Thursday 23 March 2023

Review of the 1968 BBC Radio 'experimental' dramatization of The Hobbit

The BBC Radio dramatized version of The Hobbit came out in 1968 at the crest of the first phase of Tolkien's mass popularity; and the whole thing was an ambitious piece of work, done with considerable zest and and attention to detail. 

There is a complex, high quality, medieval-style musical score; played by top-notch musicians on ancient instruments such as Crumhorns - which, immediately and throughout, sets the tone of the drama. 

This sonic landscape is reinforced by the involvement of the BBC Radiophonics Workshop to provide sound effects and voice treatments: mostly good, but sometimes overwhelming in volume, and at other obscuring the voices. 

About these voices... Several are given electronic 'treatments' - such as the Trolls, High Elves, Wargs, Eagles, and Thrush; and - especially for the Thrush - the words often becomes so distorted as to be simply incomprehensible. 

Furthermore; it may be acceptable to have goblins speaking in high-pitched nasal accents - but the wood elves too, including their King? 

There is, as in the original book, an 'avuncular' narrator to introduce and guide us (spoken by Anthony Jackson); but here he also interacts considerably (and humorously) with Bilbo himself - who is given a nuanced and varied performance by that stalwart of BBC radio: Paul Daneman. 

Gandalf is given a distinctively waspish, ultra-irritable, somewhat Kenneth Williams-ish, character by Heron Carvic.  

In general terms; the dramatization does a good job of following the light and shade of the book, and the darkening of tone towards the climax; Thorin's death and the maturation of Bilbo himself were well done. The climatic bits succeeded in being gripping and moving - except the scene with Gollum, which (for once) lost tension and fell a bit flat - partly due to repetitive sound-effects simulating the flapping of wet feet (I presume).  

On the flip -side, it is sometime hard to understand what is going-on (unless you already know), and this is hindered by an extremely wide dynamic range - with some parts (especially speaking) so quiet as to be nearly inaudible, while others are deafeningly loud (the dragon attack on Esgaroth, for instance). This makes it useless for listening to in the car!

There are some other strange aspects: for example wilfully wrong pronunciations of several names. Gandalf is pronounced gand-ALF, Thorin is torEEN, Gollum is gohLOOM, Gondolin is gondo-LEEN (do you see the pattern?). 

I can't imagine how this happened, given that no English-speaker in the world has ever spontaneously pronounced the names like this!

Especially since Tolkien was still alive at the time this programmed was made, and the BBC had a dedicated (and zealous) specialist department responsible for correct pronunciation in all broadcasts. 

In sum, this could be called an 'experimental' dramatization of The Hobbit; and as such it was clearly done with care, considerable resources, and high motivation... albeit, in some parts, the experiments don't work. 

On the plus side, this lends this 1968 Hobbit the charm of a 'period piece', very much 'of its time'. 

Overall, in balance - I heartily recommend this dramatization. I have listened-to and enjoyed it many times over the years. 

Thursday 16 March 2023

Review of the BBC Radio Lord of the Rings (1981) - adapted by Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell

The most important evaluation of the 1981 BBC Radio Lord of the Rings is that I have listened to it many times - most recently over the past few weeks. There is a lot to enjoy, and that enjoyment is enhanced by repeated listening; and some aspects are absolutely excellent. 

Ultimately; I do not think it possible to adapt LotR for radio in a wholly satisfactory form, due to the constraints of the medium - but this version does very well those kinds of things that radio does best; which are the small scale, inter-personal dramas of the story. 

That, indeed, seems to have been a guiding principle in the highly necessary process of selection; because the script jumps rather swiftly between such scenes - compressing the exposition, travels, crowds, and battles; which probably cannot be realized on radio. 

At any rate; Helm's Deep and Pelennor Fields are neither done effectively, such that Volume one ("The Fellowship of the Ring") seem (as a whole) the best done of the three books. 

Given such opportunities by the script; several of the characterizations are memorable and powerful. Gandalf could not be bettered, Gollum is superb, Merry and Pippin are exactly right, Barliman Butterbur likewise. Sam is very well acted and the character developed, but I didn't find Bill Nighy's 'Mummerset' accent terribly convincing. I was not so keen on Frodo - who seemed over-emphatic in his mood changes, or Aragorn - who was inconsistent. 

As seems usual in performance of LotR, the songs present a problem which is only partially solved. On the whole, I didn't find the quasi-classical music to be very appropriate or pleasing (except for the simple hobbit songs), and it was sometimes distinctly grating (especially the counter-tenor eagle, accompanied by harsh xylophone chords, whose chanting announces victory to the city of Minas Tirith - admittedly one of the lowest points of the original text).  

The main weakness is that I do not think someone unfamiliar with the books would be able to follow the story - in particular I think the 'action' scenes would be confusing. 

This is mostly the limitations of radio; and could only have been overcome by having long passages of narration - which would probably have spoiled the inter-personal, dramatic, scenes that are this adaptations greatest strength.   

I think the version's major virtue is in its overall spirit. It comes across as a sincere and highly-motivated adaptation - produced, directed, written... put-together (where it mattered) by people* who loved Tolkien's book and were doing their very best.

(For instance, in my experience, any adaptation by Brian Sibley always provides something valuable.)

Thus I find the whole thing likeable, and feel considerable affection towards it - warts and all!

And - at its frequent best, in the scenes of conversations between major characters - the 1981 BBC Radio LotR is often variously amusing, sad, charming, frightening, and beautiful. 

In sum; it enhanced my appreciation and understanding of the original, as well as being enjoyable in its own right.