Sunday 28 December 2014


Our apartment here in Venice stands off a (very) small square named Campo Contarini-Fasan and our windows overlook the walled courtyard of the Palazzo of the same name...

A pretty enough little place – especially since it also has a rather splendid frontage looking onto the Grand Canal...

But it has another reputed significance in that, legend has it, this is was the house of Brabantio, the father of Desdemona in William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice and, as such, has been fancifully imagined by various artists...

Brabantio's house is the location for the anger-and-outrage-filled opening scene of the play, in which Roderigo and Iago rouse the Senator with the shocking news that his daughter has eloped with Othello...

RODERIGO What, ho, Brabantio! Signior Brabantio, ho!
IAGO Awake! what, ho, Brabantio! thieves! thieves! thieves!
Look to your house, your daughter and your bags!
Thieves! thieves!
BRABANTIO appears above, at a window.
BRABANTIO What is the reason of this terrible summons?
What is the matter there?
RODERIGO Signior, is all your family within?
IAGO Are your doors lock'd?
BRABANTIO Why, wherefore ask you this?
IAGO 'Zounds, sir, you're robb'd; for shame, put on
your gown;
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:
Arise, I say.

Of course, there is no evidence that Shakespeare ever visited Venice, and anyway, as he so often did, the playwright nicked the plot – on this occasion from a short story entitled Un Capitano Moro ('A Moorish Captain') written by Cinthio and first published in 1565.

Apart from which, the present look of the Palazzo Contarini-Fasan doesn't exactly suggest that it would make for very convenient conversations via upstairs windows.

However, it is a romantic thought that this famously tragic tale of love, betrayal, jealousy, suspicion and revenge, shot through (like The Merchant of Venice) with racial prejudice had its origins not a stone's throw from where I am writing this...

Friday 26 December 2014


For the benefit of colonial readers...
Boxing Day is a holiday traditionally celebrated the day following Christmas Day when servants and tradespeople would receive gifts, known as a "Christmas box", from their bosses or employers, in the United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and other Commonwealth nations. 

In Britain, it was a custom for tradespeople to collect "Christmas boxes" of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This is mentioned in Samuel Pepys' diary entry for 19 December 1663. This custom is linked to an older English tradition: since they would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts and bonuses, and sometimes leftover food.
 And here's two cartoonist's view of this ancient tradition separated by, I guess, some 100 years or so...

Thursday 25 December 2014


Mankind received a wondrous gift on this day which is why we, in turn, give gifts at Christmas...

Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

And talking of gift-giving, there is a seasonal song on the subject that is much loved and spans the dozen days between now and Twelfth Night...

...and, here, a chance to listen again to a vintage radio offering that has earned itself something of a following–––

...And Yet Another Partridge in a Pear Tree

A Cautionary Tale for Christmas
Showing that it is Better to Give than to Receive

Brian Sibley

as Miss Cynthia Bracegirdle

as Mr Graball of Graball, Twister and Fleesum

Directed by John Theocharis
First broadcast on BBC Radio 4, December 1977


Wednesday 24 December 2014


As every reader of the blog probably knows, one of my all-time favourite books is Charles Dickens' "A Ghost Story of Christmas" better known as A Christmas Carol...

From my very first reading of the book (in my early teens) the story of Ebenezer Scrooge the "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner", whose mean and miserly ways are reformed by visitations from the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley and the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future has continued to delight, intrigue and annually haunt my life.

With every reading, my love grows for the modest little volume and its huge characters – the Bah! Humbugging Scrooge; his jovial nephew, Fred; the poor, put-upon clerk, Bob Cratchit and his endearing family caring for their frail child, Tiny Tim; the chain-rattling Marley who, too late, has seen the errors of his ways and is determined to share this knowledge with his surviving partner; the shape-changing Spirit of the Past, elusive and ethereal; the expansive Spirit of Present, Christmas personified and the silent, shrouded ghost from the Future revealing the desolate bleakness of Scrooge's fate...

My fascination with the book has led me to build a vast collection of many (too many!) different editions of the book, including everything from simplified abridgements via comics and graphic novels to lavishly illustrated editions and elaborate pop-up books; along with numerous recordings and movie versions – with their assorted attendant merchandise.

