Wishing you every happiness on this day of days!
Original art by Lesley Fotherby for Jeffrey Archer's The Son of God
Before Charles Dickens wrote his much-adored masterpiece, A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (1843), he had composed 'A Christmas Carol' in verse and included it The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, otherwise known as The Pickwick Papers (1836).
In Chapter XXVII of that book – titled 'A good-humored chapter' – the Pickwickians visit Dingley Dell and spend the Christmas holiday with Mr Wardle and his family. During the ensuing jovialities, their host – "a merry old gentleman" – sings 'A Christmas Carol' in praise of the season in, the author reports, a good, round, sturdy voice".
In 1890, many years after Dickens had written those verses and had gone on to use the phrase 'A Christmas Carol' as a title for his story about the reformation of the miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, publishers Marcus Ward & Co. Ltd., extracted Mr Wardle's song from its context within the setting of the Dingley Dell celebrations and issued it as a slim book in its own right, with illustrations by the Irish painter, Frank Bindley.
Here it is: one Dickens' rare poems, but significant in that it was written in celebration of that time of the year of which the author was such a passionate advocate...
I recently came across this beautiful piece of (Norman Rockwellian) art by James Gurney for the National Geographic...
This painting perfectly captures my emotions whenever I see a pile of those alluring sunshine-yellow-bordered magazines in a second-hand bookshop! I can never resist having a rummage – if only to see whether they might just happen to have a copy of the August 1963 issue with its glorious multi-page article on Walt Disney!
Year-on-year the GPO (now Royal Mail) have exhorted us to Post Early for Christmas...
This year, however, the Royal Mail have been taken by surprise at the demand for Christmas stamps – and have run out!
They must have forgotten to put the date in the diary...
During my career I've had the opportunity – and privilege – of writing for some notable performers and, following productions, I would often have exchanges of letters with them, usually in the form of mutual congratulations.
But, with one very special lady, I had an on-going correspondence that continued across many years. I speak of Dame Thora Hird –– or just 'Thora' as she was to me, although she was old enough to have been my grandmother! Indeed, she became to me (as she probably did to many others) a kind of 'grandmother-substitute'. She was also, incidentally, the only person who has ever been allowed to call me 'Bri'!
We worked together on a number of programmes for the BBC's Religious Broadcasting Department, beginning, in 1983, with a little seasonal show entitled A Birthday at Bethlehem in which she starred alongside another long-time friend, the recently-departed Peter Goodwright.
A couple of weeks back, I stumbled upon a cache of letters from Thora – written in an immaculate hand (doubtless learned during her schooldays in Morecambe, Lancashire) asking about me, my family and work and full of delightful chatter about her family – husband Scottie and daughter, Jeanette – and whatever projects such was currently involved in such as All Creatures Great and Small and The Last of the Summer Wine.
In another letter she reported on filming 'A Cream Cracker Under the Settee' for Alan Bennett's 1987 Talking Heads series that would win her a 'Best Actress' BAFTA: "...There was only me in it... I found it a smashing challenge (at my age) learning it all!"
I was much moved to read one particular letter, from 1991, that I had long-forgotten. I share it here because it demonstrates, I think, what an amazingly wise and and caring woman she was.
The context: my parents (whom Thora had met on a number of occasions) had recently moved from the family home we shared in Kent to Somerset to be near my mother's sister and family, while I – suddenly liberated at the age of 42 – was about to move to London to live with my partner, David.
My 'coming-out' had been a protracted and far from easy process, especially for someone who was not only a Christian but, as a result of my writing and broadcasting, something of a 'publicly professional Christian'!
For many of my closest friends – in and out of the Christian arts and media world – the revelation of my gayness left them feeling less than comfortable.
While I had already gone through the hurtful experience of having long-standing church friends give me a decidedly wide berth – with one couple forbidding me from have any contact with my godson – I had, naïvely, hoped that my 'arty' and 'theatrical' Christian friends would cope a little better. Alas, many of them didn't...
Enter dear Thora...
Needing to give her my new London address, I wrote to her and poured out my story, wondering how this pillar of popular Christianity (a stalwart of the BBC TV God-slot-show Praise Be!) might respond.
I need not have worried... Here's the letter she wrote in response...
