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Old 02-09-2008, 10:57 AM   #1
Illustrious Ulair
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Microphones in Middle-earth...the BBC Lord of the Rings

So...Mithalwen & I have decided that the BBC Radio series of Lord of the Rings deserved its own thread, & that we would take an Episode by Episode approach, along the lines of the Chapter by Chapter read through & the Scene by Scene watch through (or whatever the term is).

The plan is to start soon - I'm putting something together to post on here tomorrow (hopefully), setting things up, giving a few bits of background info on how the series came to be made & why its the best adaptation of the book ever......

But as a starter, here are a few links which those unfamiliar with the series may find of interest.

Wikipedia entry on the series: Very good overview.

A very good & informative review by Elen Brundige

And Wellinghall - - a site dedicated to the series, containing pictures of the cast, a full transcript of each episode, sound clips, etc.

All welcome. Hopefully we'll get enough interest to make this worthwhile.

Last edited by davem; 02-17-2008 at 09:33 AM.
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Old 02-09-2008, 11:18 AM   #2
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Great stuff, davem!
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Old 02-10-2008, 06:08 AM   #3
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And so to begin... Episode 1: The Shadow of the Past

This is by way of an introduction to the series, with some comments on Episode One. Feel free to jump in with any thoughts of your own....

(Some of this is taken from the booklet which accompanies the CD set, some is bits & pieces of trivia picked up over the years, but most from a recording I've heard of an event to launch the series at the Church House Bookshop, on March 5th 1981. Present were Brian Sibley & Michael Bakewell (the adaptors), Penny Leicester (one of the Directors), Stephen Oliver (the composer) & Peter Woodthorpe & David Collings (who played Gollum & Legolas).

The BBC adaptation of LotR was the most expensive radio production the BBC had made up to that time. It cost something around £100,000, & the cast & crew had the luxury of spending between one & a half & two days per episode.

The BBC had decided on 26 half hour episodes (ie six months worth) which would be broadcast on Sunday lunchtimes & repeated on Wednesday nights. It was later edited & re-broadcast as 13 hour long episodes, & that's the form in which its now generally available on CD. Of course, the adaptors, Brian Sibley & Michael Bakewell, soon realised this would not be enough time to encompass the whole story, & that cuts would have to be made. Bombadil went. In the main, though, the cuts were small - but Sibley notes that there were many such 'small' cuts. All the scripts were sent to Christopher Tolkien in France for approval, & he kindly provided a tape of pronunciations & was available to answer any question sent to him. One cut that Sibley was pressed to make, but refused to do, was the Scouring of the Shire - its cut down in this adaptation, but its there. Sibley felt that Tolkien had put the Battle of Bywater in for a reason - that it had to be shown that the great events of the War of the Ring had to be echoed in the Shire - blood had to be spilled there too.

They managed to attract some big name theatre actors - Michael Hordern (Gandalf), Robert Stephens (Aragorn), Ian Holm (Frodo) - because theatre actors like radio drama: they can earn money in the studio during the day, & still tread the boards at night.

Sibley & Bakewell realised fairly soon that they would need a narrator, but what kind of narrator was the question. Should it be 'Tolkien', or an 'abstract voice'? Or maybe one of the characters? They decided against the latter (among other reasons because that would give away to anyone not familiar with the story whether that particular character survived or not!) & in the end went for a narrator somewhere between Tolkien & an abstract voice, but one who would be involved, & 'feel along' with the characters, & 'be involved' in the story.

Of course, radio drama by its nature imposes a problem on adaptors - if you don't hear a character speak you don't know they're there - as Bakewell put it, you may not notice if a character in a book doesn't speak for 100 pages, but in a half hour radio episode you have to have each character say something at least once.
The other problem is that you need to have someone ask questions to move the plot along. Bakewell says he usually chose Pippin. This lead Christopher to ask Bakewell 'Why is Pippin so stupid?'

New things were added as well as cut - a whole section from Unfinished Tales was added in - as was a scene in the first episode, where Sam brings some post to Bag End to save the postman another journey. Sibley commented that Christopher would be quite critical of such changes, but that he was also very supportive of their difficulties.

