Wednesday, 31 October 2012


Following on from yesterday's post about the art of pumpkin carving, it's a fact that every October – during the weeks leading up to Halloween – grimacing skeletons and gap-toothed pumpkin-heads proliferate everywhere…

In only a few years, Halloween in Britain has gone from being a totally American and utterly un-British (and therefore inexplicable) holiday to being up there in the UK marketing and merchandising league with Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day.

There was a time when the only glimpse those of us on this side of the Atlantic ever got of the trick-or-treat world of Halloween was in Charles Schulz’ annual Peanuts strips in which Linus vainly waited in the pumpkin patch for the arrival of his own mythical invention, the Great Pumpkin!

Even though our stores are now annually full of Halloween paraphernalia, there is precious little cultural knowledge in Britain about the Catholic feasts of All Hallows (or All Saints) and All Souls celebrated on November 1 and 2  or of the European traditions, superstitions and amusements that preceded them on October 31, known as All Hallows’ Eve – or Hallowe'en…

Those who would like to understand more about the origins and multi-faceted accretions that comprise the dark festival of the turning year can look them up in on-line or on-shelf encyclopaedia...

But, if you'll take my advice, you'll, instead, hitch a ride with the mysterious Mr Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud in The Halloween Tree, an autumnal conjuring trick by that wonderful literary magician, the late Ray Bradbury, with haunting tombstone-black-and-white illustrations by Joe Mugnaini.

The cadaverous Moundshroud leads a group of youngsters on a frantic time-travelling jaunt through the “deep, dark, long, wild history of Halloween,” beginning within the shadow of the Halloween Tree…
The pumpkins on the Tree were not mere pumpkins. Each had a face sliced in it. Each face was different. Every eye was a stranger eye. Every nose was a weirder nose. Every mouth smiled hideously in some new way.

There must have been a thousand pumpkins on this tree, hung high and on every branch. A thousand smiles. A thousand grimaces. And twice-times-a-thousand glares and winks and blinks and leerings of fresh-cut eyes…

By wing and kite and broomstick they fly on the winds of lost centuries from the darkness of the cave before the discovery of fire, via the rituals of Druid England with its scythe-wielding October God of the Dead, to the gargoyle-encrusted towers of Notre Dame; from the bone-and-mummy-dust tombs of Ancient Egypt through the Grecian Isles to the City of Rome and away to South America and the candles and sugar skeletons of El Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead...

It is a journey that memorably explains how light and darkness, faith and fear have shaped a festival now more widely celebrated than understood…

So, maybe when the little terrors come around knocking our knockers tonight, we should slip a copy of Mr Bradbury's classic into their Trick or Treat bags - then they might know why they were doing what they were doing and, if nothing else, at least it wouldn't rot their teeth!

I find re-reading The Halloween Tree – and all the more so this year since it is the first in which Ray is not with us – an invitation to allow a bony finger to stir and prod among the leaf-mould and mummy-dust of my memories...

I travel back in time thirty-two years years...

It is 1980 and, after six years of corresponding with Ray Bradbury, we met for the very first time when I interview him at the offices of his London publishers.

The book that I take with me on that occasion to ask him to inscribe is the first UK edition of The Halloween Tree...

Six years later, we meet for lunch in a restaurant on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and waiting for me under the napkin by my plate is an American edition of the book with an inscription and a golden Halloween Tree drawing by the author, studded with grinning pumpkin lantern stickers!

No wonder this book has always been special to me...

In 2006 came another gift from Ray Bradbury: an e-mail in which he recounted a short history of how the Halloween Tree came to be planted and how it grew and put forth its unique autumnal fruits...
The Halloween Tree came about because I had lunch with [legendary Bugs Bunny animator] Chuck Jones forty years ago; he had just become a new friend.

The night before, an animated [Peanuts] film - The Great Pumpkin - had been on TV. My children disliked it so much that they ran over and kicked the TV set, along with me, because the whole idea of the Great Pumpkin supposedly arriving and then not arriving was incorrect to me. It was like shooting Santa Claus on the way down the chimney!

Chuck Jones and I agreed that we didn't like The Great Pumpkin, though we did admire Charlie Schultz, the cartoonist, very much. Then Chuck said, "Why don't we do a really good film on Halloween?" I said, "I think we could. Let me go home and bring something."

So I went home and brought Chuck a large painting of a Halloween Tree that I had painted down in the basement with my daughters a few years before.

Chuck took one look at it and said, "My God, that's the genealogy of the holiday. Will you write a screenplay on this?" I said, "Yes, hire me!" So Chuck Jones and MGM hired me to write a TV script called The Halloween Tree.

