Review of BBC Radio's The Lord of the Rings

No greater task exists for an audio drama production group than to adapt a much-beloved work, that has been firmly implanted into the cultur...

No greater task exists for an audio drama production group than to adapt a much-beloved work, that has been firmly implanted into the cultural consciousness. The BBC, in 1981, took up a monumental challenge, and dramatized J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy of The Lord of the Rings in 13 episodes. As an example of the enormity of the project, this audio drama is roughly 13 hours long, including intros, outros, and credits that all occur once per episode. The audiobook, however, is 54 hours long, which means the adapter, Brian Sibley, had to cut out roughly 80% of the material in order to create an audio drama of acceptable length.

The Lord of the Rings is a definitive foray into the fantasy genre, introducing us into a world where the West (an alliance of elves, dwarves, humans, and hobbits) is pitted against the East (an amalgam of dark characters unified by Sauron the Great). The general story line is a young hobbit, Frodo, must take a ring--The Ring--to be destroyed in the heart of the Dark Land controlled by Sauron. The nine characters that make up the Fellowship of the Ring represent the four races of Middle-Earth, and must all play their part in bringing about the Dark Lord's downfall.

Much of the writing of this drama was lifted directly from the pages of the book, which can be problematic. The names, when heard, as opposed to read, can be difficult to track as much of the dialogue is a quotation of the text. It is very faithful to the King James era English style of the books. Overall the writing is exceptionally well done, given the difficulty of the task.

The music and sound design are decidedly utilitarian, as they incorporate only the bare essentials. As used as we audio drama fans are to the John Campbells and Jared DePasquales of audio drama scoring, our verdict is likely to be that the music is bare bones at best and lacking at worst. Given the backdrop of the time, and the BBC production style, the music is fairly typical. I would place the sound design in the same category. Also, in this era of digital, the fact that these sound effects were cut together on tape is more obvious to our trained ear. On the whole, the sound design reminds me most of an Old Time Radio program.

The acting, however, is of the highest caliber possible. Ian Holm, who plays Frodo, does an outstanding job in his portrayal of the poor, normal hobbit saddled with an enormous responsibility. Michael Hordern (who plays Jeeves in the BBC Radio audio dramatizations of the P.G. Wodehouse stories) portrays the old, wise wizard Gandalf the Grey/White. However, THE standout performance is that of Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum. He is playing a character who is totally under the control of the ring and has been driven mad as a result. Woodthorpe does a masterful job of making the unique noises of Gollum, and in playing both the friendly and evil sides of his dual nature. Also, fans of Focus on the Family Radio Theatre may notice that Richard O'Callaghan, who plays the character of Meriadoc Brandybuck (a.k.a. Merry) (a member of the Fellowship of the Ring), is the same actor who plays Luke, in the Luke Reports. These are but a few examples of the outstanding acting done by this talented cast.

J.R.R. Tolkien
Image retrieved from
Two of the lines in this allegorical story stand out as containing depth of thought that can be missed at first "glance". Gandalf, in reference to the fact that Bilbo Baggins did not kill Gollum when he had every chance and right to do so says, "...the pity of Bilbo will rule the fate of many". Gandalf speaks to the fact that our choices, no matter how big, or small, have consequences that oftentimes we don't even understand. Bilbo, opining on his part in the story of the Ring coming to an end, asks an important question, which he answers himself, "Don't adventures ever have an end? I suppose not, someone else just takes up the story". Bilbo's simple statement contains great insight into the brevity of our humanity, and the fact that the work we do here will be taken up by someone else, eventually.

Overall, the BBC's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is a classically constructed dramatization of a classic story, and marks a kind of midline between the Old Time Radio and modern eras of audio drama. The sound effects and music hearken back to the early days of Foley and orchestration that were prepared for recording in front of a live audience. However, the quality of the recording is far superior to that of the typical 40's and 50's OTR recording. While this causes some moments that are strange, since current audiences are used to cinema-quality sound effects, and the Foley simply does not live up to that standard, the acting and story more than make up for these small problems. In a way, the style of The Lord of the Rings from the BBC actually allows the story to maintain the spotlight, while the production fades into the background.

Andrew Jones is a co-host of the Audio Theatre Central podcast and life-long fan of the audio drama medium. He is a husband and father and he spends his days teaching Science at a private school. He's also filled the role of host for two of Porchlight Family Media's audio drama productions.


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