Everybody will have a favourite movie version of A Christmas Carol: for most people, today that would probably be The Muppet Christmas Carol...

However, I'm sure there are still many devotees of Alastair Sim's 1951 classic, Scrooge, and others who love the Leslie Briccuse musical with Albert Finney or the TV interpretations by Michael Hordern, George C Scott or Kelsey Grammer. There may even still be some fans of Richard William's wonderful 1971 Oscar-winning animated film or sundry cartoon renditions featuring Mr Magoo, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, the Flintstones and the Jetsons!

Much of this, often weird and wonderful material (Barbie's Christmas Carol?!) was referenced in my 1994 publication, A Christmas Carol: The Unsung Story and on the way to writing that book, I made a seasonal BBC radio programme entitled Humbug! 

Directed by Glyn Dearman (who had once played Tiny Tim to Alastair Sim's Scrooge), Humbug! led to my friendship with Nick Clark, another dedicated lover-collector of Dickens and his Christmas Carol; and that, in turn, resulted in our collaborating on a stage production of the story which I dramatised for the Lansbury Players and for which Nick wrote songs and original music.

My stage interpretation was something of a diversion from the all-too numerous stage versions that have proliferated since the book's publication in 1843 – in fact within the first few weeks of 1844, there were already several, unauthorised, productions playing in London.

My aim was to try and preserve something of the authorial voice – Dickens very real presence (his terror, anger, excitement and delight) in the many moods of the story he is recounting. This is something that is often lost when the book is pared down to the bones of its famous dialogue.

My idea was to begin with Dickens (a part I would play myself) telling the story to an audience at one of his celebrated public readings and to then bring that story alive by having the author make the members of the audience into his cast of characters, guiding and prompting them into their roles and, like a Victorian puppet-master, helping them tell the tale...

I relished the role of Dickens and (this is years before I was crippled with arthritis) leaped and cavorted around the stage, steering Scrooge through the crowded, snow-laden streets of London, enticing passers-by into the festive shops of bakers, poulterers and grocers and chivvying the young Cratchits into place around the dinner table... God bless us everyone!

The Lansbury Players production of 2003 opened with a prologue...

A man at the entrance to a London underground station attempts to make twentieth-century Christmas shoppers and revellers focus on the needs of a homeless man huddled and begging at their passing feet. Then, removing his own overcoat and putting it on the poor man, he walks across the stage – and back through time – to become Mr Dickens at his reading desk and, with the author's nineteenth-century words, shows how little has changed in over a hundred years...

Nick Clark recorded one of the performances and has now remastered it so that (I think) it sparkles afresh and, despite the obvious absence of clever staging by director Dave Millard, works as a piece of audio drama...

The cast is a fine one headed by my long standing friend (and Disney co-author) Richard Holliss as an incomparably unpleasant (and, later, delightfully reformed) Scrooge and Keith Cummings as both the timid clerk and devoted father, Bob Cratchit, and a deliciously genial Mr Fezziwig.

So, here it is – the old familiar story – offered up in the hope that you might enjoy it anew while wrapping a few last presents or stuffing your turkey for tomorrow's feast.

It was made – by Mr Dickens and myself – with love...

And here's the full cast to take a bow...

To read more Sibley blog-posts about Dickens' Christmas classic CLICK HERE


There's another story for Christmas night available on BBC Radio 4 Extra today (and for 30 days thereafter via iPlayer): my 1990 dramatisation of––– 

The FOX at the MANGER

This enchanting, mystical, tale – about an unexpected gift given on the first Christmas night – is based on the book by Mary Poppins author, P L Travers.

Starring Dame Wendy Hiller and Alec McCowen, The Fox at the Manger has exquisite music by Dave Hewson and was produced by the aforementioned Glyn Dearman...

Tuesday 23 December 2014


Or, rather, all we wanted back then...

Monday 22 December 2014


A few vintage recollections of Christmasses gone by as seen on seasonal magazine covers...

Oh, that Christmas editions of today's magazines were as pleasing to the eye...