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I Didn’t Know What I Was Getting Into

February 27, 2015

Radio Times Lord of the RingsChristina writes: In the second half of January this year, I suffered from a virus with a heavy cough and a disinclination to do anything physically or intellectually demanding. I decided instead to do something I had been promising myself for some years: to listen again to the BBC dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings with my full attention. I first had to decide whether to listen to it on tape (26 half-hour episodes as originally broadcast in 1981 or 13 one-hour episodes as broadcast again in 1982, both recorded off the air, or the BBC 1987 commercial edition, 13 cassettes in a black box stamped in gold with the title and an Eric Fraser design) or on compact disc (the 1995 BBC Radio Collection, 14 CDs in a cloth-covered binder in a flimsy slipcase (no. 603 of 5000), or the 2001–2 BBC Radio Collection, 12 CDs in 4 jewel cases, with new opening and closing narrations by Ian Holm in the persona of Frodo, or the 2009 BBC Radio J.R.R. Tolkien Collection, 12 CDs together with 9 other CDs). In the 1995 and 2001–2 BBC sets, the last CD is devoted to Stephen Oliver’s music, which I had bought separately on both on LP and cassette in 1981. I chose to listen to the 2001–2 set of CDs, as having the extra material and being accompanied by much better documentary material. Wayne and I listened to this set in 2009 while on a long car journey, but I really couldn’t concentrate in those circumstances, and the sound was not ideal. Listening to it with full concentration in ideal conditions brought back many memories.

The dramatisation was first broadcast in 26 thirty-minute episodes, from 8 March to 30 August 1981, at noon on Sundays with a repeat at 10.30 p.m. on the following Wednesday. I was one of many who taped those episodes week by week. I also taped the 13 one-hour episodes broadcast from 17 July to 9 October 1982 (with a little additional material to fill in space freed by overlaps, and having only one introduction and closing credit for each episode). For both series, if for some reason I was unable to do the taping myself, I commissioned someone else to do it for me. Brian Sibley recalls in a booklet in the 2001–2 edition ‘seeing a postcard in the window of his local newsagent with the plea “Will trade copies of any episodes of The Lord of the Rings for episode ten which I missed”.’

When possible, Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell, who made the adaptation, would try to finish episodes on a cliffhanger. Some of these disappeared in the hourly episodes, including breaking off as Farmer Maggot and the hobbits heard the sound of hoofs on the road ahead, and the middle of Galadriel’s response on being offered the Ring. I listened to the tapes so often that for several years, when I was reading or dipping into the books again, I would hear the appropriate musical theme behind the words.

I first read The Lord of the Rings in 1955, the first two volumes before The Return of the King was published, and, having been unable to renew the loan of a library copy of The Return of the King in September 1956 during an umpteenth re-reading, I decided I needed my own copies. I had enough saved pocket money to buy The Return of the King almost at once, and the other volumes followed at monthly intervals. Over the years I acquired a basic collection, not occupying more than a couple of feet of shelf space, and the only near duplicate was the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. The BBC broadcasts produced enough public reaction that in spring 1981 Foyle’s bookshop in London had a display of Tolkien editions in print. I was tempted – I wanted all of them – and I fell, and so started what became a very large Tolkien collection.

But it wasn’t just books by or on Tolkien that I wanted. I went through the Appendix of Tolkien’s published writings in Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography and set out to get copies of everything listed there. Between the Senate House Library (London University) and the British Library, I was able to get photocopies of all but a few items. I wondered if the Tolkien Society might be able to help with these. I had seen a photograph of some members in costume in an article in the Radio Times the week the broadcasts began, and had been doubtful about joining as I was not (and am not) keen on dressing up in costume, but now decided to ask for information. If I remember rightly, I had to wait a while for a reply because the Society had been overwhelmed with applications and the Membership Secretary felt that every new or prospective new member should be answered by an individual, handwritten reply. The duty was shared out among the committee members. My reply was written on 3 July 1981 by the then Secretary, Helen Armstrong.

