Sibley on Radio, Television and Stage

From my very first radio programme for the BBC, I've been amazingly fortunate in being able to write and broadcast about so many topics that were already personal passions...

That initial offering was Three Cheers for Pooh and it took me weeks to get over seeing my name in the Radio Times...

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Broadcast in 1976 (the year of Pooh's 50th birthday) the programme featured veteran actor (and radio's 'Voice of Pooh') Norman Shelley and two late, and much-loved chums, Peter Bull and a hugely talented musician and performer, Antony Miall.

Wonderland, Never Land and Other Places

Following the Pooh programme, the BBC commissioned The Tune's My Own Invention, a feature on Lewis Carroll and the songs in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass. Once again I worked with Tony Miall and, between us, we spoke and sang for a good dozen Carrollian characters. A particular favourite was 'Speak Roughly to Your Little Boy' with Tony as the Duchess and myself as both the pepper-sneezing Cook and the pig-baby!

Next, I wrote and presented The Boy and the Shadow, a dramatised feature about J M Barrie and the creation of Peter Pan, with Tony as the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. These early programmes established the style for many of those that were to follow, although I was soon branching off on, sometimes, surprising tangents.

I won't bore you with a full - or even abridged - catalogue of the over 100 documentaries and features that I've written and presented for the BBC (I will eventually be listing them elsewhere on The Works - for the seriously curious!) but suffice it to say that subjects have ranged from Mickey Mouse to Dracula and Just William to Jack the Ripper.

The diversity of topics covered in my programmes includes the invention of the weekend, the creation of LEGO, an account of the "naughty 'nineties", the history of the crossword puxzzle (that one was entitled Never A Cross Word) and the film careers of Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes. I also charted the life of Jim Henson (and his frogs and pigs) to that an 18th century servant girl named Mary Toft - the so-called 'Rabbit Woman of Godalming' - who claimed to have been delivered of several live rabbits!

Christmas Cracker

An early success was a humorous Christmas monologue entitled ...And Yet Another Partridge in a Pear Tree, performed by Penelope Keith (right) and first broadcast on Christmas morning 1977. It was only the second programme I ever submitted to the BBC and I was fortunate to have Penelope Keith (then at the height of her fame as Margot Leadbetter in the TV sit-com, The Good Life) play Miss Cynthia Bracegirdle, the luckless recipient of all the presents listed in the well-known 'Twelve Days of Christmas' song...

It was, I later discovered, not exactly a new joke and it has been re-worked by others since, but it had the distinctive twist of following the cumulative list in the lyrics, thus providing the recipient not with one partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three French hens and so on, but with twelve partridges, twenty-two turtle doves, thirty French hens and so forth.

This programme - almost a monologue - was repeated several years running and I still get letters from people remembering it and asking if a recording of this programme is available. Sadly, the BBC has never released it commercially, although it does get usually get aired most Decembers - somewhere in the world.

I also repeatedly get asked for copies of the script and, since several inaccurate and incomplete transcripts are circulating on the net, I've decided it's time to post the full script; so, click here to read this sensationally shocking seasonal saga!

Incidentally, I'm happy for amateur performances of the piece to take place - though I'd appreciate being told where and when they're happening - and enquiries concerning the rights for professional performances should be directed to the

Behind the Mike

Reviews for BBC Radio 4's former daily arts programme, Kaleidoscope, eventually led to my becoming one of the show's regular presenters for several years. Other engagements behind the microphone include three years of hosting the BBC World Service arts programme, Meridian, a weekly Radio 4 film programme, Talking Pictures, and the movie and theatre quizzes, Screen Test and Break a Leg.

And, in addition to all of that, I have contributed to such shows as Night Waves, The Green Room, The Afternoon Shift and am still occasionally providing entertainment reviews for Radio 2's Sunday Supplement.

Profile interviews for radio over the years have included Julie Andrews (left) who presided over the teacups in her Dorchester apartment (and actually asked "Shall I be mother?"), Roger Rabbit's co-star, Bob Hoskins, veteran film director Fred Zimmermann, musicians James Galway (he of the golden flute) and master flamenco guitarist, Paco Peña as well as writers, P L Travers, Ray Bradbury and (on no less than three occasions) 'Discworld' novelist, Terry Pratchett.

The list of interviewees while working on the various arts programmes includes numerous British film stars including David Hemmings, Terrence Stamp and Simon Callow.

On several occasions I got to speak with the lovely Peter Cushing who, years earlier, when I was a film-crazy youngster, invited me to visit him on set at Pinewood Studio where he gave me the full star-treatment. A dear, sweet, talented man...

There was also an unforgettable encounter with Roald Dahl - creator of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and the BFG, that (very nearly) came close to ranking as the worst interview of my career...

Click here to read about Meeting Mr Wonka.

Mouse Tales

With Ain't No Mickey Mouse Business (a series on the corporate face of Disney) I began an association with the amazingly prolific and talented producer, Malcolm Prince.

