Saturday 30 June 2007


Whenever I remember sitting my 'A' Level Geography exam, I break out in a cold sweat! I had only studied for it for a year (along with English and Art which, happily were both plain sailing) and, perforce, had revised "selectively" --- wrongly!

Siting all alone in an otherwise empty classroom (this was a Secondary Mod, where nobody took academic 'A' Levels), I opened up the question paper when the adjudicating teacher said I could do so and began reading the contents of the first page...

Then I turned over and read the questions on the other side...


I turned back and read all the questions again...

Yep, I was right: I didn't know the answer to any of them!

So I answered half of one question on the industrial economy of the Rhur, a third of another one on South American Rain Forests and finally managed a not very long paragraph on winds in which I described the jolly faces on Ptolemy's Geographia...

All of which explains why - whilst laughing - my heart goes out to the following hapless exam students who bravely (if unwisely) demonstrated that they knew what they didn't know!

Click on images to enlarge

Friday 29 June 2007


Now, I know that there were film-goers and film-moguls who swore that 'talkies' would never catch on...

Not only that, but there were similar nay-sayers who didn't believe that anyone would want to watch movies in colour or wide-screen or with stereophonic sound and, indeed, they were all proved hopelessly wrong, but... well...

I really do wonder at the announcement this week by DreamWorks' Mr Jeffrey Katzenberg that he has looked into his Hollywood crystal ball (never the surest of devices, god knows) and has foreseen a rebirth of that '50s film fad, known as --- 3D!

Katzenberg announced - and it certainly sounds as if he believes it: “I can honestly say to you with every ounce of conviction in my being - I have seen the future of movies, and this is it.”

And so sure is he, that all DreamWorks Animation from 2009 will be made in 3D. And live-action films, he says, will follow suit - especially since projecting in 3D will deliver a devastating broadside to would-be movie pirates.

Now, I'm the first to admit that Jeff is one hell of a smart cookie (all those Shrek movies and, before that, a string of much-lauded hits for Disney including The Lion King) but is he right to put his shirt (and that of Messrs Spielberg and Geffen) on the fact that we're going to start donning those wretched 3D glasses again every time we go to our local multiplex?

Nowadays, of course they're Polaroid - as opposed to the old cardboard variety with one red eye and one green (later, blue) eye - but it's always been a bit of naff idea: fine for some sort of quirky novelty such a Muppet film in a Disney themepark or a Nostalgia Night screening of Vincent Price in The House of Wax...

But surely not the way to view 'proper' movies...?

Mr K, however, is unconcerned... “Once [audiences] realise that glasses are an essential part of a 3D movie-going experience," he says, "the glasses companies will be the first to take charge.” So, no doubt we can soon expect Optical Express to be offering a free pair of 3D specs with each prescription and a range of expensive designer-frames from Paul Smith, Police, Ray-Ban and D&G...

The really odd thing is that Mr K (who is apparently attempting to get fellow Hollywood honchos to follow his lead) says that the new-look 3D will be gimmick-free - a slight confusion over terminology there, I'd have said - with nothing popping up, poking out or projecting through the screen at us: “I’m not interested in breaking the proscenium. Any time you tweak people on the nose and become overt about what you’re doing you break the bond that exists between them and the movie.”

Hmmm... But will we accept 3D if it stops punching us on the nose or slapping a custard pie in our face?


After all, there's already a form of three-dimensional entertainment that is free from any such tomfoolery ----- it's called THEATRE!

Thursday 28 June 2007


What is a Moomin? You could say it is something like a small white hippo but with a bit more tail, but it really doesn’t get you very far…

Basically, when it comes to Moomins, you’re either a Moomin person or you’re not…

Some months ago, while snooping round one of numerous blog-sites of animator and illustrator Elliot Cowan, I realised that he was a Moomin person. I knew this the moment I came across a haunting little drawing entitled ‘Tove Tribute’…

Then, this week, Elliot posted a blog, More Tove

So, what is a Tove? Well, like Moomins, you either know or you don’t…

There are, of course, toves (of the "slithy" variety) referred to in the poem 'Jabberwocky', but Tove - in connection with Moomins - is Tove Jansson (1914-2001), the Finnish artist and writer who wrote in Swedish and whose name, as she told me in a letter once, was Norwegian: “The first Tove, a princess, is said to have been buried in a sea shell. In Hebrew, ‘Tove’ means ‘good’.”

