Friday, 29 February 2008


You would think, with all the technological advances available to modern transportation that getting around ought to be easier than it is...

SUZANNE writes...
On Saturday, I went for a 25 km walk in the Ardennes - through the woods and over very hilly country.

But we were puzzled as to how we were supposed to get across this level crossing...

Ideas and suggestions welcome!
Tricky one, that, Suzanne. Maybe some antipodean readers will have the answer...

Tuesday, 26 February 2008


Visiting the gift shop - or, perhaps I should say, Ye Gifte Shoppe - at Shakespeare's Globe on Bankside the other week was an education in the higher skills of merchandising.

Shelf upon shelf was stacked with all manner of stuff decorated with play titles, character names and quotable quotes from some of the Bard's top shows...

There were Romeo and Juliet mugs: a dagger-pierced-heart tattooed with 'Montague' on one side and another with the name 'Capulet' on the other; and (useful for an open-air theatre) Merchant of Venice umbrellas decorated with Portia's words: "The quality of mercy is not strain'd, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven..."

There were also "Alas Poor Yorick" shoulder bags (cool for school but unfortunately not quite large enough for your average grave-digging tools)...

...Titus Andronicus copper dishes engraved "Let their vile heads be baked" - ideal for... er... certain types of canapés, perhaps...

...and Macbeth tea-towels: the wittiest of all the products guaranteed to give any thespian a bit of a smile when faced with the task of drying-up...

However, Everything was moderately to hysterically expensive and I think they really missed a trick in not having carrier bags to take home one's purchases printed with a suitable quote from Othello...

"Poor and content is rich, and rich enough..."

Anyway, the oddest souvenir of all was the Plague Rat glove-puppets, available in a choice of gruesome grey or bubonic black...

Certainly Buttons was not amused...

Of course (knowing my predilections as you do), you will not be surprised to know that I was on the look-out for a pair of underpants with the line from the Dream - "THIS IS TO MAKE AN ASS OF ME" printed on the... well... bottom!

Sunday, 24 February 2008


There was a wicked little article on British eccentricities in last month's Vanity Fair that - xenophobe that I am - made me itch to suggest that a pretty damn good article could be written on American dottiness...

However, one man's eccentricity is another man's individuality and the British are, if nothing else, highly individual!

I was reminded of this the other week when, on our way to Oxford, we stopped at one of my favourite monuments to the eccentricity...

If you're thinking that that thing, under the scaffolding, looks a bit like a shark, that is because it is, in fact, a ----- SHARK!

If you haven't come across this wonderful oddity, I ought to explain that it should properly be described as a sculpture by John Buckley entitled 'Untitled 1986'!

Made out of painted fibreglass, the shark weighs 203 kilograms, is 25 feet long and is embedded head-first in the roof of 2 New High Street, Headington, Oxford, the home of local radio presenter, Bill Heine.

Mr Hine has been quoted as saying: "The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation… It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki." Which explains why the shark went up (or came down) on August 9, 1986 - the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

Oxford City Council - discovering that Mr Hine didn't have the necessary planning permission required for the installation of a roof-shark under Section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, did their best to get it removed and even offered to relocate the shark elsewhere - possibly at a swimming pool!

That sage commentator, Bernard Levin, wrote an empassioned article in The Times in which he argued: "There is nothing about smiling in the analects of the planning committee of the Oxford city council, and that august body ruled that it must come down, giving as the reason that it had been put up without planning permission, or more likely just because it was delightful, innocent, fresh and amusing — all qualities abhorred by such committees."

Meanwhile Peter Hine had appealed to the Secretary of State for the Environment (at the time, Michael Heseltine) who sent his inspector, Peter Macdonald, down to Oxford to fish out the facts. Mr Macdonald, a man of perspicacity, duly reported...
The case should be decided on its planning merits, not by resorting to 'utilitarianism', in the sense of the greatest good to the greatest number. And it is necessary to consider the relationship between the shark and its setting .... In this case it is not in dispute that the shark is not in harmony with its surroundings, but then it is not intended to be in harmony with them.

