Saturday, 30 June 2012

DO YOU THINK THE QUEEN...

...knows all about me?

Sure to, dear, but it's time for tea.



One of my favorite royal stories to surface during the recent Jubilee celebrations concerns the Queen Mum being escorted by Noël Coward who – rather too obviously – was taking stock of the uniformed guards standing around.

'I wouldn't if I were you, Noël,' said Her Majesty, 'they count them before they put them out!'


Image: Caricature of Noel Coward by Clive Francis

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

NORA EPHRON (1941-2012)

I try to write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are.

Novelist, journalist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter and director, Norah Ephron, was responsible for a clutch of sharp, stylish, witty, touching, movie rom-coms with an up-dated dash of what pepped-up those screwball comedies of the 'forties.

Apart from her published writings, she gave us the scripts for Silkwood, Heartburn, Sleepless in Seatle, You've Got Mail, Julie & Julia and, of course, When Harry Met Sally... directed by Rob Reiner and starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal...


Any writer would have liked to have had what Nora Ephron had –– pure talent!

A few memorable remembrances of a cool lady...

There is something called the rapture of the deep, and it refers to what happens when a deep-sea diver spends too much time at the bottom of the ocean and can't tell which way is up. When he surfaces, he's liable to have a condition called the bends, where the body can't adapt to the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. All of this happens to me when I surface from a great book.

From the essay Twenty-five Things People Have a Shocking Capacity to Be Surprised by Over and Over Again

1. Journalists sometimes make things up.
2. Journalists sometimes get things wrong.
3. Almost all books that are published as memoirs were initially written as novels, and then the agent/editor said, This might work better as a memoir.
6. Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.

Here are some questions I am constantly noodling over: Do you splurge or do you hoard? Do you live every day as if it's your last, or do you save your money on the chance you'll live twenty more years? Is life too short, or is it going to be too long? Do you work as hard as you can, or do you slow down to smell the roses? And where do carbohydrates fit into all this?  

I am living in the Google years, no question of that. And there are advantages to it. When you forget something, you can whip out your iPhone and go to Google. The Senior Moment has become the Google moment, and it has a much nicer, hipper, younger, more contemporary sound, doesn't it? By handling the obligations of the search mechanism, you almost prove you can keep up....

You can't retrieve you life (unless you're on Wikipedia, in which case you can retrieve an inaccurate version of it).  

Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life - well, valuable, but small - and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven't been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn't it be the other way around? I don't really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void. 

(Oh, and by the way, the lady sitting at the nearby table who wanted what Meg Ryan was having was played by director Rob Reiner's mother, Estelle Reiner.)

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

HORRIFIC DELIGHTS!

Among the many treasures I have uncovered during the upheaval of our putting our lives into storage was this copy of Peter Underwood's 1972 biography of one of my favourite (and one of the most unlikely) Hollywood stars, Boris Karloff...


I opened it and found, to my surprise, that it was signed by the author...


And then out slipped and fell to the floor an autographed photograph of the man himself...


What joy!

My affection for Karloff as a performer is that (like Lon Chaney before him and Peter Cushing after) he imbued his monsters, criminals and haunted men with a humanity that earned our compassion and won our sympathy.

But then how could we not warm to a man who called himself Boris Karloff, but who was born in South East London with the name William Henry Pratt?!

The arresting eyes and heavy brows contrasted with the soft, almost lisping, voice created a uniquely individual screen personality.

Famous for his roles as Frankenstein's creature, the Mummy and other monstrosities of our darkest nightmares, he was also a fine storyteller as is evidenced by a scene in his last film, Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 thriller, Targets.

Aging horror actor, Byron Orlock (Karloff) recounts the tale 'Appointment in Samarra' that first appeared in the coda to W Somerset Maugham's final play, Sheppey, staged in London in 1933. The following year, American writer, John O'Hara, took Appointment in Samarra as the title for his acclaimed debut novel.

 I'll leave the Master to beguile you with this little tale...


