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Celebrating Tolkien and popular media:
Interview with Brian Sibley

Brian Sibley is a writer and broadcaster who famously adapted Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for BBC Radio. Recently he published a major biography of Peter Jackson. Colin Duriez, who has known Brian for many years, interviewed him for Festival in the Shire Journal, on his wide-ranging writings and work in other media, and the vision behind his long-standing interest in Tolkien, fantasy, Disney, film and literature.

Brian, I believe that you took a rather circuitous route into a life as a writer and broadcaster. How did this come about?

Chance. Like so much in my life and career. The ambitions of my youth were to act and to draw: when neither of these matured into a reality, I settled down to a series of tedious, hum-drum jobs in local government and merchant banking. I discovered, by accident, that I could communicate through words and started writing for radio as a sideline. Then there came a point at which I was made redundant and I felt that I had done enough writing to feel mildly confident about having a stab at the life of a free-lance. It was a bit of struggle and, thirty-five years later, I’m still struggling but I’m probably a good deal happier – or, at least, more satisfied – than when I was doing a ‘proper job’! 

For radio and audio books you’ve adapted and dramatized A.A. Milne, Mervyn Peake, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and other stories, C.S. Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury, John Bunyan and many more writers. Is there a common thread to your choice of authors to adapt and to comment upon?

Yes, most of them have been beloved books from my early reading. Again and again my work has taken me back to the writers and stories that fired my youthful imagination and one of the reasons why I enjoy doing what I do is because I hope that it might inspire others to discover those books for themselves.

It began very early in life with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and all those other ‘Other Worlds’ from Lewis’s allegorical Chronicles of Narnia to the nightmare labyrinths of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast followed. From around seven or eight years old, the most powerful literary influence – often underscored or reflected in other books I read – was the Bible. My concepts of faith and belief are nowhere near as easily labelled as they were when I was young, but the power of the Bible narratives still inform part of my pretty much daily conscious thought processes.

The original Radio Times cover announcing
the start of BBC Radio’s dramatization of The Lord of the Rings.

To the Tolkien fan community you’re most renowned of course for your 13-hour adaptation of The Lord of the Rings for BBC radio. How did you succeed in making this ambitious project happen?

It was a very happy accident! The BBC turned down an offer of a dramatisation of a book called, Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker (years later I did adapt it for radio with Jean Anderson in the title role) but in doing so, they asked if there was anything else that I’d like to dramatise – those were the days! That wouldn’t happen now. I responded with a shopping list of titles adding – almost as a cheeky afterthought – the largest book I could think of: The Lord of the Rings.

Little did I know that, at that precise moment, the BBC was in the process of attempting to secure the radio rights to Tolkien’s novel. The negotiations took some time, but, when the deal was done, the BBC miraculously gave me a crack at the project. I was very inexperienced, so they teamed me with Michael Bakewell, a seasoned dramatist, and we split the job between us. However, I was also entrusted with the bonus task of working out the synopsis for the 26 weekly episodes: months of fascinating literary jigsaw work!

None of us knew – this is not false modesty – that what we were creating was something that would live on as a classic of radio beloved by several generations. Maybe that’s why it worked …

Have you a favourite story from what went on in the BBC studios?

Probably Michael Hordern, who was playing Gandalf (but had not read the book), discovering that his character dies in fighting the Balrog in the Mines of Moria quite early in the series. He pointed out to the producer that his agent had told him the part involved rather more episodes than now appeared to be the case. The producer told him that he would be resurrected in a few weeks time and – totally un-phased and without further enquiry – Michael said, “Splendid, splendid!” and wandered off. I don’t think he ever understood what was going on, but he sounded as if he did: the secret of great acting, I guess!

What led to your longstanding interest in Tolkien’s work?

It began with reading The Hobbit when I was still at school and then making further explorations into Middle-earth in my early twenties when I was hospitalised for several weeks and read The Lord of the Rings. Like so many other readers, before and since, I felt I was reading real history! I wrote J.R.R.T. a fan letter and sent him my copy of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil to sign – which he did, adding a correction to the text. Ironically, when I came to write the radio series, poor Tom was one of the casualties who didn’t make it into the script!

You’ve written original radio plays as well as adaptations, such as C.S. Lewis: Northern Irishman and It’s too late now. Tell us about them.

The C. S. Lewis play was about the importance of Lewis’ Irish origins to him as a creative writer (something that has been greatly overlooked in the portrait of Lewis as an Oxford man) and took the form of a reminiscence of his childhood while visiting Belfast in later life.

