Wednesday 22 December 2010


At Christmas, it is nice to expect the unexpected. But, for many people this year, the appalling weather in Europe (and the gross inefficiency of the BAA) means that the unexpected may not be at all nice. Hundreds of thousands will not be spending this Christmas in quite the way they had hoped. We were due to fly to Venice today but, like many other travellers, have had our flight cancelled...

Happily, however, some things don't change: every Christmas, BBC Radio 7 generously keeps the memory green of my once prolific broadcasting career by repeating a few Sibley programmes from the distant and deeply frozen past.

First to get an airing this year is The Fox at the Manger, a radio play based on the seasonal fable by P L Travers.

I'll never forget the Christmas - too long ago now to attach a date to - when I spotted a book in my local bookshop with this intriguing title written, it said on the cover, by the author of Mary Poppins.

Although, at the time, I had yet to read any of the books about Miss Poppins, I knew and passionately loved the Disney musical film based on her exploits whilst serving as a "practically perfect nanny" in the household of Mr and Mrs Banks in Cherry Tree Lane.

The Fox at the Manger, I discovered, didn't have a lot in common with Mary Poppins - except that it was a tale shot through with magic and might just have been the kind of story Mary Poppins would have told her young charges.

It re-tells the events of the first Christmas - familiar from every nativity scene - but with an unexpected twist.

The animals in the Bethlehem stable - donkey, cow, sheep and dove - each give a gift to the new-born Christ-child, as described in the ancient 'Carol of the Friendly Beasts'...

Jesus our brother kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude.
And the friendly beasts around him stood
Jesus our brother, kind and good.

I, said the donkey, all shaggy and brown,
I carried his mother up hill and down
I carried his mother to Bethlehem town.
I, said the donkey, all shaggy and brown.

I, said the cow, all white and red
I gave him my manger for his bed
I gave him my hay to pillow his head.
I, said the cow, all white and red

I, said the sheep, with curly horn,
I gave him my wool for a blanket warm
He wore my coat on Christmas morn.
I, said the sheep, with curly horn.

I, said the dove, from the rafters high
I cooed him to sleep so he would not cry
We cooed him to sleep, my love and I
I, said the dove, from the rafters high.

Thus every beast, by some good spell
In the stable rude was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Emmanuel
The gift he gave Emmanuel
The gift he gave Emmanuel

In P L Travers' version the animals witnessing the unusual birth in the midst of their straw-filled little world are dismayed and alarmed when an alien creature enters their domain – a red, furry, fox - the chicken-stealing outlaw of the countryside. But the fox has come to the manger to bring his own, unique gift to the Christ Child...

What that gift is you can discover for yourself by listening to The Fox at the Manger when it is broadcast today on Radio 7 at 11:15 and 21:15 or tomorrow morning at 02:15. It can also be heard on BBC iPlayer for seven days after the final broadcast.

The play stars Dame Wendy Hiller as the Storyteller and Alec McCowen as the Fox. The haunting musical score was specially composed by David Hewson with whom I collaborated on several projects including the short story recently posted on this blog, The Man and the Snake.

Speaking of P L Travers, if you haven't already read it, you might enjoy my account of having Tea with Mary Poppins.


There are more up-coming Christmas Sibleys on Radio 7 in the form of the tirelessly repeated ...And Yet Another Partridge in a Pear Treestarring Penelope Keith broadcast on Monday 27 December at 14:15 and 21:15

And there's my four-part dramatisation of E T A Hoffman's classic children's story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, starring Tony Robinson on 27-30 December (05:30 and 10:30). Again all these broadcasts can be subsequently listened to via the BBC iPlayer.

And, if I haven't either exhausted or bored you, there is "yet another" vintage Sibley programme over on my Decidedly Disney blog, entitled The Fairest of Them All.


Matt said...

Whilst reading your latest post on the ghost of Sibley's past, I noticed a Harry Potter book in your sidebar. I had no idea you had written anything on HP, my daughter will be pleased! Let's hope the winter Gremlins don't delay its posting too much ;)

Brian Sibley said...

According to Amazon, Matt, the authors are called "Warner Bros", but it's a damn lie!! ;)

Hope your daughter likes it...

Happy Christmas!

Phil said...

It's about time they renamed it BBC Radio Sibley - then it would be worth listening to all day long!

Brian Sibley said...

There was a Christmas (many years ago) when I had six or seven programmes on over the Christmas holiday period! That year there really were those who spoke of Brian's Broadcasting Corporation!

Roger O B... said...

Dear Diblet,
I did my best to listen to Fox in the Mangle but the drilling and hammering of the merry Central Heating Elves made it difficult, at least we've got it on CD! At least we now have HEAT!
STICA: an adhesive collectible

SharonM said...

Nice to see that there are going to be so many Sibley treats over the Festive season, but really sorry that your holiday has been cancelled.

Boll Weavil said...

I've already listened to FATM this year Mr B but I will certainly tune my digital recorder to the I Player 'catch up' as it will be an excellent way of improving my copy :-)

Brian Sibley said...

Sharon – We are hoping to fly on Boxing Day, so all is not lost – YET!

Boll – Always good to upgrade where you can! :)

Diane said...

Ok, so its your Boxing Day now so you will be heading off as planned. fingers crossed. I am going to switch over to your other blog and listen to Fairest of them All, and no I am not bored.
You started off by saying it is nice to expect the unexpected at christmas time. I have found the unexpected in a closeness with my mum, that has often eluded me. After having lost her husband a few weeks before xmas, I found myself enjoying sitting with her this morning at her hubbys old computor and teaching her how to use it. We even managed to laugh. It was a lovely unexpected moment and an enjoyable time together. Hoping you don't get snowed in. Merry Christmas Brian from a kiwi fan. Diane

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks for the message, Diane. Do kiwi's (because of their ancestry) still know the term 'Boxing Day'? Americans don't and here in Italy it is (or was, yesterday) the Feast of San Stefano – St Stephen's Day, commemorating the first Christian martyr.

Whereabouts in NZ are you?