Audio drama: The art of adaptation


05 April 2024
Ahead of his Bournemouth Writing Festival appearance, author and dramatist Brian Sibley talks about adapting classic fantasy for radio

Author and dramatist Brian Sibley will be talking to regular Writing Magazine contributor Gary Dalkin at the Bournemouth Writing Festival on 27 March on the subject of ‘The Art of Adaptation & Other Fantastic Stories’.

They will discuss Sibley’s decades long career, focusing not only on the exciting possibilities of writing audio drama, whether for radio or podcasts, but also on the realities of sustaining a long-term nonfiction writing career, and the inspiration to be found in the deep well of classic British fantasy writing. This short interview gives a taste of what to expect.

Gary Dalkin: You’ve had a lifelong love of the classic British fantasy tradition and classic British children’s literature. What first drew you to these traditions, and why do you think our small islands offer such vast riches in these fields of writing?

Brian Sibley: I was drawn to this tradition through the earliest books that were read to me beginning with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books followed by those which I read for myself including, among many others, Through the Looking-Glass, A Christmas Carol, The Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit, Hugh Lofting’s ‘Doctor Dolittle’ stories and C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. I was an omnivorous reader and never bothered about whether a book I came across in the library was too young or too old for me!

Why our islands as the home of these books? I’m not sure that is something unique to the UK; most of Europe has a rich heritage of myths, legends, folk and fairy-tales, but certainly our invented worlds reflect quite a lot of our landscapes, traditions and manners. I found, and still find, delight in world literature and, in the case of fantasy and science-fiction much of what has been given to the world by America from Mark Twain to Ray Bradbury.

GD: You’ve had a long association with the BBC. How did you start working for the corporation, and how was it that quite early in your radio career you found yourself with the enviable if daunting task of co-adapting the nation’s favourite novel for Radio Four, The Lord of The Rings? How do you begin to go about such a monumental task?

BS: My BBC career began by chance: in 1976. I gave a talk about A. A. Milne and Winnie-the-Pooh at the Library Association to mark Pooh’s 50th birthday; someone commented that it would make an excellent radio programme, so I sent a copy of the ‘text' (it was more of a ‘script’, because I had dramatised it for a group of readers) and – to make a longish story short – a version of it got broadcast. So it began…!

Approaching the dramatising of The Lord of the Rings, which meant preparing the structure for the 26 x 30-minute episodes was challenging but having the braggadocio of youth, I just didn’t doubt that I could do it! Looking back, I wonder at my arrogance! Writing half of the scripts (alongside my colleague Michael Bakewell who took the remaining 13) was a steep learning curve but – working so closely with a writer and producer of Michael’s experience – that learning became the foundation of my subsequent career as a dramatist.

GD: And that career has been very much revolved around radio. Could you tell us which were some of your favourite productions that you’ve written – you’ve been fortunate to be able to adapt some of your favourite works of literature – and what it is about audio drama (I’m using that term to also encompass podcasts) that, when considered alongside theatre, film and television makes it so special and appealing to write for? It seems to me that there are currently potentially great possibilities and opportunities in writing for audio, but that perhaps people are overlooking them by only thinking of the big or small screen.

Content continues after advertisements

BS: Not exclusively for radio – just for the record! But, yes, the majority of my work as a dramatist has been in the realm of audio drama. I think this came from the fact that I was a late reader and so ‘listened’ to the world around me: to the books that were read to me, to the conversations of the adults in my family and, as a pre-TV child, to BBC radio in all its forms from Listen with Mother and Children’s Hour (both long gone), dramas, sit-coms, daily serials and light entertainment shows still rooted in music-hall and vaudeville. Later, as a sickly child, I lived in books and with the voices that I heard in my head and the pictures I conjured in my mind.

Radio has amazing possibilities: the writer with the actors, director, the creator of sound-effects, the composer and technicians collaborate to create mental images, but then there is a further collaboration with the listener who tunes in and transforms your sounds into personalised ‘pictures’; and, wonderfully, every listener ‘sees’ what they hear in their own visually particularly way!

Favourite productions? Well, The Lord of the Rings, obviously: it occupied two years of my life and was a baptism of fire followed by a journey of discovery. Almost every work I’ve dramatised in any medium has been – partly by choice and partly from luck – a story with which I was already in love! So choosing favourites isn’t easy, but The Chronicles of Narnia (all seven of them!) were a labour of love; the Gormenghast novels because I was, and still am, obsessed by the bizarre world of Mervyn Peake and the task of translating the visions of an artist-novelist into compelling soundscapes; The Once and Future King, which began years earlier with my discovery of The Sword in the Stone (via the Disney film) before finding T. H. White’s vast, multi-faceted masterwork; but perhaps my ‘most favourite’ dramas were my adaptations of short stories by Ray Bradbury because, when I was still a callow youth, I had – somewhat unbelievably – become his friend and so my dramatisations were a homage to a friend, and I was privileged that they all received his personal blessing! But they were also among the most challenging of my projects.

As a medium, audio is so exciting because it is malleable and can accommodate any number of approaches and interpretations and, yes, as a result, there should be many wonderful opportunities in radio, but those are, sadly, fewer than before. But, at the same time, there are, perhaps, new openings to be sought and seized within the wider market of audio.


You can find out much more about writing for audio and many other facets of Brian Sibley’s remarkable career in a wide ranging conversation at the Bournemouth Writing Festival — he has presented countless radio and television programmes (he was a regular presenter of Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope and the BBC television programme First Light), and written many books, including the ‘making of’ tie-ins for The Lord of The Rings films and the official biography of the director of those films, Peter Jackson; his original radio dramas include C. S. Lewis: Northern Irishman, and his book, Shadowlands, about C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman was serialised on Radio 2. Sibley is an Honorary Member of the Tolkien Society and is currently Chair of the Lewis Carroll Society.

You can book for ‘The Art of Adaptation & Other Fantastic Stories’ using this link
Find out more about the Bournemouth Writing Festival here


Do you write fantasy? Read author Ian Green's advice on the essentials of building your fantasy world.