Thank you most kindly for your letter, I hope all goes well for your parents. I'm sure they will find a lot of comfort and happiness amongst relations and friends.
As for you my friend, I hope you will find happiness and comfort... I think & hope that you will find the contentment and affection that you deserve and that it will be a help to your writing which is already warm & talented. I am a living example, as you are aware, that love helps one with the talent God has given me.
You know that both Scottie and I wish you nothing but good health and happiness, Brian... when you get settled in your new life I am sure it will feel there was never any other.
I assure you – you are in my prayers... take care and God bless you.
My love to you,
Thirty years on – just as Thora predicted – it feels as if there never really was any other life...
Today is Mickey Mouse's 92 birthday and to mark this historic landmark, I'm reprinting an interview I had with this Hollywood legend thirty-two years ago, when he was just turning sixty.
Quite a lot has changed in the Mouse's life in those intervening years: two more movies – The Prince and the Pauper and The Runaway Brain – and a foray into the world of computer gaming with Epic Mickey.
Nevertheless, as a snapshot of how he viewed life then, it may still be of interest (or, at least, amusement!) today. So, here's a bit of celebratory nostalgia...
THE MOUSE'S TALE
On 18 November 1988, Mickey Mouse celebrated his 60th birthday and granted a rare interview to Brian Sibley
He stands beside the pool, looking rather taller than I had imagined and casually dressed in slacks and a sports shirt with a Betty Boop motif.
"Hi, there!" he calls in a sharp Brooklyn accent that takes me somewhat by surprise. As I walk to meet him, he extends a white-gloved hand in welcome and gives me a broad, beaming smile. That famous Mickey Mouse smile. He grasps my hand with a firm grip and I can’t help noticing that he wears a Ronald Reagan wrist-watch.
"Come over to the yard, and I'll fix you a drink," he smiles and leads the way across a neatly manicured lawn to an Italianate patio behind the imposing pseudo-gothic villa that has never been listed in The Starland Guide to Hollywood. Motioning me to sit in one of the white cane loungers dotted around beneath the palm trees, he goes to the drinks-trolley.
"Too early for a Sorcerer’s Apprentice?" he asks. I have to confess that I've never heard of the drink. He gives me a faintly patronising smile and begins emptying the contents of various bottles into a cocktail-shaker. "They invented it for me at Musso & Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard, back in 1940," he explains and pours out a large glass of vivid lilac-coloured liquid and hands it to me. I take a sip and experience a sensation not dissimilar to a heavy blow on the back of the head.
"Helluva kick, hasn't it?" he laughs. Incapable of reply, I catch my breath and loosen my tie. "Have to watch them though," he adds, "I introduced Goofy to them and ever since it's been like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend over at his place. Tragic!" Sadly shaking his head, he tops up my glass. "I suppose you'll be wanting the usual sixtieth-birthday interview?" he asks, and I glimpse a hint of boredom behind the smile. Not waiting for a reply, he opens a can of Coke and goes on: "I bet I can even guess what questions you're going to ask! 'How does it feel to have been a star for six decades? What's the formula for your success? Have you a recipe for a happy life?' etc, etc."
Undaunted, I open my notebook. Perhaps we might start with his first great movie? "You really want to talk about Steamboat Willie?" he asks.
"God, that was a terrible picture! It was a rip-off of a Buster Keaton movie if I remember rightly; and when I wasn't steering the paddle-steamer up-stream – which I did with a kind of reckless abandon – I was improvising a musical revue in the hold, using live animals for instruments! It's a wonder the Animal League didn't try to get it banned! If I'd been rather more established, I'd have told Walt just how crass and vulgar I thought it was. But the fact is, I needed the break. I'd probably have never got started at all if there hadn't been some kind of dispute going on at the Disney Studio. I never knew all the ins and outs of it, but there was this guy called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit who was making pictures for Walt at the time. They were pretty crude really and no sound, of course. But Oswald got to be a bit of a star and began having run-ins with the Boss. The upshot was he quit and went to work for Walter Lantz – you know, the fella with the woodpecker – and that made way for me."
He pauses and looks thoughtful. "I wonder what
happened to Oswald?"