Any Moomin fan will think both those linguistic associations are appropriate to the woman who created the Finn Family Moomintroll: Moominpapa, Moominmama and their son Moomintroll...

And Moomintroll's friends Snufkin and Sniff, the Snork and the Snork Maiden, the Muskrat, Tooticky, Ninny, Mimble and Little My, assorted Hemulens and Thingumy and Bob...

Not to mention the terrifying Groke and the spooky Hattifatteners --- seen here in 3-D form as presented to me by my good friend and fellow Moomin-fan, Emma!

I first met the Moomins in 1954 in the daily comic strips written and drawn by Tove Jansson, which appeared in the Evening News that my Dad used to bring home from work each night.

Tove’s brother, Lars took over the strips in 1961, in which year, Puffin Books (God bless ‘em!) published the first paperback edition of Tove’s novel, Finn Family Moomintroll translated from the original Swedish. This was followed by, among others, Comet in Moominland, Moominsummer Madness, Moominland Midwinter and Tales from Moominvalley. Eight novels in all, plus various delicious picture books…

What captivated me about the chronicles of Moominland was the combination of fantastical storytelling with exquisite black-and-white illustrations that evoked feelings of warmth, happiness and security, shadowed by a hint of sadness, longing and regret, and tinged with a kind of yearning that is both nostalgic and elegiac.

In Moominvalley, everyone - however curious or odd: an invisible child or a cross-dressing Hemulen - was welcomed and accommodated somewhere in the tall, tower-like Moomin House.

It is tolerant world in which love is unconditionally guaranteed and where every individual is allowed - encouraged - to be themselves without criticism or censure; a world where home is the safe, centered heartbeat of life to which the inhabitants always return but from which they are also free to set off on adventurous quests in search of whatever might lie over this mountain or beyond that sea…

I always wanted to write to Tove as a youngster, but to a child of the ‘50s, Finland might as well have been on the moon; and, indeed, Tove (with her life partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä), lived on a small island called Klovharu, that, in the days before instant global communications, was about as remote as you could wish an island to be.

Although I never wrote that fan-letter, I loyally maintained my love of Moominvalley into adolescence and beyond, by which time I had found her beautiful adult novel about childhood and old age, The Summer Book, which has recently been republished along with a companion volume of stories, The Winter Book, and one of Tove's novels, Fair Play, all of them accompanied by considerable contemporary hoop-la in the form of endorsements from the likes of Esther Freud, Ali Smith and Philip Pullman.

Anyway, twenty years after first falling in love with the Moomins, I finally decided to attempt to make contact with Tove.

In the meantime, I had discovered that she had also illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and, at the time, I was working a book (that has never seen the light of day) about interpretations of Lewis Carroll’s story in the popular media.

So it was that, in 1975 we began a correspondence that ran, on and off, until 1995, during which time, we exchanged letters and cards and Tove sent me several books and a hand-drawn greeting that is now one of my most treasured treasures…

Tove wrote to me at length about Hans Andersen and Lewis Carroll (she had also illustrated The Hunting of the Snark) and talked about how, as a child, she had initially disliked the Alice books:
Reconstructing afterwards is difficult, one is afraid not to be honest, but I believe that I felt Carroll’s anguish and reacted by fright.

Of course, I read Alice again, 20, maybe 30 years later, still without knowing anything about Lewis Carroll’s life - and I was fascinated, enchanted. Most of all by his unbelievable capacity of [sic] changing everyday reality into another underground-reality, more real, overwhelmingly so - one dives into the depths and stays there until the end. It is nightmarish.

As far back as I can remember, I have had nightmares, maybe that was why I couldn’t like Lewis Carroll as a child. In 1966, when I illustrated the Swedish translation of Alice in Wonderland, I read about his life, and understood…
Being at the time a relatively successful broadcaster with a string of BBC radio profiles of children’s writers to my credit, I made several attempts to make a feature about Tove and her world.

She eluded me for years and then, when she finally turned 80 and was far from well, she wrote to say that she had at last reached an age where she could now be excused a process which she had “disliked and feared” as long as she could remember. “Now it’s final,” she said, “and a great relief.” She signed off saying, “Hope you understand. Have a fine winter…”

Of course I understood, but the disappointment was sharp and still smarts.