Another problem they had was in finding a way in to the story. They couldn't dramatise the Prologue & make it work. Sibley originally went for something along the lines of the Bakshi movie, giving an over view of the history of the Ring, but neither he, Michael Bakewell, or the Producer, Jane Morgan, were happy with the result. Then Morgan suggested that they begin with Gollum. Sibley wassn't sure, but tried putting something together & eventually came up with the beginning we have - a brief statement about how the Ring was made & lost, & how Sauron was defeated, & then straight to Gollum's capture & torture by the Mouth of Sauron.

Another problem they had was Sauron. Bakewell decided Sauron should not appear directly in the drama & his presence only be felt through the other characters. He felt that no other character in the story is 'absolutely evil' but only instruments of evil, & that absolute evil must be kept at a remove if it was to be credible.

And battles- on radio! As Bakewell noted they tend to sound like (in his words) 'Cloink-ouch-boink!'. Their solution was to use a mixture of words, music & stylised effects to create a mood & give the production 'its own sound'.

The music was by Stephen Oliver (Morgan had originally wanted Sir Malcolm Arnold). Oliver decided that he didn't want anything that sounded 'too grand', as most of the audience would be listening to it on small radios. He chose to use almost exclusively Violas & Cellos (the only real exception being Boromir's horn). Oliver commented that he found Tolkien's lyrics 'poor' - except for the alliterative verse, which he thought brilliant. The approach he took to setting them to music was quite practical - if it was a walking song he would use a walking rhythm' dum-dum-dum.

Peter Wodthorpe's (also Bakshi's Gollum) take on Gollum is interesting, & different to the one Andy Serkis took. For Woodthorpe, by the time Gollum loses the ring he is 'half animal' (as opposed to Serkis' 'addict'). You'll also notice that Woodthorpe's Gollum is never a 'tragic' figure as he is in the movie when he is a nice little Hobbit, suddenly overwhelmed by the power of the Ring. Here, he is Tolkien's 'mean little soul' - he wants the Ring when he sees it & simply throttles Deagol for it. Woodthorpe commented that this was central to his portrayal - Gollum was 'degraded & defeated' but he was also this 'half-animal'.

One thing you may notice in this production is the way Sibley & Bakewell avoid a fault that Shippey pointed out about the movie - that the audience already knows from the start that Bilbo's ring is the One Ring, so that it is not a shock to the audience when Gandalf discovers it. In this adaptation all we are told is

Three rings they hid from him. But the others he gathered into his hands, hoping to make himself master of all things. Then was an alliance made against the Dark Lord, and Sauron was, for that time, vanquished. But at length, his dark shadow stretched forth once more, and he sought again for mastery over the Rings of Power.

One ring had come into the possession of Gollum, a slimy creature as dark as darkness, who kept it secret unto himself in the nether-most depths of the mines beneath the Misty Mountains. There it was hidden, even from the searching eye of Sauron, the Lord of the Rings.
We're told that one of the rings comes into the possession of Gollum, but not which one. We find that out when Frodo does (and for those of you who are interested, the sound effect used for the Ring in this production was made by running a wet finger around the rim of a wineglass).

So, to episode one. Your thoughts? Did it work well as an adaptation? Did it capture the spirit of the book? Did you feel you were in Middle-earth?
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Old 02-10-2008, 07:27 AM   #4
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The odd thing about listening to a radio adaptation is how you get drawn in completely. At first you fidget, wondering where the pictures and/or words are, but after a few minutes you are absorbed in it. You have to concentrate. What this makes me think of is how blind readers who use reading software like Jaws remember details in books so well - all their powers of concentration are bent on one source or sense alone. In fact my old boss who is blind much prefers the radio version to the films as in his words, the films are "just a lot of noise" but the radio version is vivid and clear.

That's the first thing you notice, how clear it all is. If I say "see" when it ought to be "hear', just ignore that, I really do "see" it. The medium demands that speech is well-delivered, that characters have distinctive voices, that any extraneous nonsense is cut away. An odd thing, considering how lush and layered Tolkien's work is. In this format, it's really Northern, like a saga being read to you in front of the fire. Lovely.

Nothing is lost of the magic and grandeur though. In this episode you get to see something that was sorely missed from the films, when Saruman reveals himself as Saruman of Many Colours - it's great. Nor is a lot lost of the detail. You also find yourself listening to Sam cutting the garden in the background. And the clatter of the tobacco jar.

