BRIAN SIBLEY : his blog
my world and welcome to it
Sunday, 19 March 2023
Tuesday, 14 March 2023
Wednesday, 21 December 2022
GHOSTS OF SCROOGES PAST
From my Christmas Carol archive: memories of three theatrical Scrooges: Patrick Stewart, Anthony Newley (and Scrooge composer, Leslie Bricusse) and Tommy Steele.
I sent my programme for the Patrick Stewart one-man production – which one of the greatest pieces of theatre I have ever seen – to (what was then) The Albery Theatre and never getting it back, despite having enclosed return postage! But then, some 18-months later, long after I'd given up on ever seeing it again, the signed programme miraculously materialised, like one of Scrooge's ghostly visitors!
I can't recall how I got the Anthony Newley and Tommy Steele programmes signed, I probably left them with the Stage Door keepers (I was never one for haunting Stage Doors, waiting for the star to leave after a performance) but I certainly remember the circumstance of getting Leslie Bricusse to add his signature to the Newley Scrooge programme.
It was in Beverley Hills where I was interviewing Mr Bricusse for one of my radio shows. After he'd signed the programme, knowing his interest in Dickens and Ebenezer Scrooge, I gave him a copy of The Unsung Story, my book on A Christmas Carol. He received it enthusiastically and then, suddenly jumping up, he rushed from the room calling back over his shoulder: "I've got something for you that you absolutely won't have in your Dickens collection!" He returned with a copy of the Japanese libretto for the Tokyo production of Scrooge to which he added a typical inscription...
Tuesday, 13 December 2022
THE PUPPET'S BACKBONE
After the truly shameful live-action version of Pinocchio recently released by Disney (a total betrayal of their great animation heritage) the prospect of another movie based on Pinocchio could only come with the knowledge that it couldn’t be worse than the one we’d just been given! As it happens it is, proportionally, as wonderful as its forerunner was dire.
If one could pick any director to film the story of a puppet that earns the right to become a real boy, Guillermo del Toro – having a reputation for emotionally complex movies – clearly deserves a place in any list of contenders and, with this truly astonishing film, he has not only proved himself worthy of the task, he has delivered what is nothing short of a masterpiece.
The medium in which del Toro has chosen to present this cinematic work of art is the time-consuming, labour-intensive craft of stop-frame animation. It is a technique as old as cinematography: it was responsible for some of film’s earliest experiments in conjuring the illusion of life, the amazing films of Czech puppet film-maker Jiří Trnka, Willis O'Brien’s legendary behemoth, King Kong, Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaurs and demons and the adorable menagerie of Aardman Animations. For this project del Toro has collaborated with Mark Gustafson who was responsible for the animation direction in Wes Anderson’s 2009 adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Of course, del Toro’s Pinocchio is no closer to Carlo Collodi’s nineteenth century children’s story than was Walt Disney’s 1940 animated classic but – despite the undoubted moments of terror in Uncle Walt’s telling – del Toro has plumbed every nuanced psychological depth of the concept of a man-made creature given life that has been an ever-present narrative trope from Ovid’s Pygmalion and Galatea, via Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Chucky in the film Child’s Play and after.
Del Toro’s “little puppet made of pine” is no finely chiselled and polished marionette; he is a grotesque mockery of a child, crudely cobbled into being by an inebriated, grief-stricken Geppetto. We are in familiar del Toro territory: Pinocchio is a freak, a misfit, an outsider and a potential threat to everyone who conforms to societal norms. In a touching true moment of innocent self-understanding, Pinocchio compares his misaligned limbs with those of Geppetto’s finely carved figure of the crucified Christ (himself an image of the dangerous outsider) in the hillside village church.
The script of this – the 22nd cinematic variation on the Pinocchio theme – admittedly plays faster and looser with Collodi’s didactic text than even Disney’s script-writers: the explosive puppet-theatre showman is neither Collodi’s Mangiafuoco nor Disney’s (volcanically named) Stromboli, he is, here, Count Volpe: an amalgam of the original man-mountain of malignancy (his original puppet-persona is still to be glimpsed as one of the carnival’s background-freaks) combined with the wily Fox and his side-kick Cat who were the stand-out rogues of the Disney version seducing Pinocchio from the straight-and-narrow with the romantic dream of “an actor's life.” In this new incarnation, the film’s central villain focuses the myriad ideas and forces that oppose Pinocchio's naive integrity.
Collodi’s life-empowering Fairy with Turquoise Hair (Disney’s Hollywood-blonde Blue Fairy) is here transformed into an wondrous being: a mystical blue creature with wings of eyes like some Biblical phenomenon that del Toro names a Wood Sprite – the spirit not just of the woods, it seems, but of all things wooden – who with her similarly blue, many-eyed horned sister – are ancient, fantastical, creatures from a hitherto unexplored cavern in Pan’s labyrinth.
