, a nanny swoops into a home with frazzled gutless parents and raging (biting, kicking, foul-mouthed) children. A week of scolding tough love for both parents and children and the family dynamic is presto-chango healed. Pixie dust is evidently not needed, just a judicious application of editing and a hasty exit before it all falls apart.

This is a different kind of mythology—one that glorifies and perpetuates the popular American delusion of the Quick Fix. These shows are fantasy, too. But unlike Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee, they're hoping they can make the viewer believe otherwise.

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