Opinion & Features

‘The rule of life is you just get on with it’

Julie Andrews became good friends with the real Maria von Trapp, who died in 1987

A singalong screening of The Sound of Music – complete with fans dressed as nuns, goatherds and assorted Von Trapp family members – is a popular part of the culture these days. But one person you can be sure you will never meet there is the film’s star, Julie Andrews.

“Can you imagine the mayhem if I turned up?” she asks when we meet, shuddering a little at the thought of the frantic reaction her appearance at such an event would bring.

“But I hear they’re quite something. Apparently there was one young man who went to a singalong in London, and he was painted from head to toe in gold. Somebody said to him, ‘Well, what’s that got to do with The Sound Of Music?’ and he said, ‘I’m Ray, a drop of golden sun!’

“And it’s popular with all sorts of people, too. I went to visit my doctor recently and he said, ‘I was at the singalong last night, and it was wonderful.’ Now, this is a 50-something-year-old man, and a doctor! I said, ‘Explain to me what you found so wonderful about the evening.’ He said, ‘It’s such a catharsis. You can sing, you can play, you can be with everyone else and everything else gets suspended.’ Which made sense to me, and I think it’s lovely that it’s there.”

It is now 50 years since Julie ran up a mountain in her novice’s habit, singing her heart out. A lot has changed since then. The real Maria von Trapp, with whom Julie became good friends, died in 1987, and the actors who portrayed her children in the film have grown up and gone their separate ways.

In Julie’s own life, meanwhile, there has been a daunting spiritual mountain to climb. In January of 1997 she went for a routine operation on her throat which she was told would leave her famous singing voice, if anything, clearer than before.

The operation went disastrously wrong, and she has not been able to sing since.

A lesser woman would have crumbled at this. But Julie, sitting tall and erect when we meet in a hotel near the ocean in Santa Monica, California, says firmly that her way of dealing with it has been simply to carry on.

Although, at 80, she is choosing to do fewer films these days, she still makes occasional stage appearances and is planning to direct My Fair Lady for Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House.

Meanwhile, she has joined with her daughter Emma to forge a successful career as an author of children’s books, with the adventures of their character the Very Fairy Princess a firm staple on many little girls’ bookshelves.

“It seems to me that when something like this happens, there’s two ways to go,” she says, briskly, of the catastrophic event. “One is to cave in completely, and the other is to get up and do.

“I was raised never to carp about things and never to moan – that was what my family taught me at home. And besides, when I was very young I went into vaudeville, where the rule of life is that no matter what happens, you just get on with it.

“Life on stage was a bit of a trial by fire for me when I was a kid, but now that I’m older I’m glad I went through it, because it was an extremely good moral training ground for me, and something that has stood me in good stead ever since.”

Her childhood was not an easy one. As she recounted in her 2008 autobiography Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, it was beset by poverty, alcoholism and divorce.

She was born in Walton-on-Thames on October 1, 1935, and brought up by her mother, musician Barbara Morris, and a teacher of woodwork called Ted Wells who for many years she believed was her biological father (she later discovered that he was not, although she still refers to him affectionately as “my Dad”).

Barbara soon divorced Wells anyway to marry the Canadian-born entertainer Ted Andrews, with whom Julie had a far less easy relationship. “I have,” she once remarked wryly of her childhood, “got more mothers and fathers than anyone in the whole world.”

What saved her, she has said, was music. She was singing on stage with Barbara and Andrews from the age of just 10, made her professional solo debut at 12 at the London Hippodrome, and at 13 became the youngest solo performer ever to appear on the Royal Command Variety Performance.

She was on Broadway at 19 playing Polly Browne in The Boyfriend, came back to London to play Guinevere in Camelot in the West End, more or less created the role of Eliza Doolittle in the stage version of My Fair Lady, and moved on to the likes of Mary Poppins and, oh yes, The Sound of Music.

“It changed my life,” she says now, simply, of the story of Maria Von Trapp and her unruly charges. “And I think it’s lovely that people still love it today as much as they ever did. I think one of the secrets of the film is that it’s about finding joy. Facing challenges and finding joy.”

She found her own personal joy with her family. She married the director Blake Edwards in 1969 and remained devoted to him until he died five years ago.

Julie says, sadly, that she is “still dealing” with his death. Their thoroughly modern blended marriage produced five children: her daughter, his daughter and son, and the two Vietnamese orphan girls whom they adopted together.

“I tried very hard to be a mum who put the family first,” says Julie now of their childhood years. “And that’s hard work because you finish the day job and then you come home and have to be a mum in every sense. But I was always up for breakfast no matter what. And even if I was working, I’d come home in the afternoon and we’d have a proper English tea together. The tea service would come out and we’d swap notes on what happened during the day. It was very important to find the time to spend together and I made sure we did so.”

Now grown, the family are still close – and it was Julie’s eldest stepdaughter Jennifer who originally encouraged her to branch out into writing as well as show business.

“We were playing a game and we had to pay a forfeit if we lost. I lost first and said, ‘What’s my forfeit?’ She said, ‘Write me a story.’ I thought I’d write her something silly like a little fable, but instead I came up with an idea and just kept on writing, and Blake was encouraging me from the beginning. I now write children’s books with my daughter Emma, so it’s a family affair, really.”

She is also a grandmother – and, she makes it plain, a dottily devoted one. “My grandchildren are each one very special and each one adored by me. I’m fascinated by watching them grow, because they are all so different and so individual and it’s wonderful to see little minds flourishing. What sort of grandmother am I? Well … I love to spoil them as any grandma would. But I’m also quite strict about things like manners. If I give them something I definitely expect a ‘please’ first and a ‘thank you’ afterwards.” And she nods her perfectly coiffed head most firmly.

Gabrielle Donnelly is a freelance journalist