Dangerous Visions: Interview: Brian Sibley

Sibley and illo castVeteran writer Brian Sibley is closely linked with many of British radio’s adaptations of iconic fantasy and science fiction stories. He has written or co-written the aural versions of Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books among many others, and is also the official chronicler of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth movies. He had a long friendship with American writer Ray Bradbury, and long before Dangerous Visions, he adapted various Bradbury short stories for radio. For the new season of Dangerous Visions, he penned the opening play – The Illustrated Man. The day before the play was broadcast, he chatted with Paul Simpson…



How did you get involved with the Dangerous Visions series?

I’m trying to remember how this all got started – I know that sounds bizarre, but this has been going on for so long that I’m a bit foggy where the idea came from! I think that [Radio 4 Commissioning Editor] Jeremy Howe had enjoyed a real success with the first season of Dangerous Visions and the decision was taken to do a second. With the BBC, these things start months, if not years, before the event. I guess very soon after last year’s success, it was on the schedules that they were going to be doing another season and that people could pitch for titles.

I had long wanted to do something with Bradbury. I would have dearly liked, at some point, to adapt Something Wicked This Way Comes but that had quite recently been done on radio, although in a rather compressed one sixty-minute format, and I don’t think you can do Something Wicked… in an hour. It’s easier with some of the collections of stories because you can choose which stories you want to use. So I pitched for either The Illustrated Man or The Martian Chronicles; although it would have been fun to do both, it didn’t work out like that.

Illustrated ManThe rights to Martian were not available, but those to The Illustrated Man were; we made a pitch and as Jeremy Howe told you, there was a meeting – although I wasn’t able to be at it rather frustratingly, because I had another meeting – between the B7 team (who had beaten me to it and were making The Martian Chronicles!) and Gemma Jenkins, who was the director/producer of The Illustrated Man to discuss which stories were going to be chosen.

There was an understandable concern that they didn’t want all the stories to be set in outer space and, in The Martian Chronicles, everything was going to be in outer space. That meant that they were certain stories that we couldn’t choose from The Illustrated Man, such as ‘The Rocket Man’ and ‘The Rocket’, because they would have been rather too obviously close to the type of story in The Martian Chronicles.

There is a brief connection between the two plays in that the boy who sees the falling remains of Hollis in The Illustrated Man story, ‘Kaleidoscope’, is probably the same boy who determines to become an astronaut from an experience in his childhood in The Martian Chronicles. In the book the boy is walking with his mother down a country road when he sees what he thinks is a falling star: this I changed to his being on a fishing trip with his father as in the opening scene of Chronicles.

I was really thrilled to have a chance to revisit Bradbury which I haven’t done since the two series of Tales of the Bizarre which were some years ago now in 1995 and 1997. Since Ray’s death [in June 2012], I’ve thought a great deal about him, how much he has meant in my life both as a friend and as a huge inspiration, and about the amazing fact that, having made contact with him, he kept on encouraging and inspiring me very personally in our communication with one another and the time we were able to spend together. That was a real privilege.

The biggest challenge was that, out of eighteen stories (and it differs between English and American volumes of the book) it was really only possible to select three. My primary concern was to make sure that the overarching story about the Illustrated Man himself developed and made coherent sense. In the book, Bradbury introduces the concept of the Illustrated Man at the beginning, replays it a little bit more after the first couple of stories, and then pretty much doesn’t bother about it again until the denouement – and that’s okay in the book, but in terms of an hour’s radio, it felt a bit anticlimactic. In the story, the youth realizes that the man is dangerous; he’s sleeping by the fire and he sees the vision of himself being attacked and strangled by the Illustrated Man, so he gets up and runs away until he reaches a town and safety. I wanted to find a kind of kicker for the end.

carnivaleWe went through various ideas about how we could keep the story in the period in which the book was written, the 1950s, and that meant confronting the fact that travelling carnivals – if they exist at all nowadays – are nowhere near as common as they were back then.

When we initially talked about it, my first idea was greatly influenced by the television series from a few years ago, Carnivale; I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if this boy who’s in our world of 2014, wanders into the desert and encounters a carnival that’s travelling through time?’ A bit like the carnival in Something Wicked… which I’m sure was an influence on Carnivale.

In the end, we came back to leaving it in the ‘50s, but trying to update the interior stories slightly, so they could have a rather more contemporary feel compared to the overarching story.

To help flesh out the story of the Illustrated Man, I turned to an earlier short story (with the same title) that Ray had contributed to Esquire magazine in 1950. Originally I was going to play out the whole drama of the short story – but it’s quite complex and has its own internal horror climax which doesn’t involve the person to whom it’s being told, so it still left the end of the play unresolved. Eventually, that idea disappeared, but I kept elements of the ‘Illustrated Man’ short story in filling out the account of how he got the tattoos and the interaction with the Tattoo Witch. Some people hearing that, who’ve read the Illustrated Man book but not the story, may wonder where all that comes from. Now they know!

When you spoke to Jeremy, he mentioned that we couldn’t use ‘The Veldt’. It’s probably for the best because it’s been done so many times, but so many people who know The Illustrated Man will doubtless go, ‘Where’s the one about the nursery?’ However, I hope they’ll notice that there’s a couple of quotes from it: when the stories are playing out, right at the beginning of the play as different illustrations on the man’s body. Everything the voices say are taken from other stories which we didn’t touch – so there are odd lines from ‘The Veldt’ in there and ‘The City’, ‘The Other Foot’ and a couple of other stories. Also, in the ‘Zero Hour’ when the parents are talking about Mink’s game, the father says “Still, ought to be glad, I suppose, they’re out making their own fun instead of relying on all those damn gadgets and gizmos we paid to have installed in the playroom: ‘No Happylife Home is complete without one!’” The family in ‘The Veldt’ live in a “Happy Life Home’.

