Sunday, 21 December 2014

ALMOST THERE...

Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent...

And this poem is by the Welsh poet, R S Thomas...

The Coming

And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour.  The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
                On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky.  Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs.  The son watched
Them.  Let me go there, he said.


Saturday, 20 December 2014

WHO'S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WOLF?

Not Peter!

It was in 1936 that Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev wrote Петя и волк – or Peter and the Wolf – a composition for narrator and orchestra.

The work was commissioned by Natalya Sats and the Central Children's Theatre in Moscow as a new musical symphony for young people with the intention of cultivating "musical tastes in children from the first years of school". When it debuted on 2 May 1936, it was somewhat poorly attended and, as the composer admitted, "failed to attract much attention".

The wolf-hunting Peter has since redeemed himself and, amazingly, there are now over 400 recordings of the piece featuring just about every celebrity narrator you can imagine including actors, comedians, singers, media personalities and even politicians.

It’s hard to imagine Sir John Gielgud, Boris Karloff, Sharon Stone, Itzhak Perlman, Edna Everidge, Sean Connery and Mikhail Gorbachev having anything in common? But they have! Along with Basil Rathbone, Peter Ustinov, David Bowie, Hermione Gingold, Christopher Lee – not to mention baseball pitcher, Tom Seaver; ballet dancer, Anthony Dowell and First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt – they have all narrated versions of Peter and the Wolf.

Some of these are featured in tonight's Archive on 4 on BBC Radio 4 at 7:00 pm (just before the final episode of The Once and Future King!) in which Sir Christopher Frayling tells the story of Prokofiev's composition from it's conception to its present status as one of the best known pieces of classical music written for children.

I have a brief cameo among the contributors, discussing the Disney connection that – with the appearance of Peter and the Wolf as a segment in the 1946 animated feature, Make Mine Music – brought the work to a wider audience than the composer could have ever imagined.

The journey from score to screen began in 1938: Prokofiev was touring the USA and, having seen and been captivated by Disney's recently released debut feature length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, went to visit "le papa de Mickey Mouse". It is likely that the use of music in Snow White (and in the earlier 'Silly Symphony' cartoons) suggested to Prokofiev that Peter and the Wolf might be a suitable subject for Disney's animated treatment.


Walt Disney would later claim that the composer told him that he had the filmmaker in mind when writing the piece, but that might be no more than Disney spin – or, of course, Prokofiev's flattery! In any event, Disney heard Prokofiev playing the suite on a rickety old piano in the studio's music department and negotiations began to secure the screen rights. 

Almost 20 years after the event, in September 1957, Disney staged a recreation of that historic encounter in an episode of his weekly ABC television programme, Disneyland, with himself in jumper and a cravat as his younger self and the German-born American composer and pianist Ingolf Dahl acting (and playing) for Prokofiev...


Although this doesn't come out in tonight's programme, Disney immediately saw the composition as the perfect fit with plans: Fantasia was in pre-production and part of the intent for that animated concert was that the film would return to cinemas year on year with a changing repertoire of pieces. Peter and the Wolf was slated as one of the items to be added to Fantasia's future programme, but the film's initial failure at the box office in 1941 and the US involvement in WWII (which impacted heavily on Disney's film production) meant that it never found its place in Fantasia

It was not, therefore until 1946, when Disney released Make Mine Music: a compilation of short films mostly based on popular music and songs (often referred to as "the poor man's Fantasia") that the world got to see the Disney version of Peter's daring exploits through the winter wonderland of a snow-laden forest in pursuit of a superbly scary wolf...


The original Fantasia connection was not entirely lost as the piece opens with semi-abstract animations based on the instruments and musical motifs. The highly idiosyncratic narration is provided by Sterling Holloway, who had already voiced the Stork who delivers the baby elephant in Dumbo and Flower the Skunk in Bambi and who would go on to provide the voices of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, Kaa the Python in The Jungle Book and many others, perhaps most notably, Winnie-the-Pooh.


