Thursday 31 January 2008


Ta-da!! It's once again time for that much loved Sibley blog feature, the ever-popular...


On a recent visit to Oxford, we stayed - as we have done of several occasions - at The Old Bank Hotel in the High Street and, once again (because we always have the same room) passed the the bottom of a staircase leading to a window with a somewhat unusual view...

Captions are now being sought for this curious picture which might either be an explanation for what we see (or think we see), or the words/thoughts of the One Looking In.

Then again, it might be a caption for an illustration in a hotel brochure, a specialist magazine (Home & Gardens or Psychic News) or, even, an estate agents' advertisement!

Be creative and send your entries either via the comments section below or directly to

The prize, as usual, is the fun or participating and the possible glory of being mentioned in dispatches! What more incentive do you need?!

Wednesday 30 January 2008


Overheard in an art gallery...

WOMAN (To Friend): Yes, well, he reminds me of Canaletto...

CHILD (Interrupting): Who's Canaletto?

WOMAN: You remember, dear, the painter who did all those pictures with water in them

CHILD: No...

WOMAN: Yes, you do! It was that exhibition we went to when you were too short to see the pictures...

Monday 28 January 2008


David and I first visited Venice in 1998 and from that year until our visit in 2006 we never saw one of the city's most celebrated landmarks: the Torre dell'Orologio, the ornately decorated Renaissance clock tower that stands on the north side of the Piazza San Marco.

Built in the 15th Century, the tower features a carving of the Lion of Saint Mark, a statue of the Madonna and Christ Child, a vast clock face marking 24 (not 12) hours, the moon phases and the houses of the zodiac and is surmounted by a huge bell on which the hours are struck by two hammer-wielding Moors scantily clad in animal skins.

For the first eight years of our visiting Venice, the clock was under wraps and under restoration. We saw this extraordinary edifice for the first time in 2006 when the scaffolding finally came down, but it was only this year that we got to witness a special feature of the clock that is only ever seen twice a year...

During Ascension Week and on the Feast of Epiphany (January 6th) the panels to the right and left of the central statue, which normally display the hour and minutes on giant revolving drums, are removed and replaced with doors that, every hour (from 9.00-5.00) open onto the balcony allowing elaborate automata figures of a trumpet-tooting Angel and the gift-bearing Magi to process before the Virgin and Child, tipping their crowns as they pass.

It was raining at 9 o'clock on the 6th January, when the Wise Men and their Angelic Companion made their debut appearance of the day. Apart from a lot of bedraggled pigeons and a handful of disinterested caribinari, David and I were the only witnesses to the event; which, as you will see from David's video, is probably just as well!

Images: © Photos, Brian Sibley; Video, David Weeks, 2008

Saturday 26 January 2008


I've been sorting some of the several thousand photographs that David and I took while we were in Venice and I've selected a few which capture something of what we love about this city of stone and water, at various times: suffused with light, shrouded in shadow, swathed in mist and permanently filled with reflections...

All images: © Brian Sibley & David Weeks, 2007/8

Friday 25 January 2008


Readers may remember my reporting that a 150 year old horse chestnut tree in Amsterdam, which gave hope to young Anne Frank during the time that she and her family were in hiding from the Nazi's, was deemed to be unsafe and had been marked down for the chop until a last-minute stay of execution was granted while tree experts sought ways to save it.

Well, the experts have cogitated and come up with a plan. Reuters reported:

In a statement on Wednesday, city authorities, residents, the Anne Frank museum and conservationists said they had agreed to build a frame around the 150-year-old tree before the end of May.

"That means the tree can stay standing for a minimum of five to 15 years," they said. "A multi-year plan will be drawn up to keep an eye on its condition and safety."

Responsibility for looking after the tree has been assumed by the Support Anne Frank Tree Foundation, but the costs will be considerable: €50,000 for the frame required to support the 27-tonne tree and approximately €10,000 a year in maintenance, but as Arnold Heertje, a member of the foundation, said, "This is not just any tree. The Anne Frank tree is bound up with the persecution of the Jews..."

The news about the fate of this one old tree in a Dutch garden was reported across the globe yesterday by hundreds of newspapers, TV and radio stations from the San Francisco Chronicle via the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to the Times of India.

It is, perhaps, a cynical observation, but would that the many thousands of individual infringements and abuses of human freedom that are perpetrated daily - hourly - throughout the world might generate as much universal concern as something which symbolizes freedom...

It also proves that one should be very wary about stuff you buy on eBay!

"Our chestnut tree is in full blossom. It is covered with leaves and is even more beautiful than last year..."

