The Lord Of The Rings BBC Radio Adaptation (1981)

In 1981 BBC Radio 4 produced an adaptation of  The Lord of the Rings, comprising of twenty six episodes, each running thirty-minutes. The production remained very faithful to the books and although material had to be lost, it cannot be considered excessively abridged. The characterisations and dialogue were outstanding and music by Stephen Oliver was totally appropriate to the style and idiom of Tolkien. This was a production of the highest pedigree and a major event for the BBC at the time. The series was heavily promoted receiving frontpage status in the UK’s most popular magazine, “The Radio Times”. Although initial reviews were varied, the series immediately gained a cult following with fans trading episodes recorded on cassette tape. Word of mouth and substantial listening figures soon lead to revised opinions from the press, along with the immortal slogan “Radio is Hobbit 4-ming”.

The trilogy was adapted for radio by the then novice writer Brian Sibley and veteran dramatist Michael Bakewell. It was directed by Jane Morgan and Penny Leicester, who where both experienced in radio dramas. The cast was made up of numerous fine British actors and voice artists such as Ian Holm as Frodo Baggins, John Le Mesurier as Bilbo Baggins, Sir Michael Horden as Gandalf. It also featured Robert Stephens as Aragorn and Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum. The adaptation excised a lot of the “excess fat” allowing the actors to concentrates on plot, pace, characters, action and atmosphere. The attention to detail was extremely high with Christopher Tolkien approving the scripts, which lead to a authentic depiction Middle Earth.

Each of the original 26 episodes received two broadcasts per week which is still standard practice for many BBC radio serials even today. The twenty six part series was subsequently edited into thirteen hour-long episodes, restoring some dialogue originally cut for timing, re-arranging some scenes for dramatic impact and adding linking narration and music cues. The re-edited version was released on both cassette tape and CD sets which also included the soundtrack album. It is this version that have proven most popular and has been most commonly distributed and syndicated.

In 2002, due to the success of Peter Jackson’s movies, the BBC re-issued a revised version of the series, in three sets corresponding to the three original volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King). This version omitted the original episode divisions, and included a new opening and closing narration recorded by Ian Holm. The re-edited version also included some additional music cues. However, I feel that arranging the material in this way actually spoils the drama, as the series was originally constructed to run the separate narratives after the breaking of the fellowship, simultaneously, rather than consecutively.

Tolkien’s work lends itself to radio very well, with Sibley and Bakewell’s adaptation confidently staying true to the source text. Like Peter Jackson’s movies, some storylines have been cut, such as Tom Bombadil, the journey through the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs. However, the scouring of the Shire has been included, ending the tale correctly. The voice casting is inspired and the use of music and song sublime. Purists will enjoy the correct pronunciation of names and languages along with the innovative musical composition. The BBC Radiophonic workshop also provides some very good sound effects, imbuing the ring itself and the Nazgul with their own audio characteristics. There are several scenes that actually have their source in Tolkien’s “Unfinished Tales”, but are included to expedite the plot. For example, the Nazgul challenge Saruman over the whereabouts of Gandalf and later learn from Grima Wormtongue the location of the Shire. These additions help with the flow of the narrative.

This superb adaptation is great for both Tolkien fans and those who have yet to read the trilogy. It is a solid example of BBC Radio drama at its best. Although I enjoyed Peter Jackson’s movies, I feel that this adaptation, despite being a different medium, is the better of the two. Peter Woodthorpe’s Gollum is a far more sinister portrayal than Andy Serkis’s bi-polar performance. Also, Jack May’s King Theoden is far more sympathetic than Bernard Hill’s. Next to reading the source text, this is a great way to lose yourself in this classic story, allowing you to enjoy the outstanding vocal performances and conjure up your own depictions of the characters in your minds eye. I would go so far as to say that the BBC radio version is the definitive adaptation.

38 thoughts on “The Lord Of The Rings BBC Radio Adaptation (1981)

  1. Brian Sibley says:

    Thanks for a brilliant review.

    Who would have thought – almost 30 years on – that people would still be listening to and talking about our work?!

  2. Kurt says:

    I remember listening to this when I was a child, my mum reluctantly lent me her beautiful set of tapes. I looked after them very well. I was pleased to fine the same ones on iTunes. I have been listening to it every nite for a few days now. Reminiscing on my childhood days! Still as great as I remembered :) awesome work :)

  3. Adam says:

    Well when you produce excellent work it is to be expected!