Shrugging off the thought, he offers me a dish of Mickey Mouse
jelly-shapes. I refuse. "Hideous, aren't they? Still, I get free
supplies for doing an endorsement. Sometimes I think I've sold out too
much to Disney, I mean, you wouldn't believe some of the things I've
done for money. Do you know, in 1938, I was even advertising Latexeen
Baby Pants – '"The most comfortable I've ever worn," says Mickey Mouse!'
Isn't that gross? I've never been proud though, probably because I can
still remember what it was like to go barefoot and hungry."
"The money I've made for people, and not just Disney, either. Look at all those Ingersoll Mickey Mouse watches: it's said that Macy's sold 11,000 in just one day! You name it, I've appeared on it – breakfast cereal cartons, milk bottles, toffee-wrappers (I read somewhere that a guy in your country sold 150 tons of Mickey Mouse toffee in a week – that's one hell-of-a-lot of toffee!) And I once posed for a Cartier pin, studded with real diamonds they tell me. I didn’t get one, just a few dollars sitting-fee. Still, my philosophy is 'Be grateful for what you can get!' Besides, this Beverly Hills lifestyle doesn't come cheap you know, and – contrary to what you might think – Disney have never been very good payers."
I express some surprise at this; after all, surely they owe their success to Mickey? "Oh, yeah, I know that now, but back in 1928 when I signed the contract, I didn't think much more ahead than wondering where the next meal was coming from! I'm not complaining. I had a lot of fun. But I worked damn hard too. We did long hours in those days. And we did all our own stunts! When I look back, I don't know how I didn't end up in Forest Lawn! In one picture I'd be fighting fires, in the next I'd be hunting big game – with real big game! I remember in one of my earliest pictures, Plane Crazy, I was supposed to be imitating Charles Lindbergh, who'd just made the first solo flight from New York to Paris. True I only had to fly round the farmyard-set on the Disney back-lot, but the plane turned out to be a real death-trap built out of old orange-crates and powered by a tightly-wound sausage-dog! Even Lindy would have had his work cut out flying that!"
"Yes, sir, mountain-climbing, whaling, trapping, ghost-busting; you name it, I did it!" His eyes sparkle, and I know that – for a moment – he's back there, in front of the cameras and loving every moment of it. Then he sighs. "I used to think I was pretty well set up for life – especially when I won the Oscar in 1932 – but then along came this aggressive bit-player called Donald Duck and, before I knew what was happening, he was getting star-billing, number-one dressing-room, the lot! Don't get me wrong, Donald's got talent all right, if you like that kind of anarchic comedy, which I guess the public did – but, well, it's not what I call acting…"
He offers me another drink which I decline, but which he pours anyway. "I suppose I should have seen the signs… I began having to share movies with Goofy and the Duck. Before I knew where I was, they were getting all the real comic business. Take a picture like Tugboat Mickey. Name in the title, right? So what do I have to do? I'll tell you, I have to hurl buckets of water overboard – wait for it – into the wind! No one would think I began my career as a river-pilot!"
an ironic laugh he bites the ears off a Mickey Mouse jelly-shape.
"Anyway, all that's blood under the bridge, and I wasn't the only one to
suffer. In fact, I hung in there longer than some. Remember Horace
Horsecollar? And Clarabelle Cow? They were the first to go, along with
Clara Cluck the Operatic Hen. Perhaps you don’t know her, she was the
Kiri Te Kanawa of her day. She still does the odd commercial. If anyone
wants a singing chicken, they send for Clara. But it's a far cry from Aida!"
I ask if he still sees any of the other members of the Disney stock-company? "Oh, sure. I play poker once a week with Pegleg Pete, who got out on parole last year – though he cheats like hell! I get the occasional round of golf with Horace (who's running a stud-farm) and the Goof (when he’s sober). And once in a while I shoot a game of pool with Jiminy Cricket. I’m afraid I still find him a bit Billy Grahamish, if you know what I mean, but there's no doubting his heart's in the right place."
What about the other Disney mice? "To be honest, we don't mix much. Jaq and Gus are quite amusing, I suppose, but I can never understand a word they say and they’re pretty thick with Cinderella and that royal set, which was never my scene. As for Timothy Mouse, well I always felt that if there'd been any justice in the world, I'd have got that part in Dumbo, so there's not much love lost between us."