The basic facts are there for almost all to see. Into this archetypal urban setting crashes (almost literally) the shark. The contrast is deliberate ... and, in this sense, the work is quite specific to its setting. As a 'work of art' the sculpture ('Untitled 1986') would be 'read' quite differently in, say, an art gallery or on another site. An incongruous object can become accepted as a landmark after a time, becoming well known, even well loved in the process.

Something of this sort seems to have happened, for many people, to the so-called 'Oxford shark'. The Council is understandably concerned about precedent here. The first concern is simple: proliferation with sharks (and Heaven knows what else) crashing through roofs all over the City. This fear is exaggerated. In the five years since the shark was erected, no other examples have occurred... But any system of control must make some small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the downright quirky. I therefore recommend that the Headington shark be allowed to remain.
And so it has, celebrating its 21st birthday in August 2007. But as for it's being eccentric, well.....

To read more visit the Headington Shark web-page.



Saturday, 23 February 2008


Fancy a drink...? Well, as a post-script to yesterday's blog about Flanders and Swann, here's the song mentioned by Sheila in her comment...

"Have Some Madiera, M'Dear..."

And on the subject of comedy, we bid a fond and reluctant farewell to actress Emily Perry who died this week at the age of 100 and who, when she was 80 years old, found a curious form of stardom without ever speaking a word as the long-suffering, stony-faced Madge Allsop, former bridesmaid and constant travelling-companion to housewife superstar, Dame Edna Everidge.

The Times reported:
In more than 20 years of taking venomous insults, Madge never uttered a word.

When Perry auditioned for the role of Madge she was asked to stand still and say nothing. “Barry said lots of unkind things about me and tried to make me laugh,” she said. She did not flinch, however, and sailed through the audition.

In his second volume of memoirs, My Life as Me, Humphries wrote: “Miss Perry had the rare gift of being able to do nothing in the face of overwhelming provocation.”
Read Emily Perry's obituary in The Independent.

Let's hope someone in the Hereafter finally gives Madge the badge she worked so hard to earn: SUPERFOIL!

Friday, 22 February 2008


Who says nostalgia isn’t what it was? The other night I went with a couple of blogger-friends, Polkadots and Diva of Deception, to a retrospective show at the National Film Theatre celebrating the work of the musical comedy duo, Flanders and Swann.

Despite the fact that the archive footage was almost entirely in black and white and with all the fuzziness of 405-lines, this was an evening of pure blissful delight.

For those who don’t know, actor Michael Flanders and musician Donald Swann began collaborating as a revue-writing partnership while they were pupils at Westminster School. Then years later, in 1948, they teamed up and began writing songs for such performers as opera singer, Ian Wallace, and comedienne, Joyce Grenfell.

It was in December 1956, that Flanders and Swann hired the small, 150-seater New Lindsey Theatre Club in Notting Hill where they debuted, by way of an experiment, a three-week run of their first two-man revue - or “An After-Dinner Farrago” as they called it. The poster announced: At the drop of a hat - MICHAEL FLANDERS & DONALD SWANN will perform - regardless. Top price seats were 10/6, the show began at 8 o'clock with, potential patrons were asked to note, 'Bicycles at 10'!

It was an act of faith that paid off: within a month, they had an agent and the show - now officially called At the Drop of a Hat - was on stage in the West End where it ran at the Fortune Theatre for two and a half years before opening on Broadway and touring the USA and Canada as well as, on their return to the UK, the provincial theatres of Britain.

A second show, At the Drop of Another Hat, opened at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in 1963 and had two runs in London as well as a four-month stint on Broadway and, once again, a tour of the UK, the USA and Canada as well as Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. By the time they hung up the hat in April 1967, eleven years after that hesitant try-out in Notting Hill, Flanders and Swann had given almost 2,000 performances of their songs and monologues.

