Brian Sibley — Wednesday Worthy INTERVIEW

June 20, 2012

I am beyond delighted to welcome my friend Brian Sibley to the interview chair today. Brian is a British broadcaster, writer, Disney historian, Tolkien expert, C.S. Lewis expert, many other authors expert, fabulous raconteur, creative blogger, the list “goes ever on and on.” He has written numerous books and radio dramatizations, he has been a presenter for both BBC radio and television, he has interviewed many of the luminaries in the writing and acting world, he has become friends with the most amazing people (for instance, Ray Bradbury, to name but one). You will find Brian on the extras of several Disney DVDs/Blu-rays as well, including Pinocchio, 101 Dalmatians, and Snow White. (Note: those links are to the UK versions.)

To read a full (and wonderfully written) autobiography on one of his blogs, go to “My Life and Welcome To It” at Brian Sibley: The Works. For the stories behind his books, see “Booked Up: Stories Behind Books.” Get an idea of the breadth of scope of his career at Wikipedia.

I first encountered Brian in one of those deliciously serendipitous happenstances that occur on the internet. I was googling a quintessentially English phrase, and came upon an instance in which the phrase had been used by someone in an interview Brian blogged about. I read his blog post and was immediately entranced, and commented even though the post was a year or two old at the time. Brian followed the link to my blog and commented there, and from those simple beginnings, a friendship was formed. A few years, many blog comments and emails later, two friends and I met Brian and had a delightful lunch with him at the Dorchester Hotel in London last July. For three hours we talked as if we’d known each other all our lives. (A picture of that lunch gathering is past the “read more” line.)

Join me now, as I interview Brian Sibley. I’m quite sure you’ll be as entranced as I was by this multi-talented, absolutely delightful man.


Me:  Brian, it’s hard to know where to start, you’re such a multi-talented, multi-faceted person. So, let’s start at the very beginning. Could you tell us a bit of the life journey that brought you to such an incredible career?

Brian: I once gave a talk about my career called ‘Ever Increasing Circles’ and it is apposite because almost everything I’ve ever done in my career has been a ripple from some passion that dropped into my pool of consciousness when I was very young. I have spent a lifetime mining my obsessions and trying to enthuse others with my enthusiasms…

I think growing up in a family where there wasn’t much money and no books meant that on those rare occasions when books came my way I latched onto them and eagerly entered the amazing worlds that they held within their pages.

I was a sickly child and spent a lot of time confined to bed, or at least in doors –  I never went out playing with other kids – and I would have had a fairly miserable time if I hadn’t been able to escape into Wonderland, Narnia, Middle-earth, Moominland and sundry other enchanted realms.

When I was about four or five, a near neighbour (whose children had grown up and left home) loaned my parents several of her childrens’ favourite books to read to me, among them were A A Milne’s four Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh books. By the time they had to be returned I knew most of the verses and several of the stories by heart. My very first radio programme in 1976 was a celebration of Pooh’s 50th birthday and was called Three Cheers for Pooh, I later wrote a book of the same name…

Someone else gave me an old, gigantic (or so it seemed at the time) volume of poems, stories and puzzles that contained a serialised version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: so began my long love affair with the works and worlds of Lewis Carroll: several broadcasts followed and I, eventually, became Secretary of the Lewis Carroll Society and edited their monthly newsletter.

A copy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for a school prize began what has been a life-long mania of collecting Christmas Carols which fuelled a book and finally resulted in my making my own stage dramatisation…

I could go on ad nauseam about such ripples…


Me: You seem to be a jack-of-all-trades, and unlike the proverbial jack, you are a master of them all. Just to give my readers a glimpse into the wide scope of your interests and projects, would you share just a few of them with us?

Brian: I am, in truth, a master of none! I have  simply followed my loves and gone where they’ve taken me and – how lucky I’ve been – people have paid me to talk and write about them! Having had only a very basic education and not having been to university, I live with the daily fear that one day I will suddenly be ‘found out’!

