Sunday, 23 November 2014

THE WITCHING HOUR?


In 1939 T H White wrote a sequel to  The Sword in the Stone, his highly successful account of the boyhood of King Arthur. 

The Witch in the Wood (first American edition right) told the beginnings of the story of Gawain, Agravaine and Gareth, children of the rebellious King Lot of Orkney and Out Isles and his magic-meddling wife, Morgause – but in a literary style that would be unfamiliar to anyone who has only ever read The Once and Future King in its one-volume form.

As originally recounted, the story is high in comedic content with Morgause being portrayed as a somewhat ditzy vamp who sets her cap (or crown) at every prospective male she meets, including Sir Palomides, the Orkney boys' black tutor, and (from The Sword in the Stone) the comic knights, Sir Grummore Grummursum and King Pellinore, along with the latter's suddenly less than elusive Questing Beast.


When, in 1958, White gathered his Arthurian novels into one volume as The Once and Future King, The Witch in the Wood (first British edition left) underwent a drastic revision: much of the comedy was downplayed or eliminated, the plot was trimmed back to the bone and it was retitled 'The Queen of Air and Darkness' after a line from one of A E Housman's Last Poems...


Her strong enchantments failing, / Her towers of fear in wreck, /Her limbecks dried of poisons / And the knife at her neck, / The Queen of air and darkness / Begins to shrill and cry,'O young man, O my slayer, / To-morrow you shall die.' / O Queen of air and darkness, / I think 'tis truth you say, And I shall die to-morrow; / But you will die to-day. 
It is White's later, more focused – and decidedly darker – version that I have drawn on for the third episode of the BBC dramatisation of The Once and Future King that can be heard this afternoon, on BBC Radio 4, at 3:00 pm and features the delicious Kate Fleetwood  as the sinister enchantress Morgause who turns her dark powers against the newly-crowned Arthur.



Oh, yes... and this episode also includes a flashback to Arthur's childhood and his encounter with another witch (a character from The Sword in the Stone, but later excised from TO&FK) –– Madam Mim, who made such a memorable appearance in Walt Disney's 1963 telling of White's first Arthurian tale...



The above interpretation of Madam Mim's transformations during The Sword in the Stone's celebrated Wizard's Duel is by Joshua Mattes.

'The Queen of Air and Darkness' will be repeated next Saturday 29 November at 9:00 pm and, along with the first two episode, will be available on BBC iPlayer.

Also on air today...


BBC Radio 4 Extra are currently repeating Ray Bradbury's Tales of the Bizarre, a series I co-dramatised with Catherine Czerkawska back in 1995. Tonight at 6:00 pm you can hear my adaptation of the chilling story, 'The Jar'...



By the way, the BBC website not only fails to credit the dramatist (outrage!), rather more importantly it omits the fact that the play (as with all the tales in this series) was personally introduced by Ray Bradbury!

Friday, 21 November 2014

BEAR NECESSITIES

Somewhere around forty-five years ago, I began a correspondence with Michael Bond, the creator of Paddington, which led to a friendship than ran across several years, during which time I used to visit and stay with Michael and his family.

I always loved the Paddington books: the small domestic misadventures of the marmalade-loving bear from Darkest Peru (each a single chapter in length) are perfectly pitched so as to engage and amuse the young listener (always allowing the child to be one jump ahead of the muddles blundered into by the accident prone Paddington) while providing plenty of good story-telling opportunities for the adult called upon to turn the pages!

Michael was always a generous encourager of my youthful ambitions to be a writer, but over the passing years, we eventually lost touch – until this week, when I had the opportunity of visiting my old friend and mentor to talk to him about his latest book – Love from Paddington – for tonight's Radio 2 Arts Show.


Paddington – famous for his polite manners, his ability to handle difficult situations with determination and difficult people by the use of one of his celebrated 'hard stares' – made his debut in A Bear  Called Paddington in 1958.

