When it comes to class, nobody does it better than Dame Julie Andrews. She enters a room and it is more than just the hills that are alive but also the room in which she enters with grace and that still iconic voice that has changed little since it was first introduced to American audiences as no-nonsense Mary Poppins.
Some 45 years later, Andrew is flying around again but this time in a whimsical, slight family comedy, Tooth Fairy, that in part deals with an ice hockey player, played by Dwayne Johnson, whose refusal to believe in all things fanciful such as the tooth fairy, results in him, well, becoming one, through the intervention of Andrews’ fairy-in-charge.
It was this theme that resonated with the now 72-year old British dame and her success as a children’s book author. “Actually, the charm of the script the moment I read it was that I completely identified with some of the books that I do attempt to write. I was thrilled because it has such a gorgeous message, which is that we shouldn't destroy our dreams, but always hold onto them.”
Yet if one looks at her more recent film choices, from Princess Diaries to the Shrek franchise, and now this, it does seem that her major criteria to do a movie is to have fun, but the actress does not see her career choices quite that way. “I think it depends what each piece is saying and really depends on the script as much as anything else. This one really resonated. I think if one is fortunate enough to have a script slide across one’s desk these days its about 'Does it resonate? Do I feel like I can help it and do something for them, and with it?' This one was very easy to say yes to.”
Julie Andrews has, of course, remained a formidable part of cinematic culture for over four decades, yet no matter how many times one is fortunate enough to spend time with the actress, one is struck by her genuine belief in her lack of impact on generations of audiences who either discovered her when Mary Poppins and Sound of Music first graced our screens, or the more recent generations of children discovering her through her books as well as her classic movies.
The term ‘cultural icon’ comes to mind, but it is a label she laughingly dismisses. “I'm so flattered. I don't believe it for a second. Everybody's very kind. I guess if you stick around long enough, anything is possible, but I don't consider myself to be an icon and neither do my kids,” Andrews laughingly retorts. While her screen image personifies class, grace and humour, her early life was more the stuff of a latter day Dickens than Rogers, Hammerstein and Disney.
She was born Julia Elizabeth Wells on 1 October 1935 in Walton-on-Thames, England. Her mother, Barbara Wells was married to Edward C. "Ted" Wells, a teacher of metal and woodworking, but Julie was conceived as a result of an affair her mother had with a family friend. With the outbreak of World War II, Barbara and Ted Wells went their separate ways.
Ted Wells assisted with evacuating children to Surrey during the Blitz while Barbara joined Ted Andrews in entertaining the troops through the good offices of the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). Barbara and Ted Wells were soon divorced; they both remarried—Barbara to Ted Andrews in 1939, and Ted Wells to a former hairstylist working a lathe at a war factory that employed them both in Hinchley Wood, Surrey.
Julia Wells lived briefly with Ted Wells and her brother John in Surrey. About 1940, Ted Wells sent her to live with her mother and stepfather, who, the elder Wells thought, would be better able to provide for his talented daughter's artistic training. According to her 2008 autobiography Home, while Julia had been used to calling Ted Andrews "Uncle Ted", her mother suggested it would be more appropriate to refer to her stepfather as "Pop", while her father remained "Dad" or "Daddy" to her. Julia disliked this change.
In the book, Andrews wrote that the Andrews family was "very poor and we lived in a bad slum area of London", adding, "That was a very black period in my life." In addition, according to that 2008 memoir, her stepfather was an alcoholic. Ted Andrews twice, while drunk, tried to get into bed with his stepdaughter, resulting in Julie putting a lock on her door.
Writing her autobiography, Andrews told me during her promotional stint on Tooth Fairy, was cathartic. “Don't forget that I've had a number of years to think about it and dwell on what it is I might like to say,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I did want to be truthful, as it seems silly to write something and not just say it as it was. It was cathartic but it was also something that I've lived with for years and none of it bothers me in any way. It's something that I've just said 'Well, that was my beginning, that was my existence.' I would never have finished it if it hadn't been for my lovely daughter, with whom I do write books sometimes. She encouraged, pushed, and interviewed me and helped transcribe and really did an enormous amount of work that nudged me.”
Yet, despite some of those darker moments in which Andrews relived throughout the process of writing the book, she admits that it was not as painful as she thought it might be. “Again you have to understand that I had dealt with them, or thought about them, for a very long time, but what was really painful was getting all of my dates right. I mean I've been around for quite a while now, so just remembering: 'Was it 1952? Was it 1954? Was it 1948?' just being sure that all the facts were right. Thank God for the Internet these days or I would have never have gotten them.”
Andrews got her big break when her stepfather introduced her to Val Parnell, whose Moss Empires controlled prominent venues in London. Andrews made her professional solo debut at the London Hippodrome singing the difficult aria "Je Suis Titania" from Mignon as part of a musical revue called "Starlight Roof" on 22 October 1947. She played the Hippodrome for one year.
