For many of us, being locked down for the majority of the year has resulted in never-ending Zoom quizzes and too much banana bread to bear. For others (including yours truly) all of this spare time has allowed me to discover and rediscover some of my favourite films and television shows of all time, and one thing I noticed was the unlikely amount of great films that feature the arrival of a nanny or governess into a somewhat dysfunctional family and (usually) chaos, song and a little bit of magic later, both children and parents are transformed and a beautiful lesson is learnt.
So naturally, we need to rank the top ten of these nannies and governesses. Except, it’s not as straight forward as some of my other ‘Ranked’ lists. You see, some of the entries in aren’t nannies or governesses per se (I needed an effective title) so what we’re actually looking at here are people who take on guardianship or responsibility of children that aren’t theirs as well as the traditional nannies and governesses.
Needless to say there will be spoilers so let’s not dwell on this any longer, in the words of Mary Poppins – spit spot!
10. Stowey House Staff – The Story of Tracy Beaker
Kicking things off with a CBBC classic are the staff from Stowey House, aka The Dumping Ground, from The Story of Tracy Beaker. If you didn’t watch this as a child then you honestly missed out on some fantastic antics and dare I say, some really heartwarming moments.
For the uninitiated, Tracy Beaker is a lovable tyke who is placed in foster care by her not-so-fantastic mother. Despite the best efforts of the staff at the foster home (Stowey House) Tracy remains reluctant to make any kind of effort with the host of potential foster parents she meets on the insistence that her wonderful mother will be back to collect her any day now. Schemes, chaos, and tantrums ensue as Tracy and the other kids at Stowey House put the staff through the wringer every episode.
Now I’m talking specifically about the staff during the first series of the show which was, arguably, the best season of all. The firm but kind Jenny Edwards, lovable Duke Ellington (not that Duke Ellington) and hapless yet intuitive Mike Milligan. These three go through hell trying to create a loving and safe environment for the children they care for, some of whom are there because their guardians can no longer look after them (Peter and his Nan), and some who just have terrible parents (Tracy and Justine).
- Multi-taskers – Duke acts as the home’s chef, Mike is something of a handyman, and Jenny oversees the running of the whole establishment
- Sacrifices made – all three of them go through an insane amount of childish trickery but some of the sacrifices they make hit home – like the time Tracy sold Mike’s beloved guitar out of spite
- Sadly only Duke sticks around with Jenny and Mike both moving on to other careers over the course of the series
- As much as we love all three, at the end of the day we’re still hoping that Tracy will get out of the Dumping Ground and get fostered (ideally by Cam).
- For three professionals they really struggle to control the kids
9. Lydia Grant and Elizabeth Sherwood – Fame
Fame – aka the rich man’s Glee – ran from 1982-86 and is jam packed with 80s synth, legwarmers, and over-the-top acting, and is quite simply fantastic.
The series follows the day-to-day lives of students at the School of the Arts, you have singers like ambitious Coco, musicians like the sensitive Bruno, and dancers like talented Leroy. The kids’ antics are of course a hoot and the inclusion of some catchy tunes makes it worth watching alone, but the real fun comes from Miss Lydia Grant the dance teacher and all-in-all cheerleader for the students, and Miss Elizabeth Sherwood the English teacher who wants to make sure that these stars of tomorrow can read and write as well as they sing and dance.
What makes these two great is that they inject a little bit of reality to the show (all the more difficult when you consider these kids break into fully choreographed musical numbers in the canteen) and in many ways act more like surrogate parents than teachers in many instances (the kids’ parents are either pretty useless or absent with the exception of Bruno’s father).
Leroy’s dramas prove to be the biggest test for both teachers. He’s Miss Grant’s star pupil but often lets his ego run away with him, meanwhile he gives Sherwood a problem when it is revealed that he can’t read or write which is why he has been neglecting her classes. All this naturally leads to both teachers going above and beyond for him on several occasions (the other kids too but let’s be honest, Leroy was both their favourite).
These two have to deal with students on drugs, students getting arrested, students living alone because their parents abandoned them, as well as your more ‘traditional’ teacher issues like strikes, redundancies, and rivalries with other schools. Somehow, despite their very different priories these two also manage to stay good friends throughout the series.