Most of what I have written and broadcast about falls into a (very) few heavily-repeated categories! Literature (mostly fantasy and children’s) and film (mostly animation and fantasy)! That’s the basics; specific writers about whom I’ve written include J R R Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, C S Lewis, P L Travers, Mervyn Peake, J M Barrie, Roald Dahl, Terry Pratchett and the Reverend W V Awdry (creator of Thomas the Tank Engine). On the film front, I’ve most written about Disney (books, radio series, and many DVD bonus appearances), Peter (The Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit) Jackson and Aardman (Wallace & Gromit) Animations.

Other authors about whom I feel deeply passionate but have yet to write about (apart from on my blogs) include Kenneth Grahame, Tove Jansson, Lemony Snicket, T H White and E B White.

Me:   How do you switch writing styles or genres with such apparent ease? Is there any form you particularly favour?

Brian: I love broadcasting and talking (I won’t say ‘lecturing’ because it’s too grand of the stuff I come up with!) because I think I’m quite good at explaining why I like things and why other people ought to like them, too!

Of the writing bits, I really enjoy dramatising for stage or radio: turning stories I really care about into play-forms. I have tackled some BIG drama projects: The Lord of the Rings (in 26 x 30 minute episodes), all seven of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ (in 28 x 30 minute episodes), the ‘Titus Groan’ novels of Mervyn Peake in six hours and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in three hours! I’m also quite proud of two plays I made from a couple books that hardly anyone knows: P L Travers’ The Fox at the Manger and Frank Baker’s wonderful Miss Hargreaves.

Me:   At the stage you’ve reached in your career, are you mainly approached and asked to take on projects, or do you sometimes submit proposals? Could you tell us briefly about the process of becoming involved in a project such as the Lord of the Rings books, or the various Disney movie histories you have written?

Brian: I mostly get asked to do things but that’s not to say I don’t have ideas of my own, it’s just that I never seem to manage to sell them!

TLotR movie books came about because the 1981 BBC radio version of the book with which I was involved turned out to be a bit of classicy sort of thing and that led to my writing some books (with artist John Howe) about Tolkien’s maps for The Hobbit and TLotR. Peter Jackson knew of all my prior forays into Middle-earth and so I got the job of writing about the films – now I’m chronicling the making of his Hobbit movies.

The Disney connection was a bit different: when Walt Disney died in 1966 I started putting together material for a biography – a rather negative book came out in the US and I decided to redress the balance. I found a publisher but he went bust and that was that. Later another publisher who had a license to do some Disney books came across writings by myself and my friend (and fellow Disneyist), Richard Holliss and we wrote three books: The Disney Studio Story, Mickey Mouse: His Life and Times and a book about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I have made a number of radio series about Disney subjects, met his family, friends and colleagues and turn up on a number of Disney DVDs and Blu-rays pontificating about the studio’s extraordinary animation legacy. I am immensely proud of being the only English guy to break my way into the NY/LA cabal of Disney-crits!

Me:  Do you generally work on one project at a time, or do you have several things on the go at once? If the answer is several, how do you keep them straight, and how do you allocate each its fair share of work time?

Brian: It is mostly one thing at a time, but sometimes there’s an overlap and I get muddled… I listened to biographer Peter Ackroyd on radio the other day, saying that when he finishes one of his big books (such as biographies of Dickens or London) he forgets everything and moves onto his next subject. Alas, I can’t do that! With me, it’s all sloshing about in the brain-pan at the same time (mainly because I’ve been living with the authors or filmmakers and their works for years!) That said, as I get older I am getting more forgetful (through natural wastage) and, being numerically dyslexic, I can never remember anyone’s (or anything’s) dates!


Me:  Is there any such thing as a “typical day” in your type of work?

Brian: Nope! Get up. Make a cup of tea and have some toast and marmalade and then try to find as many displacement activities as possible for the rest of the day in order to avoid having to write! This interview is one such…

Me: I so wish I could have attended the reading/performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that you did with your partner, David Weeks, last December. Could you tell us about that and/or other performances that you and David have collaborated on?