And Minnie? Are they, I enquire, just as happy as ever? He laughs.
"Well, of course, it’s only a professional relationship. 'Very good
friends', as they say. But nothing romantic. Minnie's not really my kind
of girl – I go more for the Daryl Hannah type."
But was Minnie a good actress? "One of the best, I mean the best. Ever see one of our pictures where she was being terrorized by Pegleg Pete? God, could she scream! Fay Wray hadn't got a patch on her! But we've always tried to keep our private life, private. Actually, Minnie's happily settled with a guy called Jerry, who used to be in a cat-and-mouse act over at MGM."
Mickey pours me yet another Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and I summon up the nerve to mention something I've been wondering about for some time – the voice. "Not quite the falsetto you expected, eh?" he laughs. "No, well, you see I never used my own voice in films. Walt didn't think it sounded 'mousey' enough. When I started out, of course, movies were silent, so no one cared a hoot what sort of voice you had. Then that idiot Jolson opened his mouth in The Jazz Singer and it was all-singing, all-talking from then on. I'd made three pictures by that time, but Walt decided to make them over for sound, starting with Steamboat Willie. Since he wasn't too keen on my voice, he came up with that crazy squeaky accent and dubbed it himself. These things go on all the time in Hollywood – take Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady – and, anyway, it's the acting that counts."
A Snoopy telephone on the pool-side table rings. While he answers the phone, I browse through an old cuttings-album he hands me. It is packed with pictures of Mickey in some of his many roles: song-and-dance man, ring-master, magician, explorer, conductor, flying-ace, car-mechanic and giant-killer. The phone-call ends and he replaces the receiver. "I was wrong. It was the City Dog Pound. They've picked up Pluto again. Dumb mutt's always in some sort of trouble. This time he was digging up Joan Collins' flower-beds! I'll have to go down and bail him out when we're through here. Was there anything else you wanted to ask?"
I mention a picture in the album showing Mickey with Minnie and Donald
outside the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles.
"Oh, that must have been 'thirty-seven, the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We gate-crashed! God, was I still wearing that awful shorts back then? Walt and I were going through a rather rocky spell around then. Donald was making picture after picture and I was lucky if I made one or two a year. So I got a bit crabby and Walt tried to placate me with a part in this musical extravaganza he was working on at the time. Personally, I wasn’t keen." Would he rather not discuss it? "Heck, no! I'd already done several musicals for Disney, of course. One of the best was my first film in colour, The Band Concert, made in 1935. That was really wild! I had to conduct an open-air performance of the 'William Tell Overture' in the teeth of a raging tornado that carried us all over the place before dropping us in a tree! At the end, I wanted to say: 'Pluto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!' but Walt wouldn't hear of it."
"This other musical, however, was something else altogether! I had to wear an outrageous costume that, frankly, made me look a bit of a faggot, and do a kind of aquatic ballet with several hundred extremely temperamental broomsticks. They got in some Polish guy with a funny name to conduct the music – all hellishly highbrow – and there was a lot of other weird stuff in the film as well. I haven't seen it in years, but I remember a bunch of extras from The Lost World, some knock-kneed ostriches, a lot of very unpleasant goblins from Russia – this was long before Gorbachov, of course – and a troupe of midgets who looked like toadstools! Walt called it Fantasia. I never did find out why. They tell me it's considered a classic today. No accounting for tastes!"
I ask about his eventual retirement from movies in 1953. "I'd made a picture called The Simple Things,
it was set in Cape Cod or somewhere, with Pluto and I on a fishing
trip. Sure was a boring movie! Pluto got most of the laughs, of course,
and even the seagulls were funnier than I was! I just knew it was time
to chuck the whole thing in."
"I did work in television for a few years in the 'fifties, hosting The Mickey Mouse Club five nights a week. Mostly it featured a mob of frighteningly talented kids wearing Mickey Mouse-eared hats. What was really cranky was the end of the shows when they all sat round singing a kind of hymn to me: 'M – I – C (See you real soon!) K – E – Y (Why? Because we like you!) M – O – U – S – E !' I mean that’s just bizarre!"
