Saturday, December 20, 2008

A DICKENS OF A TALE

This seasonal post is reprinted from the Sibleyblog, 13 December 2006...

It's got apparitions, transformations and all manner of scenes from the frenzied delights of a Christmas ball to ghostly goings-on in a graveyard.

A Christmas Carol might almost have been written for the stage and it certainly has been on the stage at sometime or other for pretty much every one of its 163 years.

Take this Christmas [2006], for example: there will be revivals of Leslie Bricusse’s all-singing version and Christopher Gable’s all-dancing production; with famous former-Fagin, Ron Moody taking on a new Dickensian persona in Swansea as Ebenezer Scrooge and Michael Barrymore (above) reprising his portrayal of the role on tour.

It was in December 1843, that Dickens - angered by the terrible poverty of his day - published this little 'ghost story of Christmas', recounting the reformation of a mean-spirited man for whom December 25th and all associated with it is nothing more than "HUMBUG!" Though scarcely more than a novella, Dicken's Carol is crammed with memorable characterisations - living and spectral - and a series of rich descriptions of Christmas traditions and celebrations.


Within two months, there were no less than eight dramatised versions of A Christmas Carol being simultaneously presented on the London stage.

In order to avoid confusion, the titles were different - but only just! One was called A Christmas Carol, or the Miser's Warning; another A Christmas Carol, or Past, Present, and Future; a third A Christmas Carol, or Scrooge the Miser's Dream, or, The Past, Present, and Future...


One of the first performers to portray Scrooge was the celebrated Victorian actor, O. Smith, whose performance was described by Dickens as “drearily better than I expected”, adding that he found it “a great comfort to have this kind of meat underdone” - something which cannot be said of all his successors!

2006’s Scrooge’s - whether professional or amatuer - are the latest in a long line of performers to play the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” and distinguished humbugs have included veteran thespians Bransby Williams and Seymour Hicks who both began by playing the part in legitimate theatrical productions before transforming their performances into solo music hall turns and then ending up among the first screen Scrooges - succeeded by the likes of Alistair Sim (for many the greatest of Scrooges), Albert Finney, George C Scott and Michael Caine in the much-loved musical version The Muppet Christmas Carol.


There has been an Ebenezer Scrooge for every possible taste from Anthony Newley to Anton Rodgers; from the senior partner of Steptoe and Son, Wilfred Brambell, to Star Trek's Jean-Luc Picard, Patrick Stewart (right); and employing every conceivable medium from a mime performed by Marcel Marceau to an opera sung by Sir Geriant Evans.

'Scrooging' has long been a popular pastime among knights of the theatre: Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness all did it on radio, Michael Hordern did it on television and John Gielgud on record. Others who have read the story on disc, tape and CD include Geoffrey Palmer, Richard Wilson, Ronald Coleman, Vincent Price and Leonard Rossiter.

In America, where A Christmas Carol is equally - perhaps even more - beloved, Dickens' stony-hearted skinflint was portrayed or radio, for many years, by Lionel Barrymore and Orson Welles and on other occasions and in a variety of media by Basil Rathbone, Frederick March, Walter Matthau, Kelsey Grammer, Mr Magoo and Donald Duck's penny-pinching uncle, Scrooge McDuck!


From the outset, dramatists have tinkered with the original text: from small embellishments such as giving Scrooge's nephew, Fred, the surname 'Freeheart', to the invention of a sinister character called 'Dark Sam' who added to the Cratchit family's problems by stealing Bob's scant wages. One particularly free dramatization, Old Scrooge, staged in 1877, ended by reuniting the reformed miser with his lost love, Belle, who conveniently turns out to be Fred's wife's widowed mother!

Some of the more bizarre curiosities - Vanessa Williams as self-centered pop-star, Ebony Scrooge; Jack Palance as Ebenezer, a Western card-cheat and gunfighter; or Bill Murray as Frank Cross, the cynical TV executive who gets Scrooged - serve to indicate the extent to which Dickens' story has become part of popular mythology, a folk tale or fairy story which is perennially retold and reworked in the telling.