This edition of Archive on 4 programme proves a fascinating listen.

Friday, 19 December 2014

THAT GLORIOUS SONG OF OLD

Another vintage Sibley Christmas treat from yesteryear...


A BIRTHDAY AT BETHLEHEM
by
Brian Sibley

Starring Thora Hird and Peter Goodwright
with readings by Peter Bartlett

Music arranged by Andrew Watts and performed by Tarleton's Jig 
Directed by John Forrest
and first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 25 December 1983



Thursday, 18 December 2014

CHRISTMAS AT GREEN KNOWE

It was sixty years ago, in 1954, that Faber and Faber published The Children of Green Knowe, the first of six enchanting children's novels by Lucy M Boston, featuring imagined events in her ancient Cambridge family home, The Manor, Hemingford Grey.

Young Toseland (Tolly for short) arrives at Green Knowe in time to spend Christmas with his Great Grandmother, Mrs Oldknow. The house and its grounds soon exert a curious influence over the boy and it is not long before he finds himself encountering the spirits of three children – Toby, Alexander and Linnet – who lived at Green Knowe long before, during the reign of King Charles II.


Fifteen years ago today – 18 December 1999 – BBC Radio 4 broadcast my dramatisation of The Children of Green Knowe with Dominic Childs as Tolly and Patricia Routledge as Mrs Oldknow heading a cast that featured Bobby Williams, Jennifer Wheelan, Nicholas Hoult, Gavin Muir, Elizabeth Bell, Tom George and Gemma Saunders.

The specially-composed music was by the Fratelli Brothers and the play was directed by Marilyn Imrie.

Whether or not you know the books, hopefully you will enjoy hearing this delightful tale come alive as a piece of vintage radio magic.

It might even help you start to feel just a little bit Christmassy...


Here is a link to Lucy M Boston's books about Green Knowe and you can read all about the real Green Knowe (and how to visit) here.



Tuesday, 16 December 2014

CURTAIN CALL

Tonight on BBC Radio 2 at 11:00 pm: the eighth and final part of my celebration of The Musical on Broadway and in London's West End...



Saturday, 13 December 2014

KEEPING THE FLAME

Tomorrow's episode of The Once and Future King (BBC Radio 4, 3:00 pm), brings T H White's retelling of the Arthurian legend to an emotion-charged conclusion...

White takes his story from Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, but imbues the characters with a contemporary sensibility that makes their drama one with which we instinctively identify and sympathize.

My dramatisation is tightly focused on the central, conflicted trio of Arthur, Guenever and Lancelot and the impact of others – Gawaine, Gareth and Mordred – on their triangular relationship.


Paul Ready (Arthur), Lyndsey Marshall (Guenever) Alex Waldman (Lancelot)

The concept of there being a romance between Lancelot and Guenever (making a cuckold of the King) became a part of the legend through an old French poem entitled Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette, written around 1177 by Chrétien de Troyes. It is now a vital ingredient of the myth and, via White's 20th Century re-telling, immortalised in the Lerner and Loewe musical, Camelot and its doomful ballad, 'I Loved You Once In Silence'...


Inevitably, it is human passions and frailties – the desire for love or, out of hatred, for revenge –  that ultimately brings about the tragic collapse of the fine ideals to which Arthur had once aspired with his dream of a Round Table of noble knights committed to the revolutionary concept of 'might for right'.

The episode title, 'The Candle in the Wind' is taken from that of the final section in the 1958 one-volume edition, The Once and Future King, and symbolically refers to the fragility of Arthur's transforming vision for society. 

Did White know that Maxwell Anderson had used the title Candle in the Wind for a 1941 Broadway drama starring Helen Hayes? Probably not, any more than the 1973 translators of one of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's plays knew it had already been used or, the same year, Elton John and Bernie Taupin when writing their song of the same name in memory of Marilyn Monroe and, later, re-writing it in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales.