As in Disney, the talking cricket (so swiftly and violently dispatched by Pinocchio in Collodi’s novel) assumes the role of storyteller with the task of having charge of Pinocchio’s moral education given new meaning by his actually living in a knot-hole in the puppet’s chest.
The cricket (or to give him his new, grandiose name ‘Sebastian J. Cricket’ is spoken – and sung – for by Ewan McGregor in a mix of bug bemusement and human irritation while David Bradley (in his third movie for del Toro) gives us the perfect Geppetto – a damaged soul, haunted by the past, wounded by loss and wrestling with those issues that have – throughout history – confronted fathers and sons. There is a starry line up of supporting voices including Christoph Waltz (as the, by-turns, charming and malevolent Count Volpe), Tilda Swinton (and the Sprite and Death) and an impressive vocal performance from young newcomer, Gregory Mann, as the titular character.
Eschewing the original period of the book in favour of Second World War Italy under ‘Il Duce’, del Toro gives uses his seemingly innocent puppet show to address a vast agenda of topics including war and peace, faith and disbelief, trust and deceit, wisdom and folly, grief and joy, cowardice and courage and, ultimately – in Geppetto’s relationship with both his long dead son and his own self-carved replacement – we are asked to grapple with nothing less than matters of life and death.
The scenario hurtles towards its climax in narrative territory with which we are familiar from book and earlier films: Geppetto’s rescue bid to save his wayward puppet-child leading to Pinocchio’s quest to save his creator-father from the monstrous dog-fish that has swallowed him and his little boat. The ending, however, is not quite what we may have been expecting, but – without spoiling your discovery – it is one that not only feels true to everything that has gone before but also, perhaps, the only place where del Toro could possibly ring down the curtain.
There are many moments en route to that place when – so bound up are we in this story and its telling – that it is difficult to remember that all the characters in this intimate drama are puppets – not just the one who looks like a puppet!
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio achieves what only truly great animation can achieve: permission for an audience to invest in the sheer wonderment of story and characters and so allow themselves to be moved to laughter and tears by the age-old magic of puppetry.
Thursday, 8 December 2022
I am a devout and devoted ‘Dickensian Christmas Caroller’! (Did you know I am obsessed with Dickens’ famous “Ghost Story of Christmas”? Or that I once wrote a book about it?) So it’s always a case of anticipated pleasure when a December rolls around offering a new version of the best-known Christmas story outside of those in the Gospels!
Netflix’s Scrooge: A Christmas Carol, is very much an animated movie for our times: slick, brittle-hard, animation (oh, how I yearn, instead, for the humanity of Aardman’s Plasticine world); cute (but oddly unlovable) doe-eyed moppets; clumsy diversity-realigned characterisations (Scrooge’s nephew with an Indian Raj bride and even a hajib-wearing Londoner spotted in the crowd scenes); ratcheted-up grotesquery and exhausting, eye-tiring, over-the-top special effects sequences. Oh, yes, and there’s a dog: a bloodhound inherited by Scrooge from his “dead to begin with” partner, Jacob Marley.
There is, of course, the obligatory starry voice cast: headed by the ubiquitous Luke Evans as Ebenezer Scrooge but with standout performances from a chilling Jonathan Pryce as the icy spectre of the late Mr. Marley and a cosy, quirky Olivia Colman as a mercurial Ghost of Christmas Past candle.
On the plus side (and every version of A Christmas Carol, although sometimes challenging to identify, will have occasional redeeming features), there are one or two smart plot embellishments such as having the young Scrooge working in a blacking factory and the put-upon clerk, Bob Cratchit, being (without knowing it) the son of one of those who, many years before, had been cruelly brought to ruin by Messrs Scrooge and Marley.
What really got me through this over-long, over-done interpretation were the sharp lyrics and fuzzy sentiment of the songs by the late Leslie Bricusse. It was, I admit, a case of chronic nostalgia for I first heard these songs on a December night, fifty-two years ago, when my best friend and I attended a royal charity premiere for Ronald Neame’s film musical, Scrooge, starring Albert Finney as Dickens’ “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”
Later that evening, fuelled with the spirit of Christmastide (and a few ‘rum-and-blacks’) I recall we danced our way down Charing Cross Road singing Bricusse’s particularly catchy little ditty, ‘Thank You Very Much’ to the bemusement of passers-by.
In 1992, Bricusse reworked the musical for the stage with his long-time friend and creative collaborator Anthony Newley (Stop the World – I Want to Get Off) as the titular humbug, a role later revived by Tommy Steele. Obviously, being the Carol nerd that I am, I saw both these titanic (if idiosyncratic) legends in the role.