So what brought him back to movies in the 'eighties? "What d'you think? Money! It was 1983 and the picture was called Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Same old story: name in the title, next to nothing to do on screen. Really it was a vehicle for Donald’s Uncle Scrooge McDuck." And how like his Dickensian namesake was he? "A tight-wad, you mean? Hell, no! It's just an act – he modelled himself on Jack Benny, I think; and like Jack, he's generosity itself. Rich as Croesus – made his money in comic books, I believe – but he’d give you the earth. This cocktail set came from him and that’s a real ruby on the end of the swizzle-stick. Anyway, the best thing about the film was that for the first time I got more lines than Donald Duck. He was livid! Didn’t speak to me for a whole year. Best year of my life!"
What does he think of present-day movies. "Not much. But then I guess I'm just getting old. A lot of it seems to be the kind of Spielberg-Lucas space-fantasy stuff, which I'm afraid I don't go for at all. I guested in the latest Disney-Spielberg movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but I even thought that was a bit off-the-wall. Heaven only knows how that Rabbit's become such a mega- star. Seemed like a bag of nerves to me. Even Bugs Bunny found him difficult to get on with him. Perhaps he's a distant relative of Oswald!" And will Mickey be making more movies? "Who knows? Maybe. McDuck would like to invest in a picture, so I could probably raise the cash. I've talked with Willie the Whale about a remake of Moby Dick – Ray Bradbury would write the screenplay for us like a shot – but it's probably a non-starter. After I saw Ruthless People, I did think of doing something along similar lines – Mean Mice or whatever – but, let's face it, Minnie is no Bette Midler!"
Mickey looks at his Ronald Reagan wrist-watch and sighs. "You’ll have to excuse me now, but I really do have to get down to that Dog Pound." I point out that we haven't talked about his birthday. "Who cares? After all, what's so special about being sixty? I've got more than a touch of rheumatics – Doc's recommended me to try green-lipped mussels, would you believe? – my eyesight's not what it was and if it wasn't for Grecian 2000 I'd be greyer than John Forsyth! Why not come back when I'm seventy or eighty or as old as Bob Hope?"
As I rise to leave, I hesitantly ask whether I might have a signed photograph – for my children, of course. He smiles, but shakes his head. "It's not allowed, I'm afraid. Studio rules. Besides, I've lousy handwriting – one of the problems of having to wear these damn stupid gloves all the time! Anyway, the kids wouldn't appreciate it. A signed photo of C3PO maybe, but not Mickey Mouse! We might as well face it, kids aren't what they were!"
Then, with the flicker of a smile, he adds, "But then, who is?"
Almost a year ago I wrote the article which follows about what was then my newly-published book, Joseph and the Three Gifts...
It was as much if not more about the journey that this little volume had taken from idea to print and, in particular, about the part played in that journey by the city of Venice, so beloved by David and myself.
As this year's planned and booked Christmas visit to La Serenissima is forestalled by a collision of potential surgery appointments and the universally disabling Coronavirus, I thought it timely to remind myself of how miraculously and unbidden gifts can come to us...
It was the tapestry that started it. It's true that the idea for my story Joseph and the Three Gifts came to me, fully formed, one cold, dark Christmas night in the city of Venice, but it had begun with the tapestry.
It is entitled (and depicts) 'The Adoration of the Magi', although it is sometimes referred to as 'The Star of Bethlehem' or just 'The Adoration'. It was hung in solitary splendour as the final work in an exhibition of the work of Edward Burne-Jones and I was so entranced by the imagery – and by its size and magnificence – that I felt as if I could almost step into the scene.
I should probably describe that scene: it is night but illumined by the brilliance of a star cradled in the hands of a central floating angel, white-robed and green-winged. We are in a woodland setting, richly carpeted with flowers, among them lilies, roses, irises and tulips. The figures of Mary and the Christ-child are housed in a minimalist structure of wattle-and-thatch and standing reverently before them are the Magi, opulently dressed and bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The Wise Men's focus is the mother and baby, but on the far left of the tapestry, unnoticed by the other characters in the drama, is an old man – Joseph – hesitantly entering, clutching a bundle of kindling that he has gathered with the use of small hatchet that now lies at his feet as if he had let it fall in his understandable awe at seeing the noble potentates venerating his wife and child.
I instantly realised what I had previously seen – seen but not noticed – in hundreds of other representations of the nativity hanging in churches and galleries or depicted on so many Christmas cards, that this man Joseph is almost universally portrayed as someone on the side-lines, in the margin, of the great happening.