I first became aware of Flanders and Swann at the age of about 13 when a family friend, George Fitzgerald (a hard-line devotee of F&S!), loaned me the LP of At the Drop of Hat. Already a devotee of Gilbert & Sullivan and the musical comedy of Victor Borge (as well as knowing several of the F&S songs from recordings by Ian Wallace) I was totally mesmerised by the witty lyrics of Michael Flanders and the instantly memorable music of Donald Swann, performed in their contrasting - but complementary - baritone and tenor voices with unflagging zest and verve.

It wasn’t long before I knew all the words to ‘The Omnibus Song’ (correct title, by the way: ‘A Transport of Delight’), ‘A Song of the Weather’ ("January brings the snow, makes your feet and fingers glow..."), ‘The Gnu’ (who was “the gnicest work of gnature in the zoo”) and several others.

When, out of common decency, I eventually had to return George's LP, I began saving up my pocket money in order to buy the EPs - I could only afford the small discs! - of the songs from the two Hat shows and their collection of animal songs, The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann, that I especially loved because they were so clearly in the mould of two of my literary heroes, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

I was soon learning more songs from those albums, such as the tales of ‘The Warthog’ (whom nobody loved) and ‘The Armadillo’, who has an unrequited love affair with an abandoned tank on Salisbury Plain, as well as ‘Ill Wind’ (with its tongue-twisting lyrics set to Mozart’s Horn Concerto) and ‘The Gas Man Cometh’ beginning (oh, so innocently): “‘Twas on a Monday morning that the gas man came to call…”

It was around this time that I first saw Flanders and Swann (other than as photos on record sleeves) when they appeared on TV on the Royal Variety Performance and I remember these two unlikely stars - the bulky, bearded Flanders, who (as a polio sufferer) was in a wheelchair and the slight, bespectacled Swann hunched over the piano keyboard - tearing up the theatre!

How did they do it? And on an almost empty stage - apart from the piano, a rug, a standard lamp and/or hat-stand...?

It was, as Flanders announced in introducing the evening, "a revue without scenery, without costume - except for our normal informal evening wear, worn throughout the Empire - and, also, without a cast." And yet they filled stage with their larger-than-life characters and creatures and conquered their audience with their charmingly irreverent and idiosyncratic humour.

After Flanders’ death in 1975, I followed Swann’s solo career as he wrote his autobiography, composed settings for the verses of J R R Tolkien and collaborated with broadcaster, Frank Topping, on another two-man show. We corresponded briefly and met once when he came to a talk I gave about Mervyn Peake at the Battersea Arts Centre - a venue that was not far from his home in what, according to Flanders (who lived in Kensington), Swann referred to as "South Chelsea"...

But I never lost my affection for F&S's original, stylish brand of musical comedy and, sometime towards the end of the twentieth century, I began plotting with my late friend Tony Miall - a superbly talented musician and performer - the devising of a tribute show to this incomparable duo and their songs.

Unfortunately, we were unable to secure the rights (bigger names were already on the case), but when, in 2000, with our friend and fellow performer Polly March, we devised and staged a revue in Malta, we included in our repertoire ‘The Gas Man’, with its saga of “unending domestic upheaval”, and - to amuse our colonial audience - ‘A Song of Patriotic Prejudice’, with its rousing chorus: “The English, the English, the English are best - so up with the English and down with the rest!”

If you don't know this spirited (politically incorrect) anthem to xenophobia, enjoy it now as it was performed for their Americans audiences...

What was fascinating, watching this old footage of F&S at the NFT - over forty years after it was filmed - was just how dynamic and full of physical energy their performances were, despite one of them being wheel-chair bound and the other being shackled to the piano.

Not only that, but how a great many of their songs - filled with comic-angst over dieting, flying, parking and the technological advancement of modern living, plus far more serious issues such as war and the rumours of war - seemed as topical and of the moment as when they were written. As for the comedy and nonsense, of course, that always was - and still is - timeless.