It is the case, therefore, that these songs have been part
of my musical psyche since I was 21-years-old and – alongside the carols that
I’ve known since my childhood – are an indelible element of my personal
Christmas soundtrack. Maybe that fact may have softened what might otherwise
have been a less tolerant review of the new movie, but – as is almost always
the case with adaptations of this book (think of the versions with Alastair
Sim, George C. Scott, Kelsey
Grammer, Mickey Mouse, The Muppets or Mr Magoo) something always
comes through – powerfully or obliquely – of Dickens’ miraculous concoction of jollity
and sorrow, hope and regret, the innocence of youth and the sagacity of age,
searing social commentary, warm-hearted, open-handed Christian compassion and
the very essence of ‘Christmasness’ as only this literary alchemist could
Saturday, 5 November 2022
BELIVE IT OR NOT...
FIFTY-ONE days to Christmas! How do I know? The first of the big store Christmas commercials have debut! For example, in a year when – to be fair – there has been so much about which to be doubtful, Lidl have come up the slogan:
LIDL, A CHRISTMAS YOU CAN BELIEVE IN!
I wonder what sort of a Christmas you can't believe in?
Maybe one featuring the story of a young, heavilly pregnant girl and her husband, finding themselves homeless in a strange city on a night in the bleak mid-winter...?
[Illustration: Lesley Fotherby; Sibley/Weeks Collection]
Tuesday, 1 November 2022
STICKS AND STONES...
What the hell is happening to our language?
Why are we allowing our communities, society, country, world to be divided not just over our ideologies but in the manner we express our distaste, antipathy, detestation for one another.
Maybe it is a symptom of our willfully and irrevocably fractured twenty-first century human relationships, but as the UK’s Home Secretary hysterically – and disgracefully – refers to the arrival of immigrants as ‘an invasion’ and perpetuates the dangerous fiction that all immigrants are 'illegal', those who respond to the stench of smouldering hatred are driven to join in the same name-calling language of a playground for grown-up children.
Suella Braverman shouts across the chamber of the House of Commons that her opponents are ‘Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati’ and when, a few days later, she weaponsises the ever-present fear of ‘the stranger’, ‘the outsider’, those who are ‘not like us’ as being comparable to a hostile army, the opposition – by which I don’t just mean ‘His Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition’, but everyone who doesn’t buy into her grotesque rhetoric – are seemingly left with no adequate response but reciprocal, equally meaningless, label-sticking.
of our British broadcasters whom I most admire (and whose political
stance I admit to sharing) is now referring to those who stamp and cheer
at Braverman’s rabble-rousing as the nothing more than response of the
‘gammon and pineapple’ brigade, while one of his colleagues (with whom I
am also, more often than not, in agreement) dismisses the fulminations
of the Braverman rant as a crowd-pleaser for the grey-haired oldies in
the Home Counties’ golf-clubs.
I don’t play golf (although I have putted around a seaside crazy-golf course a couple of times); I do read the Guardian; I’m not quite sure how often I’ve eaten tofu and I certainly haven’t eaten gammon and pineapple for a good few years, although I happily would because I think it’s a tasty combination – just as I enjoy pork-and-applesauce or chicken-and-redcurrant-jelly – but these idiotic disparagements are a poor, simplistic reaction to the current degeneration of our social discourse. ‘Your mum’s an ugly old cow!’ or ‘Your dad’s a stinky old poof!’ are but the prologue to the post-2016 yells of ‘Brexiter’ and ‘Remoaner’ and enthusiastically set the stage for red-faced, factioneers screaming ‘Communist’, ‘Fascist’ and any other incendiary invective that will arm and empower people against other people.
When and how can those of us who want to resist society’s Gadarene stampede to the cliff-edge stop ourselves from embracing this grotesque communal hostility that aids no one other than those who seek further division for their own self-enhancing ends?
What language do we have left with which to speak reason to ignorance and truth to power? Whatever it is we need, we’d better find it and start using it pretty damn soon.
Monday, 31 October 2022
TIME TO GATHER AROUND THE HALLOWEEN TREE
In only a few years, Halloween in Britain has gone from being a totally American and utterly un-British (and therefore inexplicable) holiday to being up there in the UK marketing and merchandising league with Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day.
Even though our stores are now annually full of Halloween paraphernalia,
there is precious little cultural knowledge in Britain about the
Catholic feasts of All Hallows (or All Saints) and All Souls celebrated
on 1st and 2nd November, or of the European traditions, superstitions
and amusements that preceded them on October 31, known as All Hallows’
Eve – or Hallowe'en…
But, if you'll take my advice, you'll, instead, hitch a ride with the mysterious Mr Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud in The Halloween Tree.
