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. 



DJ said...


Delighted to see this covered here; I've often wondered what your thoughts on it were. I appreciated greatly the fact that Sibley and Bakewell, unlike Jackson's team, stuck closely to Tolkien's own dialogue instead of inserting their own or dumbing down the original lines. The radio version also understood that leaving out the Scouring of the Shire is a misstep, since the story feels unbalanced without its Shire bookends; the radio version of the Scouring may be condensed, but it's wisely retained.

The show's biggest writing issue, I thought, was its effort to describe important action through dialogue, which sometimes came off as awkward (especially during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, during which the Witch-King was given far too many lines--the Nazgul shouldn't spout sneery remarks--"Halfling, you sting like a gnat"--like standard movie villains). It would have been better to simply have had the action in the battles described by narrator Gerard Murphy, who does an excellent job with descriptive passages and transitional narrative passages throughout the show.

I also thought the writers' decision to delve into Tolkien's appendices and dramatize the Ringwraiths' progress in their search for the Shire was a mistake, since the Nazgul seem much more frightening during their prowls through the Shire when, as in the book, we have no more idea of who or what they are than the Hobbits do. Once we know who they are and what they're looking for, the first wraith's appearance on the lonely road in the Shire loses a lot of the unsettling eeriness of the same scene in the book.

DJ said...


As for the voice cast, I thought the use of veteran Shakespearean performers really helped to give the proper gravitas to the dialogue. I liked Ian Holm's Frodo better than you did; it was refreshing to hear Frodo played as mature, thoughtful, and authoritative, unlike the weepy, gormless Elijah Wood version. I do agree, though, that Holm goes a little too far in the other direction at times, though--snarling in anger or screaming in agony in places where a more quiet and haunted attitude would have worked better. I thought that Bill Nighy was absolutely perfect as Sam, capturing all of the character's honesty, stubbornness, and loyalty; I had no issues with his rural-English accent, but I'm an American, so its shortcomings may have gone over my head. Peter Woodthorpe, who voiced Gollum both here and in Ralph Bashki's misbegotten animated feature, was likewise excellent, managing to be funny, sad, and creepy.

My favorite of the cast members, though, was the great Michael Hordern, who was magnificent as Gandalf--stern, avuncular, gruffly sarcastic, crafty, commanding, everything the character should be. John Huston was a bit too unflappably calm, while Ian McKellen tended to be simply either intense or exhausted; Hordern, on the other hand, catches every aspect of the Grey Pilgrim. Robert Stephens as Aragorn, on the other hand, took a lot of getting used to for me. His thick, slightly lisping voice just doesn't sound quite right for the part; when he's shouting battle cries or snapping commands, he sounds more like a pirate than a king. However, he did do an excellent job of giving Aragorn's gentler moments (particularly in the Houses of Healing), the proper combination of authority and grace, so I can't call the performance a failure by any means (it's far better than Viggo Mortensen's, in any event). Still, I wish that John Hurt, who voiced Aragorn in the misbegotten Bashki film, had been available to reprise the part; vocally speaking, I felt he absolutely nailed that role, and was deserving of better animation and a chance to deliver more of the dialogue from the book.

Michael Graham Cox, who played Boromir in the Bashki film, returned for the BBC production--however, here as there, I thought he sounded a bit too much like a sergeant-major instead of the haughty warrior-nobleman he was supposed to be. Peter Vaughan, as his father Denethor, also sounded off to me--he went for senile cunning and petulance instead of the cold, harsh arrogance that seemed better-suited to his character's lines. The rest of the major cast, however, I found almost letter-perfect--especially John LeMesurier's Bilbo, Jack May's Theoden, Marian Diamond's Galadriel, and Peter Howell's Saruman--which was actually better than Christopher Lee's, I thought, since Howell sounded eminently wise, likable, and reassuring, as the character in the book is supposed to sound; Lee is just too vocally grim and forbidding to have the same seductively reasonable effect. Had I been producing the Jackson film, I would have cast Lee as Denethor rather than Saruman, and tried hard to get someone like Christopher Plummer or Jonathan Pryce as Saruman, someone who has a charming and persuasive quality but could easily switch to nastiness; Lee was a great screen presence, but his villains, from his Dracula days onward, have always been haughty and imperious rather than smooth and what the Elizabethans would have called "politic."

Bruce Charlton said...

@DJ - Excellent comments - thank you very much!

I'm particularly pleased you mentioned Peter Howell's as Saruman, who was simply superb.

The speech from the tower of Orthanc (The Voice of Saruman section) was perhaps the best piece of radio acting I have ever heard. The way his voice would become 'honeyed' and persuasive to persuade and manipulate... Then hard and cruel when he lost control of his emotions... And then he would effortfully bring it back under control, and *forcibly* sweeten his tone etc. Absolutely brilliant!

I agree with your critical points, as well as the praise. The main thing I wanted to get across was that (warts and all) this was a sincere, skilful and good-hearted piece of work, and overall very effective - given the limitations of the medium.