So well do we know - and love - Dickens' story that it's characters have had several sequels written about them with several amusing speculations on what might have happened if Ebenezer Scrooge had subsequently relented of his Christmas conversion and had gone back to his old miserly ways and some alarming accounts of how the angelic Tiny Tim might have turned out not so virtuous when he grew up and inherited Scrooge's business! Why, there is even a Jewish spoof on the story entitled Hanukkah, Schmanukkah!

Dickens' characters have been employed by several generations of political cartoonists from Punch's John Tenniel, who depicted Prime Minister William Gladstone as Scrooge, to Gerald Scarfe who drew the Ghost of Margaret Thatcher haunting a terrified John Major. They have also found their way into various advertising campaigns for, among other products, Hamlet cigars, Heineken lager and Absolut vodka.


In fact, so well known is A Christmas Carol that even people who have never read it, actually believe they have! Say the word “Humbug!” and someone will think of Ebenezer Scrooge; utter the phrase: “God bless us, every one!” and people at once recall the words of Tiny Tim.

Small wonder that William Makepeace Thackeray, reviewing the book in 1843, wrote: “It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness.”

One hundred and sixty-three years on, there seems no reason to quibble with that verdict.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"AN HONEST BOOK..."

"For every honest reader," wrote Kenneth Grahame, "there exist some half-dozen honest books, which he re-reads at regular intervals of six months or thereabouts. Whatever the demands on him, however alarming the arrears that gibber and grin in menacing row, for these he somehow generally manages to find time..."

And the man who wrote those words, himself wrote one of those 'honest books' to which 'honest readers' (like myself and many others) return again and again, and which this year celebrated the 100th anniversary its publication - The Wind in the Willows...

This book is, actually, less of a book and more of a friend - a good friend with whom you simply must keep in touch, whose company always makes you feel a little more content with life, a tad more safe in uncertain times.

For me that friendship began when I was nine years old and my parents gave me a thin, pocket-sized edition with small print and none of those wonderful E H Shepard pictures that were not the first, but certainly the definitive illustrations. In fact, the only decoration to my copy was a line drawing - stamped on the pale green cover - of two gnarled willow trees bending in the wind.

Nevertheless, as an only, sickly child, I read the book in one day and claimed the characters - gentle-natured Mole, good-hearted Ratty, no-nonsense Badger and the one-and-only, never-to be-forgotten, utterly outrageous, Mr Toad - for an extended family.

I fell under the the spell of the chattering, babbling river so beloved of the Water Rat: "It's my world, and I don't want any other. What is it hasn't got is not worth having, and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing..."

And, of course, I was captivated by the roar and rattle of Toad's errant motor car as it thundered down the open, dusty, highway ever in search of someplace new: "Here to-day - in next week to-morrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped - always somebody else's horizon! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!"

The Wind in the Willows became one of the best-loved books on my childhood bookshelf. Some of the volumes that stood alongside it in those far off days have long been discarded and forgotten; others are still respected, still capable of evoking affectionate memories, but now seldom read. The Wind in the Willows, on the other hand, has remained a constant companion across the changing years.

So what was it about the book that captured my youthful imagination and still captures the fancy of the older, more worldly-wise adult? What I adored, when young, was Kenneth Grahame's ability to spin a yarn full of lovable characters and comic escapades: Toad the daredevil adventurer, stealing cars, escaping from gaol, commandeering railway engines.

What intrigues me now is the daring with which the storyteller interweaves the fun and frolic with episodes of rare and mysterious beauty: Mole yearning for his little, abandoned home; Rat listening to tales of the wide world from an old seafaring rat and the mystical encounter with the great god Pan in that curious chapter entitled 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn'.


The resulting mix oughtn't to work - indeed when the book was first published, a lot of very grown-up people (critics and the like) said that it didn't work. The humorous magazine Punch (with singular lack of humour) described it as "a sort of irresponsible holiday story in which the chief characters are woodland animals, who are represented as enjoying most of the advantages of civilization."