Brian: It was our first major collaboration and it was fun and really rather successful… I read the version of A Christmas Carol that Dickens had abridged for his famous Public Readings and each episode was interspersed with an appropriate magic trick from David. It was exhausting, but memorable. Earlier I narrated my own stage version of the Carol as Dickens interacting with the characters rather like a puppet-master. I loved it because, for me, much of the joy of the book (as with many of the other books I’ve adapted) lies as much in the narrative description as in the dialogue.


Me:   What are some of the highlights, the joys, of your life’s work?

Brian: I’ve mentioned most of them already… But also, winning a Sony Radio Award and a BBC Audio Drama Award (both, though separated by over 25 years) for versions of Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ books; writing a musical play about Edward Lear, To Sea in a Sieve, and performing in it – as Lear – at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And, very specially, dramatising stories by the wonderful Ray Bradbury and having an over 30-year friendship with that amazing man of extraordinary creative vision, whom I love dearly.


Me:  On the other hand, what are some of the frustrations?

Brian: When the gaps between jobs get longer and the overdraft gets bigger. The physical and mental tiredness that (having several ‘health issues’, as they are called these days) makes working long hours – in the way I did in my youth – difficult and wearying. The spirit as they say is willing, but…

Me: In closing, I have to ask – how do you do it all? Writing, broadcasting, travelling for research, blogging delightfully (on EIGHT widely varied blogs)…?

Brian: I don’t! I employ a large team of hobbits, fauns, talking beavers, waistcoat-wearing rabbits, badgers, toads, moles and water rats to do it for me!


Me: Brian, it is a delight to know you, and to call you friend. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. If there is anything else you’d like to add, please feel free to do so!

Brian: Only that it is nice to have got to know you as a friend and to be invited to talk about the one subject on which I truly am an expert ––– me!


Edited to add: Please be sure to see Brian’s addendum in the comments section below — book recommendations and a tribute to Ray Bradbury. Thank you so much, Brian!


Visit Brian Sibley at The Works




26 People reacted on this

  1. Did I really say all that? Or did you make some of it up? 😉

    Seriously, Beth, thanks for the honour of being here – wish I’d said something more trenchant, but maybe next time!

    Since we had our conversation, my friend Ray Bradbury has died and, checking back across our correspondence, I found we had known each other not for 30 but for 38 years…

    A A Milne once said that he always tried to work a book recommendation into every conversation (in his case for ‘The Wind in the Willows’) and that if he every found himself in the dock and was asked if he had anything to say before being sentenced, that he would respond: “If I could just recommend a book to Your Honour and the gentlemen of the jury…”

    So, in this post-script can I urge anyone (everyone) who hasn’t done so to find (it won’t be easy) and read P L Travers’ books ‘The Fox at the Manger’ (which I mentioned) and ‘Friend Monkey’ and (another difficult find) Frank Baker’s ‘Miss Hargreaves’.

    If I were to recommend a Bradbury book it would be difficult, because I love them all, but maybe the one that first laid siege to my imagination, ‘The Golden Apples of the Sun’; and, of course, you ALL know ‘The Wind in the Willows’ but if you didn’t, then I’d have to say, along with Mr Milne: “…before leaving can I just recommend…”

    1. You really said all that! Thanks again, so very much, Brian — and thank you for all the wonderful book recommendations.

  2. Great interview! I liked learning about Mr. Sibley! It is cool that he does broadcasting too. It must be nice to have a job where you can do many different things. I love Roald Dahl, E.B. White, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and Lemony Snicket too! 😀

    1. Thanks, Erik! Isn’t it great that Mr. Sibley is able to do what he loves most, and write about what he loves most? I hope the same for you!

  3. Wow, finally after all the raving has done about you Brian, on her blog and Facebook, we get to meet you in cyberperson!

    Wow, you have worked on some wonderful projects and have your fingers in so many tasty literary and media pies. YUM!

    Are these hobbits, fauns, talking beavers, waistcoat-wearing rabbits, badgers, toads, moles and water rats part-timers? Would they like some extra work?

