Brian Sibley interview: adapting The Once And Future King, The Lord Of The Rings, The Chronicles Of Narnia

Remember Radio 4's The Lord Of The Rings? Dramatist Brian Sibley chats to us about adapting that and TH White's The Once And Future King...

Starting on Sunday the 9th of November, BBC Radio 4 will be broadcasting a new six-part adaptation of TH White’s cycle of Arthurian novels, The Once And Future King. We chatted with writer Brian Sibley, who has previously brought adaptations of The Lord Of The Rings, the Gormenghast novels and The Chronicles Of Narnia to Radio 4, about adapting White’s magnum opus for radio.

So, we’re here to talk about your new radio adaptation of TH White’s The Once And Future King.

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Yes – the radio series is The Once And Future King, so it’s The Sword In The Stone, plus the rest of the volumes that make up the one-volume book, [including] The Book Of Merlyn, [which] was published posthumously. I’ve drawn on that as well, so I am in fact using all of the five books – or parts of all of the five books – that he wrote.

[White] first wrote The Sword In The Stone in 1938, and when he came back to work on the one-volume edition in 1958, twenty years later, he tinkered quite a bit with The Sword In The Stone.

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He took out the witch that appeared in the Disney film, didn’t he?

He took out Madam Mim, yes. A few years ago, I was amused because I was looking online at a book about Arthurian movies and I read a passage that this person had written in this academic thesis about The Sword In The Stone, and they said how shocking it was that Disney had so ignored TH White’s work that they’d introduced this character called Madam Mim, and how typical this was of the American film business, who fiddle with everything. They didn’t know that Madam Mim was in The Sword In The Stone, and was chopped out when [White] wrote The Once And Future King.

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He made lots of changes to that book, and to the second volume, which used to be called The Witch In The Wood, but which then became The Queen Of Air And Darkness in the collected edition, which is about Queen Morgause and the Scottish children Gawaine and Gareth and Agravaine, who become such major players in the later story of Arthur and the Round Table.

Would you like to say a few words about how you first came across TH White’s work?

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It all comes back to another one of my great passions and loves, which is animation and the art of Walt Disney. In the Christmas holiday [of] 1963, I went and saw the Walt Disney film of The Sword In The Stone, and I loved the film. The following month, just into the new year of 1964 – 50 years ago this year – I bought a copy of the book. I bought the book simply because it had pictures on the cover from the Walt Disney movie, which shows what a shallow child I was! I read it in a day, I just fell in love with the book and thought it was amazing. And then I wanted to read more of what TH White had written, so I read several of his other books, and eventually read the whole of The Once And Future King.

I also read a lot of other TH White books, and a biography of him, and so on, and it remained a passion with me all my life. For the last fifty years it’s been part of me, and I tried several times to suggest to the BBC that I would love to do it.

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Back in 1981, when I dramatized The Lord Of The Rings for Radio 4, shortly afterwards the BBC did a radio version of The Sword In The Stone with Michael Hordern playing Merlyn, who’d played Gandalf. I remember thinking at the time, ‘oh damn, I could have done that’, but anyway, too late. But then when I came back to suggest it to the BBC later on, everybody said ‘we’ve tried but we can’t get the rights, they’re not available’. The radio rights were thought to be totally inaccessible, because the book had become the basis not just of the Disney film, but also of the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot, so Disney had rights to The Sword In The Stone, and Lerner and Loewe had rights to the rest of the books. Everybody said ‘you won’t get the rights, there’s no point trying, we’ve tried in the past and we’re not getting anywhere, you’re just wasting your time.’

But I don’t know why, I kept coming back to it. I started with a friend of mine who worked in the Disney company, and said ‘can you tell me who I need to speak to’, because the secret to all these things is finding the person with whom you need to have a conversation. So he introduced me by e-mail to the person from the legal department, and Disney responded very quickly and said yes, we can arrange the rights. But when they got all the paperwork out, they found they only had the rights to The Sword In The Stone.

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You can forget the quest for the Holy Grail – whatever struggles people had in that quest were nothing to what I went through! But [Disney] were very helpful and said ‘we think they’re probably owned by Warner Bros, because WB released the film of the Camelot musical.’ But WB came back very quickly and said no, they didn’t have the rights – the rights were owned by the estates of Alan J Lerner and Frederick Loewe. I didn’t know where to turn then, and was a bit desperate, but then I found a website (thank god for the internet!) where you could request a licence to put on a Lerner and Loewe show. So I filled in the form on the website and said ‘can you tell me who I need to speak to?’ And that began another journey which led me eventually to two New York attorneys who represented the estates of Frederick Loewe and Alan J Lerner.