Several months down the road, MGM decided to turn its back on animation, so they closed their unit and fired Chuck and me. I had nothing to do then so I took the script and wrote the novel of The Halloween Tree.

Later I wrote a second script for the final animated film, which was done by Hanna-Barbera a few years later, for which I received an Emmy Award for the script.
About three years ago I produced Something Wicked This Way Comes at a theater in Santa Monica and on Halloween night my biographer, Sam Weller, drove me to the play and then home again at around 10:30 at night and on the way, in four different yards we saw that people had placed pumpkins, real ones or papier mache, lit with candles in trees in their front yards.

Now, there are Halloween Trees beginning to appear all over the United States and I realized that with my story and that picture that I painted down in the basement with my daughters more than forty years ago, I've changed the history of Halloween in the entire country.

I've discussed this with the Disney people and suggested that they invite me to Disneyland on Halloween night and put up a tree full of papier mache pumpkins and have me there to turn on the whole thing. They would make themselves and me part of the future history of Halloween because no trees existed forty years ago -- they began to appear only after my book and my film.

The Disney people haven't reacted so far because, I believe, the notice is very short. If we don't do it this year I'm hoping that Disney will invite me out next Halloween and initiate the birth of the Halloween Tree and the history of the holiday.
It's been an interesting experience for me and it thrills me to think that 100 years from now there will be Halloween trees all across our world...

Happily, in 2007, Disney duly honoured Ray and his Halloween Tree in Disneyland as you can see here!

And here's what it looks like...

Tonight, more than ever since his death, my thoughts will turn to my late, dear friend...

You can read more about Ray Bradbury and his books in my profile of him The Bradbury Machine; and there are many pages of information on the excellent Bradbury Media.

And, if you haven't heard it already, here's a radio programme I made in 1998 featuring an interview with Ray...


Images: carrved pumpkin by Villafane Studios; Peanuts © 1971 United Features Syndicate, Inc; illustrations to The Halloween Tree by Joe Mugnaini, © 1972 Alfred A Knopf, New York; the cartoon of Ray Bradbury is by myself and accompanied my first interview with him in 1980; the autumnal Tree was painted by Ray in c. 1960, the green Tree, some years later and both are featured in a superb limited edition of the book from Gauntlet Press; the Disneyland Halloween Tree photos are by Andy Castro, Armadillo444 and Trader Chris.

Parts of this post first appeared on blogs from a few years ago.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012


Before you start hacking away at those pumpkins in preparation for tomorrow's Halloween celebrations, you may care to take a little inspiration from these sculptural masterpieces that are the work of the man called 'The Michelangelo of Pumpkin Carving': Ray Villafane and his ludicrously talented colleagues at Villafane Studios...

Friday, 26 October 2012


A while back, I posted a couple of songs performed by the late John Moffatt in Hit the Heights, a Christmas revue I compiled for BBC Radio 4 back around 1990.

Today, I am adding two glorious performances from the same show by the legendary Miss Elisabeth Welch.

Her extraordinary career is (briefly) described as follows in Stephen Bourne's biography, Elisabeth Welch: Soft Lights and Sweet Music:
From her stage debut in 1922 to her final professional appearance in 1996, Elisabeth Welch was an important figure in the world of popular song. In 1923, she launched the Charleston and throughout the Jazz Age, she was associated with some of the great names of the Harlem Renaissance, including Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and Ethel Waters. 

On Broadway she popularised Cole Porter's scandalous song 'Love for Sale'. After settling in London in 1933, she introduced the classic torch song 'Stormy Weather' to British audiences, and that same year she appeared in Cole Porter's Nymph Errant, beginning a career in English musical theatre that lasted sixty years. In 1930s Britain, Ivor Novello wrote songs for her, Paul Robeson was her leading man in films, and she enjoyed popularity as a cabaret star of London's cafe society. Remaining in her adopted country for the duration of the war, Elisabeth entertained the troops and the British public, alongside such theatrical giants as Sir John Gielgud. 

In the post-war years she reigned supreme in sophisticated revues in London's West End and Elisabeth's appearance in Derek Jarman's 1979 film version of William Shakespeare's The Tempest (in which she sang 'Stormy Weather') won her a whole new legion of fans. 
At the age of 81, she returned to the Broadway stage and her performance in Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood earned her a Tony nomination. The stage, screen and radio career of this sophisticated African American actress and singer defied categorisation. Spanning almost a century of popular music, she did not fit the definition of jazz, torch, pop or ballad singer but defined her art quite simply as 'telling a story in song'. Whatever she sang, she demonstrated that she had no peer in the art of interpreting songs by the likes of Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.
I have some wonderful personal memories of working with Elisabeth on Hit the Heights: particularly the fact that, then in her upper 80s, her long term memory was still crystal clear (recounting, for example, vivid recollections of Paris in the Jazz Age) while her short-term memory was already fast failing. Indeed, she turned up for a dress rehearsal in full costume, thinking it was the performance and departed at the end saying how much she had enjoyed it – leaving us all wondering whether she would be there for the next day's show.