First published in 1972, this is an autumnal conjuring trick by that literary magician, the late Ray Bradbury, with haunting tombstone-black-and-white illustrations by Joe Mugnaini.
The cadaverous Moundshroud leads a group of youngsters on a frantic time-travelling jaunt through the “deep, dark, long, wild history of Halloween,” beginning within the shadow of the Halloween Tree…
The pumpkins on the Tree were not mere pumpkins. Each had a face sliced in it. Each face was different. Every eye was a stranger eye. Every nose was a weirder nose. Every mouth smiled hideously in some new way.
There must have been a thousand pumpkins on this tree, hung high and on every branch. A thousand smiles. A thousand grimaces. And twice-times-a-thousand glares and winks and blinks and leerings of fresh-cut eyes…
So, maybe when the little terrors come around knocking our knockers tonight, we should slip a copy of Mr Bradbury's classic into their Trick or Treat bags – then they might know why they were doing what they were doing and, if nothing else, at least it wouldn't rot their teeth!
I travel back in time thirty-seven years...
It is 1980 and, after six years of corresponding with Ray Bradbury, we meet for the very first time when I interview him at the offices of his London publishers.
The book that I take with me on that occasion to ask him to inscribe is the first UK edition of The Halloween Tree...
In 2006 came another gift from Ray Bradbury: an e-mail in which he recounted a short history of how the Halloween Tree came to be planted and how it grew and put forth its unique autumnal fruits...
The Halloween Tree came about because I had lunch with [legendary Bugs Bunny animator] Chuck Jones forty years ago; he had just become a new friend.
The night before, an animated [Peanuts] film - The Great Pumpkin - had been on TV. My children disliked it so much that they ran over and kicked the TV set, along with me, because the whole idea of the Great Pumpkin supposedly arriving and then not arriving was incorrect to me. It was like shooting Santa Claus on the way down the chimney!
Chuck Jones and I agreed that we didn't like The Great Pumpkin, though we did admire Charlie Schultz, the cartoonist, very much. Then Chuck said, "Why don't we do a really good film on Halloween?" I said, "I think we could. Let me go home and bring something."
So I went home and brought Chuck a large painting of a Halloween Tree that I had painted down in the basement with my daughters a few years before.
Chuck took one look at it and said, "My God, that's the genealogy of the holiday. Will you write a screenplay on this?" I said, "Yes, hire me!" So Chuck Jones and MGM hired me to write a TV script called The Halloween Tree.
Several months down the road, MGM decided to turn its back on animation, so they closed their unit and fired Chuck and me. I had nothing to do then so I took the script and wrote the novel of The Halloween Tree.
Later I wrote a second script for the final animated film, which was done by Hanna-Barbera a few years later, for which I received an Emmy Award for the script.
About three years ago I produced Something Wicked This Way Comes at a theater in Santa Monica and on Halloween night my biographer, Sam Weller, drove me to the play and then home again at around 10:30 at night and on the way, in four different yards we saw that people had placed pumpkins, real ones or papier mache, lit with candles in trees in their front yards.
Now, there are Halloween Trees beginning to appear all over the United States and I realized that with my story and that picture that I painted down in the basement with my daughters more than forty years ago, I've changed the history of Halloween in the entire country.I've discussed this with the Disney people and suggested that they invite me to Disneyland on Halloween night and put up a tree full of papier mache pumpkins and have me there to turn on the whole thing. They would make themselves and me part of the future history of Halloween because no trees existed forty years ago – they began to appear only after my book and my film.The Disney people haven't reacted so far because, I believe, the notice is very short. If we don't do it this year I'm hoping that Disney will invite me out next Halloween and initiate the birth of the Halloween Tree and the history of the holiday.It's been an interesting experience for me and it thrills me to think that 100 years from now there will be Halloween trees all across our world...
And here's what it looks like...
I love the stunning design: the sweep of Moundshroud's great bat wings, the cadaverous features, the way in which he powers his way across the inky crosshatched night sky blistered with stars...
Alas, too late now to ask either Joe or Ray why the orientation of the picture was altered, although one answer might be that, in the book, having him fly towards the right-hand page-turning made more sense as it carried the reader towards the next part of the story...
Well, that, at any rate, is my theory!
Inevitably then, tonight, my thoughts will turn to my late, dear friend.
'Trick or Treat, Ray? ––– What do you say?'
You can read more about Ray Bradbury and his books in my profile of him The Bradbury Machine.
You will also find many pages of information about the author and his work on the excellent internet site, Bradbury Media.
And, if you haven't heard it already, here's a radio programme I made in 1998 featuring an interview with Ray – Encountering the Illustrated Man...