In our correspondence I had told her - many times over, I imagine - how much and why I loved her work, but, too late I realised that there was still so many other things that I longed to ask her...

Had I managed to find my way to her and Tuulikki Pietilä's little house on Klovharu, I should have liked to ask her thoughts on Tolkien since she had illustrated The Hobbit but, like her drawings for The Snark, it has never been published outside Sweden. And I would have asked about her extraordinary understanding of youth and age; about the sense of longing and loss that runs through her books; and, most of all, about her acutely-felt perceptions of love, parenthood and friendship.

Then, if we had reached that far in the conversation, I might even have had the courage to ask her perceptions on same-sex relationships…

Well, alas, that was not to be, but in her letters she at least revealed some insights into the mysteries of creativity.

So, for Elliot (whose been nagging me for ages to write about Tove) and other Moomin fans, here are just a couple of thoughts from the Mistress of Moominland…
It is so very difficult to know in what degree one’s work has been influenced… How can I know when I portrait [sic] my own anguish, or dreams, or memories - or somebody else’s? There [are] constant influences… a lot of them maybe part of the big addition ending up in, say, writing or drawing…

Whatever they may be, they are possibly drowned in the everlasting stream of impressions where one never knows what is one’s own and what is a gift from outside…

[Photo of Tove by her brother, Per Olof Jansson]

Wednesday 27 June 2007


It's always hard to know with the Internet, isn't? Fascinating fact of foolish fallacy?

Every day, in addition to our regular diet of spam, we receive funny stories, touching messages, and incredible photographs many of which, we are told, are absolutely genuine and, what's more, carry with them special bonuses in the way of unspecified luck or unidentified miracles --- providing we forward them to at least 10 of our friends within the next five seconds in order to similarly clutter up their mail boxes!

Two recent - equally dubious - images have come my way...

The first, which came as part of a Microsoft PowerPoint slideshow, depicted a lakeside rock formation that - with the mirror reflection in the water - looked like a mother and child at prayer....

According to the accompanying text...
This picture shows a rock on a sea in Birmania, it is only possible to see this once a year with a special angle of the sun and special light conditions. Bend you head to the left to see how spectacular it is.
Hmmm, I thought, even before I started receiving e-mails with variant texts that either question or endorsed the picture's authenticity.

So, the truth?

Well, not too surprisingly, it turns out to be a piece of art: the work of the Korean illustrator, Kim Jae-hong...

So, next time you get a copy of this image, you can only send it on to ten or more other people if you also promise to tell them the truth about it! Otherwise, something terrible will happen to you! I won't say what, but just remember Pinocchio...

Now, here's another photograph that, this time, at least looked like a photograph...

However, it also looked like a photograph that had undergone a serious amount of Adobe Photoshoping. Allegedly taken in Montana, the supposition is that the eagle swoops in, grabs the fox in middle of its having a snack and carries him off for a real dinner!

The truth?

The picture was snapped in South Finland by Finnish photographer, Pekka Komi, as part of a genuinely amazing series of shots in which the fox and the eagle haggle over who's getting lunch...

And - as the final shot reveals - the fox actually lived to feast another day.

Pekka Komi's pictures can be viewed here.

Interestingly, on one blog-site, Field Notes, where the photo was being discussed, many people continued to maintain that it had been 'doctored' even after the sequence shown above had been referenced. Here's a typical response...
Looks fake as hell to me... and any old web sight cant conferm [sic x 3] it either... The position of the fox... the eagle... size relation... it seems pretty sketchy to me...
"WHAT is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer," wrote Francis Bacon in his essay On Truth...

Nowadays, of course, one would simple tell Pilate that the first thing he should do is check out Hoax Slayer: my source for the verifications above and a regular and invaluable port of call when surfing the dangerous waters of the www...

Tuesday 26 June 2007


A Prayer to be said
on Approaching Old Age

Dear Lord,
Grant me the senility to forget
the people I never liked,

the good fortune to run into the ones I do,
and the eyesight to tell the difference.

[Image: © Brian Sibley, 2007]

Monday 25 June 2007


Sir Michael Hordern once complained to me about the obsessive behaviour of a relatively shortish actor (and fellow knight) with whom he was working. Giving the gentleman in question a pitying look, he turned to me with a dismissive grunt and murmured, "Little man's disease!"