Even more glorious is the pompous pronouncement in The Times Literary Supplement that "as a contribution to natural history the work is negligible" before going on to point out that a water rat would "never use a boat to navigate a stream" and pondered on the subject of a mole doing whitewashing: "no doubt moles like their abodes to be clean; but whitewashing? Are we very stupid or is this joke really inferior?"

The answer to which, of course - we now know - is obvious: yes, the critic of the TLS was indeed very stupid!

Young readers, of course, knew better: they made the book their own and then persuaded the adults to change their minds. As Grahame wrote, years afterwards: "It is the special charm of the child's point of view, that the dual nature of these characters does not present the slightest difficulty to them. It is only the old fogies who are apt to begin 'Well, but...' and so on. To the child it is all entirely natural and as it should be."

And - child or adult - we will return again and again to this miraculous book because woven through its entire length is an overwhelmingly reassuring sense of security and cosiness: of summer picnics on the river bank, walks across country fields in the frosty air of winter and afternoon tea snuggled around the fire...

Like the ancient willow trees that grow along the banks of the Thames and which gave the book its title, The Wind in the Willows has a time-enduring quality: it remains one of the most haunting evocative, boisterously funny and endlessly enchanting book ever written...

And if my recommendation won't suffice, let me leave you with the words of another admirer of The Wind in the Willows - and the man who dramatised the book and made it into what was, for many years, one of London' annual theatrical treat, Toad of Toad Hall - A A Milne:

For the last ten or twelve years I have been recommending it. Usually I speak about at my first meeting with a stranger. It is my opening remark, just as yours is something futile about the weather. If I don't get it in at the beginning, I squeeze it in at the end. The stranger has got to have it sometime.

Should I ever find myself in the dock, and one never knows, my answer to the question whether I have anything to say would be, 'Well, my lord, if I might just recommend a book to the jury before leaving...'



Happy Birthday,
Toady, Ratty, Moley and Badger!

And may you live for at least another hundred years!

Images: © Estate of Ernest H Shepard



Friday, October 17, 2008

PAULINE BAYNES: QUEEN OF NARNIA AND MIDDLE-EARTH

Pauline Baynes
(1922-2008)


This tribute, originally posted on Brian Sibley: the blog, was written a few days after Pauline Baynes' death, on 1 August 2008, at the cottage in Dockenfield, Surrey, where she had lived and worked for many years.

There are certain illustrators whose work is so intimately interwoven with the author's text as to rank as the books' co-creators. Sir John Tenniel, for example, the first illustrator of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and E H Shepard who, with A A Milne, led us into the world of Winnie-the-Pooh. Similarly, Pauline Baynes' pictures of country and denizens in C S Lewis' seven Chronicles of Narnia are still - despite the recent big-screen movie imagery - the definitive depiction of that extraordinary land beyond the wardrobe...

I can remember, precisely, where I was when I read each of the Narnian Chronicles: for example, I read The Magician's Nephew one winter's day curled up before an open fire while my mother was making cakes and pastry on the kitchen table.

Once glance at the vista on the jacket of the Puffin paperback edition of that book still not only evokes what is, for me, the essence of the land of Narnia - with its seashore, mountains, woods and lakes - but also gives me back a specific day from the tenth year of my life!


I first met Pauline almost thirty years ago, in October 1979, at a 'Narnia Book Fair' held at Church House Bookshop, Westminster. I was carrying one of my most treasured possessions: a copy of Tolkien's The Adventures of Tom Bombadil which the author had signed for me ten years earlier. She added her own signature to the title page, doubling its value to me as a collector.


Following that initial meeting, we kept in touch, collaborated on a book, The Land of Narnia, and, during the past 10 years, became close friends.

After the death of my and David's mothers, she became a kind of adoptive mum and (perhaps because she had no children of her own) interested herself in what we were doing and fussed over and cared for us in the various ups and downs of our lives. We loved her dearly and are deeply aware of how we - and others in her extended adopted family - are going to miss her...

She had a ceaselessly inquiring mind and energetically debated every topic imaginable. She could be sharply critical and quixotically changeable; she never suffered fools gladly, sniffed out cant and hypocrisy in a second and enjoyed nothing better than the kind of conversation which could veer from total seriousness to helpless laughter.