Well, I joined the Society, and on the afternoon of Sunday, 16 August 1981, having listened to episode 24 of the BBC broadcast, ‘The Return of the King’, set out to attend my first Tolkien Society event, a meeting of the Northfarthing Smial, the Society’s London local group, at Susan Rule’s apartment in Bloomsbury. My memories are rather dim, but I do remember clearly that Brian Sibley was present, and that general opinion was that the voice of the eagle who brought news of victory was a mistake. When I mentioned my interest in obtaining copies of the Tolkien material I had not been able to get elsewhere, someone advised me to write to Charles Noad, the Society’s bibliographer, which I did. He replied on 1 September, enclosing copies of some of the items I sought and advice on where I might obtain other material.

In that period it was still possible to imagine that one might be able to collect not just everything published by Tolkien, but also a greater part of the material on him and his works. I widened my searches in the London libraries and made many trips to Colindale in north London, to the newspaper and periodical branch of the British Library, in particular searching for reviews of Tolkien’s books. I also began to subscribe to various periodicals devoted wholly or partly to Tolkien, not only in English, and made lists of articles I saw mentioned to pursue on my excursions to libraries.

A few years later, Charles Noad and I obtained permission from Rayner Unwin to photocopy Allen and Unwin’s collection of Tolkien press cuttings, including ones from the U.S.A. sent by Houghton Mifflin, Tolkien’s American publisher. We made several trips to Allen & Unwin’s offices in Hemel Hempstead, north of London, catching a train about 8.15 a.m. from Euston Station to arrive at the offices not long after they opened at 9.00 a.m. We would work without break until they closed at 5.00 p.m., unscrewing press cuttings scrunched into envelopes and laying then out higgledy-piggledy on the photocopier to get as much as possible on each sheet. We made two copies of each, which we paid for. Later I cut my sheets up and sorted the cuttings and placed them in scrapbooks. Alas, the Allen & Unwin collection was lost, presumably trashed, in one of the firm’s later corporate changes.

At this time it was also possible to think that one might obtain, if not a complete collection, at least a fairly substantial one of translations of Tolkien’s works, and I embarked on this also. I also wanted to buy American editions of Tolkien books, which was not easy in the days before Amazon. But, of course, there were Americans who wanted British books, so the general method was to find an exchange partner. Jessica Yates, a long-term member of the Tolkien Society, had an exchange with John Rateliff, who was closely associated with Taum Santoski and the Tolkien papers at Marquette. When Taum wanted an exchange partner, Jessica suggested me. I also acquired another American exchange partner when I met Wayne Hammond at a Northfarthing Smial meeting in summer 1983. He was introduced to me as someone working on a Tolkien bibliography, and was told that I had a collection he should see. Well, most of you know what came of that meeting! We announced our engagement at the closing ceremonies of the 1992 Tolkien Centenary Conference, married in 1994, and merged our collections when I moved to the U.S.A. in 1995 – and I’m not going to measure how many shelves or linear feet the combined collection now occupies, and is still growing.

Returning to my opening subject, what did I think now about the BBC adaptation? It took a while for the old magic to reassert itself, but then, even the book starts slowly. The amount of writing on Tolkien we have done over the last two decades made me appreciate even more than before the masterly adaptation which not only keeps to Tolkien’s story line, but also in most cases presents the characters as he depicted them, and above all seems to me to have caught the spirit of the books. I thought and think that the use of alliterative verse in dealing with the battle of the Pelennor Fields was a brilliant idea. I had forgotten how much Gerard Murphy as the Narrator contributed, and not just because he had some of my favourite passages to read. I thought that one or two of Stephen Oliver’s themes very appropriate, and most of them adequate, but I hated the eagle’s song and the use of a boy soprano or countertenor, and found some of the music for the elves a little too dainty and tinkly, more suitable for the diminutive flower fairies Tolkien hated.