- Miss Grant will teach you to dance like an absolute pro
- Life at the School of the Arts is one big positivity-fest
- If you’re being mis-treated in any way, expect one or more likely both of them to have your back
- Song and dance aside, this is a school and both Miss Grant and Sherwood take the rules very seriously – forgot your English assignment? Consider yourself out of the summer showcase
- Teachers can only do so much – if you’re not talented enough then you won’t last long at the School of the Arts (here’s looking at you Montgomery)
- You never know when you’ll actually be competing with your teacher – Coco and Miss Grant once went up for the same part at an audition…awkward to say the least
8. Dr Grant – Jurassic Park
See I told you not everyone on this list is a governess. Poor Dr Grant doesn’t even like kids and yet he finds himself having to look after two of them whilst lost on an island infested with T-Rex and Velociraptors.
Dr Grant only agrees to visit Jurassic Park on the condition that his next three years of study will be funded. As such, it’s safe to say that he didn’t expect to spend his time on the island trying to keep both himself and the grandchildren of Mr Hammond (the mastermind behind the park) alive.
Lex and Timmy are also the worst kind of kids to have to look after in a survivalist situation. Lex is petrified of almost everything and clings on to Grant like her life depends on it (which in this case, it does) and Timmy is Mr Curious, always asking questions, sticking his head into places it shouldn’t be, and most of the time ignorant to the very real danger he finds himself in.
By the end of the movie not only has Dr Grant managed to keep the kids alive but he has also developed a real bond and love for them too.
- Being a palaeontologist Dr Grant knows all the tricks when it comes to outwitting dinosaurs
- Can and will stay up all night so that you feel safe
- Nerdy hero – despite his all-in-all science guy persona (apologies to the athletic, rugged scientists out there but in Hollywood you don’t exist) he doesn’t half carry out some heroic feats – the car in the tree incident stands out.
- Can do decent CPR
- Strong hat game – nannies and governesses seem to enjoy a good hat…
- Pretending to be electrocuted probably isn’t the best way to encourage two kids to climb over an electric wired fence
- Likes to tell kids how a raptor will kill them, complete with fossilized claw demonstration
- Doesn’t actually like kids
7. Eglantine Price – Bedknobs and Broomsticks
One thing that seems to set nannies and governesses apart in film is their ability to perform magic. Now I wouldn’t dare call the likes of Mary Poppins a witch, but in the case of Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ Eglantine Price this happens to be true, she’s a witch and not a very good one.
As was the case during the Second World War, three London scallywags (complete with questionable cockney accents) are evacuated to the countryside where they are to stay with Ms Price. Only, she is far more interested in continuing to learn witchcraft through her correspondence school.
Ms Price is a reluctant carer for the children but she teaches them a good few lessons (naturally through the medium of song) before dragging them back to London in an attempt to find Professor Emelius Browne after she learns that her school is closing and she will be unable to learn her final spell.
Magical adventure ensues as well as a showdown with some Germans attempting to invade Britain. Importantly, Ms Price does a decent job of keeping the children safe throughout the shenanigans and develops a warm bond with all three of them.
- Ms Price might not be the most competent witch, but she’s a witch nonetheless which is always cool.
- She gives her cat the name Cosmic Creepers despite not believing in giving animals ‘silly names’.
- Anyone who takes on the Nazis gets brownie points
- Her methods of transport are never conventional, be it extravagant motorcycle, broomstick, or of course, a bed
- Her hat game is also strong
- She’s really more interested in magic than the children
- She’s really more interested in Mr Browne than the children
- She’s ‘exceptionally keen of hearing’, which makes whispering and plotting difficult
- This is an example of the delights on offer in her kitchen – Cabbage buds, rosehips, hyssop seed, elm bark, wattle yeast and stewed nettles.
6. The Three Good Fairies – Sleeping Beauty
I’ve long held the opinion that Mistress Flora, Mistress Fauna, and Mistress Merryweather are the actual stars of Sleeping Beauty and that Aurora is just the equivalent of Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love.
Let’s be real, the movie is literally all about the fairies’ struggle to protect, look after, and rescue the Princess Aurora after the Mistress of All Evil (Maleficent) dooms the child to an early grave on her 16th birthday.
These three raise the princess for 16 years in the middle of a forest in a woodcutter’s cottage, under the pretence that they are the girl’s aunts. All of this done without their magic. They give up their wands and (traumatically) their wings for this girl when really they were under no obligation to do so, they were only supposed to offer three gifts at the princess’…christening? Royal presentation? Whatever it is that’s happening at the beginning of the movie.
