Feature Screengem

Screengem: The parrot headed umbrella in Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964)


Mary Poppins, the mysterious nanny who blew in on an easterly wind changing forever the lives of the assorted inhabitants of Cherry Tree Lane, had only two requirements to work her magic – her caustic wit and a parrot headed umbrella. Her deceptively large carpet bag may have held fathomless possibilities for her young charges, Jane and Michael Banks, but it was her umbrella which bewitched everyone else.

Like an ever-present friend who speaks the common-sense you know to be true despite your protestations to the contrary, it was her umbrella who pointed out how quickly the family, and in particular the children, forgot Mary the moment her back was turned. Though she tried to pass the incident off in the closing moments of the film, it was obvious to all that her partner in crime had hit a nerve – and clearly not for the first time.

As with all umbrellas this ones primary use was to protect – though strangely not from rain. Initially it was the means by which Mary made her grand entrance, as it gently transported her over the chimneys and gables of Edwardian London, both shielding her from, whilst at the same time making good use of, the ill wind which rid her of her opposition in the running for the job of the Banks’ nanny. However it was equally useful mentally.  Like a moral sounding board, if Mary was there to guide the children, her umbrella was there to keep her in check and, one had the impression, that it was the only person (for one only ever thinks of it as human) who could talk back to her without fear of contradiction.

Everything about the umbrella, from its dark and sensible lines to its prim voice, provided by David Tomlinson who also played Jane and Michael’s father George Banks, smacked of no-nonsense schoolroom discipline – like a sterner version of Mary herself (who one felt had a soft heart and mischievous side despite her austere appearance).

Mary Poppins won Oscars for, amongst others, Julie Andrews as the eponymous Mary and its special effects of which old parrot head was the pinnacle. In the interceding years replicas of the umbrella have become popular amongst fans of the film though, disappointingly one suspects, their similarity with the original stops short of offering sage-like advice.

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