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: http://www.briansibley.com