But all these are personal feelings and what I want to do in this posting is remind people of the extraordinary talent possessed by this modest, unassuming woman who created images that define the childhoods of millions...

After producing illustrations for various books of fairy tales, Pauline Baynes' career was established when, in 1949, J R R Tolkien's publishers showed the author of The Hobbit a portfolio of her artwork. Tolkien had written Farmer Giles of Ham, a fanciful novella with a faux-medieval setting, and being dissatisfied with the pictures that had been produced for the book was looking for a new illustrator.

Pauline produced a series of witty line illustrations that perfectly caught the essence of Tolkien's story to an extent that he declared them to be "more than illustrations, they are a collateral theme." He also delighted in reporting that friends had said that the pictures had reduced his text to "a commentary on the drawings"!

Pauline revisited the story of Farmer Giles and his exploits with the somewhat reluctant dragon, Chrysophylax Dives, on several occasions such as for the 50th edition of the story published in 1999...


It was the beginning of a long friendship between author and illustrator with Pauline decorating Tolkien's subsequent books, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Smith of Wootton Major.


It had been Tolkien's wish that Pauline should illustrate The Lord of the Rings, but the book grew into a project that rendered that plan impractical although it was her slipcase design for the three volumes that was adapted as a cover for the first one-volume paperback edition - providing what was, for an entire generation, a peek into the essentially English landscape of Middle-earth...

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Posthumously Pauline illustrated Tolkien's Poems and Stories (including Leaf by Niggle) and Bilbo's Last Song. She also created that memorable map of Middle-earth that was a feature of thousands of student bedrooms...

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I remember Pauline telling me that she always wondered whether Tolkien's wife, Edith, had ever actually read her husband's magnum opus. Her doubts stemmed from the day she took her artwork for the Middle-earth map to show the author. Above the map she had drawn the figures of the Nine Walkers - Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf, Boromir, Legolas, Gimli, Merry and Pippin - setting out on the Quest of the Ring; beneath the map she had added an array of villains: marauding Orcs, the Nine Black Riders, Gollum and, the bottom right hand corner, Shelob.

Tolkien was pleased with the map - apart from one mis-spelled name that had to be corrected - and called to Edith to come and see. "Look what Pauline's done," said Tolkien. Edith scrutinized the map and the two groups of characters and then - pointing to Shelob - said: "Ooo, look at that horrid spider!"

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It was the collaboration with Tolkien that resulted in Pauline's subsequent association with the septet of children's novels by C S Lewis beginning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and known, collectively, as The Chronicles of Narnia.


"Met C S Lewis. Came home. Made rock cakes." That's how Pauline's diary recorded one of the two meetings she had with the author whose work she so memorably embellished. It tells you exactly how she viewed her contribution to books that, for millions, of us were seminal childhood reading.

The illustrations for the Lewis books contributed significantly to their success and now are inseparable from the text, but she illustrated over a hundred other books as well as designing jackets and frontispieces for others and contributing numerous decorative pictures (left) to the illustrated magazines which proliferated in the '40s and '50s such as The Sphere and The Illustrated London News.

Her artistic output was astonishing: designs for stained glass, church embroideries and Christmas cards, pictures for school text books, and fanciful advertisements for a variety of products such as, here (courtesy of her friend, Martin Springett), Huntly and Palmer's biscuits...


Among her finest works (and there are a great many more) should be listed Henri Pourrat's A Treasury of French Tales; Amabel Williams-Ellis' Fairy Tales from the British Isles and The Arabian Nights (reflecting her fascination with Persian miniatures); The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes, collected by her friends Peter and Iona Opie; and Grant Uden's A Dictionary of Chivalry which contained a staggering near-600 illustrations in its margins and won the artist the coveted Kate Greenaway Medal.

She illustrated stories by Rosemary Harris, Rumer Godden and Helen Piers as well as the final volume of Mary Norton's Borrowers saga and produced another iconic images for the cover of the first paperback edition (right) of Richard Adams' Watership Down.