Not very gracious, but there is a common, if erroneous, assumption - particularly among tall people (who naturally feel easily threatened!) - that small people frequently make up for their deficiency in height by exhibiting excessive self-importance or even ruthless ambition...

For example, Napoléon Bonaparte (who featured in a recent blog) is often depicted as a midgit megolamaniac in comparison with his towering nemesis, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.

Now, as it happens, Napoléon was only 5 foot 6.5 inches in height; however, it is perhaps surprising to discover that Britain's hero of WWII, Sir Winston Churchill, was all of half an inch shorter at 5ft 6in --- as, indeed, were Tutenkhamen, Beethoven, Stalin and the Marquis de Sade; and as are Elijah Wood, Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman, Raquel Welch and Twiggy.

To be short on inches, therefore, does not mean being short on talent or leadership ability: Lord Nelson, T E Lawrence (of Arabia) and Marilyn Monroe were each 5 foot 5-and-a-half inches; Harry Houdini was 5' 5"; Mahler, Mozart and Picasso were all 5' 4"; Gandhi, Khrushchev and Voltaire, 5' 3"; Balzac, 5' 2"; Toulouse-Lautrec, 5" 1' (some say 4' 11"!) and the British poet, Alexander (The Rape of the Lock) Pope, was just 4' 6".

Saintliness, it seems, also comes in small packages: Francis of Assis was 5' 1", while (St) Joan of Arc (who was also featured in that aforementioned blog) was only 4' 11", without her armour - an inch taller that saint-in-waiting, Mother Teressa, who never bothered with earthly armour.

Mae West was 5' 4" as are Bridgette Bardot, Michael J Fox, Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth II. Five-foot-three-inches seems to be a particularly popular height and among those who have risen to that level are Vivien Leigh, Martin Scorsese, Bo Derek and both Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney - which is probably why they made so many movies together.

The 'Little Sparrow', Edith Piaf (ditto that blog again), was 4ft 8in, just one of a whole catalogue of actors and singers whose height (or lack of it) never got in the way of stardom.

There are dozens of examples, such as Dudley More who, at 5' 2", was a full head-and-shoulders shorter than his TV sparring partner, Peter Cook.

Then there's Bette Midler, Kylie Minogue, Debbie Reynolds and daughter, Carrie Fisher, who all measure up at 5' 1"; and two irrepressibly bouncy characters, Dolly Parton and Danny De Vito, who are both a mere five-foot-nothing - the same height as Queen Victoria.

Gloria Swanson who played the Hollywood diva, Norma ("I'm ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille!") Desmond, in Billy Wilder's celebrated 1950 movie, Sunset Boulevard, was just 4 foot 11 inches tall.

Knowing which, that famous exchange between writer, Joe Gillis (Wiliam Holden), and the once radiant star of the silver screen, crackles with new potency...

Joe Gillis:
You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.

Norma Desmond: I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

[Images: St Francis by Greg Friedman, O F M; Pete & Dud by Lewis Morley]

Sunday 24 June 2007





1. If you lend someone £20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.

2. If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.

3. Some days you're the bug; some days you're the windscreen.

4. Everyone seems normal until you get to know them.

5. The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it back in your pocket.

Saturday 23 June 2007


Now, look! I love The Lord of the Rings! OK? I mean, I am a fan... a true devotee

I’ve written and broadcast about J R R Tolkien and his fictional realm of Middle-earth; I’ve grappled with a book which its author described as being “'very unsuitable for dramatic representation” in order to adapt it for the radio; and I have chronicled the process by which the book later became a movie trilogy.

So, I went to see The Lord of the Rings - The Musical with high hopes and a keen awareness of the gargantuan challenge facing those responsible for the production.

I came out not so much disappointed as dismayed that Tolkien’s epic has finally been reduced to a series of almost meaningless tableaux, which employ some of the most startling effects that money can buy and yet which conspire to leave the audience with a nothing more than a piece of theatrical artifice in which spectacle substitutes for character and dazzle for drama.

The cumulative effect is to render Tolkien’s heart-breakingly perilous quest as a trivial trip into territory which strays perilously close to the borders of Pantoland and, in so doing, tosses aside the moral weight, mythic purpose and emotional dynamism of the original story. until virtually all that is left is a bag of wizard tricks...