In all our various ways of the depicting this event – from school nativity plays through to big-screen biblical epics – Joseph is only a supporting character: often more part of the scenery than a participant in the scene.
But what sort of a man was this carpenter from Nazareth? Was he good at his work – did he build tables and chairs that didn't wobble – and, more importantly, what kind of personality did he have? We know in Mary's famous prayer, 'The Magnificat', how she received the news that she was going to give birth to God's son, but how did Joseph react first to this astonishing revelation and then to being told – by an angel – just what was required of him in the way of his obviously baffled but nevertheless accepting cooperation?
Lots of other questions were soon buzzing around in my head – such as how a foster-father learns to love a child that is not a part of him; and, indeed, how any father comes to accept being the outsider to the exclusive relationship of mother-and-child. With these conundrums came another puzzling thought –– what became of the gifts of the Magi? What did Joseph and Mary do with the gold, frankincense and myrrh, those unlikely presents for a newborn child? All these jig-sawed speculations – together with some possible answers – suddenly fell into place one night last Christmas in Venice.
In wintertime, the city of Venice, usually thronging with tourists checking-off another tick-box on the bucket-list of life, is all but deserted apart from a few devoted and hardy visitors and the ever-dwindling population of local residents.
Ever a city of reflections, since its palazzi and churches are afloat on a lagoon and intersected by a maze of canals, it becomes in the dying month of the year the source of different kind of reflection. The soft, pellucid sunlight on the water, the sudden dropping curtain of December mist are an incentive to introspection and meditation.
And it was in that setting that Joseph and the Three Gifts took form with the final piece of the puzzle falling into place in the form of an answer to the question: who is to tell Joseph's story? The writer's narrative voice? Or, maybe, Joseph himself? Or, someone who might be thought to have a very particular understanding of this ordinary man required to carry an extraordinary burden? That someone, I realised was an Angel – well, an Archangel, in fact. Gabriel.
As Gabriel began recounting his angel's story, I discovered an answer to a mystery that I hadn't even contemplated. You see, after the visit to the Temple when Jesus was twelve, there is no 'after' for Joseph: he makes no further appearance in the Gospel writers' telling of the life of Christ. If and when the question is asked, the predictable answer seems to have always been that, at some point before the beginning of Jesus' ministry, Joseph – presumably being an old man in comparison with his much younger wife – had simply died. But supposing, suggested my Archangel, that was not the case; what if Joseph was not already an old whitebeard at the time of his marriage to Mary? What if he lived long enough to witness – or at least learn of – the events of the first Easter?
So that is the journey of a little book and although – as I am pains to say in its pages – it is not gospel, it perhaps contains an invitation to reflect and take a fresh, unfamiliar, look at an all-too familiar story.
At the time it was a HUGE adventure: I was planning on skipping school. I'd never played truant before; I just wasn't that kind of kid – mainly because I simply didn't have the guts! But this was an emergency!
Disney's 1940 classic, Fantasia, was showing at a local picture-house.
This, you must remember, was in the days before videos and DVDs and this particular Disney film was only ever shown, every few years and strictly as one-day-only screenings. It was showing on a Wednesday at the Odeon cinema in nearby Bromley but – being mid-week, with school the following day – I knew my parents would never allow me to go to the evening performance, so I simply had to see it in the afternoon.
I had read about this film, I had pored over pictures from the various sequences reproduced in books and seen one or two clips on black-and-white TV, but I had never seen the movie itself! What's more, if I missed it this time around, I'd maybe have to wait years to get another chance!
So began the best acting performance I've ever given. Once at school, I developed a irritating cough that worsened throughout the morning's lessons until I was sent to the deputy headmaster, Mr Edwards, who was also responsible for First Aid and all medical referrals. By this time I was sniffing and snuffling with the occasional fit of teeth-chattering shivers thrown in for added effect. My temperature was taken and by some miracle (a combination, perhaps, of an excitement-induced adrenaline rush and sheer will-power) it was slightly up! Mr Edwards told me to go home at once. I needed no second telling: I was out the school gate and on the bus to Bromley.