Quite an achievement, I thought, not only to hold a modern day cinema audience used to seeing everything in wide-screen colour, for two hours, but - more than that - to have us applauding the songs as if we were attending a live concert and even, at the end of the screening, singing along with the immortal ‘Hippopotamus Song’...
Mud, mud, glorious mud!
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood!
So, follow me, follow,
Down to the hollow, 

And there let us wallow in glor-or-or-or-ious mud!
It was, quite simply, joy unbounded and I, for one, can't wait until these classic shows are available on DVD and I can sit through it all over again!

For more information about these two geniuses of musical comedy visit Flanders & Swann Online and The Donald Swann Website.

Images: Portraits of Flanders and Swann by Angus McBean

Wednesday, 20 February 2008


Fame at last! And in the delightful sphere of gastronomy: after 'Eggs Bendict', 'Omelette Arnold Bennett', 'Peach Melba' and 'Pavlova' comes a new culinary curiosity...

Regular Sibley-blogger, SUZANNE, explains...
I visited Geraardsbergen last week - a Flemish town not far from where I live, known, amongst other things, for its own 'Manneken Pis' (as opposed to the one in Brussels).

When we went for lunch, they had a special St Valentine's Day menu and I thought for a moment they had a new kind of wine - 'Château Brian'? But apparently this is Flemish for some kind of steak!!

Well done
, Suzanne, especially since such menu items are, I'm told, quite rare!

Monday, 18 February 2008


The news was no sooner out that Peter Jackson was, after all, going to be working with New Line Cinema on two (two?) films based on J R R Tolkien's The Hobbit, and that Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) was slated to direct, than Christopher Lee and Elijah Wood were being quoted as saying that they wanted to be involved. The excitement even percolated down to my neck of the woods and I started getting e-mails and Facebook enquiries from people who hoped I might be able to help them get involved in the filming process...

As if I have any actual contact with the man whose biography I wrote!

Now, it turns out, the Tolkien Trust are suing New Line Cinema for allegedly not paying them their share of the loot from the sacking of Middle-earth and, once again, the whole project seems to be back in the melting-pot...

Of course, despite all these shenanigans, the franchise is bigger than all the players involved and I've little doubt that a settlement will be struck and then we can seriously start bracing ourselves for another round of Baggins bonkersness...

Not, of course, that it's ever really gone away: it's merely been lying dormant in the way that the spores of alien life tended to do in 1950s sci-fi movies...

For example, just the other day I came across a Tolkien oddity on YouTube that unites Peter Jackson and Yours Truly with... um... Mike Oldfield!

Jackson visuals from The Lord of the Rings film trilogy are accompanied by dialogue excerpts from my 1981 BBC radio dramatisation and Mike Oldfield's film score for The Killing Fields!

Contrary to expectations, it works rather well, though it is decidedly curious to be looking at visuals of Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf while listening the recorded voice of Sir Michael Hordern!

And what is most bizarre is seeing the movie-Bilbo, Ian Holm, speaking with the voice of the radio-Bilbo, John Le Mesurier --- followed, almost immediately, by images of the movie-Frodo, Elijah Wood, being spoken for by the radio-Frodo --- Ian Holm!

The video is the work of jimsim and you can view his other films on his YouTube channel.

Saturday, 16 February 2008


At LAST! The results of the...


This, you will remember, was the photograph for which captions were being sought...

Considerable invention and ingenuity were exhibited in the entries to this competition, with several intriguing similarities of thought and theme between them.

For example, BOLL WEAVIL submitted…

“Did you ever pay the window cleaner? I don't think he came back yesterday morning.”

...while SACRA CANTERO wrote:

The Old Bank Hotel, in Oxford, has employed the services of a ghost as part of their offer of comfort and rest to clients. Mandy, the ghost, was employed at the building at the 19th century for cleaning windows, she has quoted as saying that she is very satisfied with her new occupation. Visitors to the hotel like Mr Sibley and Mr Weeks say to us: “We enjoy very much our visits to Oxford now, the hotel has had a great idea. It is always good to stimulate the activity of the heart with small surprises.”

