MY LIFE & TIMES
Part of the post-war 'baby boom', I was born, on 14 July 1949, in Clapham, South London, and grew up in nearby Wandsworth - not a million miles from where I've now ended up living.
I lived (with my Dad, an architectural draughtsman, and my Mum, a housewife) in the ground floor flat of an Edwardian (or was it Victorian?) house at 16 Cicada Road, but not knowing what a 'Cicarda' was, we called it 'Cicayda Road'!
There weren't many books in that house (Dad's income didn't run to luxuries), but I somehow inherited a second-hand copy of a large, red-covered book that was packed with short stories, poems and puzzles that became, for a time, my inseperable companion.
Serialized throughout the volume, every few dozen pages, was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The story made a powerful impact and Lewis Carroll was probably the first author to lay siege to my imagination.
Enter: Mr Edward Bear
A few doors away, lived a kindly lady named Mrs Bertoletti with a great many children's books belonging to her own youngsters, who had, long since, grown up and moved away. Mrs Bertoletti - to whom I shall always be indebted - passed us the 'Christopher Robin' and 'Winnie-the-Pooh' books (first editions, I dare say they were) on Extended Loan.
The rhymes and stories were read to me until (like the real Christopher Robin before me and many other children since) I could quote them verbatim.
Those verses about 'Sir Brian, Sir Brian' (my name!) who was "as brave as a lion" and all those funny Sayings and Hums of Pooh and his friends in the 100 Aker Wood were soon part of our daily conversation.
Then, the loan came to an end and the books went back. Years passed and I all but forgot about dear old Pooh. But, as you will see, he did forget me...
Meanwhile, when I was five years old, we left London for a more rural life in Chislehurst, Kent, where I spent my formative years in reasonable happiness and enjoyed a lazy and fairly undistinguished academic career: beginning at a cosseting little C of E primary school.
That's me, on the right (before I got my specs!) in my school cap which the stupid school photographer hand-tinted using the wrong colours!
Failing the 11+ I found myself at a very decent Sec Mod, where I learned to hate numbers and love words! As a result, I scooped an 'A' Level in English (the first boy in the school to sit an academic 'A' level, and after just one year's study) while, at the same time, struggling with my third attempt to get a CSE in Arithmetic!
I was sixteen when the Winnie-the Pooh books were published in paperback for the first time and was reunited with Mr Milne's Bear of Very Little Brain. Soon afterwards - and following a distinguished career as the author of sundry satirical school revues - I wrote my first play: The Lost Childhood, a free adaptation (made with a shameful disregard for the laws of copyright) of some of those Pooh stories I loved so much.
It was all fearfully 'sixties stuff, with Christopher Robin's toys being represented as eccentric humans, rather in the style of Jonathan Miller notorious television version of Alice in Wonderland.
I played a young-looking A A Milne and a very gloomy Eeyore, seen here (on a Vanity Fair-style photo shoot on Chislehurst common!) with my 'co-stars': Brian Denton (Pooh), David Boulton (Rabbit), Ian Carter (Christopher Robin) and Robert Hendry (Piglet)...
I must say, they were all terribly tolerant of their obsessive author/director --- the audience, however, was somewhat less so!
All my pocket money went on books; those I couldn't buy for myself, I borrowed from the local library. Apart from renewing my acquaintance with A A Milne, I was being reunited with Lewis Carroll (and discovered his alter ego, Charles Dodgson) and forged new friendships that were to become lifelong companions: Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, P L Travers and T H White.
I also fell under the spell of writers and versifiers from the Other-Side-of-the-Pond, among them James Thurber, Ogden Nash, Walt Whitman and especially Ray Bradbury, to whom I once sent a dizzy fan-letter that began a thirty year correspondence.
This is just one of the typically zany greetings I've received from Ray over the years.
This is just one of the typically zany greetings I've received from Ray over the years.
While at school, I also developed a passion for art and acting and misguidedly entertained ambitions to become either an illustrator and cartoonist or an actor and film star - or all four!
After numerous rejection slips from the Joke Department at Punch magazine and a string of failed auditions with most of the major drama schools, I eventually settled for a rather less imaginative career in local government. This was followed - when the red-tape finally got too restrictive - by a sojourn with a finance company in London, who never seemed to notice that I couldn't actually add up!
Throughout these years I kept my real interests alive by writing stories and poems for my own amusement, doodling cartoons for friends, editing a zany, photocopied magazine with a colleague in a London Borough of Bromley post-room (that was our editorial office, above left) and took part in local amateur dramatics, usually cast as love-sick juveniles - roles that didn't come easy to a lad in the 'sixties hesitantly coming to terms with being gay!
The Bear and the Bull
I got a bit hooked on Teddy Bears (beginning with my rediscovery of that childhood infatuation with Winnie-the-Pooh) and was soon corresponding with Pooh's illustrator, E H Shepard, who made me a drawing of my favourite character, Eeyore, and with Daphne Milne (the author's widow), who gave me various snaps of Christopher Robin and his friends.