This whole process began in January 2013, and it ended in February 2014. It took an entire year, but we stuck at it. My BBC producer Gemma Jenkins sold the project on the basis that if we could get the rights they would buy it. The BBC rights department, with my help, then tried to contact these people and get an agreement and it wasn’t straightforward, because one of the trustees died in the middle of the process, so everything went on hold for about three months while the new trustee was appointed. We ended up a year and a month later with the rights to do it, by which time of course the studio was booked, and I had five months in which to write six one-hour episodes.

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That’s quite a tight schedule!

It was, and it was very, very hard to compress the work into that time. I didn’t dare start before we’d got the rights clear because I could have written six episodes and then found at the end of it that we couldn’t actually do it.

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So I then sat down and read all of the books again in their separate, original versions, and then the collected version, which itself took about a month of solid reading and making notes. The hard thing was finding a way of holding it all together, because The Sword In The Stone was written for a younger readership, really.

Was covering all five books especially challenging, given the differences in tone between them?

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It was.

What I could have done was two episodes of The Sword In The Stone, and then one could have been the story of Morgause, and then two based on Lancelot and one on The Candle In The Wind. But then there’s this big kind of jump, where you’ve got to go from the world of young Wart and Merlyn and all the magic and enchantment that goes on, and then two episodes later you’re suddenly going to be moving into very serious topics like war and peace, and infidelity and love and courage and bravery and deceit and all of those human emotions that fill up the rest of the books.

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You’ve gone from turning into a bird to deep moral dilemmas very quickly!

Exactly so. It was The Book Of Merlyn that provided me with the way of doing this, because in The Book Of Merlyn, Merlyn comes to Arthur on the night before his final battle and they have a long conversation. In the book they’re accompanied by all the animals that Wart knew as a young boy. So that was what provided me with the idea to have that as the basis of how the story is told.

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As a framing device?

Exactly. So these six plays take place in the six hours between one o’clock in the morning and seven o’clock, six hours later, as dawn breaks and Arthur goes out to the battlefield. So it’s a conversation through the night in which Merlyn and Arthur look back across every aspect of his life; his childhood, all the things they did together, the things he learned when he was turned into a fish and a bird and an ant and so on, and the battle with Madam Mim, and drawing the sword from the stone. And then it goes on to his meeting with Guenever, and his meeting with Lancelot and all the events that play out in the rest of the story. But everything isn’t absolutely chronological, so for example turning Wart into a fish we don’t hear until episode 2, we don’t hear Madam Mim until we hear it as a flashback in episode 3, so the events of The Sword In The Stone are broken up. It’s a way of presenting it a little bit like a mosaic, really, but hopefully one that everybody will be able to follow, and the linear story of everything that happens after Arthur becomes king pretty much follows the linear events of the later books.

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I hope when people hear it that they will realise that this isn’t just a children’s story, because the framing device includes a lot of quite serious ideas and conversation. But the first three episodes do contain these significant flashbacks to the childhood and the magic, as well as introducing Guenever in the first episode, who doesn’t turn up until Book 3 in The Once And Future King, and the second episode introduces Lancelot who again doesn’t turn up till Book 3 otherwise. It’s an attempt to try and hold all those things in one place, [while] keeping in the mix Archimedes the talking owl and some of the humorous characters as well, and those more light-hearted interludes from the original book.

But of course, a lot of material still had to go because the book in total is about 800 pages, so the one volume book is long, and then if you add in for example the Madam Mim episode, there’s another 30-40 pages. I’m very conscious that people who know the books terribly well will go ‘oh, my favourite bit isn’t there’.

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I think that’s inevitable!

It is. This isn’t meant to sound pretentious, but in every dramatization that I’ve been involved in, I’ve always wanted to honour the book, because mostly I’ve done them because I really love the book. If it [prompts] people to go back to the book and discover for themselves the stuff that didn’t make it into the dramatization, then I’m delighted.

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In the meanwhile, I just hope that if people don’t know it that they’ll be intrigued, because the telling of these well-known stories is so unique. The people feel like real people, and the arguments about war and peace, for example, are so vivid and so relevant today. At the time I was writing these episodes the lead-up to the Scottish referendum was going on and the whole political argument behind the rebellion of the Scottish contingent in The Once And Future King is part of the same argument that was being discussed here and now in 2014. And of course all the [discussions of] war and involvement with war that have been going on in the last month and a half have given those thoughts and discussions which go on in the book between Merlyn and Arthur an extraordinary sharpness that I hadn’t expected.