Similarly, It’s Too Late Now, was a play about the aging A. A. Milne looking back on his career as a playwright, essayist and humorist and wondering how his reputation had managed to get totally sidelined by two books of verses about a little boy named Christopher Robin and two more about a bear called Winnie-the-Pooh! Both writers – unalike as they could possibly be – were strongly influenced by their own youthful experiences and I am fascinated by the age-old adage of the child being father to the man.

You’re a prolific author, of course. I very much enjoyed your book, Shadowlands, on the friendship and later marriage between C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman (much more accurate than the Hollywood version!). More recently you’ve written a major biography of Peter Jackson. What was it like writing on an elusive subject like Jackson. Did it require numerous trips to New Zealand?

I made three visits to New Zealand and spent a lot of time not just in talking with Peter Jackson, but in meeting and gathering the reminiscences of family, friends and colleagues. I wouldn’t describe Peter so much as ‘elusive’ as ‘enigmatic’: he is an original who does what he does because he is driven to do it – usually out of passions he has treasured for years – rather than for reasons of ambition, although he is also a canny businessman. His working process starts with a singular vision and, once started, he is pretty much unstoppable. 

You seem to relish the work of Disney. How have you tried to capture the scope and influence of his work?

I have written and broadcast a lot about Disney and, in recent years, have been privileged to appear on the DVD ‘extras’ to many of the classic animated features. I am especially proud of having contributed the commentary to the forthcoming Blu-ray release of Fantasia – one of my favourite Disney films.

Disney has many admirers and an equal number of detractors. What cannot be denied -–whether you love him or loath him – is that his work and that of his studio stands as one of the most powerfully influential achievements in popular culture in the 20th century.

The title page of Brian Sibley’s copy of “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” signed by J.R.R. Tolkien and his illustrator, Pauline Baynes.

What is the basis of your deep love of the cinema?

From my first exposure to cinema (a Mickey Mouse cartoon entitled The Brave Little Tailor that scared the life out of me!) I’ve had been in love with the medium. Communal stories told in the dark: our modern equivalent of the fire-cast shadows dancing on the walls of the cave …

You have devoted much of your life to commenting on popular media and culture, analysing without losing contact with the ordinary reader. Why do you think that popular media are so important?

Exquisite and elegant or cheap and tawdry (and it is capable of both extremes) popular media is the life-blood of our world: it sums up out hopes and aspirations, our loves and hatreds, our fears and phobias, our meanness and our generosity, our baseness and our nobility. They are all jumbled together, higgledy-piggledy, and some of us enjoy trying to sort through them and pass on an enthusiasm for those that most inspire us or best celebrate the human imagination.

I’ve always seen my role as an enthuser and exciter of others. If I’ve done that to any degree then I’m happy…

What do you think is the secret of Tolkien’s popular and indeed global appeal?

The simplistic answer is that they are about good and evil and, certainly, Tolkien (who was steeped in the history of myth and legend) understood that the greatest mythologies in the world are about universalities that help us better understand our world and ourselves.

Sometimes, as both he and C. S. Lewis believed, the fairytales of the fantasy storyteller are the best ways of telling profound truths. 

You’ve collaborated with John Howe on maps of Middle-earth. What do maps and visualisations, such as those by John Howe and of course the Jackson movies, add as interpretations of Tolkien’s work?

Tolkien always said you couldn’t write about a place without a map – so he started his creation of Middle-earth with a map of that world.

Personally, I’ve always loved maps, real and imaginary. The maps of fiction are very dear to me and as ‘real’ in my mind as any conventional AtoZ. Think of those maps of Treasure Island, Oz, The Hundred Acre Wood, Moominland, Earthsea, Discworld, Utopia and Lilliput as well as Narnia, Middle-earth and a zillion others: they give authority to the worlds they depict and suggest that any of us could travel there (if we only knew the way) because someone has obviously already been there if only in order to have made a map!

As for visualisations, that is another matter: I love John Howe’s work on Tolkien along with that of Alan Lee and another, earlier, Middle-earth artist who was also my friend, Pauline Baynes. However, I am aware that they are all ‘personal’ interpretations of people and places. Sometimes they coincide with my own visual imagining, sometimes they fall short, sometimes they exist in parallel as an alterative and sometimes they even exceed it and replace it. But they are select possibilities among an infinite number of possibilities.

Film, however, becomes – for good or ill – the defining interpretation and for those who have never read Tolkien, the Jackson images are now all and everything. Maybe, however, this doesn’t really matter, because all legends, myths and fairy-tales have endured through being endlessly re-told, reinterpreted, re-worked -- re-born, in fact -- in order to meet the needs of each new age of man.

Some people I have known in my life have criticised me for living too much in worlds of fantasy, but I’ve never worried about that because I’ve never confused fantasy with reality (or hardly ever!) but I have quite often viewed reality a little clearer through the prism of the fantasy. 

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