True, the interior of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane looks amazing with the proscenium arch overgrown with a woodland growth more tangled than Treebeard’s Fangorn; true, the much-written-about stage mechanics, that are almost constantly turning, rising and falling to create a changing landscape, are undeniably ingenious; true, a handfull of the set pieces - from Bilbo’s utterly magical disappearance to the fiery appearance of the Balrog - are pretty stunning. But, beyond these conjuror’s treats, there is little to engage the mind and nothing to seize the heart.

Three hours (with a short interval) is too long for a theatrical experience as vacuous as this and too short to do any kind of justice to Tolkien’s three-volume epic.

The costume designs are all too obviously inspired by those in the films (I wonder that Jackson and New Line Cinema aren’t pleading copyright infringement!) as are some of the plot devices in the first act, which only manages to take us to Gandalf’s fall in Khazad-dûm, five chapters shy of the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.

This leaves a vast amount of incident and character drama to be somehow crammed into the next two acts. It is a prodigious task and one that proves impossible.

Almost the entire content of The Two Towers and much of The Return of the King is junked and, with no time to deal with the problems facing the horse-folk of Rohan, it’s a whistle-stop visit to Minas Tirith for Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli (Lord Denethor has one speech and is never seen or heard of again) followed by a hurried excursion to the Black Gates.

Frodo, Sam and Gollum fare slightly better but as the evening wears on (and on) what’s left of the plot disintegrates under the sense of ever-accelerating panic as lines are rattled off and everyone hurtles blindly towards the final curtain.

It’s hard to say what’s the worst thing about this misbegotten project...

Maybe it is the irritating hobbits with their squeaky voices and absurd Mummerset accents; the bored and utterly charisma-less Gandalf; the stilt-walking Yorkshire Ents wearing pork-pie hats; or the Cirque du Soleil style elves who swing arouth Lothlórien on trapeze-vines and whose speeches are accompanied by risible hand gestures that look like boy scout semaphore signals.

Or perhaps it is the ghastly pre-show invasion of the auditorium by silly-ass hobbits throwing apples and chasing fireflies; or (where the second interval ought to have been) the equally tedious orc-attack on people who have paid far too much for their tickets to be jumped on by over-enthusiastic members of an ensemble, desperately trying to make up for not having any other real moments in which to demonstrate their ability to act.

Or it could simply the totally unmemorable songs that far from advancing the story or fleshing out the characters, stop everything dead in its tracks for what feels like an eternity.

Gollum is good but arrives far too late to do anything more than play out his famous schizoid debate with Sméagol in a style that is clearly intended to approximate - if not impersonate - the performance in the film by Andy Serkis.

As for the rest of the cast, only Elrond and Galadriel have any sense of authority and stature but, alas, they hopelessly outnumbered.

The greatest crime committed by the show is its total failure to make any of the characters live as real people: not as Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and Heroes but as flesh-and-blood individuals - like us - with the same fears, loves, hatreds, jealousies and sorrows as we all experience.

That is why people engage with Tolkien's characters; it is what we strove for in creating the radio series and it is what Jackson superbly achieved in his movie trilogy. Incredible though it seems, however, it is a concept that appears to have totally bypassed the creators of this production, and the price paid for this missed opportunity is high...

In the dying moments of the show, Gandalf tells Frodo that he is off to spend some time with his good friend Tom Bombadil - a joke, one assumes, at the expense of those earlier versions on radio and film that (to the chagrin of devout Tolkien fans) omitted those episodes from the book featuring Master Bombadil.

However, in a production that not only drops Old Tom but also cuts Celeborn, Théoden, Éowyn, Faramir, Wormtoungue and half a dozen other characters and which skips over such key events as the battles of Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields, it is a fatuous jibe.

In truth, if anyone in the audience hasn't read the books or seen the films, I doubt they'll have the faintest idea what's going on... But then some of the cast may not be entirely sure, either...

There may be a way of putting Tolkien’s story on stage but, if so, then this isn’t it.

Others, more generous than I, will say that it fails but is nevertheless a brave failure. But, whichever way you look at it, with a budget of £25 million, it’s likely to prove an expensive failure…