Image: Caricature of Boris Karloff by Joel BrinkerhoffJoel Brinkerhoff

Sunday, 24 June 2012

ERROR 451

Ray Bradbury – visionary and futurist though he was – had scant regard for the omnipresent internet which he called a 'distraction', perhaps seeing its ephemeral, transient nature as a threat to the library and the book as potentially disastrous as that of the regime of the book-burners described in his Fahrenheit 451.

So he might – or might not – have been amused to learn that a proposal will be made to the Internet Engineering Task Force for a new error code of 451 to be defined for use in instances where access to sites is unsuccessful not because of a technological glitch, but because some authority has imposed censorship and denied access.

At present, websites that have been legally blocked return status code '403 Forbidden', which is inaccurate since it means that the server (the website itself) is refusing you access, when it's actually your ISP, the government or some other authority that's keeping you away from the data you're seeking. Being advised of a 451 code ('451 Unavailable for Legal Reasons') would provide an indication that  the unavailability is down to censorship rather than your computer or the website,

'We can never do away entirely with legal restrictions on freedom of speech,' says Tim Bray who is proposing the adoption of code 451. 'On the other hand, I feel that when such restrictions are imposed, they should be done so transparently... While we may agree on the existence of certain restrictions, we should be nervous whenever we do it; thus the reference to the dystopian vision of Fahrenheit 451 may be helpful. Also, since the internet exists in several of the many futures imagined by Bradbury, it would be nice for a tip of the hat in his direction from the net, in the year of his death.'

You can read the full story here in The Guardian.


Cartoon: Toothpaste for Dinner

Friday, 22 June 2012

MAD HOUSE FOR BIRD BRAINS

Wanting to attract nesting birds to your back yard?

What is less likely to encourage a flock of blue-tits in search of a 'des res' than this Wonderland bird-box...


But maybe it'd be OK if you're bird-spotting in or around the Tulgey Wood!

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

HARDLY WORTHY

 
I recently had the honour of being interviewed by my good friend, Beth Stillborn on on her blog By Word of Beth...


You can read the whole interview here, although I'm not sure I managed to say anything really 'worthy' of being read, so don't feel you have to...

However, do have a browse through Beth's other posts and interviews, such as her recent conversation with writer Emma Walton Hamilton, who also happens to be the daughter of the wonderful Julie Andrews!

Monday, 18 June 2012

HUM–ALONG–A-POOH

Do you remember this..


The year: 1977... A record made by a small green frog reaches No.7 in the UK Top Ten and earns him an appearance on the BBC's weekly TV show, Top of the Pops.

The frog was Robin, nephew of Kermit, Master of Ceremonies of The Muppet Show and the lyrics – by A A Milne (left) author, playwright and essayist and Assistant Editor of the humorous magazine Punch – had originally been published in 1924 in Milne's celebrated collection of children's verses, with illustrations by E H Shepard, When We Were Very Young.

The wistful melody was the work of Harold Fraser-Simson (right), a close neighbour of Milne's in Chelsea and a fellow member of the Garrick Club.

He had also earned a reputation as a successful composer of light music with his score for the phenomenal West End triumph, The Maid of the Mountains, an operetta that played for 1,352 performances: a record run second only, at the time, to that of Chu Chin Chow.

The partnership between Fraser-Simson and Milne began with a volume of Fourteen Songs from 'When We Were Very Young', which instantly capitalised on the huge success achieved by the book of verses, many of which were 'fictionally' based on the juvenile doings of Milne's son, Christopher Robin: going to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace ('with Alice') or being careful not to treads on the lines of the street – especially whenever he went 'Hoppity-hoppity-hoppity-hoppity-hop'!

One of the most famous songs to come out of this collaboration was Milne's first 'children's verse', published two years before When We Were Very Young in 1923, in the American magazine, Vanity Fair. It's formal title was 'Vespers' but most people know it as...


Some may think it is a tad too sentimental (and they'd probably be right!) but, in it's defence, I would point out that the writer later said that if you read the words carefully you'll see that it is, in fact, about a little boy NOT saying his prayers!

Many recordings of the song have been made over the years, from 'Belfast's Own Boy Soprano', Billy Neely...