    Excellent review, still one of my favourite listens on long car journeys or dull days at work!

  4. Brian Sibley says:

    :>

  5. Anonymous says:

    I grew up with this recording and it still thrills me as much as the first time I heard it :)

    Wilrond

  6. Brian Sibley says:

    That's wonderful to hear although the words "I grew up with this recording" make me feel very old!

  7. matt_dt_jones says:

    Mr Sibley, I'd like to add my praise. From the moment the music starts my hair prickles and I'm away. Really good adaptation and so stylishly done by everyone.
    It's precious!
    Matthew Jones

  8. Caroline Pay says:

    Mr. Sibley! You are our Hero. We re-listen to the CDs that replaced the Tapes of your most excellent Radio Dramatisation every Winter. Our children grew up with the BBC Version, and also re-listen regularly.

    We Praise you with Great Praise!

  9. C Warwick says:

    Mr Sibley

    I have finally got the CD collection so can archive my treasured 30 year old recorded cassettes. Your work is amazing. I was 9 when my parents introduced me to your fantastic adaptation and I’m now playing the whole collection to my 8 year old son. It still fills me with excitement to hear the opening credits knowing what a treat we’re in for! Thank you so much for producing such outstanding work that never fades.

  10. rad says:

    I just get the original box set of the tapes…wow… intact..! Now i need to get a tape player…:)

  11. Renzo says:

    I also grew up with the recording and listen to it once every year, for me its absolutely perfect. Amazing how right on the script and cast is, all except Arwen, in my opinion. Absolutely brilliant.

  12. edenlouise says:

    Oh you are so right about Arwen! I loved the little I’d heard of her while I was reading the book, and of course her and Aragorn’s beautiful love story when I had fully read and understood it and I couldn’t wait to hear how she sounded, and we got someone who didn’t sound like my idea of what a beautiful, noble elf should sound like. Sonia Fraser is a fine actress and Director, but that casting was just so wide of the mark and it was really sad because it’s about the one fault there was in a completely, completely amazing production.

  13. Jon says:

    I was thrilled to read this review and the comments below (Hi, Brian if it is really you!!) as the BBC LOTR adaptation is a true masterpiece! I have loved it from a young age, recording it off the radio each week at the time of braodcast, and later buying it on CD when I worked in a bookshop many years later. Beautifully and faithfully adapted, voiced and produced – it kept me company whenever I found myself ill in bed or on holiday or on long journeys and I maintain it is more enjoyable than the much lauded Film adaptations of recent years. A fantastic legacy.

  14. Lorraine Hunter says:

    I had a set of CDs of the BBC dramatisation. Unfortunately, they were stolen and my husband bought me what we both thought was a replacement. However, these turned out to be the 2002 re-release which is different!

    Does anybody know where I might be able to get hold of a set of the earlier release of the CDs?

  15. Jestro of Windfola says:

    @Lorraine I have them on old cassette tapes. My brother has the same but recorded from the original radio broadcast! Not sure where you can get the CDs now.

  16. Brian Sibley says:

    Yes! It really IS me! Thanks for the lovely comments, everyone!

    Lorraine: The 2002 re-issue isn’t really that much different, just re-ordered slightly to follow (as far as possible) the trilogy split. BUT the 13-part version is available in the boxed set (with the BBC’s version of ‘The Hobbit’) featured in this review…

    Happy listening,folks! :)

  17. Chris Tweed says:

    I can only echo what others have said earlier. For me this is the next best thing to reading the book. I re-read annually and I would say re-listen to this dramatisation at least annually. Just earlier this evening I was playing “Mount Doom” again as my 10 year old daughter loves to listen too. We’ve read her the book a couple of times as her bed time story. A family of Tolkien nuts I guess.

    I was bought the tapes as a birthday present when I was around 20 years old having heard the series repeated at some point in the mid to late 80s I think. I still have the boxed set though I also digitised the entire collection from tape to mp3 for ease of listening – yes, they’re on my iPod which makes for some interesting shuffling sometimes!