That said, they didn’t have much choice. In the immediate aftermath of Maleficent’s curse, King Stefan has the brainwave to burn all of the spinning wheels in the kingdom…only Maleficent clearly said;
“Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die.”
At this point the child has barely been born so unless she were to be dropped onto a spindle he had nothing to worry about, not to mention the fact that between then and her sixteenth birthday someone might just…make a new spinning wheel?
He should have ordered the permanent ban of all spinning wheels. Send anyone caught in possession of one straight to the gallows! I’m getting carried away…
His wife, the nameless Queen, isn’t much better. She’s the one who provokes Maleficent by asking her if she was offended at not being invited to the even. She was literally about to leave peacefully!
Anyway, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather do a decent job of looking after Aurora/Briar Rose right until the very moment they should have been at their most vigilant…dusk on her sixteenth birthday. Why they decided to leave her unattended in a tower just minutes before overcoming the curse is beyond me and I’m tempted to remove them from this list for that very reason. But, they save the day on multiple occasions and gave up sixteen years of their lives to protect one child so all in all they’ve earned their inclusion in this ranking.
- They do a pretty okay job at raising a girl without the use of their magic for 16 years.
- They help take down Maleficent (let’s face it, every heroic Prince Philip did was with the aid of the fairies)
- They give excellent gifts
- Hats are on point
- Their judgment isn’t great – not only do they leave Aurora alone to be enchanted by Maleficent but at one point Fauna suggests ‘reasoning’ with Maleficent as a way of combating the curse
- In sixteen years none of them managed to master cooking, cleaning or dress making
- They’re not great at breaking bad news, when Briar Rose gushes about her newfound love in the forest they straight up shut her down with a ‘yeah, you’re actually a princess and you’re betrothed’
5. Nanny McPhee – Nanny McPhee
At last! An actual nanny makes it onto the list! Nanny McPhee is a quintessential movie nanny; mysterious, magical, and of course, here to fix a broken family.
Mr Brown finds that since the death of his wife his relationship with his seven children has deteriorated and he can no longer handle them when they act out. Enter Nanny McPhee…
Nanny McPhee presents as an amalgamation of nannies-of-stories-past (or in the case of this list, yet to come); widowed fathers, seven *cough* von Trapp family *cough* unruly children, a series of hapless previous nannies, it’s all very by the book. But what sets Nanny McPhee apart from some of the other nannies/governesses/fairies/archaeologists on this list is that unlike others, Nanny McPhee isn’t here to be a surrogate parent to the seven tykes, she’s here to help prepare the family for a new wife/mother and restore happiness.
It’s all rather selfless of her until you remember she gets a pretty decent face-lift by the end of the movie.
- She’s actually a nanny
- Magic is always a pro – especially when it can be used to fix rattles of great sentimental value (sob)
- That big cane/stick/wand(?) that she carries is pretty bad ass
- Her motto – “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.”
- Decent hat
- Seemingly a rule for nannies of the magical disposition, Nanny McPhee leaves surreptitiously
- Her methods of teaching the children to behave can be somewhat…extreme, considering it very much looked like the youngest child was going to end up literally cooked
- She likes to pop up out of nowhere (but she will knock)
4. Anna Leonowens – The King and I
Nothing says earning your keep like travelling halfway across the world to teach Western manners to a king’s seemingly endless brood. Following the death of her husband, Anna Leonowens travels to Siam where she will work as a teacher to the King’s children and wives. It’s a fresh start for her and her forgettable son (seriously the boy disappears for most of the film and then pops up at the end to assure us that he is still alive) and the King has promised that she shall have a cute lil’ house next door to the palace.
Only, when she arrives, there is no sign of the cute lil’ house next door to the palace (a terrible breach of contract) and immediately Anna and the King are at loggerheads…except they’re not…it’s hard to really tell, one minute they have virtually no respect for each other, the next it’s side-eyes and smirks for breakfast.
Anna’s job is essentially to ‘Westernise’ the King’s children (which is part of his plan for Siam, so no harm done) and in fairness to her she does a decent job of it, teaching them revised geography, singing, manners, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Her real strength however, is in her management of the King who becomes somewhat less boorish, misogynistic, and egotistical after spending time together. Considering the time period (1862) Anna is fearlessly strong-willed taking it upon herself on several occasions to challenge the King and stand up for what she believes in (she really just wants that cute lil’ house next door to the palace, bless her). She’s also a hit with the children (a bit of a rarity amongst those in this list), the King’s wives (plural) like her, and it’s clear that the King enjoys having her around to tease and learn from.