...via Gracie Fields and Webster Booth to the New York Met's great Wagnerian soprano, Helen Traubel...


In addition to the verses in When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, Fraser-Simson provided musical settings for the Hums of Pooh, the ditties extemporised by Christopher Robin's 'bear of very little brain' in the books, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.


Anyway, what all this is leading up to is that there is a 30-minute feature tomorrow (Tuesday) morning on BBC Radio 4 at 11:30 am about the MIlne/Fraser-Simson partnership.  

The Songs of Milne is presented by pianist John Kember (below right with baritone Richard Burkhard), who first came across the music on a friend's piano and set about collecting the scores for all of Fraser-Simson's sixty-seven settings of Milne's verses and Pooh's Hums. It is John's ambition that he and Richard might produce a complete recording of these delightful songs.


In the programme, John tells the story of this, now largely forgotten, partnership and explores the relationship between the words and the music, their rise and decline in popularity and ponders the question of whether they have any currency in today's world that is so very different to that of the 1920s era of nannies, nursery teas and prayers at bedtime...

Also taking part in the broadcast are Andrew Lamb, authority on musical theatre, Dr Clare Rose, Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth –– and the author of Three Cheers for Pooh, viz... Me! 

Following the broadcast, the programme can be heard via the BBC iPlayer for the next seven days.

I began by mentioning the Muppets and I think the late Jim Henson must have had an affection for these songs because, over the years, a number of them were featured on The Muppet Show. I'll leave you with Rowlf's rendition of one of Pooh's best hums, 'Cottleston Pie'...


Friday, 15 June 2012

TO YESTERDAY AND BEYOND

Staying loosely in Bradbury territory with the theme of science-fantasy and – in particular – space travel: a lover of retro design, I was captivated to come across these brilliant pastiche posters by Steve Thomas, inspired by 1920s travel posters...










Pure genius!

View Steve Thomas' Portfolio and visit his blog Rocket Tours.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

A DAY AT THE DARK CARNIVAL

Still thinking about Ray Bradbury...

Twenty-two years ago, I collaborated with my long-time friend, composer David Hewson, on a concert work for voices and narrator, entitled The Autumn People.

Dedicated to Ray to mark his 70th birthday, the piece was inspired by his vision of American carnivals, fairgrounds and freak shows at the turn of the last century as depicted in a number of his books – most notably Something Wicked This Way Comes.

The work was premiered in London at The British Music Information Centre in October 1990; and I have uploaded it via SoundCloud as a tribute from Dave and myself to one of the most imaginative writers in the last and present centuries...

Roll up! Roll up! Roll up!
Pay up! Step up and see the show!



WordsBrian Sibley * MusicDave Hewson
SopranoJacqueline Bremar * Tenor Richard Berkley-Steele
Flute  – Georgina Roberts * PianoDavid Elwin 
 Narrator and Voices of the Animals – Brian Sibley


Friday, 8 June 2012

REMEMBERING RAY


 I will be remembering Ray in conversation with Matthew Bannister on the BBC Radio 4 obituary programme, Last Word, this afternoon at 16:00.

The broadcast can then be heard again on Sunday at 20:30 or by going to the 'Last Word' archive pages on BBC iPlayer.

And (thanks to Ian for the link) here's a touching tribute to Ray from Jet Propulsion Laborartory at NASA.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

FAREWELL TO THE MARTIAN CHRONICLER

I knew the day would eventually come when I would have to write this post, but I had hoped that it wouldn't be for a few years yet...

With the death of Ray Bradbury at 91, fantasy literature has lost one of its twentieth century giants and, for me, a friendship of many years has finally come to an end...

I had fallen under the Bradbury spell on reading a book tantalisingly entitled The Golden Apples of the Sun...

It had caught my eye one hot summer day when, as a teenager, I was idly looking at an assortment of paperbacks on one of those swiveling book-racks outside a local newsagents shop. Dressed as it was in funereal black with a roundel of red and purple grotesqueries that, I later, discovered featured the work of Goya and with the word IMAGINATION printed in reverse on the back cover, I was instantly enslaved.