    I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank Mr Sibley, I never thought I would ever get the chance to do so, but as you were here about a month ago I hope you do get to see this. Your adaptation really was and still is magical. It has withstood the test of time magnificently and for me this certainly is the definitive adaptation of the work. I’m going to say nothing about the omission of Tom Bombadil and “Fog On The Barrow Downs” (one of my favourite chapters), I realise these decisions need to be made in such a venture and the whole section of the story from The Old Forest to arrival at Bree can be skipped (and always seems to be!) without taking away from the overarching story. Would love to know who might have been cast as Old Tom though, Brian Blessed maybe? ;^) Thank you so very much for so very many hours of very happy listening over more than 25 years.

  18. edenlouise says:

    Wow! I never thought I might actually get the chance to thank you. I was introduced to LoTR by one of my schoolteachers, she was recording it on Wednesday nights, would bring the episode in on Thursday mornings and it would do a round robin among its various devotees and woe betide you if you held on to it too long. We were at a boarding school and listening at the time of broadcast, for various reasons wasnt’ possible. I not only became completely immersed in the book for a number of years, I also became introduced to the wonderful world of radio drama about which I had hitherto known absolutely nothing. Those half hours of pure joy helped to open my eyes to lots of things I still love today. Thank you so much for such a great adaptation.

  19. birdflower says:

    Ian Hogg made a fine Tom Bombadil when Brian adapted the missing chapters from his The Lord of the Rings dramatisation as ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’ as part of his series ‘Tales From the Perilous Realm’. Incidentally, Brian Blessed plays Farmer Giles of Ham, which is also included. Magical dramatisations of Smith of Wooton Major & Leaf by Niggle are there too. You can download it here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tales-Perilous-Realm-Dramatised/dp/B008A6NIVE/ref=pd_sim_sbs_b_4

  20. Chris Tweed says:

    Wow – thanks so much for that Birdflower. I had no idea that even existed! And there was me wondering what to do with my Audible credit this month… Sorted! Sorry for the belated thanks, I just noticed your comments when I got a notification of the latest comment to this thread

  21. This adaptation (like the memory of Lothlorien) remains forever undimmed to me. I think it is far superior to the films – the characterisation is so much better, so much closer to the book and retains everything that I love most about it. I agree on the subject of Theoden but I think you could add that so many others – Faramir not least – suffered terribly at the hands of Peter Jackson, becoming far less sympathetic and far more vehicles of the plot / the needs of making a family film (Gimli, anyone?)

    To me this is the standard against which other adaptations have to be judged. So far nothing else has come close.

  22. Roger Edwards says:

    Spot on, I couldn’t agree more.

  23. Revd Charles West-Sadler says:

    How great to find this website! I remember listening to the original 1981 recording so well. I know that the BBC produced a poster for the series but cannot find any information about it. I remember that Bill Nighy played the part of Samwise and I’m pretty sure that’s him in the photograph?

  24. Roger Edwards says:

    That is indeed Bill Nighy in the picture.
    I still feel this is the best adaptation and it would seem, judging from the comments, that is a popular opinion :)

  25. Ian says:

    The recordings are a magical piece of work and for me bring the books more to life than the films ever did. The performances are great and I particularly liked Robert Stevens as Aragorn though I have also read that many objected to this. Similarly, I grew up with these recordings and therefore they have a lot of nostalgic value too. One question, are there any other photo’s from these recording sessions? Would be great to see them.

  26. birdflower says:

    Yes, there are a few other photos on the poster: One of nearly the full cast (towards the end of the series – Denethor is included), another with Gandalf (Michael Hordern) & Frodo (Ian Holm) standing over a sleepy Bilbo (John Le Mesurier). You may see some of them here, I hope: http://briansibleytheworks.blogspot.co.uk/2008/01/this-page-is-still-under-construction_23.html

  27. Paul C Tyler says:

    I have just framed a copy of the original 2 sided poster which was given to me by my father. It’s a great piece of artwork and great reading the reverse.

  28. Chris Mills says:

    One of the advantages of radio is that the medium allows more room for the imagination. I have just purchased the boxed CD collection by some Dutch company, but very smartly produced and non-interrupted by the episode intros. It’s a real Christmas treat to hear this again. Roaring fire, a dram of whiskey on a cold night, you can’t go wrong! It’s been said that Alan Lee was born to illustrate Tolkien, which I totally agree with, and similarly some of the cast were born to speak the characters. The shades, the colours, the sounds and visions…all come to life in this fantastic, classic production. It’s no surprise that many involved in the films used this radio adaption for inspiration.