What her work on these and other books show is her tirelessly painstaking research into the detailing of period costume and architecture and, above all, her extraordinary talent for conveying landscape and depicting natural life - especially animals, whether wild or domestic and, in particular, horses and, of course, dogs which were so much a part of her life.

Her later picture books - many on religious subjects - such as All Things Bright and Beautiful, The Song of the Three Holy Children, Noah and the Ark and In the Beginning, demonstrate the artist's talent for design and her superb mastery of fluid line, gem-like colours and the use of negative space.

There were also an amazing number of drawings done as favours for friends. For example, in 1977 I was editing Bandersnatch, the newsletter of the Lewis Carroll Society when the discovery of the 'lost' chapter of Through the Looking Glass and what Alice Found There, featuring a Wasp in a Wig reading a newspaper came to light.

The episode had been dropped from the book at proof stage because John Tenniel had said such a bizarre character was beyond his powers to illustrate. But Pauline proved Tenniel wrong by creating this superb miniature (left) which I featured on the mast-head to Bandersnatch for several years.

Pauline remained prolific until the end of her life, illustrating a selection of writings from the Qur'an and the Book of Job (below) which are still to be published...

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One of Pauline's last completed projects was producing 22 full page illustrations for a story of mine, entitled Oscar the Extraordinary Owl. She was disappointed when a succession of publishers declined the book, and concluded that her style was now too old fashioned and out of step with the current trends in children's publishing.

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One day, I trust, someone will recognise again her singular talent for composition and publish some of these works which she made towards the end of her life purely for the pleasure of making pictures - so that they may bring pleasure to others just as her illustrations to the books of Lewis and Tolkien have done for fifty years...

When we visited her a few weeks ago, the drawing board facing in the window that looked out onto her pretty cottage garden, was covered with a series of energetic illustrations - each a mini-masterpiece of design - illustrating Aesop's Fables (right).

Today, that drawing board lies bare.

The artist is gone; but the artwork that she created lives on...


You can read my full obituary to Pauline Baynes here in The Independent.

Other obituaries appeared in The Guardian and The Telegraph; although unsigned they were written by two more of her close friends, respectively, David Henshall and Charlotte Cory. There was also a full obituary in The Times.

Monday, May 05, 2008

POPPIN' UP

A curious decision, I thought: to cut virtually all references to Julie Andrews from my recent book (with Michael Lassell) Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It. After all, it was the film that made our Julie a movie star...

But there was no discussion about the matter - my paragraphs on Julie's casting in what was the crowning masterpiece of Walt Disney's career, together with her personal recollections of Disney and Poppins' creator, P L Travers - simply had to go.

Frankly, I thought this rather odd, especially since the Andrews quotes had come from an interview which she had given me when I was making a BBC radio series called Disney's Women and had already appeared - with Ms Andrews permission (or, at least, so I understood) - in 'How Are They Going to Make That into a Musical?', an essay I contributed to A Lively Oracle: A Centennial Celebration of P L Travers, published in 1999.

Then, why? Well, I can only surmise that it was because Ms Andrews was about to publish the first volume of her autobiography, autobiography, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, and didn't want any 'spoilers' appearing ahead of time.

Anyway, since the book is now published, it's probably safe to reveal that expurgated text.

So, here it is...
It was Walt's secretary, Tommie Wilck, who suggested Julie Andrews, the young British singer who had achieved stage stardom in London and New York as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and who was currently appearing on Broadway as Queen Guinevere in the musical, Camelot.

Towards the end of 1961, returning from a visit to Europe, Walt stopped off in New York to see a performance of the Arthurian romance. As Julie Andrews sang, danced and whistled her way through the show stopping number 'What Do the Simple Folk Do?', Walt was convinced that he had found his Mary Poppins.

Backstage, after the show, Walt talked enthusiastically about his plans for the film. “There was no preamble,” Julie recalls, “he said he’d loved the evening and he wanted to talk to me about a project he had in mind for the film of Mary Poppins. I said, ‘Well that sounds lovely’. I don’t remember having had doubts other than ‘Can I make a movie?’ This would be my very first picture and as much as I’d always wanted to go into film I thought, ‘Gosh, would I be able to do it justice? Would I be any good at it?’ and so on.”