Taking its title from W B Yeats, it was a collection of twenty-two weird and wonderful tales each accompanied by a headpiece by Joe Mugnaini, whose distinctive black and white decorations were a frequent embellishment to many of the author’s stories and book jackets.

There were sea-serpents and space ships; witches and murderers and time-travelling big-game hunters who take a safari back into a prehistoric era to hunt a living Tyrannosaurus Rex.

But by far the majority of the stories were about ordinary (and, therefore, extraordinary) people and the wildly ricocheting roller-coasters of their emotional lives: love lurching to hatred; despair soaring to joy; happiness plummeting to sorrow…


I encountered Ray Bradbury at an age when wide-eyed childhood wonder was beginning to crumble in the face of budding teenage angst.

From that intensely hot July day when I read my first Bradbury story ('The Fog Horn') he seized my imagination, shook it awake and hauled it screaming with terror and delight into other worlds that I had only previously visited in my dreams.

It was a moment of apotheosis; a baptism; an epiphany…

I became a different person to the one I might have been because of Ray's gift for seeing the miraculous in the mundane and the tremendous possibilities in the trivial and his unerring talent for prising open the thoughts and emotions of an astonishing range of beings – humans, aliens, robots, puppets and dinosaurs – and giving us an empathetic understanding of their hopes and fears.


The first British edition of Dark Carnival (1948)
with dust-wrapper design by Michale Ayrton

Having gobbled up The Golden Apples I wanted more! Soon I was drinking down Dandelion Wine, dosing myself with A Medicine for Melancholy, burning with the paper-shrivelling heat of Fahrenheit 451, leaping into the velvet darkness of outer space in pursuit of The Silver Locusts and jumping astride the backwards-running carousel in Something Wicked this Way Comes.

In 1974, many years after my first reading of Golden Apples, I wrote the author a fan-letter. Ostensibly, it was asking questions about our shared passion for the work of Walt Disney, but that was merely an excuse to tell the Pied Piper that I was captivated by his music!

Did I expect a reply?

With the arrogant confidence of a twenty-four year old, I probably did! And I was not disappointed…

Ray’s answer came in installments: an envelope of cuttings and articles on Disney, scrawled across one in his ubiquitous capital letters: “LETTER FOLLOWS IN ABOUT 10 DAYS!”


The following month, came a postcard with a contact address for a veteran staff member at the Disney Studio who might assist me with my research; then, another month on – thirty-eight years ago, this very week – came the awaited LETTER...

“This will have to be short," it began. "Sorry. But I am deep into my screenplay on Something Wicked This Way Comes and have no secretary, never have had one… so must write all my own letters… 200 a week!!!”

However, short it was NOT!

Ray signed off, added a post-script and then started another page and, picking up on a naïve comment from my original letter, let fly a barrage of counter-arguments, issuing challenges, demanding a re-think…

This letter is one of my most treasured possessions and, as I read it now, I can still remember the thrill which which I read it then...
 
Ray Bradbury Letter - June 1974 (1)

Ray Bradbury Letter - June 1974 (2)

Once read, it obviously had to be answered!

And so began a exchange of correspondence  (enough to fill four large folders) that continued, latterly, via e-mail and fax, through to a note received just a couple of weeks ago.

Here's just one of many personally decorated envelopes that contained a Bradbury missive...


In 1980, after six years of corresponding, Ray and I finally met for the very first time when I interviewed him at the offices of his London publishers.

The book which I took with me on that occasion to ask him to inscribe for me was the first UK edition of The Halloween Tree, an autumnal conjuring trick by a master literary magician with haunting tombstone black-and-white illustrations by Joe Mugnaini.

The Halloween Tree features the cadaverous Mr Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud leading a group of  youngsters on a fantastical jaunt through the “deep, dark, long, wild, history of Halloween..."

Only much later did I realise that our meeting had taken place just ten days before Ray's 60th birthday...


Six years later, we meet for lunch in a restaurant on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and waiting for me under the napkin by my plate was an American edition of the same book with an inscription and a golden Halloween Tree drawing by the author, studded with grinning pumpkin lantern stickers!