Although many other volumes followed, the new book is the first to be told in Paddington's own words – as he chronicles his exploits in a series of letters written from his home with the Brown of 32 Windsor Gardens to his Aunt Lucy who lives in the Home for Retired Bears in Lima...

With Love from Paddington is a nostalgic trip back to some of the young bear's most engaging escapades illustrated with a combination of pictures by Paddington's first artist, Peggy Fortnum and his current illustrator, R W Alley

You can hear my interview at 10:00 pm on the Radio 2 Arts Show with Suzy Klein sitting in for Claudia Winkleman.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

WHOSO PULLETH OUT THIS SWORD...

Fifty-one years ago, next month, the young Sibley was sitting on the edge of his seat in the Odeon cinema, Bromley waiting for the latest Walt Disney animated feature film to begin. 

The movie I was so eagerly waiting was entitled...


...and it opened (as had so many earlier Disney classics) with a book...


The legend Disney had inscribed on the hilt of that sword in that anvil on that stone was a direct quote from the volume on which the film was based, T H White's 1938 novel The Sword in the Stone. But, beyond that, it referred back to a book published by Caxton in 1485 – Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur...
Then stood the realm in great jeopardy long while, for every lord that was mighty of men made him strong, and many weened to have been king. Then Merlin went to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and counselled him for to send for all the lords of the realm, and all the gentlemen of arms, that they should to London come by Christmas, upon pain of cursing; and for this cause, that Jesus, that was born on that night, that he would of his great mercy show some miracle, as he was come to be king of mankind, for to show some miracle who should be rightwise king of this realm... 
And when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:-Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England. 
The iconic moment in the ancient legends when young Arthur succeeds where countless others have failed in drawing the sword free of the anvil and stone has been visualised in many ways across the centuries...










...through to the climactic moment in that Disney movie...


I'm mentioning all this because 'The Sword in the Stone' is the title of the second episode of my new BBC radio dramtisation of T H White's cycle of Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King broadcast tomorrow, Sunday 16 November at 3:00 pm (repeated Saturday 22 November at 11:00 pm and on iPlayer for 30 days after transmission). 

As a teaser here's young Wart (Edward Bracey) with a little encouragement from Merlyn's owl, Archimedes (Bruce Alexander), doing the legendary deed that will change his life – and mythology! – for ever!


Meanwhile, if you've not yet caught up with Episode 1, 'The Coming of Merlyn', you've still time to do so here.

The Once and Future King stars Paul Ready as Arthur and David Warner as Merlyn...


 ...and you can listen to them and other cast members (and the dramatist!) talking about the six-part series, hereas well as the behind the scenes secrets of a walking, talking mustard pot!

Many of the images above can be found (together with details of the artists responsible for them)  on The University of Rochester's Camelot Project.


Saturday, 8 November 2014

WHITER THAN WHITE


There's more to T H White's The Once and Future King than at first meets the eye... 

The bulky, 800-page book that you will find in most bookshops is, in fact, five books written across more than twenty years and only published in their entirety forty years after the author first started writing his epic...

I tell the saga of the making of the saga here – on the BBC Radio 4 Blog.

Friday, 7 November 2014

BACK TO THE FUTURE


Goodness, but it's been a long time coming...

A truly Once and Future project...

ONCE – fifty years ago – a young lad read a book entitled The Sword in the Stone...

As he turned the pages, he fell instantly in love with this quirkily magical version of the age-old legend of King Arthur as he had never heard it told before.

Having got to the last page of a book he didn't want to end, he was thrilled to find that there was still more to the story –– three more books of it in fact, in one giant volume called The Once and Future King...

Fast forward half a century into the FUTURE...


The same young lad – now a venerable old man – has taken that book and turned it into a six-part radio series for the BBC...


T H White's fantasy classic, The Once and Future King was also the inspiration for both Camelot, the 1960 Broadway musical by My Fair Lady's Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and the 1963 Walt Disney animated film, The Sword in the Stone.

