Bedknobs and Broomsticks: Angela Lansbury bewitches in a magical classic

<span>Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

Long before the wizards and witches of Hogwarts were ever dreamed up, there was Miss Eglantine Price, played by the late Angela Lansbury in Disney’s 1971 classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Miss Price is an apprentice witch on a mission to aid the British war effort during the second world war, from the small English village of Pepperinge Eye.

There she is forced to take in siblings Carrie (Cindy O’Callaghan), Charlie (Ian Weighill) and Paul Rawlins (Roy Snart), who are among the many children evacuated from London to the countryside. Miss Price makes plain she is a woman of rules, even if they’re strange ones. There are no sausages and mash to be seen; Miss Price serves a nourishing supper of frightful things like stewed nettles and elm bark, at 6pm sharp.

But by night, Miss Price is breaking all the rules. With her black cat Cosmic Creepers in tow, she is a diligent student of Professor Emelius Browne’s (David Tomlinson) correspondence college of witchcraft. The professor sends mysterious packages containing gobbledegook spells – one of which includes the word “crumpet” – that have Miss Price hooked on magic. What’s more, she has a knack for it.

But when the three children come into her care, she must trust them with her secret. Casting a travelling spell on a bedknob to seal the pact, Miss Price entrusts the youngest of the trio, Paul, with its safekeeping. Unlike his brother Charlie who, at 11 going on 12 is at “the age of not believing”, six-year-old Paul is entranced by the prospect of a magic bed.

With one crucial lesson missing from the course, what follows is a quest for a long lost levitation spell – or “substitutiary locomotion” – engraved on the star of Astoroth, and with it a trip to meet Professor Browne. Tomlinson, best known for his role as Mr Banks in Mary Poppins, plays another authoritative father here, again one who needs a woman to set him straight and uninhibited children to tear down his cynicism. His befuddled awe in the wake of Miss Price only makes Lansbury’s command of her character’s warmth, wit and resolution more bewitching.

Psychedelic journeys through the night sky aside, it is when the group ventures to the Isle of Naboombu for answers that the fun really starts. The film fuses live action and animation, wholeheartedly earning its Oscar for best special visual effects. The humans dance seamlessly with top hat wearing fish on the seafloor, before making it to dry land where Professor Browne referees a chaotic animal soccer match. The alligator’s jaws fly out of its mouth still snapping; the cheetah runs so fast flames rip through the turf; and two vultures flap across the field with a stretcher at the first sign of injury.

Related: Angela Lansbury: the scene-stealing grande dame of stage and screen for 75 years

Both well-trained voices, Tomlinson and Lansbury lead songs by the Sherman brothers, revered for their work in classics including Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. While the soldier ballads and rhyming tunes of Bedknobs and Broomsticks may not be as well-known as other Sherman songs, they will leave you “bobbing along, singing a song” and chanting incantations just as catchy as Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious for days.

While a possible German invasion looms large throughout, the film balances such a sinister threat with warmth for younger viewers; witchcraft provides some unorthodox victories on the battlefield. And proving that no one should be of the age of not believing, Miss Price certainly makes us believe you had better not cross her or else find yourself promptly turned into a plump white rabbit, no matter your age. With a small smile, just one full bellied laugh and in the end, quite a way with children, Miss Price is at the heart of Lansbury’s magical legacy.