Plus, anybody who makes Mary Poppins sound like she grew up on the streets of the East End immediately gets this far in the rankings.
- Anna is full of pearls of wisdom, like “all properly dressed English ladies always wear undergarments” (debatable) and “I don’t think there are elephants in America Your Majesty” (true).
- Keeps her promises – after the King demands that nobody’s head should rest higher than his, she begrudgingly kneels when he kneels in order to keep her end of the bargain
- Anna Leonowens was a real person – bonus points indeed!
- Despite weak hat skills, she more than makes up for it with her dresses
- Is an absolutely splendid dancer (specifically the polka)
- Before Hillary Clinton was dubbed a ‘Nasty Woman’ Anna was branded ‘a difficult woman’. Her response? “Perhaps so, Your Majesty.”
- Hmm, isn’t it interesting how quickly the children and the teaching become and afterthought once His Majesty begins treating her better?
- Gets sidetracked easily, a geography lesson quickly turns into an impromptu sing-song – and it’s all her own doing.
- Despite frequently protesting the injustices around her, Anna seems to give in all to easily on several occasions (fight for your cute lil’ house next door to the palace, woman!)
- As mentioned above, her hat game is particularly bad – what on Earth is this bonnet?!
3. Maria von Trapp – The Sound of Music
Is there a more famous governess out there? If you don’t know the story of The Sound of Music then you really must have been living under a rock (honestly, it’s on at least five times every Christmas).
The abridged version: Maria is a hopeless trainee nun (always late for Mass, curlers underneath her wimple, singing in the abbey – you get the picture) so she gets sent to work as a governess for dishy Captain von Snack – sorry! Captain von Trapp’s seven children. Their mother has died and according to the housekeeper the Captain has since run the house as if it were one of his ships “…whistles, orders. No more music, no more laughing.” Despite a frosty start, Maria soon earns the love of the children and eventually…the Captain too. Throw in a scheming Baroness, Maria’s struggle to see where she belongs, and a few Nazis and you can see why this sugary-sweet story has endured for over 50 years.
Maria’s story is not dissimilar to Nanny McPhee’s, but unlike McPhee, Maria doesn’t have the handy aid of magic at her disposal and instead manages to bring music, laughter and love back into the von Trapp family with nothing more than a guitar, a puppet show, and a ridiculous pine cone.
- That top note at the end of Do-Re-Mi…just saying
- Puts on a great puppet show
- Admittedly, Maria is a bit of a Little Miss Perfect, she can sing, play guitar, dance, make her own clothes, bicycle, row a boat (not easy), foil Nazis, and did I mention she puts on a great puppet show?
- Great during thunderstorms
- Just like Miss Price, if you take on Nazis you’re immediately a fantastic person
- Knows how to hold a wedding
- Maria von Trapp is a real person, bonus points.
- Maria is super naive, the Baroness barely has time to twirl her moustache before her scheming sends Maria out the door
- Is a terrible nun – and that’s not even me being mean, literally all the characters are in agreement, including Maria
- Both the Captain and the nuns at the abbey consider her to be ‘trouble’
- Actually, that puppet show is a bit annoying…
- Terrible hat game! The Captain orders her to remove it and I don’t blame him – look!
2. Mary Poppins – Mary Poppins
I know, I know, what’s the point in making a list like this if Mary Poppins isn’t going to sit at the top? Well, I thought long and hard and ultimately decided that it would be silver for Poppins.
The Banks children – Jane and Michael – are two naughty scallywags who scare away nanny after nanny. By naughty we’re talking a slightly messy nursery and them being late home after their kite blew away…it’s 1910 things were different then. Their parents, grumpy George and his distracted suffragette wife Winifred, place a notice in The Times for a new nanny and Mary Poppins shows up and (literally) blows the rest of the competition away.
Before long the children learn that she is no ordinary nanny. Using her ‘magic’ (she refuses to admit anything untoward ever happens in her presence) Mary Poppins teams up with her beau Bert the chimney sweep and takes the children on a range of fantastical adventures, from jumping into paintings for a jolly holiday to tea parties on the ceiling.