Inevitably, I compared the BBC version to Peter Jackson’s interpretation, which I saw only once and prefer to forget. I don’t like films much anyway, finding them cold and lifeless compared with stage performances – I began to go to the theatre in Bristol in my teens, and theatre was perhaps the main reason I found a job in London, where I usually attended performances of plays, ballet, or opera several times a week – but I think my happiness with the BBC production made me even less happy with Jackson than I might have been without it. I am not complaining about the omission of Tom Bombadil, which the BBC adapters also cut. In the films I particularly disliked the added material, the unnecessary alterations, the emphasis on violence, and the weakening of almost all the characters: they are not the characters I meet in the book or in the BBC dramatisation, and for most of them I have no feeling of empathy, in fact I actively dislike several.

I also thought that most of the acting in the BBC episodes was superior, though I admit that the script the film actors had to deal with did not always present a congruous characterization (Gandalf) or a characterization anything like the books (Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Faramir, Denethor, Treebeard, etc.). Listening to the BBC version again, I hardly know which portrayal to praise first: Peter Woodthorpe’s brilliant Gollum, Michael Hordern’s perfect Gandalf, the believable relationship between Frodo and Sam, and the brief moments between Denethor and Pippin. I know that when the dramatisation was first broadcast, some were unhappy with Robert Stephens as Aragorn, but I had seen him at the Old Vic as Atahuallpa in The Royal Hunt of the Sun by Peter Shaffer, as Benedict in Much Ado about Nothing, and as Captain Plume in The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar (opposite Maggie Smith in the latter two), and I could just imagine him in the part.

Now that I’ve rediscovered the BBC version, I intend to listen to it again in the not too distant future.

Image: Detail from the cover of Radio Times, illustrated by Eric Fraser.

  1. trystero11 permalink
    February 27, 2015 11:43 pm

    I first heard the one-hour episodes when the adaptation was re-broadcast in the later 1980s (I think it was 1987, but wouldn’t swear to it), so those are the “right” versions to me. Haven’t ever heard the half-hour versions, though in some cases it’s easy to tell where the endings would be.

    The 2001-2 versions with the new prologue/epilogue material leave me cold, I’m sorry to say: the additions feel like padding to me and only detract from the experience. So the 14-CD set in the black-and-gold cover/box is the one I try to get for friends who haven’t heard this masterly adaptation.

    And I agree, too, that watching the Peter Jackson films definitely heightens my appreciation for the more sensitive and faithful work adaptation performed by Sibley and Bakewell, their producers and directors Jane Morgan and Penny Leicester, and the splendid cast.

    (It’s also worth pointing out that the late Michael Graham-Cox, who voiced Boromir, and the late Peter Woodthorpe, who voiced Sméagol/Gollum, were both reprising their roles from the Ralph Bakshi semi-animated film semi-adaptation.)

    • trystero11 permalink
      March 11, 2015 12:25 pm

      *ahem* “work of adaptation”, not “work adaptation”.

  2. February 28, 2015 11:25 am

    It’s amazing how similar were my reactions to the BBC series to yourself. I would also single out Peter Howell’s magnificent quicksilver coal performance as Saruman, even though this was ‘enhanced’ (unnecessarily) by the Radiophonic workshop at times. I agree about the elven music, which I still don’t like, but I came round to the eagle eventually!

    I agree with Tryster11’s choice of version. However, I would also add that the hour-long-plus documentary “Microphones of Middle-earth” available with the very scarce golden ring-shaped box collection is very well-worth searching out.

    Thanks very much for this fascinating post

  3. February 28, 2015 11:26 am

    Vocal not coal in the message above!

  4. March 1, 2015 7:28 am

    I would love to see Brian Sibley do a radio adaptation of The Hobbit, we don’t have such as a good radio adaption for Tolkien’s first novel than for the sequel.

  5. Troelsfo permalink
    March 1, 2015 11:03 am

    I love these reminiscences about the early days of the Tolkien community, thank you very much!

    Personally, I find it very difficult to concentrate on an audio book or radio drama – even when I sit down to focus on it, I find that I am not enchanted and my mind wanders. Therefore I have never made a point of getting my hands on the BBC dramatisation and have never listened to it.

    In some ways I would hope, therefore, that it would not be the case for me that, “I think my happiness with the BBC production made me even less happy with Jackson than I might have been without it.” I think I am unhappy enough with Jackson’s Tolkien-adaptations to be going on with 😉

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