The new radio dramatisation – debuting on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 9 November at 3:00 pm (and repeated on Saturday 15 November at 9:00 pm – follows Arthur's story from his boyhood as an adopted orphan to his miraculous revelation as 'Rightwise King of All England' to the creation of the Round Table and its eventual collapse in  ruins as a result of forbidden love, hatred, deceit and revenge.

To provide a framework for the telling of the tale, I turned to a fifth volume: the posthumously published The Book of Merlyn in which – on the eve of King Arthur's final battle with his bastard son, Mordred – his childhood tutor,  the enchanter Merlyn, returns to give the beleaguered monarch a final understanding of the past and a glimpse of the future...

Starring as Merlyn in The Once and Future King is David Warner...


...an actor who was not only the Hamlet of his generation but also Henry VI in The War of the Roses cycle before going on to a film and television career in which he has given dozens of unforgettable performances: as the eponymous Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment and, among many films, Time After TimeThe Omen, Tron, Time Bandits, A Christmas Carol, Cross of Iron and, more recently, with Kenneth Branagh in the TV series, Wallender.

David also played Lord Sepulchrave in my 1985 Sony Award-winning radio plays, Titus Groan and Gormenghast and – returning to the fantasy realms of Mervyn Peake – as the Artist in The History of Titus Groan that won me a BBC Audio Drama Award and which is available to purchase as a download here.

Also heading the cast are Paul Ready as King Arthur, Lyndsey Marshal as Queen Guenever and Alex Waldman as Lancelot...


You can discover more about the series including photos and interviews with myself and members of the cast on BBC Radio's The Once and Future King website page.

Why not take a trip to Camelot – it's really quite magical!


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

LIFE-LIKE

The second part of my 2010 eight-part radio series on The Musical is now available via the BBC's iPlayer. Daniel Evans (who starred in the London production of Stephen Sondheim's musical, Sunday in the Park with George) presents 'Drawn from Life', focusing on legendary musicals that – like Sunday in the Park, Gypsy and Evita – are based on the lives of real people.

As you can see below, the programme has an impressive supporting cast!


To listen again (for the next four weeks) click here

Friday, 31 October 2014

NIGHT OF NIGHTS


IT WAS a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn't so much wilderness around you couldn't see the town. But on the other hand there wasn't so much town you couldn't see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. 
The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of...
Boys.
And it was the afternoon of Halloween.
And all the houses shut against a cool wind. 
And the town was full of cold sunlight.
But suddenly, the day was gone.
Night came out from under each tree and spread.
– The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

Thursday, 30 October 2014

DEVIL TAKE 'EM!

 HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!

Although I shan't be Trick-or-Treating tomorrow night, I thought I'd introduce you to a few old friends who would be experts at the game –– a bunch of delightfully demonic beings that snuck into my luggage during a holiday in Portugal some years ago.

Contrary to his sinister appearances, the red devil on the right also serves as a rather jolly little whistle!!  

Monday, 27 October 2014

MUSICALS BY NUMBERS

A few years ago, I wrote a documentary series for BBC Radio 2 on THE MUSICAL, which gave me the opportunity to interview an impressive role-call of composers, lyricists and performers, among them John Barrowman, Maria Friedman, Sandy Wilson, Victor Spinetti, Ruthie Henshall, Don Black, Tim Rice, Elaine Paige, Richard Stilgoe, Michael Grandage and Bobby Lopez. In addition, each programme was presented by a leading star of musical theatre...

The series gets a new airing on BBC Radio 2 tomorrow evening (Tuesday 28 October) at 11:00 pm, when Sian Phillips presents 'Stories with Songs'...


This first episode available to listen to for the next four weeks (until 25 November) via BBC iPlayer

Sunday, 19 October 2014

A CAR FOR ALL SEASONS

1968: the Odeon, Bromley, and I'm sitting eagerly in the circle waiting for the main film to begin –– for the third time that week! Having seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang once, I'd no choice but to see it again – and again!