- Anne Frank

Images: Reuters

Thursday 24 January 2008


So the BBC's much-feared political interviewer and general all-round smartypants, JEREMY PAXMAN, has been getting his knickers in a twist about... well... about his... er... knickers!

In a mysteriously leaked private e-mail to Sir Stuart Rose CEO of the department store chain, Marks & Spencer, Paxo briefly expressed his concerns about an issue that he believes to be a matter of "great concern to the men of Britain":

Like very large numbers of men in this country, I have always bought my socks and pants in Marks and Sparks. I've noticed that something very troubling has happened.

There's no other way to put this. Their pants no longer provide adequate support.

When I've discussed this with friends and acquaintances, it has revealed widespread gusset anxiety.

Well, Mr Paxman, the bottom line is you should ought, without further delay, to invest in a pair of Hugo Boss' latest boxer-briefs which are quite obviously intended for those smart arses who always seem to have eyes in -- as well as sometimes talking out of -- their backsides!

Or, maybe, a pair of these for when he's in the hot seat!!

Image: Cartoon © Gary, The Daily Mail, 2008

Tuesday 22 January 2008


We had a most shocking experience when we were in Venice in December: the Christmas Crib outside the church of La Pietà on the Riva Degli Schiavoni was very nearly transformed into a scene of Christmas carnage...

Despite the outwardly calm attitude exhibited by Mary, Joseph and one of the Shepherds (left), all was far from well in that Bethlehem stable...

As can be seen below, the Baby Jesus was almost killed - and was, in all likelihood, seriously injured - by a theologically unprecedented shower of cherubs from the Realms of Glory...

Sunday 20 January 2008


I went to the Co-operative on what proved to be a fruitless quest for some decaffeinated tea-bags, only to find myself wondering whether I ought to be shopping early for Easter or stocking up for Christmas...

Still, at least the crackers, cake-frill and decorations were all half-price!

Friday 18 January 2008


Shortly before Christmas, I blogged this picture of David Beckham showing off (among other things) his new Georgio Armani underpants that seemed to win general approval from even the harshest critics among my readers: viz Gill and her friend, The Duchess.

Evidently, this readership was not alone: following the launch of this campaign, the London store, Selfridges, reported a 30% rise in sales of Armani briefs - though whether purchasers achieved the same level of 'rise' as Mr Beckham is not reported!

Armani will doubtless be hoping for a new boost from the latest picture of Becks in his dacks...

And the football-model (who clearly knows which side his buns are buttered) is playing a particularly smart game by acknowledging that he has probably as many gay admirers as female ones, recently telling a BBC Radio 2 interviewer:

I'm very honored to have the tag of gay icon. Maybe it's things like [the fact] I like to look after myself, I like to look smart and presentable most of the time.

I always liked to look good, even when I was a little kid. I was given the option when I was a page boy once of either wearing a suit or wearing knickerbockers and long socks and ballet shoes - and I chose the ballet shoes and knickerbockers. It was a little bit strange at the time and my dad gave me a bit of stick - but I was happy.

Oh, David, darling, pleeeeease!

Meanwhile, here's an alternative approach to underwear advertising from McAlson, makers of 'The World's Most Comfortable Boxer Shorts'...

Wednesday 16 January 2008


The following staggering tale of bureaucratic bonkerness comes from our friend ANDY STOKES who traded life on the Isle of Wight for that on the Greek island of Kalymnos...

I recently had cause to write a letter of complaint to Barclays Bank. I ended the letter by telling them to close my account and transfer the balance to my Nationwide account.

Yesterday I received a telephone call from Customer Services dept at Barclays. I was asked a number of questions for security reasons, one of which was "What was the content of your letter to us?"

Having answered the security questions to his satisfaction the conversation continued like this:

"You have asked us to transfer your balance to Nationwide; unfortunately we are unable to do that as we do not have a copy of your signature to compare with the letter."

"So what happens now?"

"What we need is a certified copy of your passport faxed to us."

"So who do I get to certify it?"

"Your bank manager in Greece."

"Do you know my bank manager in Greece?"


"Do you know who my bank manager in Greece is?"


"Do you have a copy of his signature?"


"Do you know which of the Greek banks I use?"


"So, let’s get this right. You have a letter which you accept was sent by me and I have answered your security questions so you are quite happy that you are talking to the person who sent you the letter?"


"And at the end of the letter I ask you to transfer my funds to another bank and you accept that is what I want done?"


"But you cannot transfer my money because you cannot compare my signature with the one on the letter?"

