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Julie Andrews: 'Therapy helped me to be a better mother'

Julie Andrews: 'My talent has been a passport to a world I could never have imagined'
Julie Andrews: 'My talent has been a passport to a world I could never have imagined' Credit:  Don Arnold

"Everybody sends their love,” I tell Dame Julie Andrews, as though I am representing the human race as a whole, putting a large bunch of pink roses into her arms, because a star is a star is a star. The roses crackle in their cellophane.

“How beautiful, how lovely,” she says. We only have 15 minutes so it’s a case of spit-spot. 

She stands before me in dove-grey jersey tunic and trousers, still brimming with the quick-witted moral energy we all know from Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music.

Dame Julie, 84, is in London to promote the second volume of her autobiography, Home Work, a beautifully written, charming and candid memoir of her Hollywood years, filled, as you might expect, with behind the-scenes peril and pranks.

We see Andrews suspended on wires, sitting on a seesaw or atop a ladder, for the flying scenes in Mary Poppins. We see Andrews shooting the hilltop opening scene in The Sound of Music, dashed to the ground repeatedly by the downdraught from the helicopter and not best pleased.

We see her almost burn to death while making the 1967 epic Hawaii, the heat, misery and fear so strong that, in sheer frustration, she hits a loud high-C to release a bit of tension.

When she receives the Oscar for Mary Poppins, her first film, she hides it in the attic out of shyness. Even now, she puts the success of that performance down to “a freedom and ease that came from total ignorance”.

How did she feel when she discovered, aged eight or so, that she had this tremendous vocal range and ability?

“I recognised quite early, I think. It was a gift and I treated it as such.  It actually saved me, in a way; having a talent gave me an identity. It was a passport to a world I could never have imagined.”

It’s part of being Dame Julie that gratitude for her gifts and good fortune is expressed every few minutes. At times, she seems as astonished and delighted by “the miracle” that she was “the lucky girl who was asked to be in those movies”, as you or I might be if we woke to the discovery.

Julie Andrews with her new baby daughter, Emma, by her first husband, stage designer Tony Walton, in 1962 Credit:  Mirrorpix

Andrews wrote her memoir in three years with her oldest daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, 56, who lives close by on Long Island, outside New York City. Together, they have also written 32 children’s books, including The Great American Mousical. 

What was it like looking back over everything? “It was alternately hugely moving, disturbing… I had many a sleepless night,” she says. “Writing a memoir is like living your life all over again – the first time round you’re so busy just dealing with what’s coming at you.”

I tell Andrews I had the sense that she hardly had a minute to think about what she was living. “Well, yes, but do many people when they’re caught up in family and work and things like that?”

The main subject of her latest memoir is the tension that lies at the heart of a woman with sky-high standards, utterly dedicated to her stimulating work, and equally devoted to her demanding extended family. In a way, the “practically perfect” tag that clings to Andrews does her a disservice. We may like our stars to have a few chinks and flaws, but Andrews’s resilience and control is hard-won, heroic even.

Her struggles in life have been legion. Andrews’ childhood was often lonely and painful. “It wasn’t your average version of cosy,” she says. 

Her mother, a piano teacher, left her schoolteacher father for a Canadian tenor when Andrews was three years old, sending for her shortly afterwards to live with her in London, leaving her brother, Johnny, with their father in Surrey. 

Andrews became part of the family vaudeville act, helping her mother cope with her stepfather’s alcoholism, travelling miles alone for her own theatrical engagements, looking after her younger half-brothers when her mother started drinking heavily herself. The main breadwinner by her mid-teens, Andrews found herself playing 18 shows a week in music hall and pantomime, and at 17 took over the mortgage.

In the best-selling first volume of her autobiography, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, published in 2008, she revealed that the man who brought her up was not, in fact, her father; and that she was, in fact, the product of her mother’s brief extra-marital affair with a man whose party they later attended together in 1950 – with whom Andrews remembered “feeling an electricity that I couldn’t explain”. 

In 1959, Andrews married Tony Walton, her childhood sweetheart with whom she had fallen in love in her early teens, and gave birth to Emma. At the height of Andrews’ fame in the 1960s, the pair divorced, but remain friends to this day.

Despite gruelling Hollywood work schedules, Andrews was always trying to keep the peace between her mother and aunt, attempting to help her half-brother address his addiction problems, providing regular restorative holidays for her father, stepmother, aunt, mother and siblings. She doesn’t say so specifically, but it seems clear she was financially supporting everyone, too.

