Written by Rachel Extance

Arts

Why I ❤️ Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Disney’s spellbinding tale of magic and medieval armour being used to see off a Nazi invasion turns 45 tomorrow. Rachel Extance is still bewitched.

Still magic: Angela Lansbury with the child and cartoon cast of Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Photos: Walt Disney.

Still magic: Angela Lansbury with the child and animated cast of Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Photos: Walt Disney.

I’m not a Disney fan. There’s a host of classics I have never seen including Beauty and the Beast, 101 Dalmatians and Bambi (no, really, I haven’t). I didn’t see Mary Poppins until my late teens and even now I don’t think I have watched it from start to finish. I’ve even managed to avoid Frozen, bar 10 minutes round a friend’s house when her kids were watching it for the umpteenth time.

But there is one film I have loved since we got the video in the late 80s: Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The storyline has all the elements to appeal to a small child interested in history, witchcraft and magic. It follows a well-trodden path in children’s literature of siblings who find themselves far away from home in a strange house with a distant adult.

As they make their escape, they discover their host is a trainee witch and, a spot of blackmail later, they are the proud owners of a magical travelling bed which can take them anywhere from Blitz-hit London to the magical island of Naboombu, populated by animals with a lion king who could give Donald Trump tips on irascibility.

travelling on the enchanted bed
Disney threw in a Nazi invasion, a museum filled with suits of armour and a spell for transubstantiation to cook up a magical tale of British eccentric defiance.

It’s a film I never tire of watching. I love everything about it: the music, dancing electric eels, Bayeux Tapestry-inspired opening credits complete with black cats, witch on broomstick and Nazis firing machine guns, the lot. As a child I would try to twitch my ears to turn myself into a white rabbit and say “Treguna Mekoides Trecorum Satis Dee” to inanimate objects in my room in the hope they might move.

What makes the film, of course, is Angela Lansbury. Her attempts to learn to ride a broomstick, watched by her less-than-impressed cat, sees her bucking rodeo-style around the room. It’s both comical and poignant; we’re rooting for her to succeed. She relishes saying “poisoned dragon’s liver”, only to reveal later she can’t stand the stuff.

Then there’s the look of pure delight on her face when she sings Substitutiary Locomotion to Mr Browne’s shoes and they begin to dance. “I don’t believe in giving animals ridiculous names,” she states matter of factly when the Rawlins children encounter her black moggy for the first time. “I call him Cosmic Creepers because that’s the name he came with.”

Her rendition of The Age of Not Believing (which was to get an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song) is a joy. I was lucky to see Dame Angela in the 2009 Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. It was a dream come true and she was outstanding. Here she is singing my favourite song from A Little Night Music, Send In The Clowns.

My late discovery of Mary Poppins means for me David Tomlinson will always be Professor Emelius Browne, charlatan and conjurer of cheap tricks, who lives in a house with the most magnificent library you could hope for. It is a far more rounded character than Mr Banks, played with warmth and sparkle.

A few years ago we ditched the video as part of our decluttering efforts and got the film on DVD instead. We purchased the restored version which reinstated various sections that had ended up on the cutting room floor. In my view the original editors called it right. The additional material in Portobello Road and even the restoration of ‘lost’ song With a Flair don’t add much to proceedings.

David Tomlinson and Angela Lansbury
It is interesting to discover the clergyman, Rowan Jelk, played by Roddy McDowall, appears to have been originally modelled on Obadiah Slope. Rewatching it, I also wonder how they got enough coupons for the sausage and mash. Mr Browne wasn’t registered in Pepperinge Eye and Carrie said she’d had two helpings. Perhaps they bewitched their ration books, or the butcher.

The film ends on a high with a scene that must have taxed the costume department. The armour had actually been put together for use in El Cid. The giant axeman terrified me as a child and there’s a scene reminiscent of Monty Python’s Black Knight (though Bedknobs predates Holy Grail by four years) culminating in a Nazi being hit over the head with a morning star.

It’s a fantastic romp with trumpets blaring, the beat of the drums, costumes from every era, cavaliers, roundheads, archers, cavalry, marching through the mist.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks is the perfect entertainment for a weekend afternoon and I can’t wait for my children to be old enough to enjoy it. If you’d like to read a good, if totally different magical tale, I recommend Mary Norton’s original books as well.

@RachelExtance

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Written by Rachel Extance

Rachel Extance is a journalist and mother-of-two. Her main concern these days is making sure she doesn't walk out the house with yoghurt down her top.