I was very far from being car-mad kid (apart from a small collection of vintage Corgi vehicles) and I eventually grew into a non-driver who gave up all attempts to learn to learn the necessary skills when I drove my Dad's car over a revolving sign in a petrol station, during a practice run, and did terrible damage to the gubbins underneath...

However, with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the 'fantasmagorical flying machine', it was love at first sight! And second... and third...

At the time, I not read the original book by Ian Fleming (published four years earlier in 1964), but, of course, I knew Fleming as the creator of the James Bond, and I had read books by the film's screenwriter, Roald Dahl.

But the real excitement about the movie was that it was the next best thing to getting a new film from my favourite fantasy filmmakers at the Disney studio. In fact, it actually felt like a Disney film – especially since it featured so many of the talented folk who, four years earlier, had given us Mary Poppins...

Only later did I discover that producer, Albert 'Cubby' Broccoli – who, after the success of Poppins was anxious to enlist the talents of the Oscar-winning song-writing team of Richard and Robert Sherman – had approached Walt Disney, and invited him to co-produce the film.

Walt declined, but generously released the Sherman Brothers from their exclusive contract with him while they worked on Chitty. Broccoli signed Dick Van Dyke to play Caractacus Potts, unsuccessfully tried to get Julie Andrews for Truly Scrumptious (settling, instead, for Sally Anne Howes who had followed Julie in the role of Eliza Dolittle in the Broadway run of My Fair Lady) and secured the talents of Poppins choreographers, Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Woods as well as Poppins orchestrator and conductor, Irwin Kostal.

The resultant was a charming confection, featuring Disneyesque whimsicality with a decidedly British twist represented by the genius production designer, Ken Adam (Night of the Demon, Dr Strangelove and, of course, the Bond movies) and cartoonist and mad-cap inventor, Rowland Emett, who designed Caractacus' crazy contraptions)...


There was also a great supporting cast of Brit character actors, including Lionel Jeffries, James Robertson Justice, Benny Hill, Stanley Unwin, Max Wall, Gerald Champion, Karl Madden, Richard Wattis, Barbara Windsor and Arthur Mullard.

Then there was that trio of Bond-folk: Gert Frobe (former Goldfinger) as Baron Bomburst, Anna Quayle (Frau Hoffner in Casino Royale) as his Baroness and Desmond Llewelyn (Q) as Mr Coggins the farmer from whom the wrecked Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is purchased.

And... and... and... the shockingly scary Robert Helpmann – one of the 20th century's greatest ballet dancers and choreographers – as the unforgettably sinister Child Catcher...



The film is full of weird moments of dark, Roald Dahl-concocted comedy, counterpointed by a wistful charm and one of the Sherman Brothers' finest scores: from the rambunctious title song to the haunting lullaby, 'Hushabye Mountain'...



Anyway...

All this is but a prelude to a plug for my forthcoming radio feature...

50 Years of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang 
broadcast tomorrow, Monday 20 October, at 4:00 pm on BBC Radio 4


The programme mentions the film (inevitably) but it is mostly a celebration of Ian Fleming's original book and tell the story of the exotic Count Louis Zborowski, who built and drove the famous original racing car 'Chitty Bang Ban'g (note: just the one 'Chitty') and how it inspired Fleming's imagination when he later came to tell bedtime stories to his son, Casper; and, later still wrote them down while recovering from a heart attack.

It's a story of happy memories and sad associations and I am joined in telling it by Fleming's nieces, Lucy Fleming and Kate Grimmond; bibliographer, Jon Gilbert; Alan Winn, Director of Brooklands Museum (where I got to ride in a vintage Bentley); children's writer (and Chitty sequel author) Frank Cottrell Boyce and my old friend, the legendary song-smith, Richard M Sherman – along with an archive snippet from a vintage Sibley interview with Roald Dahl – and a visit to artist, John Burningham who illustrated the original book...


The programme has been broadcast, but remains available to listen again on BBC iPlayer: CLICK HERE