The BBC’s Lord of the Rings

Over the last few weeks I’ve been listening to the BBC’s 1981 audio version of The Lord of the Rings, having run out of Who audios to listen to. It is very very good, and I strongly recommend it. Ian Holm as Frodo, Bill Nighy as Sam, Michael Hordern as Gandalf, and John Le Mesurier as Bilbo are excellent in their roles. (Shout out also to Stephen Thorne as Treebeard and Jack May as Théoden.) But the two key performers, in my view, are Robert Stephens as Aragorn and Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum/Sméagol.

I would say the biggest performance gap between the audio and the Peter Jackson movies is that between Stephens and Viggo Mortensen. Stephens’ Aragorn is tough, damaged, wise, and (as far as we can tell) not even particularly good-looking. He carries every scene he is in, and invests dignity and authority in every line, be it Tolkien’s original words or new material from Bakewell and Sibley. (And unlike the Peter Jackson films, Aragorn’s story is left pretty much intact.)

The gap between Peter Woodthorpe and Andy Serkis is smaller but it is still in Woodthorpe’s favour. Gollum’s internal dialogue (ie his habit of talking to himself) works well for audio, and indeed here we get a number of extra scenes with Gollum’s adventures away from the main storyline. In his penultimate scene, told by Frodo that he can never have the Ring back, he complains bitterly that “nassty hobbitses doesn’t realise how long ‘never’ is”, a moment where he almost engages our sympathy. His final moments shortly afterwards are gorgeously manic and rightly expanded considerably from the few lines Gollum’s demise gets in the original text.

I remember a few years back seeing an archive interview with Tolkien where he stated with an air of elderly innocence that the books were all about Death. I wondered about this at the time, since to an extent I still read the book through my own nine-year-old eyes, and it’s not such an obvious concern of the Peter Jackson films. But it’s clearly a theme of the audio. Boromir’s funeral, to a minor key variation of the theme tune; Denethor’s suicide; Frodo and Sam facing up to death in Mordor (rather than bickering); Bilbo gradually slipping into old age; not to mention the various actual battles; these are all real and awful events in the BBC version. And the music is good, too. It is truly gripping. Get it if you can.

(The Jackson movies do score over the BBC in some respects, of course. New Zealand is a major star of the screen version; also the other members of the Fellowship not mentioned above are given more characterisation and a bit more to do. Though that is sometimes at the expense of the integrity of the story.)

One thought on “The BBC’s Lord of the Rings

  1. You’re doing very well by starting with the About Time series!

    On Old Who, apart from Time And Relative Dissertations In Space, I found Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who, by James Chapman and the first (so far only) volume of Robert Shearman and Toby Hadoke’s Running through Corridors excellent food for thought; and one mustn’t forget Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text by John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado which kicked the whole thing off.

    For New Who, I liked The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T. Davies Era of the New Doctor Who, edited by Graham Sleight, Antony Keen and Simon Bradshaw, and also Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-first Century by Matt Hills.

    David Howe’s account of the novelisations, Target: A History of the Target Doctor Who Books is also very interesting if less directly related to the TV show.

    For a slightly more fannish perspective but with some interesting insights, do dig out Chicks Dig Time Lords, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O’Shea.

    And the ultimate insider’s story is The Writer’s Tale, by Russsell T. Davis and Benjamin Cook.

    There are some bad ones out there as well, but I shall be charitably silent.

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