Movies From My Childhood: Bedknobs and Broomsticks (Robert Stevenson, 1971)

‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ is the definitive film of my childhood. I am not exaggerating. Every time I was ill, upset, or couldn’t sleep, my parents would put our worn out VHS recording of it on the t.v. and I would feel better in no time. I’m not sure what it was about ‘Bedknobs’ but no other film ever came close for eight year old me. I decided a few days ago that I wanted to rewatch it to see if it matched up to my memory, especially after five years of studying the film format meticulously. Would it be the incredible all-singing, all-dancing spectacle I remembered from my youth? Or, which was more likely, did I remember it with rose tinted glasses, the reality being nothing but disappointment. Surely not.

Dismayed that ‘Bedknobs’ is not yet available to stream on Netflix, I rushed down to my local CEX (next best option) and grabbed one of two copies on the shelf there. The blurb informed me that it was a remastered and restored version. I didn’t know quite what to expect; my childhood copy had been recorded off the T.V. so I’m not sure that I even watched the theatrical release as a kid. I didn’t let that deter me, however.

For those of you who missed out on ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ (and missed out you did), the narrative is pretty simple. Set during WW2, three children with incredible cockney accents are evacuated from London to the countryside, and by pure chance end up staying in the spare bedroom of Ms Price – a witch. The children realize that there is an opportunity here; Ms Price doesn’t want anyone to know that she is a witch, and the children want a few things changed around the house. Namely an increase in fried foods. Ms Price offers the children something valuable in return for their silence and presents them with a bedknob. When attached to the bed in the spare room, the bed will transport them wherever they wish to go. What follows is a multiple adventures that take Ms Price and the children to Portobello Road, an undersea ballroom, a football match played by animals and finally to an impressive defeat of Nazi soldiers by bewitched suits of armour. Yes, it does sound like the best acid trip you’ve ever had.

One of the first things that grabbed me about this film, as an eight year old and as a twenty-three year old, is Ms. Price. There is a habit, in cinema, of witches being portrayed as either ugly or bitter creatures. They are generally old hags, incapable of love or affection and tend to attempt to cast their bitterness out to other people. This is especially prevalent in Disney films; ‘Maleficent’, ‘Tangled’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’ are all guilty of this. Ms. Price, despite coming off a little kooky, has actually got it together. She lives alone, because ‘that’s the way [she] likes it’. She has one cat, she rides a motorcycle and she hasn’t got time for the creepy vicar who clearly wants to get in her pants. It’s clear from the first scene that, although they think she’s a little odd, the towns people like Ms. Price and have a great deal of respect for her. It’s a great introduction, especially for a single woman who (as it turns out) is a witch.

 ‘Bedknobs’ even goes one further, as Ms. Price and the children take a trip to London to find Professor Brown, the headmaster of the Correspondent College of Witchcraft. Or so they are led to believe. It transpires that Professor Brown is not even that, a professor. He is merely a street magician, and a terrible one at that. It turns out that not is Ms. Price able to perform Professor Brown’s ‘nonsense’ spells, but he is unable to perform a single one himself. Can I get a feminist hell-yes?! Throughout the film, Ms. Price and the children repeatedly save Prof. Brown from near misses and close scrapes – including a run in with a particularly violent underground criminal. Prof. Brown is optimistically naive and he reveals his dream is to perform a magic show with Ms. Price as his assistant. The independent, and infinitely more gifted Ms. Price wants nothing more than to find the last spell in the book (The Spells of Astoroth) and save England from the Nazis. Not an unreasonable goal.

 This is why ‘Bedknobs’ works so well, even today. Ms. Price is fiercely independent, and despite starting off as an almost-spinster, she connects with the children almost immediately. She doesn’t let Prof. Brown order her around and the film follows her narrative; learning the spell to help the war effort. Prof. Brown is a bumbling fool in comparison to Ms. Price’s cool, calm exterior. As a kid I loved the imagery of her riding her broomstick, not side straddled, and charming the suits of armour into battle. She is the commander, the chief, our protagonist. Ms. Price, along with the help of the children and Prof. Brown towards the end, save the country. It’s perhaps a little too patriotic (but I’ll get onto that later). In terms of sending a strong message about women and the war effort, it’s pretty clear. Women were behind the scenes, receiving no recognition for the work they did. In ‘Bedknobs’, the homeguard take the praise for fighting off the Nazis. It mirrors the women of the 1940s and 50s who fought throughout the war – at home not on the battlefields. ‘Bedknobs’ seems to send a strong feminist message, until the end that is.

 At the end of ‘Bedknobs’, once the Nazi’s (all 6 of them) have been defeated, we assume that Ms. Price and Professor Brown have adopted the children. The final scene sees Paul, Carrie, Charlie and Ms. Price waving Professor Brown off, as he joins the homeguard – presumably he is joining the British army. Ms. Price has fully transgressed into the role of home-maker and mother, no longer able to practice witchcraft as all of her spells were destroyed in the Nazi home invasion. There is an emphasis on the family unit; each member of the family playing their part. It’s incredibly traditional, but then I can’t help thinking that you can’t expect much else from Disney.

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