But, of course, she was!

Dressed to the nines in a stunning red dress, with bracelets, bangles and rings galore, she perched on a stool beside the grand piano and wowed the audience...

Having missed her cue to one of the songs a couple of times – seeming not to recognise the piano introduction – she eventually asked Musical Director, Richard Holmes: "What are we doing?" Richard replied: "'The Man I Love', Elisabeth," which was, of course, one of her signature numbers. Elisabeth shrugged and turning to the audience with astonished smile, responded: "They never tell you anything!" The audience loved her all the more and she then sang the song word and note perfect!

Obviously, the glitch was edited out of the broadcast, but the audience reaction at the end is an indication of the impact she made on everyone there and the affection in which we held this great star...

A story that I particularly remember from our conversations in the Green Room was one recounted with great relish: only once was she asked to audition when Bob Fosse was casting the musical Pippin.

"What would you like to sing for us?" asked Fosse – presumably unaware of her star status.

"Oh," Miss Welch replied, "I think I'll sing the first song Cole Porter wrote for me."


Wednesday, 24 October 2012


WIne lables these days increasingly seem to suggest that the bottle contains a miscellany of ingredients – ranging from flint to cut grass – as opposed to the more conventional grapes!

For example, a Domaine de Majas 2010 is described as having 'pronounced fennel and camomile aromas' leading 'onto a fresh palate with hints of stone fruits and mineral acidity.'

However, I noticed it on a restaurant wine-list recently with an even more flowery description:
Walk through a soft meadow filled with herbs, into an orchard with a red apple tree, delicious and intriguing.
Frankly, that ought to win a fantasy literature award1

Thursday, 18 October 2012


'Costume is a huge part of getting into character,' film and TV actress, Jane Levy once observed. 'Your body soaks in what you're wearing, and you turn into someone else.'

Hollywood Costume, the new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, opening this Saturday (20 October) and running until 27 January 2013, examines the processes by which over 130 movie costumes – from the silent era of Charlie Chaplin to the CGI age of Avatar – were designed, made, worn and, in many instances, became enduring icons of Hollywoodland.

The exhibition is the work of Senior Guest Curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis (whose costume designs include The Blues Brothers, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Trading Places and Michael Jackson's Thriller) and Guest Curator Professor Sir Christopher Frayling (former Rector of the Royal College of Art and Chairman of the Arts Council England) working with V&A Curator (and award-winning theatre designer) Keith Lodwick. 

The result of their combined labours is a gloriously spectacular celebration of the clothes of the stars across the best part of a century of cinema featuring treasurers that will excite every generation of film-goer: whether devotees of the sirens of the Hollywood's Golden Age, fans of action heroes from Hans Solo to James Bond, costume movie heroes from Ben Hur to Jack Sparrow or fantasy characters from Darth Vadar to Harry Potter to Cruella De Vil with her stunning black-and-white 'dog-tooth' outfits...

Of course, what separates costumes from any other second-hand clothes are our memories of seeing them living on the screen: Holly Golightly's Givenchy gown in Breakfast at Tiffany's when modelled by Audrey Hepburn or Scarlett O'Hara's green velvet dress from Gone With the Wind as worn by Vivien Leigh. Designed by Walter Plunkett to look as if they were made from a pair of curtains (indicating the heroine's determination to survive) they still managed to make Leigh look sensational...

To compensate for the absence of flesh and blood bodies, the superb design of this exhibition – the work of Casson Mann design practice – imbues the costumes with surrogate life through the highly creative use of sound and lighting and imaginative projections and animations. 

As Creative Director, Roger Mann, puts it: 'We have had to be that much more playful, that much more magical, that much more engaging with [the costumes] to help them come alive and to bring out the range of emotions felt when seeing a movie.' 

The creative wizardry supporting and surrounding these often legendary clothes is particularly well used in 'Act One' of the exhibition which deconstructs costume design: showing how Marit Allen's seemingly 'off-the-peg' cowboy outfits worn by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain were, in fact, anything but; and how the component parts of Indiana Jones costume developed out of a sketch by Steven Speilberg  from well-worn hat (aged with oil and fullers earth and a lot scrunging and sitting on) down to his boots and, of course, whip.