Youth, beauty and celebrity are, of course, as transient as ideals may sometimes be and it is  interesting to note that The Once and Future King was much-loved by the late President John F Kennedy, also tragically cut down in his prime and yet, as we subsequently learned, as flawed a human being as the Arthur and Lancelot in the book he so admired. It was seeing the book listed as a presidential favourite that spurred Moss Hart to suggest that it might provide Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe with a follow-up to their triumphant hit, My Fair Lady.

The title song they were to write (as reprised at the end of the show) carries the elegiac lines...
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot 
For one brief and shining moment 
That was known as Camelot...
As a result the Kennedy administration became known as 'Camelot' and  the history of JFK's reign as 'one brief shining moment'.

Those who have listened to the whole radio series may recall the appearance, in the first episode, of a young page named Tom... Well, in Episode 6, the young lad returns – as he does in the closing pages of White's novel where he is charged with the daunting task of shielding the candle from the wind that would so quickly put out its light. 

White's Tom was – in a final extravagant leap of the imagination – Thomas Malory, later author of Le Morte d'Arthur, but, in another sense, he is each and every one of us who as the story comes to an end is encouraged to keep the flame alive and pass on its glorious light to those who are to come...



You can hear 'The Candle in the Wind' tomorrow, Sunday 13 December, on BBC Radio 4 at 3:00 pm and on its repeat on Saturday 20 December at 9:00 pm and, afterwards, for thirty days on-line here.

There is more information about the series, T H White, the Arthurian legends together with interviews with the cast and myself on the BBC's The Once and Future King web pages.

And if you have missed the series to date, there's still two days catch up with the first episode on BBC iPlayer before Merlyn magics it into oblivion for ever...

Sunday, 7 December 2014

THE MAN BEHIND THE BOOK


This afternoon's episode of The Once and Future King takes T H White's saga based on the old Arthurian romances to a different level – a place where the human drama reaches a tortuous complexity with deceit piled on deceit and the emergence of a dark, tragic secret that has haunted Arthur for years and has fired the homicidal hatred of the King's bastard son, Mordred.

Shaun Mason as Gawaine and Joel MacCormack as his half-brother Mordred
in the BBC production, The Once and Future King

The way in which the story unfolds: revealing ever new twists and turns of human relationships that may be cast in the trappings of myth and legend but which are as modern as our own 21st century lives...  

It was what White had sensed within the pages of that earlier saga, Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. As White later told a friend, it was in 1937 that he had picked up a copy of Malory's 1485 book (about which he written a thesis when at university) and discovered – or re-discovered – something potent about Malory's writing: 
I was thrilled and astonished to find that (a) The thing was a perfect tragedy with a beginning, a middle and an end implicit in the beginning and (b) the characters were real people with recognisable reactions which could be forecast... Anyway, I somehow started writing a book.
That book, published in 1938, was The Sword in the Stone and was described by White as "a preface to Malory" since it was about the childhood of Arthur, a topic passed over by Malory.

For quite some time, 'T H White' was, for me, just a name on the cover of that book – one of the  favourites of my youth. It was a year or two before "Stephen", my best friend at school to whom I shall be always indebted for his passionate advocacy of White's writing, introduced me to some of the author's other books...

First, the rest of the Arthurian cycle (The Once and Future King), Darkness at Pemberley, Farewell Victoria, Mistress Masham's Repose, The Elephant and the Kangaroo, The Age of Scandal, The Book of Beasts, The Godstone and the Blackymor, The Master and – aside from the Arthurian books – what I think of as two of his finest pieces of writing The Goshawk and England Have My Bones...

