Eccentric Nannies and Peculiar Guardians on screen

03 Oct 2016 BY Kirsten Geekie in Film Features

3 mins
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Brought to life by director Tim Burton, a filmmaker who revels in the quirky and fantastical, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is an intriguing adaptation of a well-known American young adult novel. A dark gothic fantasy, it tells the tale of a boy called Jacob who discovers a home for children with special powers protected by their enigmatic guardian Miss Peregrine who can turn into a Peregrine Falcon.

With echoes of Professor Xavier's school for gifted youngsters in the superhero series X-Men but with a younger, kookier Edwardian twist, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is reminiscent of a tradition of unusual governesses, guardians and peculiar nannies that have taken charge of children in cinema across the years.

When you need me, but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go

Nanny McPhee

When interviewed by our Young Reporter (see the full interview below), Miss Peregrine actress Eva Green revealed she was told by director Tim Burton to channel a 'scary Mary Poppins'. No wonder then that her performance of the strange, pipe-puffing, all knowing Miss Peregrine is a distinctly uncanny version of the clipped, pristine, practically perfect and most treasured nanny in cinema. Sent to save the parents as much as brother and sister Jane and Michael, Mary Poppin's eccentric rules and nonsensical expressions add fun and sparkle to the most mundane of tasks, magically bringing the family closer together.

A year later, lead actress Julie Andrews took on another memorable governess role, as a wayward nun called Maria sent to look after the family of a rich widower in the Oscar-winning The Sound of Music. Horrified by Captain Von Trapp's strict treatment of his seven children, Maria takes a less traditional approach. Encouraging them to sing, dance and embrace the great outdoors she charms her way into the hearts of the family - even cleverly helping them to escape the Nazis during World War Two. 

Another war-set musical about an unruly guardian, that also captures much of the warmth and magic - and even features a lot of the cast of Mary Poppins - is Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Like Poppins, it blends live action and animation to tell an imaginative tale of three street-smart children evacuated to the remote village of Pepperinge Eye during the Blitz and taken under the wing of Miss Price, a kindly witch-in-learning. 

It is interesting to note the threat of World War Two running through these films and the idea of unconventional nannies needing to protect children from a danger their parents can't control, or simply offer a creative distraction from the horror of war. Similarly, Miss Peregrines world is stuck in 1943, just before German planes bomb the home. Every night she and the children celebrate the unusual and somewhat bleak habit of having to run outside, don a gas-mask and wait for Miss Peregrine to stop the clock and turn back time so they can relive the same day again. 

This combination of dark fantasy and the Mary Poppins-esque austere charm of Miss Peregrine is also joyfully embodied in Emma Thompson's Nanny McPhee. A frighteningly wart-ridden Nanny, she miraculously appears to sort out a family of naughty children and their hapless father. With a mix of discipline and magic she transforms the family who gradually learn to take care of themselves. No longer in need of Nanny McPhee's help, she leaves the family as suddenly as she first appeared, reminding them that "When you need me, but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go".

Such wise-words and uncanny knowledge of what the children and parents need before they even do is a familiar trope. Miss Peregrine knows the quirks and foibles of every one of her children and is even aware of Jacob's powers before he does. However, like Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee she lets the children discover the answers rather than direct them. As guardians, their role is to prepare the children for life's hardships, supply them with their unique tools and rules to survive, so that eventually they can take responsibility for themselves. Thus leaving Mary Poppins, Nanny McPhee and Miss Peregrine to disappear off into the sky to help another set of children in need.

With much of the charm from these films coming from the unlikely bond between an unconventional adult in charge of discerning or precocious children, it is a plot device that has succeeded beyond the world of fantasy. Not so magical but just as intelligent and ferociously protective of their children are the madcap nannies of the 70s slapstick comedy One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing who band together to save a dinosaur skeleton stolen from the Natural History Museum. Or Paddington's Mrs Bird, the Brown family's stern, Scottish nanny who helps to save the marmalade-loving bear from the hands of an evil taxidermist.

Skewing the passionately caring nanny plot-line for comedic affect are many films about the reluctant guardian. Like Despicable Me's supervillain Gru who cant help but care for the cute orphans he has kidnapped, the grumpy widower Carl of Pixar's Up who is forced to look after 8-year-old stowaway Russell, and the 80s John Hughes directed babysitter comedy Uncle Buck in which a slobbish uncle is put in charge of his sisters children. 

And lest we forget the most memorable nanny of the 90s, Mrs Doubtfire. A well-known comedy that cleverly deals with the sensitive topic of parental divorce it depicts a father so desperate to see his children that he disguises himself as the sweet-but-firm and a little bit odd Scottish nanny. Far from the prim and proper Miss Peregrine and Mary Poppins, Mrs Doubtfire is frumpy and a little unruly and discovers as much about his children as himself. 

Yet whether magical, singing, supernatural or simply unconventional it's clear cinema and audiences have a fondness for eccentric nannies and extraordinary guardians protecting children in numerous weird and wonderful ways. With Miss Peregrine and her Home for Peculiar Children comes even more magic and wonder and a healthy dose of the unexpected that proves the most outlandish nannies, guardians and governesses most definitely know best. 

Kirsten Geekie, Film Programming Manager

Kirsten Geekie, Film Curation Manager

MA (Hons) in English Literature & Film and Television Studies, University of Glasgow with a background in Film Festivals having worked for Edinburgh International Film Festival, Sheffield Doc Fest and BFI London Film Festival.

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