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



 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

THAT SORT OF BEAR!

Today happens to be 88th birthday of a certain Edward Bear, better known as 'Winnie-the-Pooh' –– or 'Pooh' for short.


To mark this auspoohcious occasion, here's Pooh creator, A A Milne, reading from the adventures of his famous 'Bear of Very Little Brain'...




Tuesday, 23 September 2014

RE-IMAGINING THE MOVIES

Movie Posters are not just an integral part of the merchandising of films, many of the images that drew us to the cinema remain with us as strongly as the movies themselves: I can instantly visualise the poster-art for Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gone With the Wind, Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Godfather, King Kong, Mary Poppins and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial...

For some time now, there has been a underground movement among artists re-imagining the posters for classic films. Below is just a small selection of the diverting and intriguing interpretations to be found on the internet – often suitably aged and distressed to suggest vintage issue!

Some require a prior knowledge of the film so are probably more entertaining than of any use for actually helping sell a picture, but all of them are stylish and many of them wonderfully witty...


























 


If you've enjoyed these 'Coming Attractions', you will find many, many more at alternative movie posters

Monday, 1 September 2014

"THAT CERTAIN THING CALLED THE BOYFRIEND"

News comes of the death of British composer and playwright, Sandy Wilson, aged 90.

Wilson is best-remembered for his enduringly popular musical, The Boy Friend, written in 1953 as an affectionate, light-as-air spoof on the theatrical musicals popular in the 1920s.

Beginning life at London's Players' Theatre Club, The Boy Friend opened in the West End, in an expanded form, in 1954 and ran for 2,078 performances, making it, briefly, the third-longest running musical in West End or Broadway history after Chu Chin Chow and Oklahoma! until its record was broken by Salad Days.

The Broadway production, opening in 1954, starred Julie Andrews as Polly Browne, the central character who is search of the eponymous boy friend. It was Andrews' American debut and established her true star potential.


I interviewed Sandy Wilson, a few years ago, when I was researching and writing a BBC Radio 2 series on 'The Musical' . To be precise, I interviewed him twice!

The first 'attempt' (that's the only way I can describe it) did not go well: he was ill-at-ease, took offence at some questions, baulked at answering others, was generally reluctant to discuss the musical genre in general and refused point-blank to comment on the contemporary scene. In short, the interview was a complete and utter disaster. The man who'd written the song 'I Could Be Happy With You' was obviously anything but – and nor was I!

At the end of this uncomfortable encounter, Wilson grudgingly signed my copy of his autobiography (ironically, under the circumstances, entitled, I Could Be Happy) adding the inscription: "Well, I tried!"

The following day, I decided I wasn't going to leave it at that... I found a period greetings card in the shape of a fan featuring '20s 'flappers' in a carnival setting, wrote an abject note asking whether he might possibly consider giving me a "second chance", because I couldn't possibly conceive of our making a series of programmes for the BBC on the musical without his involvement.

He instantly replied, graciously saying that the failure of the interview was entirely his fault and, yes, he'd "be happy to try again"! So, we did: he was a pussycat and I knew what pitfalls NOT to fall into! The interview was a success and our second meeting ended with his sitting at the piano playing me some of his numbers...

Those two visits to Sandy Wilson's London flat will, for completely different reasons, long live in my memory...


In 1971, The Boy Friend was filmed by Ken Russell, starring Twiggy and Christopher Gable. The movie proved to be less about spoofing 1920s stage shows as the Busby Berkeley film musicals of the 1930s and, to Wilson's understandable chagrin, included songs written by other composers including 'You Are My Lucky Star' from Singin' in the Rain. But for all that, it had all the usual, unpredictable Russell extravagances, some brilliantly staged numbers and a top-flight cast giving terrific, high-energy performances.

Here, from that film, are the legendary Tommy Tune with Antonia Ellis and the Boys and Girls singing and dancing their way through Sandy Wilson's effervescent 'Won't You Charleston With Me?'



Alexander Galbraith "Sandy" Wilson
1924-2014

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

MOOMIN MAGIC

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Swedish-speaking Finnish novelist, painter, illustrator and comic strip author, Tove Jansson (1914-2001) who created the legendary Moomins who enchanted so many of our childhoods.

Forty years ago, I began an occasional correspondence with Tove in which she told me a little about her stories, pictures and, in particular, her admiration for Lewis Carroll.

In 1975, she sent me this adorable little drawing featuring Moomintroll, Snufkin, Sniff and their friends...



You can read more of my thoughts on Tove and her creations HERE

And you can visit the Moomins on their official website, HERE

Friday, 22 August 2014

REMEMBERING RAY

Today would have been the 94th birthday of my late literary hero, Ray Bradbury.

I'm remembering my friendship with Ray with a cartoon I made for his birthday back in 1983. The brontosaur kid is reading Ray's book, Dinosaur Tales...


And here's Ray's letter in response...

Click image to enlarge

Just one of so many happy memories... but how weird it feels to think that, at the time when we had this exchange of communications, Ray was two years younger than I am now...

Monday, 18 August 2014

PEEPING AT PIERS

BBC Radio 4 has a long and noble history of tackling the unlikely in a daring – even outrageous – way: yesterday, writer Ian Sansom, decided to attempt an adaptation of the 14th Century poetic allegory, Piers the Plowman...


Ian found himself locked away in a Curfew Tower in the Glens of Antrim...


...and, calling from a nearby phone box, seeking help from a certain radio dramatist...

You can read about this bizarre and rarefied – but rather splendid – programme here...



The programme is repeated on BBC Radio 4, next Saturday at 23:30 or, for the next six days, you can catch up with Ian Sansom's wild experiment (and my fleeting cameo) by Clicking Here! 


Friday, 1 August 2014

SIBLEY SILLINESS

I've been involved in some fairly weird and wacky radio projects over the years, but this is probably the most bizarre piece of bonkersness I've ever perpetrated...

Some time (I'm not exactly sure when) after the BBC launched Radio 5 in 1990, someone at the network came up with the idea for a zany experimental series entitled The Last in the Present Series.

Each episode was intended to spoof radio and to provide a solo vehicle for a different writer/presenter/performer. I have a vague memory that Simon Brett was another contributor – but that may be a terrible libel!

Anyway... my episode – Time for Rhyme – was a spoof radio programme in which a children's presenter (plus meddlesome kid sidekick) blunder around the network, eavesdropping on or interrupting the regular output – that's about the measure of it, EXCEPT that all the programmes also happen to feature characters or situations from well-known Nursery Rhymes.

I provided all of the voices - for better or worse – many of which are (or were) supposed to be impersonations of British household names.

So here it is: 25-minutes of Sibley silliness...


...incidentally, I'm not sure it was all my fault, but The Last in the Present Series proved to be EXACTLY THAT!!
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Sunday, 27 July 2014

WAKE-UP CALL

A Venetian angel sounds reveille…