We went on to make Disney's Women, which was co-presented with Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, and which explored the role of women in Disney's life (his mother, wife and daughters) and in his films from Snow White to Cruella De Vil.

A later series, Ain't No Mickey Mouse Music (you can't keep a good title down!), explored Disney's musical heritage from the primitive soundtrack to the first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie in 1928 through the scores to films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio to modern day Disney hits such as Tarzan and Toy Story.

Also, at a time when the studio was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney's birth, we made Never Miss an Angle, taking a searching look at the international mega-corporation that bears his name.

Another hundredth anniversary - that of motion pictures - provided Malcolm and I with one of our most ambitious series, David Puttnam's Century of Cinema co-hosted by Lord Puttnam and myself and featuring a guest-list that included Angela Lansbury, Michael Caine, Robert Redford, Richard Attenborough and - in the last interview before his death - Dirk Bogarde.

Our most recent collaboration was No Place Like Home, a reassessment of the legend and legacy of Judy Garland.

Other series have included (right) The Sound of Movies (on film music and its composers); Unconsidered Trifles (on collectors of unusual collections); Arty-Facts, a series on famous paintings from Leonardo's Mona Lisa - via Hokusai's Wave and Munch's Scream - to Warhol's Marilyn Monroe; a history of soap-operas To be Continued... and It's Magic!, a chronicle of conjuring and illusion, that featured magic performed by my partner, David Weeks, and which earned me my membership of The Magic Circle.

A documentary feature about the Reverend W Awdry for Radio 4 entitled The Thomas the Tank Engine Man began a long friendship with the creator of Thomas, Gordon, Edward, James and all those other Really Useful Engines and led to my being invited to write Mr Awdry's biography which - because I couldn't think of a better title - was also called The Thomas the Tank Engine Man!

As a devoted fan of Jeff Wayne's iconic concept album The War of the Worlds, I was thrilled to be asked to provide the narrative for his next venture, Spartacus.

As it turned out, however, the album wasn't quite the success everyone had hoped for - even with the vocal talents of Sir
Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones, but I still get goose-bumps when I listen to Sir Anthony as Marcus Crassus reading my description of the Roman amphitheatre filled with ravaging animals and battling gladiators. It is my own small Ben Hur moment!

Small Screen / Big Screen

Occasional, diverse work for television has included three seasons as the host of First Light, BBC TV's former Sunday-morning 'God-slot'; an 'Everyman' documentary, Waltopia, on the creation of EPCOT Center; and a Christmas-night epilogue-film, I Hate Christmas, Too, featuring the ghost of a First World War soldier on Brighton pier.

I made script contributions to various TV shows and films, including Wallace and Gromit's Oscar-winning film, The Wrong Trousers as well as writing the screenplays for the S4C/BBC animated films based on a brace of whale-tales. Jonah featured the voice of John Alderton as the Old Testament prophet (and the voice of God), while Moby Dick crackled with a gloriously wild vocal performance from Rod Steiger as the doomed Captain Ahab.

A foray into writing for the big screen came in the 1980's when, with the co-operation of my friend the late P L Travers, creator of Mary Poppins, I wrote the screenplay for Mary Poppins Comes Back, a movie-musical sequel to the classic Disney film - as yet unmade.

Play Time

My first play was The Lost Childhood, written when I was a 16-year-old schoolboy and loosely based on A A Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories but with the characters played as if they were somewhat dotty humans rather than animals.

That's me as Mr Milne (left) in the prologue to the play with Ian Carter as a mature-for-his age Christopher Robin!

The overture for this little curiosity was written by fellow pupil, David Hewson. Years later (by which time David was a highly successful professional composer), we collaborated on various projects, beginning with To Sea in a Sieve.

A musical play about the Victorian painter and nonsense poet, Edward Lear, it was performed with me as Mr Lear and the sensational actress, Polly March playing everybody else (from Queen Victoria to a parrot!) firstly at the Edinburgh Festival and, subsequently, at the Westminster Theatre in London.

Dave Hewson and I went on to create various concert pieces including a dark Bradburyesque celebration of carnivals, The Autumn People, and a light-hearted musical romp, Alphabeasts, based on Dick King-Smith's alphabetical bestiary, which we performed with Sue Broomfield at London's Kings Head Theatre.

In addition, Dave composed hauntingly evocative music for two of my radio dramatisations, Miss Hargreaves and The Fox at the Manger, that I hope, one day, will find their way into permanent recorded form.

Another show, this time created in collaboration with Tony Miall (with whom I worked on several of my early radio programmes) and the aforementioned Ms March, was an original revue, England, Our England, which featured as the inaugural production at the St James' Cavalier Theatre in Valletta, Malta.

A stage dramatisation of J R R Tolkien's The Hobbit was written for an exceptionally talented amateur theatre company, The Lansbury Players, with whom I appeared as the play's pipe-puffing professorial narrator.

The Hobbit
had a hugely successful open-air production in 2001, the year in which - courtesy of Peter Jackson - Tolkien and his tales of Middle-earth became a major media event! The show was later reprised at the former Emery Theatre.

