Bedknobs and Broomsticks is a film which totally passed me by. I was 21 when it was released so it seemed a bit out of my age range and, having no family, I didn’t see it as a parent later on. In the 1990s I was seeing a woman who had a four-year-old daughter and I could probably still recite Mary Poppins word for word as it was on the VCR almost continually. Both are by the same composers, Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, and boy, can you tell.
There are lots of other similarities apart from the music, which is why, although it was begun in the early 1960s, its release was delayed for several years so the two films would not show at the same time. Be that as it may, it is this theatrical production I am here to write about so here I go.
The story takes place in 1940 during the London Blitz when children living in the East End were taken from their parents, with their consent, and moved to live in the countryside where it was felt that they would be safe from the bombing. Not a great decision in this case as they were evacuated to the South Coast which would obviously be the first place to be occupied should the Nazis invade.
The eldest of the three children is thirteen-year-old Charlie Rawlins, played by a substantially older looking Conor O’Hara in his professional debut. The part could not be played by a genuine early teenager as it was much too involved and I am also not sure about the legal position of having someone so young working every night. To revolve the part between several actors, as happened with Charlie’s two siblings, Carrie and Paul, would also probably not be possible. After a while the whole question was irrelevant as magic took over.
In the first couple of minutes the very small set which had been incorporated into a black background and just contained a bed and a couple of pieces of furniture, exploded, literally, after being hit by a bomb thus leaving the children orphaned and the house destroyed. After their rescue by the emergency services they were put on a train to Pepperinge Eye in Dorset. I found the pace of the changing of scenery and settings in order to convey this to be a little too frenetic. It was brilliantly conceived and executed but I wonder how many of the younger members of the audience could follow the action. I also wondered as to the number of, not only the children, but their parents, were familiar with the concept of wartime evacuation. I assume that the Second World War is included on the history curriculum but the age guidance is 5+ and I would have thought it might be disturbing to introduce the notion of children their age being taken away from their parents. If you read my articles regularly you will have gathered that I am not woke or politically correct but I should have thought that this would have merited an inclusion on the list of warnings as being far more traumatic than ‘strobe lighting, loud bangs, haze and smoke effects’. Just a thought.
Once in Pepperinge Eye they were billeted with the reluctant guardian Eglantine Price, played by Dianne Pilkington, who was superb as the eccentric, motorcycling, vegan, well-to-do resident of the village. The reason she doesn’t want to take in the kids is that she is training to be a witch via a correspondence course. When the children discover this they change from wanting to escape to conspiring to cash in on this fact and demand sausage and chips rather than mangel-wurzel jam.
After a period of stand-off, they join forces in searching for the fraudulent principal of the correspondence course college who has suspended the lessons. He lives in London which entails their having to return to the capital, this time not by train but on the children’s bed which they have now worked out how to make fly.
Once in London they meet Emelius Browne played by Charles Brunton who, it transpires, is a charlatan magician but, although his spells are fake, Miss Price has the ability to execute them successfully. Having sold the original book of spells Mr Browne takes everyone to Portobello Road to get it back. This leads to the full company singing the spotlight song Portobello Road, closely followed by reprises of Negotiality and Bedknob Spell bringing the first half to a brilliant crescendo.
The action in the second half is a little lighter, being set on the Island of Nopeepo which is the name of a book which young Paul is reading and is so named because there are no people on it. The songs are much more fun, including the most famous one in the show The Beautiful Briney, as well as others sung by fish, a bird, a bear and a lion. The subject matter is still dark with the party under constant threat from the King Lion and, on their return to Mrs Price’s house, the invasion of their home by the Nazis.
As you would expect, the whole things ends happily ever after, I don’t want to inject a spoiler here but you might need to reassure any children in the party you take, or any adults for that matter.
I was genuinely surprised at how dark and threatening the story and the settings were but we had all the reassuring elements from the Disney Handbook. Strong female character, a love interest for the aforementioned, sweet kids, chirpy Cockneys, a villain, animals, magic, the ability to fly using objects not intended for that purpose, a succession of songs and dances, interaction between humans and puppets/cartoon characters and a happy ending. And, of course, it works brilliantly.
The show was directed by Candice Edmunds. Neil Bartram wrote some new songs as well as adding lyrics and music to existing ones. The book upon which the piece was based is by Brian Hill but the biggest accolade has to go to Jamie Harrison, Director/Set and Illusion Designer. The flying scenes on both the bed and the broomstick were unbelievable, there was nothing at all to betray the technology behind the execution. In a way I found the proficiency of that detracted from the plot as I spent too much time searching for wires or hoists and not enough on the story. It also contrasted starkly with other effects which were primitive in comparison. People were walking around carrying poles with cardboard clouds or cutout aeroplanes,and the animals, which were puppets being held by actors who didn’t hide their mouth movements, but it just seemed to work.
The singing and dancing by all the cast members was superb and very skilful, most especially in the numbers featuring Dianne Pilkington and Charles Brunton where they both performed magic tricks whilst at full speed.
The orchestra, under the direction of Laura Bangay, was note perfect and every other element enhanced the production no end. I must mention one person in particular, described in the programme as Head of Wigs. There were lots of extravagant toupées to be sorted out by Elise Baker but I still can’t shake off my image of her as having a polystyrene cranium. I think I need a lie down.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks is a great show for the Christmas period. There is no mention of the Festive Season but it is a heartwarming, if somewhat dark, tale with a happy ending, and in a year like this one what more could we ask. It runs until Sunday, 2nd January, 2022. For more information and to buy tickets please go to https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/bedknobs-and-broomsticks/
All images supplied by Leeds Heritage Theatres