Similarly, there is an analysis of the items of costume designed by Alexandra Byrne for Cate Blanchett to wear in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, flanked by other Elizabethan costumes worn by Glenda Jackson, Flora Robson, Bette Davis and Quentin Crisp.

One of the chief achievements of this section of the exhibition is in demonstrating that 'costumes' need to look like they are 'clothes' which the character wears, rather than something that an actor changes into to walk onto a movie set; and, similarly, that 'clothes', however seemingly prosaic, are also 'costumes'  

Of the latter category, there can scarcely be a better example than Charlie Chaplin's raggedy clothes worn by Charlie Chaplin in his 'Little Tramp' persona. 

Whereas Travis Banton's gem-encrusted gown designed in 1937 for Angel is a fantastical creation that, nevertheless, succeeded in looking as if it were the precisely the kind of ensemble Dietrich would wear any day of the week...

'Act Two' of the exhibition is a series of ingeniously staged (and thoughtfully subtitled) dialogues between actors, directors and designers: Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood talk about Sweeney Todd across Mrs Lovett's pie-making table onto which are projected images and clips and, every now and again, a gory spattering of blood!

Nearby, Tippi Hedren discusses the pale green suit she wore in Hitchcock's The Birds with ghosts of designer, Edith Head, and Hitch himself while a stray feather appears to fall onto post cards of the film's locations and a passing gull drops a bird lime souvenir onto a map of Bodega Bay! 

Throughout the exhibition there are some fascinating contrasts: one of Meryl Streep's outlandish outfits from Mama Mia! standing shoulder to shoulder with her Margaret Thatcher suit from The Iron Lady. Elsewhere, Joan Crawford's dowdy, sexless, blue gingham waitress dress from Mildred Pearce is within sight of her sensationally seductive ruby gown, seen (ironically in black and white) in The Bride Wore Red.

Adrian's costume for Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red ( 1937) flanked by 
Walter Plunkett's burgandy ballgown for Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939)
and Travis Banton's costume design for Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra (1934)

Then there is Heddy Lemarr's peacock robe for Delilah in Cecil B DeMille's Samson and Delilah. When DeMille saw Edith Head's design for the costume he suggested using real peacock feathers. A few days later he arrived at the studio with a station-wagon laden with plumage: it transpired he owned a farm and raised peacocks and had spent the weekend picking up feathers...

'Act Three: Finale' is a cavalcade of costume classics: Dolly Levi's shimmering gown worn by Barbra Streisand in the 'Hello Dolly' number from the film of the same name; Sharon Stone's revealing leg-crossing dress in Basic Instinct; Keira Knightley's emerald silk evening frock from her performance in Atonement; Errol, Flynn's doublet from The Adventures of Don Juan; John Travolta's three-piece cream suit from Saturday Night Fever and Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy fedora and camelhair overcoat...

Powers that be: Harrison, Daniel, Arnie and Warren

Senior Guest Curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis with Carol Lombard
in her My Man Godfrey gown, Judy Garland in her Oz dress and 
mesdames Streisand and Knightley in, respectively, 
Hello Dolly and Atonement
A word of advice to fans of cinema superheroes: remember to look up every now and again or you might miss Superman, Batman, Catwoman and Spidey...

Providing a fabled flourish to the finale are a trio of exhibits redolent of the mystique and the magic of the movies: Marilyn's ivory cocktail dress from The Seven Year Itch and Judy's gingham pinafore dress from The Wizard of Oz together with a pair of the original Ruby Slippers that carried her down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City and eventually back to Kansas.

Screenwriter Noel Langley was probably the person responsible for making L Frank Baum's 'silver shoes' into those now-legendary and utterly iconic Ruby Slippers and they, along with the rest of the Oz costumes, were designed by Hollywood designer-great, Adrian.

Despite their now-dull appearance, the 73-year-old shoes are still powerfully evocative as Deborah Nadoolman Landis observes: 'The Ruby Slippers transcend Hollywood costume  design and have the power to transport us to the limits of our imagination. These precious shoes exemplify the best of cinema storytelling because they evoke memory and emotion.'

The Ruby Slippers are on loan from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History but are only here for a few weeks before heading back home (where else?) in time for (what else?) Thanksgiving. With or without Dorothy's footwear this is a superb and unmissable exhibition.

Accompanying the exhibition is fabulous 320 page book, Hollywood Costume – not so much a catalogue as an exploration of the subject through a series of fascinating essays, edited by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, and jam-packed with a cornucopia of striking imagery that will ensure that the volume will have a shelf-life for movie fans that far outlasts the life of the exhibition.

