Brow Beat

Mary Poppins Returns and the Disneyfication of Working-Class London

An interview with a Pearly Queen about cockney rhyming slang, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s accent, and more.

Lin-Manuel Miranda in Mary Poppins Returns.
Lin-Manuel Miranda in Mary Poppins Returns.
Jay Maidment/Disney

Lin-Manuel Miranda lowered expectations for his cockney accent in Mary Poppins Returns two whole years before the movie was even released. “I’m going to have the worst accent in the history of English accents,” he said. “I’m going to sound like I’m from another planet.”

Miranda had good reason to set the bar low from the get-go, considering the notoriety of Dick Van Dyke’s accent while playing Bert the chimney sweep in the original Mary Poppins. But how does Miranda’s turn as Jack, the lamplighter—or, as the movie calls him, the “leerie”—stack up? Slate asked Diane Gould, the “Pearly Queen of St. Pancras,” to weigh in, and got a lesson in London’s working-class culture and a demonstration of proper cockney rhyming slang to boot.

Marissa Martinelli: You’re a Pearly Queen. What does that mean?

Diane Gould: Pearly Kings and Queens originated from the 11th century and the costermongers in London, coster being an old English apple, monger being seller. Back then, we all spoke like what I do now, until coming up to present day. We spoke real cockney. Chopped all of our H’s. Didn’t pronounce our T’s like in “mother.” The London poor weren’t allowed to go to the shops because the posh people didn’t want them, probably because they were obviously dirty and a bit smelly compared to them, and so they had to survive some way. The old costermongers used to take pies, apples, and stuff like that and go around on their little handcarts. They looked after their own and they looked after all the local community, because that’s where their money come from, from people, community, shopping with them. They had to pay attention to what the customer wanted. They used to do a collection, because we never had no benefit system or nothing back then. Then they elected a Coster King and a Coster Queen to look after the whole of the street market. If one of the coster families fell on hard time, they had this money collected all over the years to be able to help that family out.

I see.

I’ll fast-forward a bit. In about 1880, there emerged a road sweep and rat catcher, Henry Craft. He was born in some St. Pancras workhouse. At age 13, this little boy was slung out, an outcast, onto the streets, and he became a road sweep and rat catcher. He was only about 5 foot tall. My great granddad had his shops and his market stalls down Chalton Street, which is just off Somers Town, King’s Cross, and St. Pancras. He got to know Henry, and Henry was a right jolly chap. He admired the way that the costermongers used to look out for each other, look out for the local community. Because they didn’t have nowhere else to buy their food from, or anything else they needed.

The costers used to sew a row of pearl buttons down their battered old trousers, “round the houses,” and their waistcoats. And the women used to mimic the posh ladies walking around the parks and put feathers in their old battered hats. So that’s where the pearl flashers came from. Henry liked their attitude, so one day he appeared in a top hat and a tailcoat smothered in pearl buttons with a little collecting container in his hand. And it was all collected for one of the local London hospitals. From there, each Coster King was elected to a Pearly King, so 28 boroughs elected their Coster Kings and Queens to be Pearly Kings and Queens. The princes and princesses followed the tradition, and it was like looking after the street markets, collecting for local hospitals, doing charity events, and just helping one another, like we do today.

This is all very interesting. What does this have to do with Mary Poppins?

The original Mary Poppins—I mean, I was alive then because I’m 60 now, so 6 in 1965—it was just a revelation. And “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” you know, it’s the Pearlies in that film. The Pearly Kings and Queens in the background at the derby.

Pearly Kings and Queens in Mary Poppins.
Screen grab from YouTube

It just shows you, Walt [Disney] in his wisdom, he realized the prominence of the Pearly Kings and Queens. But as I say, because our tradition and our accent has been watered down, it’s getting lost like a lot of old traditions do.

What do you think of Dick Van Dyke’s accent in the original movie? It’s pretty notorious.

It is notorious. And the thing is, something what they probably tried to do with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s accent, he’s trying to make it a bit better. But he himself said it’s rubbish, it’s nonsense. Dick Van Dyke’s accent, he didn’t try to pretend to be cockney, he was doing a take on it. Everyone knows he’s American, he’s quite well known an actor, and that’s quite a comical thing.

But Lin-Manuel, to me he seems to be quite uncomfortable with trying to say it, because what he does with his cockney accent … one minute he’s [exaggerated] “Trip a little light fantastic with me.” The next minute he’s pronouncing all his words like proper. I think he’s finding it a bit struggling with the accents, to be fair.