First published in 1936, England Have My Bones was described in a later (post-Sword in the Stone edition) as follows...
In 1934, T. H. White, while residing in the countryside of Britain and Scotland, began keeping a diary to record the unique delights and constant surprises which a city dweller happens upon when he leaves the world behind. That diary, published in 1936 by G. P. Putnam's Sons, invited rapturous comparison with such masterpieces of the outdoor experience as Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler.
The poetry of fire, the mystery of trees, the marvels of trout fishing, the joy of the hunt and the delicious comfort of a blazing fire in a snug public house; the always miraculous change of the seasons, the thrill of learning to shoot, to fish, to fly a plane, to win at darts and watch a mare foal—all are recounted with a passionate enthusiasm in a wisely witty manner worthy of Merlin himself.
Only T H White could create images as indelible, phrases as memorable as these:
"The fisherman fishes as the urchin eats cream buns, from lust..."
"Dogs, like very small children, are quite mad..."
Here is the master wizard working his wonders in a magical setting. Bound to cast its spell over young and old alike, England Have My Bones is a volume to treasure.
Indeed it is...

Born in Bombay 1906, the initials 'T H' stood for Terence Hanbury (although he was always known to friends as 'Tim'); educated at Cheltenham College and Queens' College, Cambridge, he taught at Stowe School, Buckinghamshire, before becoming a writer.

In 1946, the author settled in Alderney, third largest of the Channel Islands, where he would live for the remainder of his life.

I recently acquired a postcard written by White to friends in the United States, showing his home on Alderney...



Thirteen years later, shortly before Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1960 musical, Camelot, opened on Broadway with Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, the BBC arts programme, Monitor, travelled to the Isle of Alderney where Robert Robinson interviewed – or, rather attempted to interview – White.

Playful and elusive, White seems to be giving little away, although he does – almost inadvertently – reveal a very real sense in which the character of Merlyn in The Once and Future King clearly owes much of his irascible, mercurial personality to that of his creator!


As a dramatist, I am always anxious about whether or not I am entitled to make changes (sometimes additions) to a work I am bringing to radio and I took great comfort from White's answer to then question of who he reacted to the process of having his book adapted for the stage...
THW: Some people say, 'Are you doing anything about they're doing?' Well now, if you're being painted by an artist, you let him paint you and you don't lean over his shoulder the whole time saying, 'I don't squint as much as that!' I'm not interring with Lerner and Loewe; let them get on with it...

RR: Well, do you think they're going to interfere with you?

THW: No... Well, I don't mind if they do. If they think I squint let them say so!
I hope he'd have been as tolerant of my interferences as (according to Alan Jay Lerner's autobiography) he was of the transition of The Once and Future King into Camelot

 Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet and Roddy McDowall in Camelot.
© Al Hirschfeld, The Margo Feiden Galleries Ltd., New York

Episode 5 of The Once and Future King are featured on the current edition of Radio 4's Pick of the Week. You can listen here.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

THE PLAY'S THE THING!

BBC Radio 2's repeat of the eighth-part series I researched and wrote about The Musical, continues tonight with 'From Page to Stage' in which Sheila Hancock explores some of the musicals that have succeeded (or flopped!) on Broadway and in the West End where the show's 'books' (as the libretti are known) have been literally drawn from the pages of some of the greatest novels by the world's greatest writers...


The Musical is broadcast on BBC Radio 2 at 11:00 pm and remains available on iPlayer (along with some earlier episodes) for 40 days.

And here's tonight's presenter, Sheila Hancock (along with George Layton and Brian Murphy), being interviewed by me a few days ago at The Cinema Museum as part of an 80th birthday tribute to the late Roy Kinnear...


ANOTHER YEAR...

...another birthday! But, magically, David Weeks never seems to age a day! Must be some sort of hocus-pocus!


HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAVID!

Photo: Mark Hesketh-Jennings

THE LION'S SHARE

In tonight's episode of The Musical (BBC Radio 2, 11:00 pm), Julia McKenzie – who has starred in such Sondheim musicals as Follies, Into the Woods and Side By Side By Sondheim – explores some of the shows that have enjoyed such success that they've become permanent residents on Broadway and in London's West End while generated huge fortunes for their creators.

The programme also gives an airing to the legendary Forbidden Broadway productions which have mercilessly sent up some of this musical money-makers.



You can listen to the programme here.