Another memorable meeting came about in 1982, when I was making a BBC radio documentary about the soon-to-be-opened EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World in Florida. Ray was to be there as well and although we had tried to arrange to meet, it wasn't looking hopeful...



(I love the fact that Ray talks about Spacehip Earth as his building! And there is also a glimpse of his frustration over the delays involved in completing the Disney Studio's film of his novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes...)

Anyway, it seemed as if our dates were doomed not to coincide; but that was not the end of the story, because fate (and Disney) stepped in, as Jiminy Cricket would say: "Like a bolt from out the blue"!

Earlier in 1982, I had spent a couple of weeks filming in Florida and Los Angeles for another EPCOT-centric documentary – this time for BBC television. The plan had been that I and my producer, Norman Stone, would return with a crew to film the finished project when the park debuted in the October. In the intervening months, however, the BBC ran out of programme funding and were unable to send us all back to Orlando to capture the opening ceremony and the necessary wrap-up interviews with our contributors.

Disney offered to fly us out and take care of us, but since such a gesture might have been thought to compromise the independent editorial voice of the BBC, the corporation declined. Norman, it was decreed, would have to make the trip alone and work with a US film crew.

Then, while in Florida making my radio programme (separate division, separate funding) during EPCOT's preview weeks, Disney, in true fairy-godmotherly fashion, waved a magic wand by telling me that I was going to be invited to the opening events as a guest and the BBC, with an example of dubious (but gratefully accepted) reasoning, argued that whilst it would have been unacceptable for Disney to fly me out to cover the opening, if – 'as a guest' who just happened to be there anyway – I chanced to meet up with Norman and his US film crew and was able to record a few interviews (unpaid, of course!) honour would be satisfied.

And that is what happened. Which is why, on 22 October 1982 – against all expectations – Ray and I stood chatting in the shadow of his wonderful, iridescent Spaceship Earth and I came away with this unique souvenir...


For those who believe that memories are better than photos and autographs, I have to say that the day ended with one of the best Disney-Bradbury gifts I could ever have been given. The evening of 22 October saw a black-tie party with champagne, food and music from some of the greatest American dance-bands.

The press contingent were not invited to this bash, but were, instead, bused off to a well-known Orlando night-spot, Rosie O'Grady's Good Time Emporium – except, that is, for Norman and I who (through the generosity of the friendships we had made with the folks at Disney Imagineering) were given invitations to the Spaceship Earth party.

Food, drink and music meant that the celebrity guests had plenty to occupy them during the evening without actually riding Spacehip Earth which, for most of the evening, had empty cars spiraling up through its geodesic structure.

Then Norman and I bumped into Ray and his daughter, Bettina. "Have you been on Spaceship Earth?" Ray asked excitedly. Well, yes we had; a couple of times. Ray looked crestfallen. "Damn!" he said, "I was going to ask you to ride it with me."

There wasn't a moment's hesitation from Norman and I! "Of course we'd love to ride it with YOU!"  And we did. No one else: just Ray and his daughter in the front seats, Norman and I, in our hired tuxedos, behind; Walter Cronkite's narration coming out of car's loudspeaker system while Ray provided his own unique commentary over the top – adding detail and explanation about why he had chosen this or that moment in history of communication to be part of the Spaceship Earth story.

Unforgettable!

Ten months on from the opening of EPCOT, Something Wicked This Way Comes finally reached the cinemas...

Invitation to 'Something Wicked' Screening

Invitation to 'Something Wicked' Screening

Having fallen in love with the book as a youngster, I was thrilled at the prospect of this allegorical story about light-versus-darkness being realised for the movies by the studio with the greatest track record in retelling fables and folk tales.

Several of Ray's letters around this period, comment on the film. Here are a couple...

Letter from Ray Bradbury, August 1983

Letter from Ray Bradbury, October 1983

The 'Mouse's Tale' referred to by Ray was a  spoof interview with Mickey Mouse that I wrote for a humorous magazine in Britain – and which they turned down!  The cartoon was inspired by the then-recent publication of Ray's Dinosaur Tales, which is the book being read by the baby dinosaur in the drawing...