Staying with the theme of ghosts, LISAH offered:

“I am the Ghost of Oxford past. Can you write me into one of your plays, Brian?”

...which (with its nod to my recent stage version of A Christmas Carol) was one of several personally tailored captions. Others included this from GILL

The head is saying: “Brian! David! Who do you think you are staring at? Put that camera away immediately!” (She may be a distant relative of the Duchess!)

...and this acutely-accurate proposal from BOLL WEAVIL

“Well, Mr Sibley, I'm pleased to say I've found a small space behind the chimney where there's still room to put a few more books.”

Other entries were concerned with directions, as in BOLL’s suggestion:

“Excuse me, did you say first or second on the left for the gents?”

...and SUZANNE’s delightfully fanciful entry:

“Third door on the left… Third door on the left… call them instructions? My stilts are killing me!”

...which, in turn, has something in common with one of DAVID WEEK’s more bizarre entries:

Edith’s newly-heeled high-heeled shoes were just plain ridiculous. She determined that words were going to be had next time she passed the cobblers.

Literary sources were in evidence, inspiring BOLL’s…

“This is absolutely the last time I stay at Wuthering Heights. This place gives me the creeps.”

...and DAVID WEEKS’ charming fairy-tale suggestion:

Rapunzel contemplates a new abode.

DAVID’s other suggestions were…

“I was distinctly told that it would be a Looking-glass, not a bleedin' window!”


“I can see in but I can't see a way to get in.”

All of which brings me to the WINNING ENTRY, which, on this occasion, is from BENTOS and which wins because it has such a splendid touch of the strange, mysterious and other-worldly bout it…

"It looks like some kind of window," Sarah thought to herself in wonder, "a window from our Blue world into a Beige one!"

Well done BENTOS and thanks to everyone for entering!

Thursday, 14 February 2008


In case you've forgotten, today is...

St Valentine's Day

However, if you baulk at the astronomical increase in flower prices every February 14th or can't afford a really nice box of chocs for the One You Love, then worry not, because there are cheaper ways of expressing your affection...

And, if you simply want to give a token - but one that the recipient is unlikely to forget - then what could be better than... well... say... a jar of MARMITE... with... er... CHAMPAGNE?

Meanwhile, Valentine Day Love to...


Wednesday, 13 February 2008


Nicolas Roeg's 1973 film, Don't Look Now, based on Daphne Du Maurier's short story, suggests that Venice is not the place to go if you are - as they used to say on the cinema posters - of a nervous disposition.

As for us, whilst we've never once spotted Mr Roeg's dwarf in the red raincoat, wandering through the streets of Venice has stirred memories of another film: that last, dreadful offering from the late Stanley Kubrick - for Venice is truly a city filled with "eyes wide shut..."

Indeed, Stan sent his prop-buyer there to get Tom's mask and we came across at least half-dozen mask shops boldly sporting signed testimonials to that effect from no less an authority than Mr Cruise himself.

Anyway, dwarfs aside, we did, quite often, get the feeling that we were being WATCHED --- albeit by largely unseeing eyes...

Images: © Brian Sibley and David Weeks, 2008

Tuesday, 12 February 2008


In Starbucks the other day - apart from wondering why I had been stupid enough to even try a Vanilla Latte - I noticed this napkin...

Now, forgive the pedantry, but I have to say...

FEWER people able to use English grammatically!



...this is a Last Call for the


Entries to be submitted by midnight TONIGHT!

Monday, 11 February 2008


Overheard on Bankside...

1st Tourist:
Shakespeare's Globe...

2nd Tourist:
Amazing it's still here!

Sunday, 10 February 2008


...the closing date of the latest CAPTION COMPETITION is fast approaching!

Well, actually, it's been and gone (last Thursday)! BUT, because (a) I only ever mentioned the closing date in a comment to the post, (b) completely failed to remind you, and (c) know that at least one reader -- yes, you, Gill! - said she was going to enter, I've decided to allow everyone a couple more days' grace...