My only disappointment with the first episode is that there just isn't enough of the Long Expected Party. Although Frodo is much better - he isn't the permanently bewildered child he seemed to be in the films; he's clearly a bit impish, as Gandalf challenges him over not fiddling with the fireworks, but he's also the correct age and sounds it, too.

And how creepy does Gollum sound? And a little Welsh too?
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Old 02-10-2008, 07:55 AM   #5
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I'm listening to the BBC radio adaptation for the first time now. I thought about buying the CDs some time ago, but it was simply too expensive (would have to be imported). I didn't know it's available on Youtube. I'll try to listen to it and enjoy it on its own - without making too many comparisons to the movies. It probably won't be easy.

Of course it is easier for a radio play to transport oneself to Middle-earth since you can enjoy your own images. To someone who has read the books, the fact that it's more restricted than a movie ironically makes it more effective. But I wonder how it works for people who haven't read the books: Are they able to create those images on their own only from listening? Do we have anybody here who was introduced to Middle-earth by the play? That would be interesting to hear more about.
I think it's interesting to observe that on the third, visual, dimension the movies did very well, while on the first two dimensions, acting and writing, it had its highs and lows. So far, the radio adaptation is very well-written and -acted, at least in my opinion.

The beginning was interesting. I didn't expect it to start with Gollum entering Mordor. But it was very effective in capturing the listener's attention while presenting important facts. I thought Gollum's voice was too deep, but maybe I've become too influenced by Serkis' Gollum. I don't think I like the idea of Gollum being a "half-animal". By what I've heard of him yet, I wouldn't have gotten the idea. (an aside: I didn't like the "addict" too much either - it made it too easy to pity him.) I'll reserve my judgement until I have heard more of him in the later episodes.

I, too, liked it that the dialogue between Gandalf and Saruman was closer to like it is in the book, but I would have wished for a little more suspense. It's clear from the beginning that Saruman is not on Gandalf's side and it is clear that Gandalf won't accept his offers. What is left is very nice and atmospherically dense, but regrettably unsurprising dialogue.

I also think that the Sackville-Bagginses are much nicer integrated than they were in the Jackson movies, but that's a minor thing.
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Old 02-10-2008, 08:40 AM   #6
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If its easier for anybody, for quotes & help in remembering what happened, a transcript of the entire episode is here:

I did like the way we were first taken into the Ivy Bush to meet the Hobbits over beer & pipes. We first encounter 'typical' Hobbits, rather than the atypical ones - Bilbo & Frodo. When we do meet them, in the next scene (which, as I noted, has been invented in part in order to introduce Sam into the story, but mainly so that Bilbo & Frodo will have a scene together at the start), things have been set up well - the atmosphere is quiet & domesticated, but the underlying mystery about Bilbo has been captured perfectly.

I think most listeners who are familiar with the book will also have noticed that John Le Mesurier get's Bilbo's 'half as well as you deserve' line wrong!

I think what i liked most about this production was the way they used so much of Tolkien's words - both dialogue & description in the narration. It roots the adaptation so much more deeply in Tolkien's world. And even a little thing - like having Gandalf & Frodo discussing the Ring on a fine, bright morning (as opposed to the movie, where it happens at night) - makes you feel you're in the right Middle-earth. Of course, this the other advantage of a production that is so dependent on words - you can convey so much more information to the listener:

Gandalf: He doesn't grow, or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end permanently invisible, and walks in twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings.
Explains far better & much more clearly the effect of the Ring on a bearer than all the rushing about & histrionics we saw in the movie. All in all, its a very good effort at setting up the story, the listener will know far more about the world of Middle-earth than they would at this point in the movie - even though it takes about the same amount of time to get to the same point - & this is something else I've heard - that Jackson didn't have as much time to tell the story as the adaptors of this production did. That's simply not the case - this is a thirteen hour production, & if you take the SEE editions of the Jackson trilogy they total about the same amount of time.
Finally the climax is a perfect cliff-hanger - we get to see the capture & imprisonment of Gandalf as it happened, rather than in flashback at the Council. Once again, the advantage of an adaptation dependent on words rather than images means that we learn much more about the characters of both Gandalf & Saruman. It may not be clear as yet, but Peter Howell's Saruman is a very accomplished piece of acting - the way he flips between the charming, solicitous counsellor & the vicious, self-righteous traitor in the Voice of Saruman episode is perfect.
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