However, Walt was persistent and Julie agreed that, once Camelot had ended its run, she would visit the Disney studio with her then husband, designer Tony Walton. Meanwhile, she read the books and began to have doubts not just about her own ability but also about the possibility of adapting the source material for the screen.

“The books were so perfectly written,” she recalled, “but they were so boxed-in with their primness and rigid discipline that I thought ‘Now, how are they going to make that into a musical?’ And, of course, it was miraculous the way that they did.”

Any lingering anxieties were dispelled when she and Tony Walton arrived in Burbank at what Hollywood referred to as ‘The Mouse Factory’: “The minute I walked into the studio and saw what Walt had prepared, I could tell that Poppins had something special about it.”

Looking at the storyboards and hearing the songs convinced Julie that she should accept the role: “The thing that was wonderfully appealing was that my background, long before I had been on Broadway, was vaudeville and music-hall. And the songs they played me on that first day, were wonderfully reminiscent. They had that knock-down, drag-out quality of the good old vaudeville songs and I loved them!”

About one song only, Julie had reservations: it was the ballad 'The Eyes of Love' which the Sherman brothers had come to think of as Mary Poppins' theme. She, however, thought the song too sentimental and not very 'Poppinsish'. In an attempt to find an alternative, the composers drew on an experience of Robert Sherman's younger son who had recently been given an inoculation at school that had been disguised with a spoonful of sugar. The resulting song became one of the most popular in the film.

Walt hoped to clinch the deal by offering Julie $125,000 and asking Tony Walton to be the film's design consultant, but there was one lingering issue: she was still under consideration for the role of Eliza Doolittle in the screen version of the show that had made her name My Fair Lady.

Julie wished more than anything to play on film the role she had created on stage, but Walt wanted her to be Mary Poppins and was so eager for her to commit to the film, that he promised to release her from her contract if Warner Brothers offered her the part in My Fair Lady. In the event, Jack Warner decided that casting Julie was too big a box-office gamble (having Rex Harrison play Professor Higgins was even thought risky) and opted, instead, for the glamorous, but non-singing, Audrey Hepburn. Warner's loss was Disney's gain.

P L Travers had described Mary Poppins as being thin, plain and “rather like a Dutch doll”, with “large feet and hands, and small, rather peering blue eyes.” Although Julie Andrews, at twenty-seven, was considerably prettier, she skilfully captured much of Poppins’ enigmatic personality, described by the author as “a mixture of arrogance and poetry and, underlying both, a certain invincible integrity.”

Julie, who was pregnant, returned to England to give birth and, thirty-six hours after the arrival of her daughter Emma, she received a phone call in hospital: “They said, ‘There’s a Mrs Travers on the line for you,’ and I thought, ‘Oh I’d better speak to her, doesn’t anybody know that I’ve just given birth and I’m feeling a bit weary.’ And she came on, she said, ‘Hello, this is P L Travers, is this Julie Andrews? Talk to me! I want to hear what you sound like.” I said, ‘Well what can I tell you, Miss Travers, I’m very thrilled, I believe I’m going to be doing a film based on your books.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you’ve got the nose for it that’s for sure; you’re too pretty, but you’ve got the nose for it.’”

Later, Julie went to afternoon tea with Pamela and still remembers her assessment of the author: “I liked her, she was an eccentric and rather tough old girl but a good hearted one I felt.” Pamela was equally responsive to Julie and - whatever her subsequent reservations about the film - was unfailing in her praise of the actress, describing her as having “integrity and a true sense of comedy” and her performance as showing that she understood “the essential quality” of Mary Poppins.
There! That's what you didn't read in the Poppins book although, in her autobiography, Julie Andrews has told the tale in her own words - which are pretty much just about the same!

Home only takes the Andrews story as far as the Walt Disney engaging her to play Mary Poppins and that curious maternity wing telephone conversation with P L Travers...

I actually wrote quite a bit more written about the filming and the Oscar-winning success of Mary Poppins, but since Ms A is at work on a second volume of autobiography, I guess I'd better - for the present - keep that to myself!

In the mean time, you may care to read my review of Home.