Sunday, 1 January 2017

Review of Tales from the Perilous Realm - Brian Sibley's 1992 radio adaptations of Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wooton Major, Leaf by Niggle and some Lord of the Rings scenes featuring Tom Bombadil

I came across this little gem while browsing a list of JRR Tolkien Audiobooks available for download - it is a set of four dramatised radio programmes broadcast on the BBC in 1992.

What filled me with anticipation was that they were done by Brian Sibley. He did the excellent dramatisation of Lord of the Rings; as well as the almost miraculously good BBC Narnia Chronicles. When I approach Sibley's work I do so with pleasure and confidence that it will be sympathetic to the spirit of the original work, as well as creatively inspired.

I wasn't disappointed.

The whole collection is framed and linked by the device of having Tolkien as an avuncular narrator; who at times interacts with the characters. The role is played by Michael Hordern, who was Gandalf in Sibley's LotR, and one of the very greatest English actors of his generation. 

Farmer Giles of Ham

This was wonderful - full of delightful touches, such as having Garm the Dog brought forward as a developed 'sidekick' character. Brian Blessed was a terrific Giles; as well as the beautifully-judged voice acting, picturing Blessed was just right (Blessed is a superb actor, as well as being the most famous shouter in the world). I could not have imagined this done better - funny, with many characteristic cod-learned asides, and some gently touching moments.

Smith of Wooton Major

The original is an extremely beautiful and perfect high fantasy; and Sibley has lightened it and injected some hunour for a radio audience by framing the narrative as an autobiographical story told to some children at his forge by the eponymous Smith. This is successful, and broadens the appeal; but at the cost of losing some power from the impact of some of the most effective scenes in the original; and the end fails to achieve a full sense of closure. Smith is very well played by Paul Copley, with his trademark rural Yorkshire accent - in theory this sits oddly with the West Country accents of everyone else in the cast, but in practice it didn't seem to matter.

Leaf by Niggle

This is again a creative adaptation of Tolkien's perfect short story - to create an equally perfect play which moved me to tears more than once (tears of joy) - it really is inspiring. Niggle was played by Alfred Molina, who is an actor whose early work I regard as often touched with genius - and it  certainly was here. The interactions between the Tolkien Narrator and Niggle are beautifully contrived and performed. Really lovely.

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil

This is at a lower level than the three preceding pieces, and is best regarded as a Bonus. It is a kind of 'out-take' from Sibley's script of the Lord of the Rings dramatisation, done with a different cast. It covers three section. The first is from entering the Old Forest, the capture by Old Man Willow and rescue by Tom. I found this satisfying, without being fully engaged by it.

The middle section covers In the House of Tom Bombadil - and this was very good indeed! Tom and Goldberry are given Irish accents, which worked for me - although I always imagined them as dwelling in Tolkien's native Worcestershire. Bombadil is a very difficult role to pull off, I should think; and Ian Hogg captured all the aspects - including both the rather irritating heartiness of a stereotypical Old Salt seafarer with revelations of sudden depths, sensitivities and poetry.

The final section covered Fog on the Barrow Downs - and I did not find this effective. The lead-in to the capture was so brief as to seem perfunctory, and in general this somewhat superfluous scene failed to engage me. This is indeed was of the less effective parts of the original book, with too many similarities to the previous Old Man Willow adventure, and the Barrow Wight failing to achieve a genuine presence and identity. 

Overall, this is a really good set of dramatisations - I found I wanted to re-listen to the whole thing after only a week; and I anticipate coming back to them many times; as I have done with Sibley's other work.

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