'The design of costumes for films is a distinctive form of deign which is often taken for granted or misunderstood. This V&A exhibition presents the ideal opportunity to set the record straight – and does so in the most spectacular way.'
- Sir Christopher Frayling

'This landmark exhibition provides a once in a life-time opportunity to explore the most beloved characters in Hollywood history and gain insight on the role of the costume designer and their vital contribution to cinema storytelling.'
  - Deborah Nadoolman Landis

The V&A is open daily 10:00-17:45 (and until 22:00 every Friday)
Tickets for Hollywood Costume are £14 (concessions available) 
Advance booking is advisable and can be done on-line here or by calling 02079077073

Check the V&A website for special events

Images: V&A, David Weeks and Brian Sibley

Sunday, 14 October 2012


Today is a Big Day for Winnie-the-Pooh as the Bear of Very Little Brain celebrates reaching the grand old age of 86!

And Pooh's birthday is, for me, an annual reminder of the origins of my writing career which began on 13 October 1976 when BBC Radio 4 broadcast, Three Cheers for Pooh, a programme by me markng the fact that, on the following day (the BBC’s scheduling was out by twenty-four hours!), Pooh was to celebrate his then fiftieth birthday…

The half-hour feature was presented by my very dear and very good friend, Peter Bull with another very dear and very good friend, Antony Miall, singing and playing at the piano Veteran radio actor, Norman Shelley, recreated his famous radio role as Pooh Bear (as well as playing Piglet, Eeyore and All The Others) and the whole confection was whipped into shape by the highly distinguished drama producer (later Head of Radio Drama) John Tydeman.

The Radio Times were kind enough to give me a small feature article on the programme page. "Why are grown men still fascinated by A A Milne's creations?" the heading asked. "Brian Sibley explains..."

At the time I was working for a merchant bank in the City of London and arriving at the office on the morning on which The Radio Times was published, I had a call to report to the office of my boss, Mr Brookes.

There he sat, the magazine open on the desk in front of him. He always employed a dry, satiric tone, but today it was drier and more satiric than usual. "Tell, Mr Sibley," he enquired, "Why would the BBC in their corporate wisdom ask you to explain the deeper mysteries and global significance of Winnie-the-Pooh?"

I felt very small - smaller, in fact, than Rabbit's friend-and-relation, Smallest-of-All (known as S of A); and, worse, the joy I had experienced on opening The Radio Times on the railway station platform that morning and finding my name was suddenly tossed aside as meaningless...

I mumbled a half-apologetic response and hurried back to work...  Within a couple of months, however, I had another programme on Radio 4 - this time about Alice in Wonderland - which I co-presented with Tony Miall, and our third programme together (on Peter Pan) followed shortly afterwards...

Frankly, it no longer mattered what Mr Brookes thought, because - at long last - I had discovered what I wanted to do with my career!

The intervening years have taken their toll: Peter Bull, Tony Miall and Norman Shelley are, sadly, no longer with us and John Tydeman and I are older, greyer - and weightier!

But I got to use the title Three Cheers for Pooh once more when, years afterwards, I published my book on the life of 'The Best Ber in All the World'.

And, as for Pooh himself, he goes stomping along through the 100 Aker Wood, humming a hum to himself and wondering what it means to be 86 and whether he’ll feel any different and how many pots of honey it might take to properly celebrate being it…

And you can celebrate Pooh's birthday by listening to that original 1976 broadcast...

Just click on the arrow and enjoy!


[Images: Pooh sketches by E H Shepard]

Parts of this post first appeared on this blog in 2006

Friday, 12 October 2012


Have you started your Christmas present list yet? Probably not, but when you do get around to it, here's a unique little gift book that will delight kids of various ages – and keep them busy. It is, in fact, a perfect stocking-filler...

Written by Steve Biddle, internationally acclaimed practitioner in the Japanese art of paperfolding and with illustrations by Megumi Biddle (herself a super silhouette-artist) Origami Magic is a collection of seventeen fascinating tricks, puzzles and illusions...

 A starter-pack of multi-coloured sheets of origami paper is included with the book and there are easy-to-follow instructions will allow any beginner to create all sorts of entertaining and amusing diversions...

For the aspiring conjuror there are several creations that are both a kind of magic in their own right as well as intriguing and original props for an impromptu display of legerdemain! You can not only make a rabbit – as seen on the front cover – you can make a magic tube from which to produce the little fellow...

You can learn more about the artistry of Steve and Megumi Biddle by visiting their website Paper Magic!