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. 


Inquisitor Benedictus said...

There's a whole genre of music of this style called Dungeon Synth...

It started in the 1990s but has become quite popular in the last decade.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I should probably listen again - my memory is, enjoyable, yet frenetic - at least the beginning - and with a lot of (so to say) audio weirdness. The (old) Dutch radio play is much to be preferred, for intelligibility and repeated listening pleasure (for Dutch-speakers, that is!) - though I cannot immediately find any details about it. But then we got a copy of Rob Inglis's complete Hobbit and have tended to listen to that (many a time).

I'm just rereading Dorothy L. Sayers' The Man Born to Be King in Kathryn Wehr's handsome and interesting annotated edition and the name Heron Carvic leapt out here - having seen from Wikipedia that he not only played Caiaphas in the original production, but "originally suggested by the writer, [he] played Caiaphas in every version of the cycle (as well as in the broadcast of Sayers' Lichfield Passion in 1947)" - and from the cast-lists, other characters in the original broadcast as well.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - I have not yet found a decent audio version of Sayers's MBTBK - I'd like to give it a try one day.

Anonymous said...

Kathryn Wehr notes that the BBC has a copy of the original broadcast, but not how one might ever manage to get to hear it.

From Wikipedia, I learnt that the one commercially available from the BBC is the one for the "World Service 1967, first aired domestically 19 January 1975" - and that it "reduced the episodes from one hour to forty-five minutes, and condensed the casts in various ways". If I remember aright, the late Rex Walford directed a live stage production, but do not know if it was recorded in any form, and, if so, how one might get to see or hear it.

Maybe something will follow in the wake of this new edition! (The Dorothy L. Sayers Society website does not, so far as my very quick check can discover, list recordings - though they do have a Zoom reading of one of the plays planned for this coming Friday 31 March and "Members and guests are invited to attend and/or participate.")

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

I am trying to rewatch the Jackson Hobbit movies. It's difficult as I know the book as well as my own life.

I am approaching it as a fantasy movie separate from the Tolkien story. Perhaps something written in a foreign language and incorrectly translated. It's not horrible in the way The Wheel of Time was. But it's not really the hobbit.

It's more of a children's cartoon than the old animated version. Tolkien's illustrations had more magic and mystery than this movie series.

Do you think there will be a better adaptation in any form?

Do we have enough time before wholesome adaptations are no longer possible?


Bruce Charlton said...

@Don - I disliked the Jackson Hobbit movies - in fact I did not get any further than the first one as a movie theatre experience, because I could see (and later confirmed, when they became free on TV) that they were fundamentally flawed in motivation.

Despite its grating vulgarities, the old animated version (by Rankin and Bass) I regard as much better, a sincere attempt:

Whether there will ever be (what I would call) a good adaptation of the Hobbit? Well, I don't think our Western civilization will survive much longer/ will succeed in killing itself soon - so it would have to be soon.

But The Hobbit is not a difficult book to adapt, and a good adaptation would be very popular - the problem is that the system of movie and TV production is now thoroughly rotten (and that rottenness is baked-in with laws and rules) that nobody is even trying to do *good* adaptations of classic stories, so its hard to imagine.

Anonymous said...

And it was only a few years after the Lord of the Rings, yet it couldn't have been more different. Special effects have only improved year after year, but here they were intrusive and obviously fake. Fight choreography gets better, better angles, fighting skills, camera work, and it had all the flair of a roadrunner cartoon. Less really. Script writers had the better part of couple decades to make a story out of it, and it was both far too busy and simplistic for any audience.

It's like they were trying to get it wrong.


Bruce Charlton said...

@Don - Making a good movie is very difficult - and impossible if you are not really trying. This is the problem of having leftist goals - which no permeate almost every creative decision: scripting, casting, direction etc. The creators take their eyes off the ball (a good movie) - it ceases to be the priority.

With The Hobbit, I get the feeling that Jackson didn't much like the source, the book itself; as if he had no confidence in the story - so he changed almost everything. Including such core features as Bilbo's point of view throughout, and Bilbo's psychological (and moral) development.

Then swamping The Hobbit story by all sorts of made-up nonsense and drivel; lacking basic motivations, a revealing (through grating juxtapositions of style and situation) an appalling lack of taste and judgment of tone.

Anonymous said...

"There is a complex, high quality, medieval-style musical score" - how I have enjoyed everything recorded by David Munrow et al. which I have every encountered - but I don't think I realized until now that he did this, too!

Inquisitor Benedictus,

Finally catching up with the suggested YouTube links, with thanks!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD -I too was a David Munrow fan, listened to Pied Piper on the radio, and enjoyed many of his recordings (several of which I own). When he died by suicide, the media kept it so quiet that I did not find-out for several years.