I hope people will find lots of things in it, I hope they’ll find magic, I hope they’ll find something enchanting about it, and I hope they’ll also find it thought-provoking as well.

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You’ve adapted The Lord Of The Rings and all seven Chronicles Of Narnia for radio in the past. How did adapting TH White compare to adapting Tolkien or Lewis?

It was harder because The Lord Of The Rings is a very clear, linear story. When we did it there were a couple of moments of flashback and so on, but basically the story unfolds as it unfolds. The hardest thing about The Lord Of The Rings was from the point where the Fellowship divides, because Tolkien [thought], ‘well we’ll spend x number of chapters talking about what Sam and Frodo are doing, and then we’ll spend another few chapters talking about what Merry and Pippin are doing and then we’ll go an find out what the others are up to’. But very helpfully, he did provide an appendix, which put all the events in the right order, so I was able to follow that. I know that he would have hated the fact that I told it chronologically, because he always said that was not the way it should be told, but in terms of radio I knew it had to be done that way. The Chronicles Of Narnia were pretty straightforward in the sense that those stories, mainly because they’re written for a younger audience, have a very clear linear structure. They had their own issues and problems and difficulties.

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But this project was harder than any of them for lots of reasons. One of the reasons was less to do with the structure than to do with the fact that often in White’s writing there are pages and pages of polemic, where he’s discussing concepts and ideas that are really intriguing and interesting when you read them on the page, but which might have made not quite such compelling radio. So it was very hard, because sometimes I would read stuff and I would think ‘oh that is so clever, so intuitive, so brilliant’ but then trying to see whether there was a way of making that work for the listener was not always easy. But I hope there’s enough of the book there to send some people back to it, and I hope there’ll be enough that people who maybe are never going to read it at least come away with a sense of this extraordinary achievement.

What White brings to the stories is something which nobody else has done. If you look at a series like Merlin on television, which I quite enjoyed, that obviously contemporised the characters to a certain extent, but the complexity of character in the White versions is really very interesting. And the way in which he flies in the face of tradition – Lancelot is not a handsome, gleaming knight, he’s not Franco Nero from Camelot, he’s not all teeth and glossy flowing hair, he’s actually an ugly man, a man who is ill-favoured. White calls him the ill-made knight. He’s not physically attractive in any sense, and yet he still manages to win the love of Guenever. That’s quite off the wall, because we always think of Lancelot as this man in shining armour, and here is this really fallible character with lots of failings, character failings and also the fact that’s he’s not at all attractive. That’s a really interesting take.

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And then you’ve got all those anachronisms, like the fact that Merlyn lives backwards through time, so he knows everything that’s going to happen, except that he gets very confused because he gets muddled about what’s happened and what’s going to happen. But it allows him to mention things that he couldn’t conceivably know about. For example, he talks about the Boer War at one point and right at the very end when he’s telling Arthur about all the stories that will be made of Arthur’s life, he even mentions that there is this writer called White who write his own rather strange version of the stories. So those slightly off-the-wall things, the fact that Merlyn has got all these items in his collection in his cottage including all sorts of objects and things that he couldn’t possibly have, complaining about the fact that he has to draw water from the well because there’s no electricity or running water, to me those things are another intriguing little twist on the story which I find really delightful.

[There’s also] the moral dilemma which underlies the whole story, which is whether people’s morality is set by themselves or by something else. Those moral questions are as big in the story as anything to do with battles. That’s another reason why I was pleased to be doing it for radio, because it was not about trying to find ways of doing massive encounters on the tournament field or whatever, it was about trying to make people [feel] true and real. [The battles] are going on, sometimes off-screen as it were, but the real dilemma is the human dilemma, the battle that we all go through with our emotions and with our fears and hopes and so on.

You’ve had some great casts in your previous adaptations, including Ian Holm and Bill Nighy as hobbits, so you must have been pleased to get David Warner for Merlyn for this one?