  29. birdflower says:

    Chris, sounds like the perfect Christmas holiday ;-)

  30. Chris Mills says:

    Amazing that the man himself has been commenting in this thread! Also surprising to learn that Sam was played by Bill Nighy, who was credited as William so the connection never struck me…dugggh! It seems odd that the man behind the voice is so unlike the stout, uncynical, yokel type that is the character of Sam, but then, Bill Nighy is a very fine actor.
    Peter Jackson’s films were possibly the best attempt possible at putting Tolkien’s world to the screen, but perhaps we’ve paid a high price for the extravaganza. Now we all know what orcs are ‘supposed’ to look like and Vigo is now the all-time Aragorn, but it was better when we all had our own mental pictures. That’s why the radio version still holds great appeal in that it doesn’t dominate all the senses. Listening to it still has a personal feel to it, allowing one’s own imaginative interpretations. May I join the other followers in thanking Mr. Sibley, decades overdue, for his major part in this beautiful radio adaption.
    One other thing…I hate the way the film altered the narrative of Saruman’s petty attempt to ruin The Shire after his downfall. The radio version dutifully retains this part of the original story, and I think it’s important. There’s something horrible and tragic witnessing a once great figure stooping so low among a simple, almost defenceless people. And even then, Saruman cannot find a place to be top dog as Frodo and Sam get the better of him. All good stuff and was criminal to leave out of the film..though I guess they had to make cuts somewhere, just wish it wasn’t this!

  31. Sam Vinall says:

    Can anyone tell me how/where to listen to these again?

  32. Chris Mills says:

    That’s easy Sam, just order online. Both audio cassette and CD versions are available from retailers such as Amazon.

  33. birdflower says:

    You can still purchase them brand new via Amazon, or there are some very cheap deals on eBay

  34. Fifth level cleric says:

    Mr Sibley,

    Can I just echo those earlier posts. I listened to the original half hour broadcasts with my Dad and then again the hour long broadcasts which captured my imagination and my brothers also (and now my children are hooked too). I listen to these every so often (usually while decorating) but as soon as the the music starts I am transported back to being a little boy listening to the radio with my Dad. Thank you to you and all who contributed to the definitive retelling of Tolkein’s masterpiecce. You captured the essence of the charicters and relationships that I feel the recent films missed. The little details that build to feed into the greater naritive like Gimili’s and Legolas’s friendship and Gimili’s love of Lorien/Galadriel ect…

    So thanks to you and the cast, crew and everyone else involved!
    What a legacy!

  35. Pasduil says:

    I didn’t get to listen to the series until the era of iTunes / Audible.

    I haven’t listened to it for a while now, but that’s mainly because I got to know it so well that I can hear much of it in my mind if I turn my thoughts that way.

    It’s a very good adaptation with an excellent cast. The only thing that seemed a little off-key to me was that I felt Aragorn and the Elves should have sounded a little younger. Though old in years, I imagined the elves retaining the beauty and grace of young-ish humans. You quickly get used to that aspect though.

  36. edenlouise says:

    I’ve just finished reading all these really interesting comments. The one that surprised me was that there were objections to Robert Stephens as Aragorn. To me, that casting was a master stroke. He starts off talking like a yokel but you know there’s something about him. Is it sinister or not? Then, although he’s got this kind of steel core to him you can’t help being drawn to him, or at least I couldn’t, and this was back when I first heard the 26 part radio adaptation when I was twelve. When he needs to be a warrior he’s a warrior. When he needs to be kingly he is. And when he needs to touch hearts and make the simplest soldier follow him to the ends of the earth he can do that to.

  37. birdflower says:

    I agree with you. I remember being a little uncertain at first, but of course initially he was in disguise. His portrayal grew on me, and now I don’t think he could have been bettered. I’ve seen in several comments people claiming he had a lisp. I’ve listened again with this comment in mind, and he certainly doesn’t have a lisp. There was no way he could have had the acclaimed career he had on the stage, if he’d had a lisp. I guess they must be reacting to a certain affectation or hesitation of speech, which is far as I’d go. I don’t have a problem with his speech, but I believe he had more trouble pronouncing Elvish correctly than the other actors.

  38. M.Wicik says:

    Great joy to listen to these wonderful recordings again . They evoke a mood one can never achieve viewing Peter Jackson’s productions . The BBC recordings stand as a great achievement in entertainment and underscore so profoundly, what we have lost through the use of modern film adaptations and the obsessive use of CGI.

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