Because there’s two types of cockney. There’s Estuary cockney and there’s proper cockney. The Estuary is more sort of like [Lin-Manuel Miranda] was talking. That’s like on Essex and Kent, stuff like that. Jonathan Ross, you’ve heard of Jonathan Ross?

Sure.

You listen to him, he speaks Estuary cockney. Ray Winstone and Michael Caine, they speak proper cockney like what I do. I thought Lin was very, very sweet. He was very sweet in his portrayal. It’s just that he was going from cockney to a bit posh, pronouncing his words. I’d be really interested to see who worked with him, with his language. And the rhyming slang’s terrible.

I was going to ask you about that. Is it that bad?

Oh, Marissa. I don’t know where they got theirs, but I’ll give you a blast on proper rhyming slang. This is a little bit I wrote, so I’ll read you this. This is what proper rhyming slang is:

I took me loaf off the weeping, got out me Uncle Ned, put me Scotch eggs on the floor, put me “round the houses” on, then me dickie dirt with me Peckham Rye, put me almonds on, then me barefoots, went down the apples, got me cherry, went for a ball down the frog to the rub-a-dub for a pint of pig’s.

I … did not follow any of that.

No, you wouldn’t. Cockneys would.

I took me loaf (loaf of bread, head) off the weeping (weeping willow, pillow), got out me Uncle Ned (bed), put me Scotch eggs (legs) on the floor, put me “round the houses” on (round the houses, trousers), then me dickie dirt (shirt) with me Peckham Rye (tie), put me almonds on (almond rocks, socks), then me barefoots (barefoot blues, shoes), went down the apples (apples and pears, stairs), got me cherry (cherry hog, dog), went for a ball (ball of chalk, walk) down the frog (frog and toad, road) to the rub-a-dub (pub) for a pint of pig’s (pig’s ear, beer).

The rhyming slang they were using [in Mary Poppins Returns], I have never heard of those ones.

You’ve never heard of “weep and wail” or “short of a sheet”?

Weep and wail, yeah. Weep and wail was tale. I’ve heard of some of them, but they are very, very obscure. Some I think they made them up. I mean, the ones that I said to you there, this is how we talk proper. I do appreciate they’ve done a lovely production, but I just wish that they had consulted maybe proper old Londoners.

If he’d gone to some proper cockney, like me, we’d have got a bit more background. I don’t know who their researcher was, but the cockney rhyming slang was invented in 1814, by costermongers, that being market traders. I mean, the “leeries” were likely Scottish. I don’t know who done their research! I’ve never heard of leeries. We used gaslights in London, but the leeries was Scottish, I think. Scottish lamplighters.

Besides the name, what did you think of them?

The thing was, they looked too clean. Lamplighters had been old boys, they probably had a bit of a disability. So “tripping the light fantastic” … it was like Call the Midwife. It’s a series all about old London someone done over here, one of the TV production companies. They made it too clinical. They made it absolutely too clean and clinical. I don’t know what’s happened. They’re trying to sterilize all the old ways, and all the rough-and-tumble ways.

I didn’t mind [Mary Poppins Returns], but not my cup of tea. It’s not saying they didn’t do a good job, but it’s not actually portrayed the old London, the old London accent, the old traditions in London. I think the original had it a bit better, if you watched the original one. But they’ve done their best.

Why did you think the original was better?

I suppose because the lady [P.L.] Travers who wrote the book, she had quite a big say in [the original Mary Poppins], didn’t she? Although at the end of it, Walt Disney had his way. But it kept more to the tradition of old London. It was a bit smoky, even on the rooftops with the older chimney sweeps up there. I think it had more charm about it, really, and more authenticity in regards to the scenes. But then, in those days they didn’t have so much technology. These days it’s more tech-y, and people expect that. I think if there was sort of not as much technology in this one, it could have been more authentic. Put it that way.

What other movies or shows would you recommend for a more realistic depiction of cockney life?

Look up Only Fools and Horses. It was a really, really famous comedy drama in the ’80s and ’90s, and it was based all around London, all cockney ones. It’s more greasy. It would be lovely to get that out so that people can really appreciate how tough it was. There were so many homeless, there were so many people, so poor, and they fantasize it. And I know people want to disappear with fantasy when you’ve had a rough time. Everything that’s happening in the world is pretty sad and dire, and they need to disappear. But the thing is to come back to their roots, to feel that connection, which is we go out in what I call it my clown suit, my Pearly suit. That’s what we do. That’s what we do best.

This interview has been edited and condensed.