Read an interview with me about Winnie-the-Pooh on ICONS: A Portrait of England
Around this time, I also got to know Michael Bond, the author of the Paddington books and Peter Bull, actor (Dr Strangelove, Tom Jones etc) and teddy-bear guru, who became a dear, loyal, encouraging friend both in my search to find what I was supposed to do in life and my quest to understand myself...
Pooh himself, by this time, had been 'abducted' by Walt Disney; but I didn't really mind as much as perhaps I ought to have done because I, too, was enslaved by the magic of Disney animation: frantically collecting anything and everything connected with the studio and its films.
My prize possession was - and still is - a copy of a book entitled The Story of Walt Disney, autographed (above right) by the man himself. Read the full account of how I acquired this Disney Gem.
As well as seeing every Disney film (some many times over), I spent all my free time in libraries poring over books and periodicals until I became a kind of Junior Walking Encyclopedia on the subject of Disney and animation.
I corresponded and, eventually, became friends with a number of veteran artists who had created the legendary Disney characters including Marc Davis (responsible for, among others, Tinkerbell and Cruella de Vil) as well as some of the actors who had given them their voices, such as Clarence Nash (Donald Duck) and the late Adriana Caselotti who was Snow White - both in and out of the movie!
Another Disney actress - unique in that she voiced two Disney heroines - is Kathryn Beaumont Levine who spoke and sang for both Alice (in Wonderland) and Wendy (in Never Land). I first met Kathy when I interviewed her for a BBC radio series entitled Disney's Women and she and her husband, Allan, quickly became very dear friends.
There we are (above) at the launch of a new DVD for Peter Pan in what was my first - and very probably my last - appearance in Hello magazine!
Thinking it over, it was probably seeing a re-release of Disney's Alice in Wonderland that re-awakened my interest in Lewis Carroll's original.
Wanderings in Wonderland
My long-held interest in Wonderland's enigmatic creator eventually led to my joining The Lewis Carroll Society, where I founded and edited a newsletter, Bandersnatch (and its later supplement, By the Tum Tum Tree): an experience which taught me just about all I've ever learned about journalism!
I even got to publish some of my own doodles...
I also started giving talks, harnessing both my growing literary knowledge and my minimal acting skills.
My first genuine lecture (to the Lewis Carroll Society in 1974) was accompanied by a privately-printed booklet, Microscopes and Megaloscopes (about Alice at the movies); it was limited to 100 signed and numbered copies and is now, mercifully, probably the scarcest of all my publications!
It was these activities that eventually resulted in my stumbling into my present career, with a little help from, once again, that Silly Old Bear!
Three Cheers for Pooh!
In 1976, I was invited to give a talk to the Children's Books History Society on the occasion of Winnie-the-Pooh's 50th birthday. One of the guests was the aforementioned Peter Bull, who suggested to the BBC that I write it up as a radio programme for him to present.
I did and he did.
And with that thirty-minute feature, Three Cheers for Pooh (a title I would later to give to one of my books) I took my first hesitant steps towards a career as a writer of radio programmes that eventually led to that of being a writer and presenter.
After a year of covertly writing scripts secreted in office files and taking leave in order to record them, the finance company for whom I worked was taken over by an American rival and, I was made redundant. Clutching £1000 redundancy money - thank you Uncle Sam! - I embarked on the interest-filled, but utterly insecure, life of the freelance.
A Journey of Unending Surprises
It is difficult to pick any one achievement from the ensuing years as being most important or significant, but others would undoubtedly spotlight my involvement in the BBC's celebrated radio serialisation of J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which, in turn, led to so much else.
Read my feature on the making of the BBC Radio's The Lord of the Rings: The Ring Goes Ever On
In fact, I've done more things - and more unusual things - than I would have ever imagined possible: reviewing radio (and writing obituaries) for The Times; hosting a couple of radio quiz shows; presenting two live arts programmes a week; chairing a committee of the Society of Authors; serving as a judge on the Sony Radio Awards and winning a Sony Radio Award!
I've written sketches for Thora Hird, Disneytime scripts for Sarah Greene and Dannii Minogue (hands up who remembers Disneytime!) and, this year, a book of bible stories to be read by Cliff Richard.
I preached a sermon in Magdalene College, Cambridge; went to Moscow to work with a Russian animator on an acclaimed film versio of Moby Dick; chased Peter Jackson halfway round the world and back whilst trying to write his biography; and delved into the secret archives of The Magic Circle in order to write their visitor's companion The House of 10,000 Secrets.
Finally, I almost got into 'the charts' as a result of writing the narration - the small-print-credits unflatteringly calls it it 'text' - for Jeff Wayne's ill-fated and long-forgotten concept-album, Spartacus. If you ever come across Catherine Zeta Jones' single, For All Time, you discover that the 'B' side features Sir Anthony Hopkins reading my words to musical accompaniment by J Wayne!
Today, I share my life with magician David Weeks, who has been my companion for going-on eighteen years and who (since October 2007) is now my Civil Partner...
We live - in a flat heaped and stacked with books and hung with pictures - along with an intrepid little rabbit, named Buttons, who - as a world-traveller - has had numerous exploits and can be encountered in person on button's blog.
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