I was also responsible for an earlier Lansbury Players' production in the form of a new dramatisation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Dickens' seasonal fable has been a favourite book since I was quite a young child and has repeatedly featured in my career: I wrote and presented a radio feature entitled Humbug! in celebration of the story and, a few years later, compiled a book about the writing of Dickens' "ghost story of Christmas": its inspiration, its impact and its multifarious interpretation, over 165 years, by authors, artists, parodists, playwrights and filmmakers.

My dramatisation has been revived twice, most recently in December 2007 when a new version was staged at the Greenwhich Playhouse by the professional company, Flat Pack Productions to considerable critical acclaim.

Talking Books

My seventy-something radio plays and dramatisations include several works of fantastic fiction such as E T A Hoffman's classic, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, J B Priestley's modern-day medieval romp, The 31st of June, P L Travers' Christmas fantasy The Fox at the Manger in a production starring Dame Wendy Hiller and Frank Baker's Miss Hargreaves with Jean Anderson in the title role.

Serialisations have ranged from Jeffrey Archer's thriller A Matter of Honour starring Simon Ward and Michael York, via John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress with Anton Rogers, Anna Massey and Alec McCowen, to Sir Laurens van der Post's polemical memoir of WWII, The Night of the New Moon, narrated by the author.

Other dramatisations have included Roald Dahl's Danny, the Champion of the World featuring Jack Dee, Andrew Sachs and David Hemmings, two season's of Ray Bradbury's Tales of the Bizarre, including such chilling stories as The Jar (below left) and Lucy M Boston's much-loved story The Children of the Green Knowe (below right) starring Patricia Routledge.

And, while I'm name-dropping, I might mention that scripts for radio revues and entertainments have been performed by Thora Hird, Penelope Keith, Dora Bryan, Peter Goodwright, Una Stubbs, Leslie Phillips, Jeremy Lloyd, Beryl Reid and others.

Ring Cycles

My first radio dramatisation, written quite early in my radio career, was The Wonderful O, a 45-minute play based on James Thurber's magical tale about words and the power of language. Not long afterwards
I was (rather surprisingly) commissioned to structure and co-adapt the BBC's epic serialisation of J R R Tolkien's sprawling tale of the hobbits, warriors and wizards of Middle-earth The Lord of the Rings.

The series, has since achieved something of a cult status and over twenty years on is still talked about as piece of classic radio drama. Initially broadcast across half a year, The Lord of the Rings starred Ian Holm as Frodo Baggins - long before he got the film role of Frodo's uncle, Bilbo - Michael Hordern as Gandalf, Robert Stephens as Aragorn, John Le Mesurier as Bilbo, Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum and William (now 'Bill') Nighy as Sam.

If you're interested in knowing more about the radio version of The Lord of the Rings, click here to read my article The Ring Goes Ever On...

Unlike most radio broadcasts, which are lost in the ether, The Lord of the Rings serialisation survives on compact disc and audio-cassette and is available in various shapes and sizes; and the Tolkien completist may care to check out a double cd/cassette album, J R R Tolkien: An Audio Portrait (right), which is based on an 'Archive Hour' broadcast made for Radio 4 and which contains many intriguing insights into the Master of Middle-earth, drawn from the BBC's archive recordings of Tolkien and others.

Also still in existence is a collection of Tolkien's short stories which I dramatised under the title Tales of the Perilous Realm, with a cast headed by Michael Hordern, Brian Blessed, Alfred Molina and Nigel Planer. Included are Farmer Giles of Ham (with Mr Blessed as the Farmer and yours truly as the Giant!) and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which artfully works in Frodo's encounter with Old Tom that had failed to make it into the original BBC Rings!

From Narnia to Gormenghast

My other major radio serialisation was C S Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia from The Magician's Nephew via The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to The Last Battle: seven stories with starry casts that included Sylvester McCoy, Bernard Cribbins, Frances Tomelty, Martin Jarvis, Fiona Shaw, Maurice Denham, Timothy Spall, Richard Griffiths and Stephen Thorne (whom fans will remember was Treebeard in the radio Rings) as Aslan the Lion.

And those whose taste in fantasy inhabits the weird and dark places of the imagination will understand why my radio treatment of Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan and Gormenghast holds a special place in my affections.

Peake's fantastical tale of ritual and revenge was brought to life by a glittering cast led by Freddie Jones, Bernard Hepton, Eleanor Bron, David Warner, Sheila Hancock and Stratford Johns and starred Sting (an obsessive fan of the books) as the villainous Steerpike.

The presence of the former Police-man in this duet of ninety-minute plays ensured phenomenal press coverage and the plays were handsomely rewarded with two Sony Radio Awards: 'Best Production' for the director, Glyn Dearman and 'Best Dramatisation' for myself.

Looking back, I can't help but think what an extraordinary and surprising journey I've taken since I set out from Pooh Corner all those years ago...

Read about MY LIFE & TIMES

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