Shut your von trapp

For Julie Andrews, the hills are no longer alive with the sound of music. If she can't sing, argues

Of the many things that are strange about Julie Andrews, one thing stands out as the strangest: this is a woman whose career has spawned well over 30 films, if you count the variety nonsense where hoary old warblers get together to mouth two bars of their favourite show tunes. That must be millions upon millions of yards of celluloid (though don't quote me). Yet for only ten minutes, some time in 1982, in a priceless snatch of Victor/Victoria, did Andrews exhibit anything resembling sex appeal. In some hasty change between Vic and Toria, she let go an expression of trepidatory androgyny that genuinely spoke of the volcano within. And that was it. In 40 years.

Let's be clear about what we mean by sex appeal - I'm not talking about tedious cheekbones or anything pneumatic. I'm not on about the ability to purr, as Lauren Bacall did for Graham Norton recently (though, I have to admit, that was sexy). I'm just talking about the certain something that makes some people more watchable than others. Kathy Bates has it, for God's sake. So I'm not calling Andrews ugly, or anything so unsisterly. In no way would I suggest that she should have given off any heat in Mary Poppins (by today's standards, I'd be on a paedophile register for less). I'm not saying that, when the Nazis arrived in Mountain von Swiss, anyone was thinking: "I hope that flushed, horsy chick gets it." I'm just saying that she's not someone you want to watch, and never has been. The ongoing decision to put her on screen is due entirely to a very loud, strong voice with a four-octave range and a rather pretty vibrato when the situation demands. More thought could have gone into the decision to give her film roles rather than, say, getting someone decent in and dubbing Julie over them, but it's done now, and there's no use complaining.

There's not even any use complaining about the films she ruined by not singing in them; or not singing enough; or talking too much. Yes, she single-handedly knocked Alfred Hitchcock from "genius" down to "flawed genius" with just one mimsy, bloodless performance in Torn Curtain (lordy, you'd defect to the Soviets just to get away from such a girlfriend, even if it did mean eating dumplings and never again being able to vote in a meaningful election). Sure, she inflicted the pain of shame on every nation when she took her top off in S.O.B. But it was all a very, very long time ago - unlike, say, The Princess Diaries, which is going on right now, on screens very near you. It features Andrews in a non-singing role - which is fortunate for her lawyers, given her high-profile litigation against the surgeon who ruined her singing voice for ever, but deeply unfortunate for the rest of us. Andrews plays a grandmother with a charmless charge (Anne Hathaway) who must be taught royal ways in order to take her rightful place as the Princess of Genovia, a fictional kingdom of Europe. The director obviously thought, "What I want is someone just like Mary Poppins", and, with a baffling lack of imagination, went out and got himself Mary Poppins. Honestly, it's like Martin Scorsese thinking, "I'm looking for someone just like Humphrey Bogart", then tracking the old geezer down and trussing him up in latex - which is to say that casting errors on this scale are usually averted because the prototype is dead. Well, not this dame - though you wouldn't know it to watch her performance. Nine separate American reviewers called it "mediocre". Somebody should send the bleeders a dictionary. For this to be mediocre, there would have to be a well of films so execrable that the proles would have stormed the studios years ago. It's really, really bad - worse than the time she launched a campaign "urging women to declare their independence from osteoporosis". (Now there's a good idea - while we're at it, why not get cancer patients to declare their independence from tumours? That might work.) It's possibly harsh to point this out, in the light of all the business with the botched throat nodules, but the woman has got to sing - without that, it's like paying good money to spend two hours watching a primary-school librarian explain why she's filed Harry Potter under "R" (well traditionally, children, it's alphabetical by author - can anyone tell me what an author is?).

I suspect that Andrews's unique ability to leach life out of any given ensemble is due to a lack of humour. I say that not on account of her films (nobody was funny in the Sixties - or the Seventies, for that matter), but on account of her family life. I hope I'm not being tabloid by bringing up the business of the step-granddaughter. Kayti Edwards, grandtot to Julie's husband Blake Edwards, grew up in the Andrews household and quickly graduated to taking crack, being a nuisance in shopping malls and "breaking into the house", as a news report of the time had it, "to steal cars". To give the girl credit, it can't be easy growing up with such a glaringly misspelt name. Anyway, having had a kid, straightened up and started training as a nurse, Kayti decided to get out of debt once and for all by posing for Hustler magazine, dressed as Mary Poppins. Come on - most grandmothers would have found that hilarious. But not Julie, who was angry almost to the point of litigation. Kayti fought back: "If Julie and my grandfather had wanted to pay off my student loan, I wouldn't have done it. If Julie had forbidden me to do the pictures, I'd have replied, 'Give me $10,000 and I won't do them'." Again, hilarious. The brass neck of the girl! And Kayti's crowning afterthought: "I think the photo shoot will affect her a little bit, but she won't stop talking to me. She won't stop loving me, either. I am sure that Julie will always love me. If she can't, then that's pretty shallow." Really, if this had happened to any other actress in the world, it would have been a story of real beauty. You could have made a miniseries out of it. If it had happened to Elizabeth Taylor, gunshot wounds might even have occurred. Julie Andrews is just too square for a story like that - she's like an all-dancing, not-at-all-singing J-cloth.

Nobody's forcing us to go and see children's films, and like them. There's no law against skipping The Princess Diaries, and the next one (I believe it's called Who Shot Victor Fox). It's not her fault that she can no longer sing (indeed, that is verifiable in a court of law), and if she wants to carry on making a living out of her trademark lip-pursing and firework-pissing-upon, that is her choice. She has made a huge contribution to English musical culture, blah blah, and furthermore, blah.

It would be good if she stopped now.

The Princess Diaries (U) is on general release