The closing date has, therefore, now been re-scheduled to midnight on Tuesday 12 February.

The photo requiring a caption is shown on the right and you can be as inventive as you like. For example, I thought that since the hotel where this curious site was photographed was in Oxford, one possible caption might be...

Alice finally made up her mind to seek help in kicking the Eat-Me-Cake habit.

So, send in your entries and the winners (and runners-up!) will be published on............ Well, very soon afterwards!

Saturday, 9 February 2008


The arrival, a few days ago, of a new German edition of my book Shadowlands, brought back memories of the late Ian Richardson who, only a few weeks before his death on the 9 February 2007, had completed a reading of the book for BBC Radio.

How swiftly unbridled time gallops away from us; and yet how strong a grip our frail hands keep on the reigns of memory.

The journalist and writer SHARON MAIL became a friend of Ian and his wife, Maroussia, and (as a result of correspondence following the Shadowlands broadcasts) she has since become a friend of mine.

Sharon is currently working on a book in celebration of Ian's life (with contributions from Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Alex Jennings, Donald Sinden, Peter Hall and other luminaries) and, in today's Guest Blog, Sharon offers this tribute to a great - and greatly-loved - actor...

Ian Richardson’s sudden death, a year ago today, came as a terrible shock to all who knew him. And yet, the fact that he died from heart failure should be no surprise. For Ian put his heart and soul into everything he did. As an actor, he gave his all in every performance, be it on stage or screen, in voice recording or recital.

He always did a vast amount of preparation, so that his performances in roles such as Francis Urquhart in House of Cards (left), Dr Joseph Bell in Murder Rooms, Bill Haydon in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Nehru in Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy or Neuheim et al in Private Schulz seemed effortless.

On stage, his Frank Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Berowne in Love’s Labour Lost, Richard and Bolingbroke (alternating with Dickie Pasco) in Richard II and Klestakov in The Government Inspector are but a fraction of the parts he played which remain etched in the memories of those who saw them - commanding, daring and consummate on stage and yet often battling with nerves off it.

When you think of Ian Richardson you think of Francis Urquhart, a ruthless, calculating, heartless monster. And yet Ian’s own persona couldn’t have been more different.
He was a tremendously giving person - to his fellow actors and all those he worked with, to the fans who wrote to him and approached him outside stage doors, to his friends and to the wife and family he adored.

He was the most thoughtful, kind-hearted - and often funny - person many of us had the privilege to meet.
His loss is still keenly felt, but he has left us a tremendous legacy in the shape of his performances over the best part of five decades and fortunately many of his screen and audio recordings remain available today. His final recording, of Brian’s Shadowlands for Radio 2, was a beautiful, moving epitaph.

It will be impossible to forget him.

Ian Richardson
7 April 1934 – 9 February 2007

Tribute and photograph © Sharon Mail, 2008

Thursday, 7 February 2008


Every city in the world has it oddities, curiosities and grotesqueries, but dear, lovely, Venice certainly has its fair share (or perhaps, being a small city, they are just more concentrated) - which is, of course part of it's unique and utterly delightful charm.

In Venice, for example, you can get just about anything made out of glass, but while glass balloons are one thing... balls of wool with glass knitting needles and pots of glass paintbrushes with glass tubes of paint... probably going a bit too far! Especially when it's obviously perfectly easy to make a wooden vase of wooden paintbrushes on a table with a wooden tablecloth!

Naturally, such a table needs to be accompanied by a paint-brush-shaped chair...

...but, if you prefer, you can have one made out of books that are made out of - er - wood, of course!

Mind you, if you're an animal lover, you'd probably prefer to sit on a chair that sits on the back of giant, bling-encrusted tortoise...

...while attending to your toilette in front of a zebra-print chests-of-drawers!

And when you're finally ready to go out and face the day... well, you can choose from a wide selection of glass shoes --- made out of Coca-Cola bottles!

Images: © Brian Sibley & David Weeks, 2008