I was thrilled to have David. I’ve worked with David twice before. Some years ago I did a version of Titus Groan and Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake and he played Lord Sepulchrave in that. And then two years ago I did all of the Mervyn Peake books, including Titus Alone, and also took some material from Titus Awakes, which is the book that Maeve Gilmore, Mervyn’s widow, had written to continue the story. And for that, David Warner played the artist – essentially, he played Mervyn Peake. I love his performances and when it was suggested that he might play Merlyn I was thrilled and delighted. I love what he’s done with it, I think it’s fantastic. And Paul Ready, who’s a young actor of great depth and ability, playing Arthur across a whole period of time and a series of different moods, he’s just terrific. He’s one of these actors who reads a line that you’ve written and you hear it and it’s like he’s said something for the first time that’s not been written down. He’s sensational, and the pair of them together are terrific. And it’s a brilliant company of actors filling out the other parts.

And some really interesting sound pieces have been created, which is what I love so much about radio. There’s an old saying that the scenery’s better on radio, but what I love about radio is that when you’re listening, you are part of the process. In your mind’s eye you see the characters, you see the settings, evoked by the performances and the sounds that you hear, but you visualise it in your mind. You can create something which is quite different for everyone who listens to it – nobody who hears these plays will see Merlyn or Arthur in quite the same way as anybody else.

There was some great use of songs in The Lord Of The Rings adaptation – are there any songs coming up in The Once And Future King?

There are a couple, not a great number. When Wart is turned into a wild goose, as they fly one of the geese sings the Song of the Geese, so that’s there. In other places, the action stops in order for us to be told a story; [for example] Merlyn tells Arthur a very old story that appears in lots of other versions, originally probably known as ‘The Appointment in Samarra’, and there’s another incident from The Sword In The Stone where Merlyn sends Wart to meet an old badger and the badger tells Wart a story about the creation of the world. So there are lots of changing moods in this, sometimes it’s full-on action, sometimes it’s these reflective moments with a song or a story, so the whole thing is a bit of a tapestry. I hope people will not find it too quirky or weird!

You’ve also written several books for children and adults on JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis and their worlds – do you have any plans to write about TH White?

That would be interesting. There’s a biography of White [already], and I don’t know how much of White’s writing outside of The Once And Future King is terribly well known today. There was an interview done [with TH White, for television] back in 1959 I think, just before the musical Camelot opened, and it was fascinating to see the man, and I’m very intrigued by him because he was clearly a man who was quite tortured. He found it very hard to make his own loving relationships with people, it’s arguable whether or not he was homosexual, and if he was whether he was suppressed and closeted – he made various attempts to get married but that doesn’t mean anything – so I’m very intrigued by his personality. I’m not sure whether there’s enough of an audience for a book about him, but I would be intrigued to explore that.

I was so relieved when I heard this interview, [because] Robert Robinson [asks him] how did he feel about the fact that Lerner and Loewe were going to be, as he put it, ‘interfering with his book’. TH White just says, ‘Well, that’s fine. If I was having my portrait painted, I wouldn’t expect to look over the shoulder of the artist and say, oh that’s not right, I don’t have a squint like that or whatever – that’s down to them to interpret’. And in fact, in Alan J Lerner’s autobiography he talks about the fact that TH White went to Broadway when the play was about to open, and he [Lerner] was really very anxious because Camelot really only skims the surface of The Once And Future King – though I think it’s a great show – and Lerner describes how TH White showed up but didn’t in any sense take any kind of stand about anything. He was simply interested and intrigued as to how it was done. So I take a lot of hope from that, that he wouldn’t be too angry with one or two things that I’ve changed, a few little tweaks of my own, to make things work or sometimes purely to indulge myself, and I think he might have forgiven me those. I hope he would.

One of my favourite books he wrote after The Once And Future King is [his memoir] England Have My Bones. White was absolutely passionate about [the idea that] if you wrote about something, you had to know how to do it. If you write about people firing bows and arrows, you had to know how archery worked, if you wanted to write effectively about birds, you had to know not just what they looked like but the aerodynamics of how they flew, where they bred, what they did, what they ate. He raised snakes, and he went gliding, and he went hunting and shooting and fishing, all things which not only have I never done and never will do in my life but I’m not really interested in. But while I was reading England Have My Bones, I was totally and utterly hooked by his passion and fascination for the things that he cared about, and I realised that that’s what’s gone into The Once And Future King; whether it’s the rules of chivalry, the morality of war over peace or peace over war, whether it’s his insightful observations on love and loyalty and betrayal, they’re all things that he understood and deeply felt, they were coming from inside the man. And if I’ve captured any of that, that would be fantastic.

Brian Sibley, thank you very much!

The Once And Future King starts on BBC Radio 4 on the 9th of November at 3pm, and will continue over the next five Sundays, concluding on Sunday the 14th of December.