"That’s right."

"But you will do it once you have a copy of my passport signed by a person you don’t know, have never met and whose signature you have never seen before?"

"Yes. It’s security."

"So, if I were to just photocopy my passport and send it to you with a signature that I made up you would be none the wiser?"

"Ah yes, but it has to be certified."


"With a rubber stamp from the bank."

"Do you know what the rubber stamp from my bank looks like?"


"So, if I had a rubber stamp made up you would not be in a position to check whether it was genuine or not?"


"And when you receive this faxed certified copy of my passport, what checks will you be able to make to ensure that it is genuine?"

"Well, none, really."

"So, why don’t you just transfer the money?"

"We can’t. It’s security."

Thanks, Andy, and if you ever manage to get your money out of Barclays, good luck in your negotiations with Nationwide!

Monday 14 January 2008


A late review (Barking and Dagenham Post, no less!) of my stage version of A Christmas Carol has just showed up...

Not sure what Mr Dickens would make of the following account of how his story was interpreted:

Another highlight... is the apparition of BOB MARLEY, who first descends on Scrooge's bedchamber portending his upcoming encounter with the spirit world.

Cue the Wailers!!

Saturday 12 January 2008


Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
who never thereafter were heard of again.
He trod a path that few have trod
did Sweeney Todd
the demon barber of Fleet Street.

He kept a shop in London town
of fancy clients and good renown
and what if none of their souls were saved,
they went to their maker impeccably shaved
by Sweeney,
by Sweeney Todd
the demon barber of Fleet Street.

It's thirty years since that thrusting, compelling opening chorus of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street screamed its way onto the Broadway stage and took the theatrical musical world by storm.

The young Tim Burton saw that show - several times in one week, he says - falling in love with Sondheim's amoral morality-tale and beginning what was to be a long-harboured dream of putting the show onto film, even creating occasional, Burton's-eye views of how the characters might look in his sketchbooks.

And now, that dream - or nightmare - has become a reality.


We must begin with a word of warning: if you are a devotee of the show you should know straight away that 'The Ballad of Sweeney Todd' - the signature narrative device, quoted above, that skewers its way through Sondheim's music and lyrics and pins the dark saga of the wronged and vengeful barber to it's melodramatic origins - has not found its way into Tim Burton's film version.

True, the intention of screenwriter John Logan was that the ballad was to have been performed by chorus of ghostly narrators played by Christopher Lee, Peter Bowles, Anthony Head (who can still be glimpsed in the final 'cut') and others; but, according to Tim Burton at a Q & A session following last night's preview screening at london's National Film Theatre, the decision was finally taken that what is an overtly theatrical device didn't actually assist the cinematic telling of the tale.

And he is very probably right. Following the stunningly evocative opening titles (if you've not seen them, you can do so here) the story doesn't so much explode on the eye and ear as insinuate its way into your subconscious, as the ship bringing Todd - the barber sentenced to fifteen years of penal servitude in Australia for a crime he didn't commit - slips down the Thames at night, under Tower Bridge and into dock in, what remains throughout the film, a London of mist-wreathed buildings, rain-lashed streets and brooding, leaden, smoke-filled skies.

As a devotee of Sondheim and this show in particular, I didn't so much miss the dropped numbers as regretted the way in which some of those which survived had been shaved to within an inch of their musical lives. However, with a cast of non-professional singers (and a legendarily complex score) Burton keeps the demands of the musical story and those of the cinematic experience finely balanced.

"Yes, yes!" you are saying. "Enough of all that! What about Johnny Depp?" Well, of course, Mr Depp can do no wrong and he is simply magnificent as Todd: a small, slightly-built, sinewy ghost of a man with pale skin, shadowed eye sockets and a great wave of white coursing through a mane of tousled black hair. There's none of the operatic stature of many of the singers who've played Todd on stage, but Depp's compact frame quivers with restless, nervous energy and brooding, calculating menace that was hinted at in the film's trailer and which he now delivers in full cold- and red-bloodied style.

Depp's Todd is a truly terrible twin of Edward Scissorhands (the role he first played for Burton): robbed of every shred of innocence and denuded of all naivety and with razors instead of scissors as the fearful extensions to his arms.

The actor's London accent is a couple of stops down from that employed by Jack Sparrow, but the saucy glint with which everyone's favourite pirate of the Caribbean eyes up the world is now a chilling, gimlet stare that signifies the obsessive mind bent on mad deeds.

Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs Lovatt takes a bit more getting used to: sexier but less comically attuned than Angela Lansbury, who so powerfully defined the role in the opening production, the character has lost - along with the broad ludicrousness of the way Sondheim wrote the part - the opportunity to leaven the horror and nudge us in the ribs from time to time to remind us that this really is just a penny-dreadful story conjured up to make our blood run cold.

Bonham Carter's Mrs Lovatt (maker of "the worst pies in London") is now a more brutal compatriot to Todd: prepared to tolerate, and cash-in on, his gory career in order to satisfy her unrequited love for this man who "served a dark and a vengeful god".

Indeed, much of the black humour of the original show has been whittled away leaving what unsettling laughs there are to Timothy Spall as the oily, unctuous Beadle Bamford and wonderfully preposterous Sacha Baron Cohen who conjures a new phony identity for himself (not entirely unrelated to Borat and Ali G) as rival barber - and Todd's first victim - Signor Adolfo Pirelli.

The young lovers, Joanna (Todd's daughter) and Anthony (the barber's sailing companion from Australia) are portrayed by child-like Jayne Wisener and androgynous Jamie Campbell Bower, while Todd's maddened wife is played by former Mary Poppins, Laura Michelle Kelly. Toby, the workhouse boy who is 'adopted' by Mrs Lovatt is brilliantly acted and sung by Ed Sanders, a young newcomer who would have been a credit to Fagin's den.

Alan Rickman as Todd's nemesis, Judge Turpin, wisely resists every temptation to ham up the role of villain and, in so doing, brings genuine menace to the character and points Sondheim's moral that it is not always easy to identify the true monsters in the horror stories of life.

If Judge Turpin is the ruination of the Todd's fortunes (first banishing the barber to Australia on trumped-up charges, then raping his wife and driving her to attempted suicide and madness, before finally lusting after the young daughter whom he has made his ward) then he is also the motive - justification, even - for the avenging (and unrelenting) gore-fest that is the second half of the film and which has earned it an 'R' rating in the USA.

The terrible and brutal ritualism of the escalating scenes of savagery assault the eye and bombard the senses until the mood of grand guignol erupts in an arterial geyser of theatrically vermilion blood, spattered across the desaturated - almost monochromatic - world devised by Burton, his designer, Date Feretti, and the director of photography, Dariusz Wolski.

The visceral horror of the film - along with its genre-status as a musical - must have given the movie moguls responsible for the entire enterprise many a sleepless night. If it also robs its audiences of some restful hours then it is a testament to Burton's single-minded pursuit of the darkly cynical metaphor underlying Sondheim's show: that just as the good folk of London flock to Mrs Lovatt's shop to eat her new, improved recipe pies, all humanity are, in some degree, cannibals feeding of others less fortunate than themselves.

There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit
and it goes by the name of London.
At the top of the hole sit the privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo
turning beauty to filth and greed...

There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
and it's filled with people who are filled with shit!
And the vermin of the world inhabit it!

Whilst such anger-filled lyrics survive the story's transition to the screen, much of the dialogue in Hugh Wheeler's original book has been eliminated to give the movie a feeling of what Tim Burton describes as "a silent film with music": a feeling - and a look - that has clearly been inspired by those great black-and-white horror classics peopled by actors such as Lone Chaney, Boris Karloff and Peter Lore who understood the need for a demon to have - however deformed or tortured - a heart...

Trivia Point: Note Big Ben seen through the window on the poster
(but not in the film) in order to reinforce the London connection!

A reviewer of the original stage production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, wrote: "There is more of artistic energy, creative personality and plain excitement in Sweeney Todd... than in a dozen average musicals."

That Tim Burton should now have captured so much of that energy, personality and excitement on film with such devastating, pulse-racing, heart-wrenching panache is practically beyond praise.

It is, quite simply, bloody brilliant!


Wednesday 9 January 2008


We are back...

Leaving the fantastical dream-realm of the Serenissima for the harsh reality of the Everyday Life in London.

Nine days into the New Year is, I guess, a tad late to offer best wishes for the remaining 358, but better late than never.

Being frail creatures, we habitually begin each new year (despite its utter arbitrariness) with blithe hopes and wistful expectations. So, whatever you may be hoping, wishing or praying for in 2008: may you find or receive those things or else be given the courage and resolve to make do with whatever does happen to come your way...

And I'll close this first blog of the year with a thought-provoking thought from G K Chesterton:

The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year.

It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes.

Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions.

Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.

Unless a man starts on the strange assumption that he has never existed before, it is quite certain that he will never exist afterwards.

Unless a man be born again, he shall by no means enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Image: © Brian Sibley, 2008