When families settle down for a festive film one of the perineal favourites is BedKnobs and Broomsticks starring musical legends Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson.
It’s a magical and often surreal tale of a trainee witch Eglantine Price who takes under her wing three orphans evacuated from the London blitz who fly an enchanted bed in a quest to find a spell helped by a dodgy professor of magic.
The movie features some memorable songs from the pen of the Sherman Brothers and its cutting-edge animation combined with live action won the Disney team an Oscar for best Special Effects. Now it has been turned into a stage show with some new songs that comes to Leeds Grand from December 8th and plays into the new year.
Dianne Pilkington plays the trainee witch on the show’s first UK tour and tells our Yorkshire Editor Paul Clarke how they have combined high tech effects and good old-fashioned storytelling.
Many people are familiar with the film from endless festive reruns but remind those who haven’t fallen for its charms what the story is?
It’s set in 1940s wartime Britain and there’s a very strange lady who lives on her own in a house on a cliff. There’s the three Rawlings children, Carrie, Paul and Charlie, who are evacuated out of London during the Blitz. They go to stay with this strange woman Eglantine Price who turns out to be a trainee witch trying to save England from the Nazis by learning witchcraft by correspondence.
So, what happens to this strange set of allies thrown together in the worst of times?
Then because she needs a specific spell to help fight these scary shadows, they enchant a bedknob to make a bed fly, and they go all over the place trying to find this spell. It’s pretty psychedelic.
Yes, the film is pretty out there at times which is not all that surprising given it was made in 1971.
It is very surreal and because of the nature of when the film was made they were getting really excited at the time about combining animation with live action. We can’t do the animation bit, so there’s less surreal stuff and we’ve taken a lot of the source material from the books which are very dark.
You’re playing Leeds Grand through the critical festival period for the theatre so is this a show that families across the generations can enjoy?
I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face it is a family show not necessarily a kids show. It’s suitable for everyone to come and see, and it’s not specifically aimed at children. It is dark and it is wordy but what’s really nice is we can tell the story in a way that the smaller children are following it.
The older members of any family group will have fond memories of the movie as it has been a staple of Christmas TV for decades.
We have a responsibility there and the writers have been very sensitive to that. Brian Hill and Neil Bartram who have adapted it for the stage absolutely adore the film and we’re reworked it so it’s stage friendly. It is everything that people remember and the bits that they loved. There’s a flying bed, what more could you want?
In the film there are three huge set piece routines, Portobello, the undersea kingdom and the final battle, which people will expect to see onstage.
We’ve got all of those and the way the directors have worked it is so clever. They have set up a conceit very early on that you will see some of the theatrical magic happening, so by the time you get to those set pieces you’ve become very used to seeing the brilliant ensemble being onstage and part of making everything work.
So, the audience has to do some work too?
It is all set up early on that this is how it’s going to be, it becomes second nature that the ensemble are the waves during The Beautiful Briny. They have to make me float through the air in the way they did with the wonderful Angela Lansbury, but they did through animation. But with ours it is done very much with physical movement, and the way people are moving around me, so I get hoiked up all over the place. I love it and it makes me feel like a ballerina.
And there are different layers of theatrical trickery onstage?
They’ve worked on the basis that there are three different elements of magic on the stage at all times. There’s the theatrical magic which you can see that requires you to do a bit of work and use your imagination. You have the conjuring magic, so we’ve all had to learn a bit of sleight of hand which has been great fun. Then there is the esoterical magic which is Eglantine’s magic and that is when all of a sudden we take away the bits you can see, and you shouldn’t be able to work out how it is done.
The children come to Eglantine traumatised by their loss and the adults are facing the perils of the war so given what we have endured over the last couple of years this story of sticking together in the worst of times seems really relevant.
As an actor who was out of work with the rest of the world for a really long time it’s great to come back to do a show that feels so resonant. This is the show that people will come back to see after not being in a theatre for a really, really long time so we were very anxious to get it right. I’ll use a phrase someone said in a review ‘it’s the healing power of theatre’ as I do believe theatre can be healing. It can make you go away feeling lighter than you were before.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks is at Leeds Grand Theatre from Wednesday 8th December 2021 to Sunday 2nd January 2022 To book 0113 243 0808. https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/bedknobs-and-broomsticks/