The author of Mary Poppins told Dame Julie Andrews that she was “far too pretty” for the role, the actress has revealed.

Speaking at an event at the Southbank Centre to promote her new memoir, Dame Julie described being in hospital following the birth of her daughter and receiving a gruff phone call from Pamela Travers.

“She said ‘Well talk to me’ and I said ‘I’m sorry I’ve just had a baby yesterday, I’m feeling a bit out of it’,” said Dame Julie.

“She said ‘I understand you’re going to play Mary Poppins? You’re far too pretty of course, but you’ve got the nose for it’.”

It is one of hundreds of anecdotes the actress and author has from a career in showbusiness spanning almost 75 years.

In conversation with actor Alex Jennings – who was recently directed by Dame Julie as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady – she gave an insight into her path from musicals and vaudeville shows to the silver screen.

Dame Julie grew up in Walton-on-Thames where her mother was a singer and pianist and her stepfather was a tenor.

It was her stepfather who gave her singing lessons to keep her occupied when her school was closed during the war.

“I hated the lessons but they discovered that I had this really freak, child prodigy voice and hit high notes and dogs would howl for miles around,” she said.

Despite her talent, Dame Julie said at first she had not enjoyed learning to sing, saying: “The realisation that I could give the audience something didn’t come until much later.”

She revealed it was comedienne Hetty Jaques who helped launch her career in America by advising the producers of Broadway musical The Boyfriend to go and see her in panto.

She was subsequently offered a two-year contract in New York, which paved her way to Hollywood.

Walt Disney himself asked her to play Mary Poppins, and she delighted the audience at the Southbank Centre by saying “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” backwards as she does in the film.

She said one of her most star-struck moments came when Hollywood icon Bette Davis told her at the premiere of The Sound of Music “you, young lady, are going to be a very great star”.

Dame Julie said: “I just couldn’t believe she would be that generous.”

Her second memoir is titled Home Work: A memoir of my Hollywood years and is co-written with her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton.

It covers her time working with the likes of Paul Newman, Gene Kelly, Rock Hudson and Burt Reynolds.

Film – Directors – Alfred Hitchcock – Claridges Hotel – London
Alfred Hitchcock (PA)

Despite revelations about his treatment of his leading ladies, Dame Julie has fond memories of working with Alfred Hitchcock, saying he was never inappropriate or bullying.

“I don’t know why, I think I was just lucky,” she said.

When asked for a few of her “favourite things”, she said: “My kids, my garden, my dogs, my friends, I love all kinds of music, I love art and private time at home.”

She said her love of her home life was why she picked the title “Home Work” for her book.

Dame Judy also revealed she has a sign reading “Are we lucky or what?” over the doorway to her kitchen – a mantra she repeats a lot to herself and has always tried to instil into her children.

When asked which part of her career she would repeat if she could, she replied: “The thing that thrills me beyond anything – is singing with an orchestra, my singing teacher described it as like being lifted up in the most comfortable armchair and being carried along over the top of the music.

“Singing with that glorious sound around you is almost more wondrous than anything.”

There’s one challenge she thinks might be beyond even the magic of Mary Poppins – instilling manners into Donald Trump.

When asked by an audience member if Mary could have managed the US President, she said: “It’s a difficult question, maybe Mary Poppins would have shaped him up – if only we had a chance to try.”