Within the hour, I was sitting in the dark, succumbing to the thrilling and astonishing experience that is Disney's beautiful brave, bold and brazen collaboration with conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in "Seeing music and hearing pictures"!
I was drowned in unforgettable imagery that, however many times I have seen Fantasia since, is for me, forever associated with the illicit nature of this particular cinema visit. There were the colorful abstractions accompanying Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; the dew-drop, frost and snow-flake fairies that with the Cossack thistle and Chinese mushroom dancers interpreted Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite; and the hilarious pastiche ballet for ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators choreographed to Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours.
Then there was the Bacchanalian romp on Mount Olympus (flying horses, centaurs, unicorns, fauns and gods) set to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, The Pastoral; and the juxtaposed sequences featuring a Black Sabbath with devils, demons, hags and harpies cavorting to Moussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and a devoutly reverential procession of pilgrims making their way through a forest of Gothic-arched trees to the strains of Schubert's setting for Ave Maria.
There was the relentlessly brutalising music of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (that I had never heard before) which provided a soundtrack to a shockingly violent pageant of prehistoric life on earth; and the piece of music that kick-started the project: Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which provided Disney's cinematic alter-ego, Mickey Mouse, with an inspired comedic turn that ranks alongside the best of Chaplin and Keaton and which created one of the studio's many enduring iconic images...
As it happened, I was not found out. But this bit of luck was outweighed and overshadowed by the fact that I couldn't share with anyone my reactions to the devastating visual and aural experience that I had just enjoyed and which I now longed to wallow in all over again. My days of truanting were at an end, but, from then on, I would scour the local papers looking for further one day screenings and would travel to any cinema that was on a bus route in order to relive the Fantasia experience.
Eleven years ago, I spent a couple of incredible days in the company of the amazing Marge Champion who is, today, celebrating her 101st Birthday!
Marge, with her second husband Gower Champion, became Hollywood's headlining dance duo. They danced their way through a slew of memorable MGM movie musicals, among them Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), Show Boat (1951) and Everything I Have is Yours (1952). Other films in which they starred included: Mr. Music (1950) with Bing Crosby, Give a Girl a Break (1953) with Debbie Reynolds, Jupiter’s Darling (1955) with Esther Williams and Three for the Show (1955) with Betty Grable and Jack Lemmon.
What is less well known is that, in 1937 – as the then Marge Belcher – she was the live-action model for footage created to guide the animators grappling with the task of convincingly giving animated life to the heroine of Walt Disney's first animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Marge's hidden life as Snow White was very quickly revealed to the public in Life magazine (April 4, 1938) with a picture shoot also featuring dancer Louis Hightower, the model for Snow White's Prince...
While working at the Disney Studio, (where she later modeled for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio and some of the balletic creatures in Fantasia) Marge met and married her first husband, legendary animator Art Babbitt who was responsible for animating Snow White’s nemesis, the Wicked Queen, and – in a somewhat different style – Mickey Mouse’s pal the hapless Goofy and who is also featured in the Life feature above.
The marriage ended after four years and, in 1947, she married Gower Champion and the couple were soon a hugely success dance partnership, becoming, de facto, the Fred and Ginger of the '50s.
In 2009, I was drafted in (as 'Disney Historian') to accompany Marge and Disney representative Mindy Johnson, through a couple of days of British press promotions for the newly issued 'Diamond Edition' DVD of the film – the classic movie for which she had received no credit and yet to which she had had a major creative input.
Although at the time of our working together, Marge was already 90 year of age, she was indefatigable! At the end of a second gruelling day of interviews, when I expected her to want to do nothing but crash out in her London hotel (and by which time, frankly, I was ready and eager to drop) she blithely asked my partner David Weeks and myself what we were doing that evening and insisted that we join her on a visit to see her friend Donna McKechnie (the first Cassie in A Chorus Line) who was in performance at the then music venue, 'Pizza on the Park'.
Donna joined us after the show and Marge kept us all engaged in tirelessly animated conversation until the staff were stacking the chairs on the tables and beginning to switch off the lights! When we finally had to leave (closer to midnight than not), David and I offered to drop Marge at her hotel: "Goodness no!" she replied, "the walk will do me good!"
Now, at 101, she is still the trouper! Great going, Marge! Happy birthday and keep dancing!