    Super interview!

  4. What a delightful interview, Beth and Brian! I enjoyed it so much! Brian sounds like such a wonderfully talented, interesting person – lucky you to get to meet him, Beth! I had to laugh at the line about displacement activities to avoid writing – I am so guilty of that! 🙂 Now if I could just get some of those hobbits, fauns, talking beavers etc. to some work for me 🙂

    1. Thanks, Susanna! I am lucky indeed, to count Brian as a friend, and to have spent such a wonderful time with him in London. I eagerly await the next in-person visit!

    1. Thanks, Catherine. Hope your dad has heard him. Note: whenever there’s a broadcast of Brian’s works on BBC radio, I post a link on my Facebook, because it’s possible to listen via the internet. Be on the lookout for those links!

  5. Gosh it was a long time ago that I came across your blog Brian, can’t remember why or how. But in those days I never used to comment, mainly because I was either too thick to know how or didn’t think I had anything worth mentioning. Not until oneday I just couldn’t resist the temptation. I didn’t have a blog back then. I used to read religously a couple of your blogs, and still do. Always very interesting! Have read a few PL Travers books and of course Wind in the Willows, but will head back to the library this weekend just to check out again the Fox in the Manager and Friend Monkey.
    It was lovely getting to know more about you.
    (Diane from NZ)

  6. It’s finally nice to meet you Brian, after hearing Beth talk about you after her visit with you last summer! I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know you, your life and rermarkable career. Also appreciated your honesty about how you felt that “people were going to find you out.” And,that you are only an expert about yourself. I guess that even when we are at the top of our games, doubt creeps in. With all of the wonderful work you’ve done, you would never know. You’ve have the privilege of working with some of the greats. Speaks volumes about your talent. and gifts. Thank you Beth and Brian for such a delightful interview.

    1. Thanks, Pat. You’ve got to the heart of it, that what Brian has done in his career speaks volumes about him and his talents.

  7. lovely to get to know more about you, brian. if we would have shut up at lunch last summer, maybe we could have learned some of this then. i know i would have been more in awe of you than i was. i will now go back and read more thoroughly your past blogs. love to david. we will meet him next time we lunch with you.

    1. If there’s anyone worth being in awe of, it’s Brian — yet I’m sure you’ll agree that he quickly disarms the awe, and simply makes you feel easy, relaxed, and as if you’ve known him forever. I am so looking forward to that next lunch!

  8. What a delight. I do love the idea of beginning work with a cache of ‘hobbits, fauns, talking beavers, waistcoat-wearing rabbits, badgers, toads, moles and water rats’ standing at my side, reading to offer whatever help I might need! You – sharpen this pencil! You answer the phone – and hang up immediately! You – I have this idea…could it happen? Has it happened yet? Will it happen? Does it matter?

    What wages should I pay?

  9. I’m a little late getting here, but I so loved this interview. And I practically spat out my own tea when I read, “Get up. Make a cup of tea and have some toast and marmalade and then try to find as many displacement activities as possible for the rest of the day in order to avoid having to write! This interview is one such…” That is my own process exactly, writing this comment is one such… 🙂

    1. You, too, Julie? 🙂 I’m glad I found your comment — why you of all people would get relegated to spam, I have no idea! I apologize on behalf of my blog’s wacky spam filter.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the interview, and I can hardly wait to post yours!

  10. Just popped back here and *blush* read all these lovely comments!

    Thank you so much and thanks to Beth for bringing us all together. Regardless of whether or not you are writers: please try to follow the advice of my late friend, Ray Bradbury, and keep on chasing (and passing on) those loves in your life…

    1. Thank you, Brian! All the lovely comments are so well deserved — you are a shining gem. Thank you so much for this interview, and that advice from Ray Bradbury is so very good. YES!

  11. Wooohooo!!!! Wonderful interview!!
    Mr. Sibley, you’re most accomplished… fascinating…and an Alice-person!

    Beth: Wow. Seriously. WOW!

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