Cartoon drawn for Ray Bradbury by Brian Sibley

Yet another unforgettable meeting with Ray took place at the Disney Studio in Burbank in 1986. I was there with my writing colleague, Richard Holliss, researching The Disney Studio Story  and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Making of the Classic – and Ray came over to meet us and have lunch at the Disney commissary.

The Green Town sets from Something Wicked were still standing on the Disney back-lot, so where better to get an inscription in one of my all-time favourite books...?



When, two months later, our earlier book, Mickey Mouse: His Life and Times was published, Richard and I sent Ray a copy, receiving this enthusiastic response...


As a post-script to the earlier comments on the fascinating (if flawed) film of Something Wicked, I was later given – by a friend at the Disney studio – one of the fliers for Dark's Pandemonium Carnival – which Mr Dark (Jonathan Pryce) scatters to the winds as he prowls around the unsuspecting Green Town...

Dark's Pandemonium Carnival

As the years have passed, Ray and I have continued chattering, gibbering and blabbing about many things and I have gone back again and again to those extraordinary books...

Books like...

Dandelion Wine: that achingly poignant portrait of small-town American life at the turn of the last century – full of the remembered wonderment of childhood on long summer days when life, it seems, will go on for ever...

And The Martian Chronicles (or, as we re-dubbed it in the UK, The Silver Locusts), that masterpiece that is so easily catalogued as being science fantasy, but which has less to do with the nuts and bolts of space travel as with the human condition of the travellers and the alien life forms that await them on the red planet.


If Ray Bradbury had only ever written The Martian Chronicles he would have secured a place in literary history, but he also wrote that sublime portrait of childhood (and compelling psychological thriller), Something Wicked This Way Comes; the dystopian nightmare of an era where books are burned, Fahrenheit 451 as well as dozens of novels and collections of short stories and verses.

Ray and I
Ray and I in 1995
Photo: Malcolm Prince

I owe Ray a huge debt: for the opportunity to adapt some of his short stories for radio in the BBC Radio 4 series Ray Bradbury's Tales of the Bizarre, each episode of which was preceded by a personal introduction from the author about how he came to write the story; and, more generally speaking, for the unstintingly generous encouragement he always gave me as a writer – on one occasion going the extra mile by memorably endorsing one of my books...

I had once asked him which book – like the characters in F451 – he would commit to memory if the literary arsonists ever came to power, and he told me, it would be Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. That is why, when I wrote a volume about Dickens' classic, I asked him for a testimonial for the wrapper.

He did me proud...


Scarcely two weeks ago, I had a note from Ray in which he responded to the news that David and I had had to go through the upheaval of putting all our books and possessions in store and (albeit temporarily) moving home...
I cannot believe what you and David have to go through.  Of course now that you've had to dig through all your treasures, perhaps we should get you two here to take care of this out-of-control homestead of mine!!!!  I love this old house of mine and even if I didn't, I think I'd be stuck here because there's just so much stuff...

I think [you may have heard] that I had been in the hospital, but this old Martian is doing fine, so don't you worry...
 But, of course, I did...

Ray often recounted a story from his own childhood of visiting one of the side-show attractions at a carnival where Mr Electrico touched the boy with the fizz and crackle of the electric power that he let run through his body as part of his act and told him to "Live for ever!"

Older and wiser, I now know that living for ever is not (at the moment) a biological option, but we can live forever through the chain-reaction by which we pass on our genes or, for those of us who are childless, our enthusiasms, passions and whatever other influences, great or small, rub off on everyone with whom we interact.

Like Mr Electrico, Ray zapped me and thousands of others with electric shock waves of the multi-faceted revelations, implications and anticipations of life –– that is why he will truly live forever...


You can read about one of my encounters with Ray in The Bradbury Machine

Admirers of Ray's works also need to know that the best website devoted to all things Bradburyesque is the endlessly diverting and informative Bradbury Media.