What we did try to do was make a couple of the stories less exclusively American, so I set ‘Zero Hour’ in England, partly so that we could use English children and didn’t have to worry about children with American accents, and to put it into a kind of Stepford Wives setting where everything is perfect but strange things are going on underneath.

‘Marionettes, Inc.’ remained an American story – I felt it had to, it couldn’t have anything other than American voices – but I did invent different back stories for Smith and Brayling, partly because in the book, and it’s something from the time in which Ray was writing, the male characters are rather misogynist, and I wanted to find slightly different reasons for them wanting to escape from their wives. In the book, one of the women dominates her husband and the other is an exhausting nymphomaniac! I wanted a premise which didn’t use quite such an easily stereotyped view of women and, at the same time, to give Brayling a credible story for why he needed to get away.. But the great thing about that story is the building menace between Brayling and Brayling Two, and great performances by Patrick Kennedy, playing literally against himself. There are some amazing performances across the board, and I think the sound technicians did a really inventive job and Gemma’s choice of the music, those 60s tracks, worked really well.Lydia

Iain Glen was fantastic as the Illustrated Man; he and Jamie Parker as the Youth just got that tension between the two characters. I wanted it to be quite mysterious: the influence, I guess, of Carnivale but also of Something Wicked… Mr Dark (the tattooed man in that novel) walks out of nowhere into Green Town, bringing with him all manner of terrors, and I wanted the Illustrated Man to similarly just appear in a gust of desert wind at the beginning.

When the boy sees what he thinks is a falling star – as the astronaut, Hollis plunges to his death – it was my idea to use an orchestral version of ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’, because Ray had this great affection and friendship with Walt Disney, and loved Pinocchio. What people might not notice is that when the Youth is preparing his food, right after the opening titles, he’s humming a great Groucho Marx number, ‘Lydia, the Tattooed Lady’. After I posted a clip on Facebook of Groucho singing it in At the Circus, I was in contact with Bettina Bradbury, one of Ray’s daughters, who said that it was her dad’s favourite song, and that he would sing it word-perfect at the drop of a hat – I didn’t know this, he certainly never sang it to me! But I had the idea of using it, without the lyrics, because I didn’t want to draw attention to the word ‘tattoo’, so that anyone who recognised the song would make the connection, but maybe not know it was a favourite of Ray’s.

The date which the talking clock gives (in ‘Zero Hour’) is Ray’s birthday: 22 August, and I renamed the parents in that story ‘Doug’ and ‘Maggie’: ‘Doug’ being Ray’s middle name and the one given to the central character in his semi-autobiographical Dandelion Wine; and ‘Maggie’ the familial version of Ray’s wife’s name, Marguerite. There’s several little sneaky bits in there for any Bradbury fans who may pick up on them.

The ending does set up a potential sequel…

I suppose it does; I hadn’t thought about that. All I wanted to do at the end was to give a twist. My idea was that I didn’t want people to know, at first, whether the person hitching a ride at the end is the boy who’s got away or the Illustrated Man. So we used Jamie Parker’s presence, his sighing and breathing, in the car when he gets in with the driver and only when the driver says, ‘What’s that in your hand?’ do we hear Iain Glen’s voice describing the rose tattoo, and you realize that it is the Illustrated Man.


I hadn’t thought that it would set up a sequel, but yes, there are some good stories in there. I always wanted to do ‘The Last Night of the World’ which is another story with nothing really happening except what’s going inside people’s consciousness – there’s not a lot left to tell about the Illustrated Man himself, unless one went back into ‘The Illustrated Man’ short story and mined some stuff about his terrible marriage and his attempts to work in the carnival.

What would you like do next of Ray’s?

The problem with the short stories, except those in The Illustrated Man, is you have to treat them individually. There are lots of really good tales which have not been touched yet but I think they work best in a half-hour format because they tend to have their own natural arc.

Someday, when everybody has forgotten that there has ever been a radio production of Something Wicked…, I really want to come back and do that. I’d quite like to do Dandelion Wine, which I think would also work well, but would be problematical because of requiring a cast of young kids, and I think it might prove too American. It’s a really evocative piece of Americana, but I’m not sure if that would work for British radio audiences. It’d also be nice to do a new production of Fahrenheit 451, but I don’t think that’s likely in the short term, either.

But if this goes well and they do a third season, it’d be quite good to talk about doing something else, maybe with Ray’s later novels – I’d love to do The Halloween Tree, , but that’s pitched at a younger audience, and apart from a few programmes that go out on Radio 4 Extra, there isn’t really an opening for something that would work for children.

Meanwhile, I’m just delighted that The Illustrated Man started the new season of Dangerous Visions; I’m very much looking forward to hearing the Philip K. Dick Do Androids Dream…? which is a book I love, and, of course, discovering what The Martian Chronicles comes out like. What will be interesting is how the audience reacts; the last season went really well and, hopefully, that listener enthusiasm will carry over into this one.

 DV_brand_image_1920x1080Click here for our review of The Illustrated Man

and here for our previous Dangerous Visions interview, with Jeremy Howe

The Illustrated Man can be heard by clicking here until June 21.



  1. Pingback: Radio 4 reveals new Dangerous Visions (updated) | Sci-Fi Bulletin - June 16, 2014

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