This is all fun and games but it’s actually Mr Banks who needed the help and not the children. Mr Banks is disinterested in his children and shows them no real love or warmth, preferring the company of the sycophants at the bank than that of his family. Thanks to Mary Poppins’ subtle meddling, Mr Banks goes through a journey of discovery of his own and by the end of the movie, the Banks family is a happier one.
- She’s inexplicably magic. She’s not a witch as Jane cleverly points out (witches have broomsticks) and she never explains anything. Where does she live? The clouds apparently. And how did she and Bert meet? So many questions…
- She can belt out a tune…Feed the Birds? Exquisite.
- She can speak to animals – and not just the animated kind, she had a full blown conversation with Andrew the dog
- As with many in this list, she shares many a pearl of wisdom, “Never judge things by their appearance. Even carpetbags.”
- Sings sarcastic lullabies
- Excellent hat
- She leaves without saying goodbye
- Games like Well Begun is Half Done are about as fun as they sound (also known as let’s clean up the nursery)
- She doesn’t believe in references – which explains why she has to use magic to remove the other candidates for her job
- Don’t expect her to help you out on the second Tuesday of the month…
- Considering her reflection has a mind of its own, I’m pretty certain that she is a witch
1. Anne Sullivan – The Miracle Worker
For so many people, Mary Poppins is the ultimate nanny and would top the lists of anyone else inclined to rank the best movie nannies/governesses etc. but then in comes Anne Sullivan to ruin it all for Practically Perfect Poppins.
Anne is summoned to the Keller family to help them cope with their daughter Helen who, after an illness in infancy, is both deaf and blind. Anne has some first hand experience in this department, being almost blind herself and having trained in a specialist school, however the Kellers learn early on that Anne has been thrown in the deep end with Helen…this is her first assignment.
Anne Sullivan is far from perfect, in fact, unlike Mary Poppins who swoops in and takes control of the Banks family immediately, Miss Sullivan has a rather bumpy start. Before her first day is through she gets walloped in the face, loses a tooth, and has to be rescued by Captain Keller after being locked in her room.
Anne spends the majority of her time at odds with Helen who takes an instant dislike to her new governess and her new rules. Unlike many of the others in this list, Anne not only has to contend with Helen but the whole Keller family who oppose her treatment of Helen (which is, not wrapping the girl in cotton wool) and actively undermine Anne’s work by continuing to mollycoddle Helen.
Anne perseveres however, and by the end of the film, more than proves her worth to the Keller family. I won’t spoil anything for those who don’t know the story but let’s just say there’s no hyperbole in calling Anne a miracle worker.
But why does Anne Sullivan, a woman whose role is to teach a deaf and blind girl to communicate, rank higher than the likes of Mary Poppins, Nanny McPhee and co? Well, because Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller were real people and everything that Anne does in the movie to try and get Helen to understand the world around her really happened.
So as much as I’d love to put MP at number one in this list, Anne Sullivan is the one who truly deserves the top spot.
- Anne certainly enjoys a good sarcastic quip – something that irritates Captain Keller to no end
- Anne uses finger spelling (a variation of sign language) to teach Helen and if you don’t come away after watching this movie knowing how to spell ‘doll’ then you weren’t paying attention
- Anne’s methods are certainly unconventional (good luck trying anything like that today) but they sure get the job done
- She’s determined – she literally spends the entire day physically fighting Helen in order to teach her manners. It works, by the end of their spat Helen ‘folds her napkin’
- Like many of the others in this list (Maria von Trapp, Anna Leonowens and Mary Poppins) Anne faces getting the sack, she successfully manages to change the Kerllers’ minds with a few choice words and home truths.
- Her hat game is meh (like poor man’s Mary Poppins hat) but she more than makes up for it with the glasses she regularly wears. Okay, so she wears them because light hurts her eyes but she pulls them off nonetheless.
- It’s a true story
- Has a tendency to lose faith in herself
- Grew up in an asylum – not her fault, but makes for some harrowing stories
- Can’t spell for toffee, which isn’t great when spelling plays a pretty important role in her teaching Helen
- Meal times are never quiet when she’s around
So there we go! The ten best nannies, governesses, protectors and guardians – let me know what you thought of this list, who would you put at number one? Have I made any glaring omissions?! Let me know in the comments.