Andrews recalled "Starlight Roof" saying, "There was this wonderful American entertainer and comedian, Wally Boag, who made balloon animals. He would say, 'Is there any little girl or boy in the audience who would like one of these?' And I would rush up onstage and say, 'I'd like one, please.' And then he would chat to me and I'd tell him I sang... I was fortunate in that I absolutely stopped the show cold; I mean, the audience went crazy."
On 1 November 1948, Andrews became the youngest solo performer ever to be seen in a Royal Command Variety Performance, at the London Palladium, where she performed along with Danny Kaye, the Nicholas Brothers and the comedy team George and Bert Bernard for members of King George VI's family. It this period she recalls with such detail in her ‘Home’ autobiography, which chronicles her life until the Mary Poppins chapter of her career.
Surprisingly, she is not keen to continue her memoirs. “I think that everybody knows what happened after 'Poppins' in a way. I took it up to 'Mary Poppins' and I didn't think that many people knew about my early history. Moss Hart, the director of 'My Fair Lady' wrote a wonderful book called 'Act One', which was one of the great, great autobiographies. When I read it I realized that I had learned something from it, which is about a theatre history that I never knew anything about, and thanks to Moss I did. It was the incentive. I had thought for years 'Why publish a biography?' I could always give it to my kids but why come out with it? Eventually, I thought not many people know about those early and last dying days of British vaudeville. If I could give them a picture of what that was like, then that was the reason to do the book.”
These days, Andrews is as much a prolific writer of children’s books as she is an actress, and has always had a vivid imagination, even as a child. Andrews recalls her early literary influences. “I had a wonderful tutor that travelled with me because I was very busy working as a child and I remember that I had a lovely lady that finally set me straight and knew that I loved to read. She introduced me to all the classics, but, my father was a teacher and he, at about age nine or ten, took me into a bookstore and said 'I'm going to buy you a book. Here's what seems like a good one.' It's a book that I've had the great fortune to republish, to bring back, to the public here in America, because it had not been published for many, many years. It's a tiny little book. If you think 'Watership Down' but maybe even better, it's a nature study called 'The Little Grey Men' and it is by an author who literally only signed his initials 'B.B.' That book has probably influenced my writing, and set a standard for me, probably because my dad gave it to me and probably because it is beautifully written. It is a little classic, pretty in pink, I have to say.”
And as for own writing career, Andrews insists, “it's very, very much a part of my career. We just had a wonderful book, that I am very proud of, come out just before Christmas. It was an anthology of poems, songs, and lullabies. I have to say, very proudly, it's been on the bestseller list for children. I think it was on the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks, and I am thrilled. There is another one coming out in May and I have another couple I'm working on right now, it's very much ongoing.” Would they make good movies one asks? “Well, I think so, but it's from your lips to someone's ears.”
Sadly her singing career was cut short by a botched operation on her throat in 1997 but she returned to the stage in a concert tour of sorts, which will travel to London in May, “which is the beginning of a small but international tour. It's the same concert that I did at the Hollywood Bowl last year and around the country.” But Julia Andrews fans will be disappointed if they expect a full musical concert. “I'm not singing. I would like to be very clear about that. I have about five good base notes, which is what I said last year to my audiences. I host the evening, I narrate it, I tell stories, I sing speak as best I can. If you are looking for me to sing 'The Sound of Music' I could not, sadly, now I wish I could. But I do come up with some surprises and I think that the audience has a good time. I feel that they do otherwise I wouldn't do it.”
Beyond her writing, Andrews’ upcoming films include more animated voice work, including, of course the latest Shrek. “I'm not featured as much in this Shrek, but I am in it. I think it's going to be lovely, based on what I've seen of it, which when you do an animated film you don't see that much.” But she is more enthusiastic about Despicable Me, another animated feature starring the voice of Steve Carell. “I play Carell's mum and it is maybe the nastiest character I have ever played,” she says laughingly.
What, Julia Andrews going bad? “Well, she's a bad woman with a wonderful attitude, so self involved that she's delicious. Her name is Marlena. They said I could name her, and she's the ugliest looking wench you've ever seen, but she thinks she is just gorgeous.” And that inimitable voice of hers is nowhere to be heard. “I did change my voice for this one. I did the most white bred, German, Jewish, English, awful mother that you have ever heard. It was ridiculous but I was trying to balance it out.”
Dame Julie Andrews, cultural icon, Oscar, Tony and Emmy Award winner, and the star of some of the most beloved musical classics of the past 40 years, remains every bit a classy dame. There are few quite like her, nor, one suspects, will there ever be again.