Then, in her marriage to American filmmaker Blake Edwards, whom she met in 1966 and stayed with until his death in 2010, she had to reckon with his frequent low moods, hypochondria and dependency on prescription opioids. (Thank goodness he had a matinee-idol’s flair for stunning romantic gestures.) 

Andrews also tried to support Edwards’ emotionally unstable ex-wife while ensuring her teenage step-children were as happy as possible and that her own daughter was thriving. While all this was going on in the mid-seventies, she and Edwards adopted two Vietnamese babies.

We are used to the cliché of a star at the centre of the storm, requiring support and flattery on tap, creating havoc in response to intense pressures, but it felt like the reverse was true with Andrews, who achieved monumental levels of care-giving despite having received little nurturing as a child herself.

How was it possible? Psychoanalysis, which she began in the mid-Sixties, has proven invaluable, she says. “I think it helped me be a better mum and a better wife and clear the clutter from my head.

Julie Andrews: “Therapy helped clear the clutter from my head' Credit:  Herbert Dorfman/Corbis Historical 

“This brand new world [of stardom] was coming at me extremely fast, and I was feeling a lot of things that needed sorting and understanding, and I really did feel I needed some answers. Psychoanalysis helped me stick to essentials, and I was very fortunate to have a very wise man who helped enormously. Thank God for it, in my case.”

Even her introduction to psychoanalysis – techniques pioneered by Sigmund Freud to explore the unconscious mind and develop an understanding of human behaviour – was far from conventional. “My analyst realised pretty soon that I needed and yearned for an education and, since he was extremely bright, he proceeded to give me one. He would hand me these wonderful gifts, books… or he’d teach me something or I could ask any question I wanted, really.”

Was there a touch of the Professor Higgins about his approach? “Not exactly that, more suddenly finding a friend that understood – that’s what therapy is really all about.”

I tell her I must declare an interest because Sigmund Freud was my great-grandfather.

“You’re joking? My God! That is mind-boggling!”

We move on to how much the world has changed in the years since the girl from Walton-on-Thames became a global star. Having appeared as a child in the West End, she made her Broadway debut in 1954, in The Boy Friend, aged just 19, and was billed as “Britain’s youngest prima donna”. It proved to be a launchpad for a seven-decade career that includes some of musicals’ most timeless, beloved roles – on stage as Eliza Doolittle, opposite Rex Harrison, in My Fair Lady, and Maria von Trapp in the Sound of Music. 

Julie with her daughter, Emma - they now write children's books together Credit:  Mondadori Portfolio

I mention her appearance on a British chat show in 1987 when host Michael Aspel says, “You are the ultimate fantasy”, and fellow guest, The Price is Right presenter Leslie Crowther, adds: “I can vouch for that…”

“Did they?” says Dame Julie. “I wish I’d paid more attention!”

I ask her what she thinks of Me Too, an international movement against sexual harrassment and assault that has prompted astonishing falls from grace for some of Hollywood’s most famous men. “I think it’s hugely important,” she says. “Things are changing and that is very, very good.”

Also pleasing is that there is little sign of Dame Julie retiring any time soon. She is about to play Lady Whistledown, a mischievous, Regency-era gossip-columnist, in the new Netflix series, Bridgeton. She is planning the next volume of her memoirs. Her latest takes us up to her Oscar-nominated performance in 1982’s Victor/Victoria, an ahead-of-its-time musical farce about gender identity-swapping.

A third volume would mean writing about the routine throat surgery in 1997 that tragically destroyed her singing voice, mostly confining her screen career to acting roles such as The Princess Diaries series of Disney films and animated voiceovers (Queen Lillian in Shrek, Gru’s mother Marlena in Despicable Me).

Our time almost up, I tell her that once, after a difficult doctor’s appointment with my mother, we wrote lists of our favourite things. Mine included the Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel and dresses with silk- satin linings, but my mother’s had the names of all her children and grandchildren; I felt shallow.

“Forgive yourself kindly there,” says Dame Julie. “But, certainly, I’d side with your mum. My kids and my family, my garden, my home life is the thing that I guard most of all because it is precious to me. And thank God for it.”

We shake hands goodbye and as I lean forward, she gives me a kiss.

Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years by Julie Andrews (£20, Weidenfeld & Nicholson) is out now. Order for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514